Retro/Active: Scott Tobias on 'Dead Alive' and The Debate Between Practical and CGI

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by Matt Singer
March 1, 2012 7:10 PM
3 Comments
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"Dead Alive."

In the newest edition of his column The New Cult Canon, The A.V. Club's Scott Tobias uses Peter Jackson's 1992 film "Dead Alive" as the platform to broach an interesting discussion about the natural of special effects.  In his early, indie days, Jackson's films were distinguished by the clever and resourceful use of practical gore; these days, Jackson's work contains some of the most impressive use of digital effects in cinema, many done by Jackson's own company, WETA Digital.  But is one style inherently superior to the other?  Tobias says no:

"The important point isn’t that effects have gotten better, and that CGI is somehow superior to stop-motion, but that they’re different, and audiences respond to them differently... Why should we put a premium on realism when it comes to effects? Effects are not necessarily diminished by the audience recognizing them as effects. No one ever mistook Ray Harryhausen’s creations for seamless photorealism or Nick Park’s thumbprint-pocked Claymation wonders for the fluidity of computer animation. And yet they’re pleasing in ways that CGI could never be, perhaps because they’re so handcrafted and personal."

From there, Tobias transitions into his thoughts on "Dead Alive" but there are a whole bunch of juicy questions left open for investigation here. Is one style of effect inherently superior to another?  Should the merit of a special effect be its personality or its authenticity?  Do we like Ray Harryhausen's dinosaurs because all the endless hours labor are visible up onscreen? Or do we prefer "Jurassic Park"'s dinosaurs because they look so good our eyes convince our minds that these critters actually do exist?  Do we prefer our illusions effortless and magical or gritty and hard-fought?

To me this debate, always dissolves into a strange paradox.  Practical partisans often salute analog effects because they have a certain corporeal quality that digital effects cannot replicate (at least not yet).  To use an example Tobias discusses in his piece, we know (or we at least hope -- dear lord, how we hope) that the shapeshifting aliens in John Carpenter's "The Thing" don't exist, but the way they seem to spring to slurpy life in Rob Bottin's puppets and appliances imbues them with a horror that their similar CGI cousins don't capture in the 2011 remake.  So while digital effects might look more realistic, analog effects might feel more real.  But as Tobias notes, it's not even really about realism at all, it's about artistry.  And around and around it goes.

In other words, this is not a question that is going to be answered in a column about a film, nor in a blog post about that column about a film.  The comments section of a column about a film, on the other hand, is surely the place to settle the debate once and for all.  So I put it to you, Criticwire-ers, how do you like your effects?  Practical or digital? Original or extra crispy?  

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3 Comments

  • http://blog.moviepass.com | April 10, 2012 12:26 PMReply

    When CGI is done wrong it totally screws up the film. The effects are more advanced but that doesn't mean people know how or when to use them.

    http://blog.moviepass.com

  • John Lichman | March 1, 2012 11:41 PMReply

    Pratically digital. By which I mean, consider what "Chronicle" represents. Yeah, they could've gone for practical effects but the CGI is seemlessly worked in when you intentionally work around your limitations.

    Ironically, "The Thing" remakebootwhatever also kills my point, but c'est la vie.

  • Steve Greene | March 1, 2012 10:38 PMReply

    This may or may not be a cheat, but it seems like effects are most ideal when they're most tailored to the artist or the story. Regardless of what you think about a filmmaker like Tim Burton, I appreciate the fact that his use of visual effects is compatible with his style. For some odd reason, the first thing that pops into my head is a scene from "Sleepy Hollow" where the witch's face shapeshifts into a Burtastic claymation-like, bug-eyed callback. Is it realistic? No. Is it the best choice for that particular tale? Debatable. But it is consistent with his other work and there's a certain comfort that comes with that.

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