the industry

Can Special Effects Be Special Again?

How the VFX industry plateaued  — and where it might go from here.

The Revenant. Illustration: Alvaro Tapia for Vulture
The Revenant. Illustration: Alvaro Tapia for Vulture

You’ll believe a man can fly.” So proclaimed billboards and posters across the nation in 1978, in anticipation of the December release of Richard Donner’s Superman — The Movie. It wasn’t an idle promise. Although the Man of Steel had been depicted in numerous TV shows and cartoons over the years, Donner’s film vowed something special: It would convince us that what we were seeing was actually happening. And the visual effects did, indeed, prove to be remarkable: Aided by a clever front projection technique developed by inventor Zoran Perisic, as well as star Christopher Reeve’s ability to move the way an actual airplane might, Superman set new standards for what could be accomplished onscreen.

It was all building, of course, on the earth-shaking work done by George Lucas’s Star Wars just the year before. Special effects had always been around, to be sure; anyone who’d seen a Georges Méliès film from the 1890s knew that they were as old as cinema itself. But together, the space adventure of 1977 and the superhero fantasy of 1978, with an assist perhaps from a certain monster shark movie of 1975, helped establish the supremacy of a new, emerging genre: the visual effects (VFX)-driven blockbuster.

Today, it’s hard to imagine a cinematic world where humans don’t fly. Or at least leap across miles, jump through wormholes, and zoom to the farthest reaches of space while battling impossible armies of intergalactic demons. Sometimes, the humans are not humans at all but vaguely human-like creatures, transformed by makeup and other enhancements, that move like us and talk like us, but are bigger, stronger, thicker, and purpler than us. Anything, it seems, is possible.

And maybe that’s the problem. This year, a giant mutant death pirate from the other end of the galaxy came to Earth, fought our greatest superheroes, and then wiped out half the universe, and I barely blinked. Three years ago, an entire Eastern European city was raised into the sky and then dropped back down to Earth by an evil, all-powerful, sentient robot; many of us just shrugged. It’s not that the VFX were bad; often, they were quite good. But they also felt curiously underwhelming.

That’s not to say that there haven’t been impressive effects of late, the kind that still make us sit up and think, “Wow, how did they do that?” But by and large, they haven’t come from giant, spectacular superhero or space battles. Think of the bear attack in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant, in which an intensely realistic, computer-generated bear, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), brutally mauled Leonardo DiCaprio for an uncomfortably long time. One year later, Jon Favreau’s “live-action” Jungle Book remake presented a mind-boggling menagerie of talking, singing animals — all created digitally. Last year, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk basically restaged one of history’s most momentous military retreats right before our eyes, and Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 plunged us into a forbiddingly beautiful yet desolate futurescape that reinvented the look of a beloved sci-fi classic.

But why are these films the exceptions to the rule, especially at a time where nearly every major release comes with a hefty VFX budget? (Don’t believe me? Check out the credits for Roma.) Or to put it another way: How have we gotten to the point where we somehow feel like we’ve seen it all before, even as movies desperately keep trying to show us things that we’ve never seen before?

“I feel like we’re in a moment now when there’s a loss of wonder,” says Oscar-winning Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro, who presented a dazzling coterie of fantastic beasts in his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth. The assumption that everything is done with computers, he says, has led audiences to shrug off a lot of effects. “I’m a dinosaur,” del Toro adds. “I always say build as much as you can. The more you can make things physical, the better the movie is. When we saw a huge car pileup in The Blues Brothers, we were wowed by it, because we knew it was real, and thought, ‘God, that’s crazy.’ Now, when we see a huge car pileup in a movie, we assume that most of it is CG.”

Or, more bluntly: “Special effects aren’t so special anymore.” That’s how Dennis Muren, the legendary VFX artist with credits like The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park to his name (and eight Oscars), put it in 2013. It’s a statement echoed by numerous professionals in the industry. Last year, a trio of CGI pioneers who helped create the revolutionary effects of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, declared that the overuse of VFX had done away with much of the magic of cinema. “We’re just not fans of special effects anymore,” said Steve “Spaz” Williams, the computer graphics animation supervisor on T2. “It has destroyed movie making. The viewer’s imagination isn’t given a job anymore.”

