CGI Vs Animatronics

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Louis B Scheuer.


CGI is often best when it goes unnoticed. Like the seams on a dress, it can hold films together whilst being completely invisible. Whether it’s touching up a mansion, filling out a crowd, or altering eye colours, computer graphics allow filmmakers to defer all those nasty fiddly bits to post-production. It’s often cheaper, and always less stressful than getting everything right on the day; in theory, it allows a director to focus more on that which they really want to get right the first time around. And even if those things don’t go to plan, CGI may still step in to save the day. There remains, however, a school of thought unflinchingly loyal to animatronics. These lifelike robots were used extensively in cinema before the rise of digital effects, and maintain a passionate following today. Many of Hollywood’s most memorable monsters were created using complex and expensive contraptions, and some of them continue to captivate audiences.

Even a hardened animatronics acolyte wouldn’t suggest that CGI be replaced with robots in every circumstance though; for this particular epic battle between these two adversaries must be judged on equal footing. Fortunately, there is one area in which both techniques may excel, or fail catastrophically. It’s what you really watch out for in a movie, really scrutinise, because you know it isn’t real. It’s blood and guts and horrible monsters, of course.

Braindead (1992)

Much-beloved New Zealander Peter Jackson is an ideal first case study. For many, he is the industry’s biggest CGI casualty; in contrast to recent years, his early splatstick efforts employ models, puppets, stop-motion and animatronics to achieve their memorable comic-book gore. The stop-motion and puppetry are often unconvincing despite the charm, but the animatronics, such as the zombies from Braindead (1992), hold up exceptionally well. During one bloodbath a man has the skin of his face torn off – a well-timed cut replaces the actor with a convincing model, his face-muscles revealed as it writhes with pain. The shadows are on point, because the shadows are real. The blood glistens as it should, because the blood is real – real stage blood, that is.

This excellent animatronic legacy makes Jackson’s descent into digital effects yet sadder; he’s even been compared to George Lucas for his overenthusiastic lauding of CGI. Viggo Mortensen, who played Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, said that “whatever was subtle, in the first movie, gradually got lost in the second and third”, ruminating that “Peter became like Ridley Scott – this one-man industry now, with all these people depending on him”. It’s as if the two men saw two different movies, and Jackson now wishes that LOTR had utilised more CGI, not less.

Most who did love LOTR still had issues with Jackson’s The Hobbit adaptation, and not only for its strange elf-elf-dwarf love triangle. Many of its CGI creatures lacked presence, failing to ignite the fear that a good monster should. Similar criticism is leveled at the aforementioned Ridley Scott, whose use of CGI gets increasingly grandiose as the quality of his plots dwindle. Meanwhile, George Lucas is lampooned for his remasters of the original Star Wars films in which digital creatures trundle about in the background, sticking out like a sore thumb.

The Hobbit (2012)

These criticisms have been widespread, and often much less polite than Mortensen’s. In the face of such disapproval, it’s interesting that so many masters have abandoned practical effects for their digital counterpart. What has led to this ongoing misuse of effects? And, does it really tell us that animatronics are king, or is there something else going on?

It’s worth mentioning that Jackson, Scott, and Lucas are fairly veteran examples. After so many decades in the business, these men may be a little sick of playing with models; they’re fiddly and expensive, require multiple experts, and add a lot of stress to photography when compared with CGI, which is largely deferred to post-production and whose mistakes can be relatively easily corrected. A world-weary director may have trouble mustering up the passion required for models when they already did it the first time around. That said, one hopes things haven’t gotten so dire in Hollywood that there are no artistic reasons behind the abandoning of practical effects.

Alien (1979) features one of animatronics’ greatest successes. The Giger-designed xenomorph, models for which included a robotic head with over 900 moving parts, looks fresh and realistic even by today’s standards. It’s shiny, bathed in shadows, and the acid glistens from its jowls. But Alien is not without its pitfalls, one example being the baby xenomorph during the infamous chest-bursting scene. It scuttles away as if pulled along by a string, and without the complexity of its fully-grown counterpart the model looks mechanical and comical. The film’s effects are generally a triumph, but there remains the odd moment where better technology could have saved the day.

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With this in mind, a strength of Scott’s – despite the mixed reception of his recent efforts – is his continued use of animatronics alongside computer-generated effects. Alien Covenant (2017) employs another impressive xenomorph head, but liberally uses CGI to fill in the cracks. The result is effective in parts, but disappoints in a similar way to the original: in Covenant, the baby xenomorph (or whatever its bizarre Covenant equivalent is called) has not been saved by digital effects. Rather than quickly glimpsing a dubious model, Covenant allows us full view of the creature, now computer-generated, from multiple angles. Squirming and ricocheting about like something out of The Mask (1994), the absurd critter jeopardises the viewer’s immersion. It’s doubtful that Scott would have dared such drawn-out shots of the monster had he not had CGI at his fingertips; could CGI’s greatest crime be how it oversteps its remit in this regard? Does it affect the plot and pacing of a film because directors incorrectly assume that it can do anything?

Mortensen had insights on this subject as well, saying of Jackson’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones (2009):

“I was sure he would do another intimately scaled film like Heavenly Creatures, maybe with this project about New Zealanders in the First World War he wanted to make. But then he did King Kong. And then he did The Lovely Bones – and I thought that would be his smaller movie. But the problem is, he did it on a $90 million budget. That should have been a $15 million movie.”

