6 Dumb Things Movies Do to Make Their Special Effects Less Effective

Most of the movies us nerds are looking forward to in 2012 have something in common — lots and lots of special effects. So, let’s talk special effects for a bit.

The things that can be done with special effects today are amazing, and yet despite all the advances in technique and technology, a lot of special effects still aren’t particularly convincing. More often than not the fault doesn’t lie with the effects technology itself, but in how the effects are presented.

Basically a lot of movies do dumb things that rob their amazing effects of all their impact. Stuff like…

Using CG Effects When They Don’t Have To

This is one of my biggest pet peeves — when movies break out the CG effects for minor stuff that doesn’t require them. A spider has to crawl on some lady’s arm? You could just get a tarantula from a pet store and plunk it on her arm, but nah — better computer generate that s–t!

While I generally enjoyed the movie, Chronicle was particularly bad for this. The movie’s about three teenage guys gaining telekinetic powers, and for the first half of the flick all they use them for is small stuff like making cameras float, or pushing cars around a parking lot. It’s all stuff that could have been done with simple practical effects, and yet they pull out the CG for all of it.

That said, the scene where they make Pringles fly into their mouths will blow your mind.

When movies resort to CGI for such minor things, it almost always looks bad because, really, it’s just a spider on a lady’s arm or a floating camera. It’s not a big showpiece shot, so the effects artists aren’t going to put that much effort into them, but here’s the thing — these “unimportant” shots looking like crap will make viewers less likely to accept the big stuff later on.

I don’t know about you, but once I notice a few really unconvincing special effects my brain goes into “spot the s–tty CGI” mode. Because of that lame spider or floating camera early on, my brain doesn’t want to accept the giant ape or superhero effects showdown that comes later. In other words, if a scene is too unimportant to bother making your CG effects look decent, don’t even bother with ’em.


Making the Camera Do Stuff a Camera Can’t Do

The advent of CGI means filmmakers no longer have to worry about the limitations of actual physical cameras — they can create scenes entirely in the computer and have a virtual camera that dives, swirls and swoops around like no real camera actually could.

These virtual cameras are fine if used with restraint, but they rarely are — even great directors like Martin Scorsese go overboard with them. His latest movie, Hugo, is full of scenes where the camera swooshes through twisting corridors full of complex machinery and clockworks — these scenes are supposed to be exciting I think, but they didn’t make much of an impact on me. Based on the impossible way the camera was moving my brain immediately concluded “oh, okay, we’re taking a cartoon break” and didn’t reengage until the camera stopped flying around.

Gears…so many gears.

CG effects are basically just extra detailed cartoons — don’t call attention to the fact with a “camera” straight out of an animated Disney movie from the 90s.

Making Everything Too Darn Pretty

“Hey, CGI is great at making dinosaurs, explosions and exploding dinosaurs look awesome. Let’s use it to make everything look awesome!”

I can understand the line of thinking, but things usually go wrong once filmmakers start to apply too much CG spackle to a movie’s background elements. Movies like Avatar and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have these super bright, crisp, colorful, detailed virtual sets — which ultimately make everything look fake.

I think some filmmakers think making movie backgrounds look like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon will help cover any cartoonishness in the CG effects and characters. That everything will come together as a cohesive Crayola-colored whole and be convincing.

James Cameron’s favorite crayon is purple.

It doesn’t really work though. Would Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs have looked more convincing if that movie took place in the primary colored plastic jungle of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Hell no. Environments that look like something that might actually exist in the real world lend an extra air of believability to CG effects. For instance, I found District 9’s aliens far more believable than Avatar’s, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that District 9 took place in a realistic looking slum, while Avatar took place in a purple and pink acid trip.


Showing Off With Big Crowd Scenes

You know the type of scenes I’m talking about — the two armies line up and the virtual camera soars across an endless field of soldiers/orcs/Jar Jar Binkses. It always looks unconvincing because the effects artists don’t have the time to detail every single figure in the horde — they just hit copy-and-paste until the field is full, and it’s obvious. Until you come up with some crazy computer program or algorithm that can actually make big crowds look convincing, please stop trying to impress us with them. It’s just not working.


Bouncing Back and Forth Between Practical and CG Effects

Superhero movies are particularly bad for this — one moment Spiderman is an actual guy in an actual costume who looks solid and believable, next he’s a rubbery CGI creation ping-ponging around the walls. The constant back-and-forth, often multiple times per minute during action scenes, just makes the CGI stick out like a sore thumb.

I say if more than 50% of your action scene is going to be done using CGI, just do the whole scene in CGI. Switching back to real people and practical effects for some shots may save a little money, but it comes at the expense of believability and cohesion. If your special effects budget is running low just cut that scene from earlier in the movie with the CG spider on the lady’s arm.


Focusing on those Dead Dead Eyes

CG effects have come a long way, but dammit, they still can’t quite do eyes. I know you want to showcase Andy Serkis’ acting, but dammit, those slow zooms into the dewy eyes of Gollum/King Kong/Caesar the chimp are always a bad idea.

Nope, not working.

Seriously, stop it.