Three years ago, for the first time in his career, Ang Lee directed a film that included the use of visual effects. It wasn't groundbreaking stuff. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," as everyone knows by now, was a kung-fu fantasy in which actors sailed through the air with the aid of wires--a familiar technique in Asian cinema known as "wire fu."
Lee's execution of wire fu was solid but not remarkable. The actors lurched a bit when they took off and hung somewhat limply in the air while they flew. The presence of wires, which were deleted digitally in postproduction, was obvious. But here's the thing: no one cared. The flying in "Crouching Tiger" may have struck American viewers as silly at first, but soon they were too engrossed in the movie to fuss.
Earlier this summer, Ang Lee released a film that included extensive use of visual effects. Unlike "Crouching Tiger," this was groundbreaking stuff. "The Hulk" featured a muscle-bound 15-foot green monster that was entirely computer generated and had to deliver, along with the usual range of smashing theatrics, a full, emotional performance. But the creature itself wasn't even the greatest challenge facing Industrial Light & Magic, the visual-effects house handling the task. In the movie, the Hulk had to appear in broad daylight, in our world, in the context of other humans. Nothing like it had ever been tried before. (Gollum of "Lord of the Rings," the most successful computer-generated, or CG, character to date, didn't have to look plausible in the middle of San Francisco.) In the visual-effects community, ILM's Hulk was seen as a major achievement: the life in the creature's eyes, the way light played naturally off its skin, its synthesis into its surroundings, all were deemed first-rate. Film critics, however, panned not only the movie but ILM's work. The monster didn't look real. Case closed. Moviegoers must've agreed, because after a huge opening weekend, "The Hulk" died at the box office.
What lesson, then, is Ang Lee supposed to have learned from his two experiences? He made one movie with rudimentary FX (jargon for special effects) and won four Oscars. Then he made another movie with world-class visual effects and got hammered. It'd be easy to conclude that the lesson is this: visual effects only work if the story works. But while that's often true, it can't always be the case. If an actor can give a great performance in an otherwise mediocre movie--as Johnny Depp just did in "Pirates of the Caribbean"--why can't a lousy movie have great visual effects? And no reasonable person would argue that the effects in "Crouching Tiger" were better than those in "The Hulk." They weren't. There's not even a comparison. Here's the real lesson for Lee, for ILM, and for any studio planning its next big action spectacular: the FX bar has been raised so high--call it an FX arms race--that it's almost impossible to clear it.
One of the great myths going around Hollywood now is that, with CGI, anything is possible. Photorealistic humans! Emotional performances! Virtual reality! The truth is, all of us still know CGI when we see it. Even the best work has an indefinable "digitalness" to it that FX artists haven't yet, and may never, overcome. Large objects don't seem "heavy." Textures, such as clothing or skin, seem too smooth. Movement is either herky-jerky or implausibly fluid. And yet, at the same time, CGI has come close enough to complete verisimilitude that audiences now expect it to go all the way. So when we see it onscreen, we have a strict pass/fail barometer. We either think, "Wow, that looks pretty real"--which is rare--or we think, "Forget it, that looks fake." Curiously, we are evaluating something we know to be synthetic on the basis of how near it comes to a goal it can't reach. Is it any wonder then that, more often than not, CGI fails? The game is rigged against it.
It wasn't always like this. Before the visual-effects industry was transformed by CGI in the early 1990s--thanks to films like James Cameron's "Terminator 2" and Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park"--the bar was much lower. The original "Star Wars" trilogy featured revolutionary special effects--but no one mistook what they were seeing for reality. Chewbacca looked like a tall man in a furry suit. The spacecraft looked like plastic models floating in a dark room. The story was marvelous, of course, but the same story today with similar production values would get laughed out of the theater. We weren't dumber back then, or less observant. We just had lower expectations. The original Christopher Reeve "Superman" movie is another example: the flying in that movie wouldn't fly today. But it was good enough for 1978.
These days, there's a new "Superman" or "Star Wars" every weekend. With each blockbuster movie, studios are trying desperately to show audiences something they've never seen before. But in most cases, they shouldn't bother. For one thing, a great story is cheaper than great visual effects. And if you do spend the dollars for great CGI, there's no guarantee you'll even get credit for it. When it comes to visual effects, there's no such thing as an A for effort. Just ask the folks at ILM.