This comparison of the humble Heavenly Creatures to the elaborate Lovely Bones is transferable to the Alien franchise. The original Alien was an intimate horror-thriller with a single monster, often seen in low-light. The very occasional dated effect is forgiven by the fact that it is, undoubtedly, a masterpiece of cinema. Scott’s recent Alien movies are huge, yet pack a fraction of the original’s punch. The same could be said of The Hobbit with its vast amount of unnecessary CGI sequences, most of which do not appear in the book. It begs the question whether, rather than facilitating directors to produce plots on a grander scale, CGI has encouraged it, often with dire results.

Probably the best example of this CGI-led silliness is The Thing. Like Alien, John Carpenter’s original 1982 horror featured a small cast being tormented by one monster in a confined location, in this case an arctic research station. The villain has no form of its own, but ‘absorbs’ into other living creatures and mimics them. Viewers are kept on the edges of their seats, wondering which character is going to burst into a mass of spindly legs and pulsating tentacles.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing’s animatronics are themselves a talking point. Despite the waxing and waning of their realism, the creations are so grotesque, and the real-life models have such presence, that the special effects become more than just a way to represent a monster; they are a novelty of the film, a reason to go see it. It’s hard to forget the scene of one man’s severed head crawling on spider legs from under a table; the insect-like movement of the electronics, the glistening surface of the model, are so animatronic, but a suspension of disbelief, helped along by some fantastic performances, makes The Thing (1982) damn scary.

It’s a different story with Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel of the same name. In the first five minutes a vehicle falls deep into the ice amidst a whirling mass of CGI. The events depicted are already too spectacular to be scary, and although that may be a criticism of the writing, it’s apparent that a smaller effects budget could have encouraged a more subdued and appropriate opening.

The thing itself is discovered frozen into a block of ice, but the tension of it slowly thawing out is dashed when the creature suddenly bursts from its icy prison and disappears into the ceiling. It is very digital. Creating such gravity-defying effects with animatronics would have been so difficult that a director may have resigned themselves to cleverer angles, dimmer lighting, or just a less corny entrance from the antagonist. We see more of the creature later, but nothing as memorable as its predecessor. It’s a shame that The Thing (2011) is so saturated with digital effects in plain sight, and even more tragic that they replace a number of animatronics designed by the crew which presumably weren’t working well.

The Thing (2011)

Interestingly, younger directors with big enough budgets are still embracing animatronics. J.J. Abrams, who began making movies in the late 90s, uses a mixture of practical and digital effects throughout Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and it shows. He wished to “go backwards to go forwards”, opting for real droid models over CGI effects to emulate the feel of the original films. Whatever one thinks of his Star Wars effort, he had the passion and money needed to surpass the Star Wars prequels in terms of realism, and in fact many other science-fiction films besides. It’s in stark contrast to Lucas’ remasters, which suggest an abundance of money but a scarcity of passion.

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Whilst emphasising CGI’s widespread uses throughout cinema, it’s certainly tempting to side with animatronics when it comes to monsters and gore. Before concluding, however, it’s worth cleaning up some of the insults thrown at CGI, and some of the praise showered upon animatronics.

It’s true that digital effects from as recent as last week can look dated, but this is not a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of cinema thousands of B-movies have been lost to the annals of time, many with laughably diabolical effects. To suggest that all 70s sci-fi had the finesse of Alien, or all 80s horrors the impact of The Thing, would be absurd. Masterpieces aside, movie monsters have always had a hard time of convincing their audiences.

It must also be considered how much nostalgia plays a part: CGI hasn’t had as much time to build up the goodwill that animatronics has enjoyed. And despite that, Playstation 1 graphics already give millenials that fuzzy warm feeling of a bygone age. Perhaps many digital effects look poor merely because they’re new, and so we assume that they should be better. It’s hard to tell which of today’s effects will stand up in decades to come, or at least be lent a modicum of charm through their ageing.



CGI is also now invaluable for ‘fixing’ footage of animatronics, or even replacing them entirely when things go wrong. Us viewers don’t know what The Thing (2011) looked like before its models were abandoned, but it may be safe to assume that they were every bit as immersion-breaking as the effects eventually settled upon. Although animatronics have a legacy of memorable gems, cinema is more ambitious now than ever, and perhaps CGI’s encouragement of bigger projects should be welcomed. As stated, many of our favourite digital effects are unnoticeable. Dare we guess what some of our recent animatronics may have looked like without digital intervention?

CGI is largely the way forward. Computer graphics are still in their infancy, and already have some great films under their belt. Animatronics deserve their cult following, but they’re largely an old and innocent tradition being viewed through a rose-tinted lens. Neither form of effect should be abandoned, but in our world of digital media CGI is probably going to be the default choice for most filmmakers, with animatronics being used where the director possesses enough expertise, passion, money, and time.

Computer technology is going in directions that we cannot possibly imagine. It can be remastered if the original effort is poor, and is far from soulless when done well. It has had its fair share of embarrassing moments, and it’s evident that many directors think it’s much better than it is. This overuse can, ultimately, ruin some potentially incredible scenes, and some potentially incredible films. But let’s not blame poor directorial choices on CGI alone: if animatronics are outside of your budget, or simply just not your thing, digital effects are your friend. And, if you are aware of the limits of digital effects, and are an able director who will not get carried away with a relatively primitive technology, then CGI is the way. As incredible as models can be, they must, in most cases, step aside for the winner. But whatever technique a filmmaker prefers, one important lesson shines through: do not let special effects run the show.

Written by Louis B Scheuer


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