The roots of the problem run deep and wide, and ironically, a lot of it has to do with the staggering advances made in VFX back in the 1980s and 1990s. Anybody who was going to the movies from 1989 to 1993 will recall the quantum technological leaps of that period, when jargon like “morphing” and “CGI” became household terms. From the water tentacle of The Abyss, to the liquid metal cyborg of Terminator 2, to the mind-blowing dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, it was a revolution not unlike that of the mid-1970s, bringing with it new, industry-shifting technologies and processes. “We had a new tool set, and we had to relearn what we had learned,” says Craig Barron, who rose up through the ranks at ILM in the 1980s as a matte painter, and whose credits include Hugo, The Truman Show, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which he won an Oscar. “That was also freeing, because a lot of the limitations and constraints we had to work under were suddenly not there anymore.”

Jurassic Park. Photo: ©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

With advances in digital effects came a certain democratization of the process — and eventually, a globalization of it. Starting in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the VFX industry became a truly worldwide business. Major international franchises pushed the transformation along: The Harry Potter films, produced in the United Kingdom, had many of their effects done domestically, while The Lord of the Rings trilogy utilized director Peter Jackson’s own New Zealand-based WETA Digital. What’s more, the VFX coming out of these houses were world-class. (WETA’s awards shelf is truly something to behold.) Along the way, generous tax subsidies in places like the U.K. and Canada attracted more business out of California, and the U.S. in general.

Today, financial incentives all over the world help keep studios’ post-production costs down, but they also result in VFX houses regularly moving offices from city to city and country to country, chasing new subsidies, thereby turning some workers into nomads. “Many people have had to uproot their lives — sometimes for full-time jobs, sometimes for contract work that might last six months or a year,” says writer Ian Failes, author of the book Masters of FX, who regularly covers the industry at his site VFX Blog. “Some young people tend to be into that, but it’s a lot tougher for people who might have families to have to move around.” The long hours, and the lack of job security or benefits have taken their toll. Many veterans have moved on to other areas, such as virtual and augmented reality studios, gaming, and television.

Disgruntled workers and brain drain are only part of the problem, however. At the 2013 Oscars ceremony, in an incident that got some media coverage at the time, Life of Pi’s VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer revealed during his acceptance speech that Rhythm & Hues, the company responsible for most of the film’s award-winning effects, had just filed for bankruptcy. Though Westenhofer had timed out his words to make sure he didn’t get played off, his mic was cut before he could finish his statement. It was hard not to get the feeling that Hollywood didn’t want anyone to know that the geese laying the golden eggs — the VFX houses that made everything from Titanic to The Matrix to Avengers possible — were unwell. From 2003 to 2013, more than 20 major VFX companies went out of business, while others closed down offices and laid off employees. As a revealing New York Times Magazine article last year about recent upheavals in the industry put it: “The companies that make billion-dollar blockbusters possible are barely hanging on, and — for the most part — they aren’t anywhere near Los Angeles.”

“What we’ve seen over the last ten years is a process of consolidation and expansion,” says Paul Franklin, who has worked on numerous Christopher Nolan films, and won Oscars for Interstellar and Inception. “My own company, Double Negative, started with 10 people back in 1998, with one little office in London. Now, we have around 4,000 staff, spread across three continents.” But he also notes that it “hasn’t been steady sailing.” The turmoil comes partly because the financial margins of the VFX industry are often quite brutal. VFX companies generally get work by bidding on individual productions before a shoot starts. But with competition so intense, and faced with rivals that can take advantage of various subsidies, these companies often find themselves driving down their bids and slashing their projected costs. “The client base is quite small,” Franklin continues. “Only a handful of Hollywood studios can put up the budgets required to make the VFX we do. And therein lies the problem. There is a huge amount of competition between VFX companies to get the work in the first place, but not that much competition among the studios to actually place it, so the clients can drive a very hard bargain.”

And since many filmmakers and producers are convinced that anything can be done or fixed in post, entire sequences are often changed or entirely redone at the last minute, which means that very often the VFX houses don’t always know the full extent of what they’ll eventually be asked to do ahead of time. This not only drives the VFX artists themselves (most of whom are not unionized) crazy, it can also result in the companies actually losing money on productions, as they stretch their resources thinner, working overtime and hiring new contractors and freelancers in order to make their deadlines. If the company does lose money, then it has to try and make up for it with other jobs down the line, which can lead to cutting corners.

