Visual Effects are Not the Answer

From the time I saw Star Wars, almost all of my favorite movies have been full of visual effects. My love of film and of visual effects developed simultaneously. I ultimately worked at Industrial Light & Magic for four years, even putting in some time on Star Wars itself, for better or worse. After that, I co-owned a visual effects company for ten years.

Visual effects can contribute enormously to a film. Few of us will ever forget the AT-AT attack on the rebel stronghold in The Empire Strikes Back, or the T-rex stepping out from the paddock in Jurassic Park.

But while visual effects can lend support to a movie, they are incapable of holding up its full weight on their own. I bet you can think of a few recent films that effectively demonstrate this.

With very few exceptions, visual effects cannot contribute something to a movie that isn’t there already.

They must augment and support the fundamental building blocks of film: story, performance, kinetic mise-en-scène, and even old-fashioned visual trickery.

Here are some examples of visual effects failing to solve filmmaking problems:

  • There’s no bad wire-fu that can be saved by painting out the wires. The wires are not the problem.
  • There’s no morph that tells a story better than a simple cross-dissolve. If it doesn’t work as a cross-dissolve, it won’t work as a morph.
  • I watched a team of incredibly talented compositors work for weeks to “improve” on a hacky Avid speed-change effect in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Ultimately, all the CGI and compositing was shelved in favor of a frame-by-frame copy of the Avid frame-blend effect.
  • In Jaws, a malfunctioning effect forced Spielberg to replace many planned shark appearances with clever filmmaking, resulting in one of the greatest and most influential movies of all time.

And today's example:

  • Your talking animal movie will not be any funnier with computer-generated mouths.

We’re back to the trailer embedded at the top of this post. Maybe you think it’s funny, maybe you don’t. But what I love about it is that someone finally realized that this kind of movie would be not one tenth of a percent better with animated cat mouths.