It doesn’t help that in the new corporate and shareholder-driven landscape of a franchise-mad Hollywood, with studios jockeying for different opening weekends, and media intently focused on horse race coverage of the box office, release dates have become more ironclad than ever. “There’s enormous pressure on the vendors to deliver by a certain date,” says Franklin. Studios also tend to greenlight these pictures later and later, which puts a time crunch on those doing the effects. And it’s not just release schedules that have to be met: There are trailers and teasers for Comic-Con, test screening versions, and so on — all of which need the VFX to look pretty solid.

That condensed time period, combined with more and more last-minute demands, is often what results in subpar effects. “When you see effects on the screen that are underwhelming, you don’t always know the story behind how they got there,” says Paul Lambert, a VFX supervisor who won an Oscar last year for Blade Runner 2049. “It could be that there was a reshoot two weeks before the actual film came out, and that it wasn’t lit correctly. If you pull a green screen and the light doesn’t match, there isn’t a lot you can do with it.”

In some ways, this also explains where the good effects come from. “A lot of it has to do with how prepared you are as the filmmakers, and what effort you put into pre-production, so that you don’t wind up in a situation, for example, where you don’t know what your third act is,” says Barron. “’Bad CGI’ is a common thing I hear about,” adds Failes,” but the problem with that comment is that what people really mean is bad filmmaking, or bad shot design. It’s not the VFX artists who ultimately determine how a shot should look.” And indeed, over and over again, the movies that feature the kind of stunning effects many of us long for tend to be the work of directors with a proven track record: People like Nolan, Cameron, Alfonso Cuarón, David Fincher, Denis Villeneuve, who not only understand VFX, but come prepared and have the trust of their studios to hire the people they want.

Because sometimes, it’s up to these directors to hold the line on what’s right for their picture, and not always go for the showiest effects. Lambert recalls overseeing the creation of the digital character Joi, Officer K’s (Ryan Gosling) holographic companion played by Ana de Armas, in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. He says there was a lot of pressure for the character to be more “whiz-bang FX-y,” he says. But the filmmakers didn’t want Joi to look like a visual effect. And in her finished form, she truly is a lovely creation — with bits of transparency that allow us to see through her when she moves around or passes bright objects. “It was a subtle effect, and it was incredibly difficult, but it was something which kept you engaged with the character,” Lambert says. “If she had been a glowing thing with particles or something, each time you saw her you wouldn’t quite relate to the story.”

At the same time, the greatest VFX work often involves a challenge of sorts, with the filmmakers posing a problem with no easy solutions, and the VFX artists having to figure out a way to do it. Del Toro recalls putting his friend Alfonso Cuarón in touch with James Cameron when Cuarón was preparing to make his space thriller Gravity. “Jim told Alfonso, ‘The tools you want don’t exist. You’re a decade away from being able to do this.’ But Alfonso and [cinematographer] Emmanuel Lubezki invented the tools they needed and raised the game.”

Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Photo: Warner Bros.

Franklin points to the work he’s done with Nolan as an example of a filmmaker who gives his collaborators room to explore while staying committed to an overall vision. The director famously prefers practical effects and tries to avoid heavy CGI whenever he can. “He doesn’t like using green screens and blue screens, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that it slows down the shoot,” Franklin says. “And from the point of view of the cast, there’s nothing for them to look at and react to.”

Even on Interstellar — a space-travel epic that might have been a prime candidate for loads of green screen — Franklin and his team used front projection methods, taking massive screens and used digital projectors to throw images on them, “to create the views of what was outside the windows of the aircraft.” This is not a new method: “It’s a technique that goes back to old Roy Rogers movies, or to Cary Grant in his car driving across the Amalfi coast in To Catch a Thief, even though he’s actually on a soundstage in Burbank. But Chris realized that the advances in digital projection meant that he could do it at a much higher level of quality than had been possible in the past.”

Franklin and Lambert furthered that process on Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, which also mostly avoided using green screens. This time, instead of using projectors to throw images on a screen, they built a massive wraparound high-definition LED screen outside of the set, so that performers could act against images that otherwise would have been added months later in post. The intensely beautiful X-15 experimental flight sequence that opens the film was shot this way, and the realism achieved also meant that the camera captured little offhand details that would have taken VFX artists weeks to do with computers. “Because you had the content on the screen, when you see Ryan [Gosling] bursting through the atmosphere, you can then see the beautiful chromatic shift on the horizon,” recalls Lambert. “That shot is in camera; Ryan is actually looking at the horizon. It’s reflected in his visor, and it’s reflected in his eye. I used to do that work myself. I used to be a compositor. I know how tricky it is to do that in post.”

On the other side of the VFX spectrum stands James Cameron, who seems to revolutionize the industry with each new feature and who, on 2009’s Avatar, famously took things in an all-digital direction. That film’s unreal worlds were mesmerizing and immersive, and in some ways, they reflected the immersive methods used to produce it: Cameron had used virtual production technology that allowed him to see complex VFX scenes even as he was shooting his actors. The director is working with an even more powerful and versatile version of this process on his Avatar sequels. “The technology has increased dramatically since then,” says Failes, who notes that thanks to advances in video game design tools and increased processing speeds, “now, you can allow for real-time rendering on set and make changes on the fly.”

Whether it matters to viewers or not will likely depend on other intangibles like story and character (go figure), but these changes could end up having a beneficial effect on the industry itself. Despite the stark difference between digital and practical, both the virtual production methods of Avatar and the physical methods of Interstellar and First Man could provide potential solutions for some of the turmoil in the VFX world — in part because they make much of the VFX work a more holistic part of the shoot itself. “With First Man, we joked that we’re not doing post anymore, we’re doing pre-production,” says Lambert. “Because we were creating content for the screen to be played during the shoot itself. Suddenly, we were part of the filmmaking process. That’s a change to the current model, and it will become more and more prevalent, because it gives you more believability. But it also means that people’s mindsets will have to shift. If you want to change something later, then you have to pay to change it later.”

What Hollywood seems most excited about these days in the VFX world are photorealistic digital humans, who can blend seamlessly with other human actors onscreen — or just replace them altogether. “Digital humans are often thought of as the holy grail,” Failes says. “But they’re still trying to make it last onscreen for longer than a few minutes — it’s an ongoing process.” One major development in that area may come from Ang Lee’s upcoming Gemini Man, in which Will Smith will confront a younger clone of himself. It’s a project that was attempted some years ago by Disney, back when the technology wasn’t quite there yet.

Some of the efforts in this area will build on the work done over the years to dramatically alter the appearance of existing actors — which have had variable results. The attempts to make Jeff Bridges look young in 2010’s Tron: Legacy were widely derided — and yet, two years earlier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button had provided a wonderful example of Brad Pitt reverse-aging over the course of the 20th century. In 2011, Captain America: The First Avenger’s “Skinny Steve” effects — which gave us Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) as a scrawny young man before an experimental serum turned him into a buff superhero — proved genuinely dazzling. The introduction of a young digital Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher in Rogue One was controversial in some quarters, but the effects themselves were quite impressive. In all of these cases, VFX artists were tackling countless issues involving human skin texture, hair follicles, eye twitches, mouth muscles, even the way the corners of our lips stick together. And those are just the most obvious ones.

In other words, don’t expect a photorealistic avatar of John F. Kennedy to star in his own biopic anytime soon. Or a young Harrison Ford to pick up the bullwhip again and set off on a new Indiana Jones adventure. Because no matter how advanced digital human effects become, we actual humans turn out to be quite skilled at being able to look at other faces and know when something’s not quite right. “It always feels like we’re five years away from it,” Franklin says. “I’m sure you can find interviews with me from five years ago where I said we were five years away!”

There is an irony here, of course, in that the most impressive, astounding, and elusive VFX in Hollywood’s vision for its future — again, its “holy grail” — appears to be something we’ve seen countless times before: just another human. We all know what young Will Smith looks like. We can stream Men in Black or Bad Boys right now if we want to watch him again. But to see him in a new film, acting against himself, will be something. Cinema has always frozen time. But now, it will have conquered it — and maybe even conquered death along the way.

Can Special Effects Be Special Again?