The Magic of Practical Effects: An Open Letter to the Makers of Jurassic World 2

[Important Update: It seems the “news” of no new animatronic dinosaurs in the Jurassic films was based on reactions that misinterpreted what the director had said, so I have deleted the paragraph that linked to the news sites. However, I will keep this post up mainly because its point is still an important one in this age of CGI. And I guess I can still leave most of it as an open letter to ask for more than one robotic dinosaur in the upcoming movies.]

It’s no secret that dinosaurs and Jurassic Park are a huge part of my life. I have always loved the movies for so convincingly bringing to life these “leviathans of ancient history” (in the words of Steven Spielberg), on a level that no other movie has matched. Suspension of disbelief came all the easier when you could believe the dinosaurs were there. Rather than merely watching a dinosaur chase a character around, you felt as if you were truly face-to-face with creatures both beautiful and terrifying.

One of the most powerful ways the makers of Jurassic Park accomplished such a task was to painstakingly build animatronic dinosaurs that could move and blink, and actually be there on-set, so the actors’ performances would be all the more convincing. They had more to act with than a green screen or tennis ball. CGI was generally reserved for shots that couldn’t be obtained with a robot or puppet. And it forced the CGI crew to make their contributions photorealistic, because they had a life-sized reference on the set to guide their creative process.

As a direct result of this marriage between computers and physical effects, the Jurassic Park series has given us some of the most magical and thrilling moments in movie history. The T. rex’s escape and the ailing Triceratops in the first movie, Sarah Harding petting a baby Stegosaurus in The Lost World, the Pteranodon attack in Jurassic Park III.

As much as I loved Jurassic World, one of my only issues was the relative dearth of animatronic dinosaurs on the screen. But there was this one moment…(mild spoiler ahead)

For those of you who have seen Jurassic World: didn’t the scene with the dying Apatosaurus get to you on some level the other scenes didn’t? I admit, I shed tears during that scene, and still get choked up watching it. I believe that scene so much more than the CGI Velociraptors (which are admittedly quite well done). You actually feel something for this gentle giant, mauled to death by the Indominus Rex.

As the success of this scene and Mad Max: Fury Road proved this year (to say nothing of the crazy excitement for practical effects in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), audiences still have an obvious passion for practical effects, if only the movie’s creators and company allow them to be used. Someone in Hollywood has to finally be taking notice that we’re getting tired of the over-reliance on computers that lessened the impact and suspension of disbelief in Avengers and the Hobbit Trilogy.

So I write this post as a plea to those who can make the decisions for the next Jurassic sequels. I ask of you, please keep the magic alive. Help us, as an audience, suspend disbelief. Please keep practical effects, for more than one scene or one dinosaur. The effects crews – and audiences the world over – will thank you, and you’ll give us more of those cinematic moments we’ll never forget.

Kindest regards,

John K. Patterson

Copyright belongs to Universal. Collected from http://jurassicpark.wikia.com/wiki/Apatosaurus

Copyright belongs to Universal. Collected from http://jurassicpark.wikia.com/wiki/Apatosaurus

Advertisements

Tolkien vs. Jackson: An Open Letter to Orson Scott Card

Sigh. All right, one more Tolkien related post before it’s back to business as usual. I swear. Just one.

Orson Scott Card is one of my favorite authors. I admit to not having read a lot of his work, though. I do remember reading The Memory of Earth, Ender’s Game, and a few of his short stories, as well as a truckload of essays he publishes in the Rhino Times. His writing advice is solid. I like the way he says things.

But that makes it all the more disappointing when he keeps harping on a particular issue. Every time I’ve seen him refer to Tolkien’s body of work, he feels compelled to throw a tantrum that Jackson “ruined” Lord of the Rings as he brought it to the silver screen. And now the same accusation has been flung against the first Hobbit movie. These films do happen to be my favorites of all time, but that is not why I’m disappointed in his Grumpy Old Man routine; it’s the fact that he keeps going back to it, like the proverbial canine returning to its regurgitated meal.

I don’t expect him to pay me any attention. He’s a big-time, talented writer, and here’s little me, shaking my head on the sidelines. But someone needed to say this, and I didn’t see anyone else calling him out for it. So, without further ado:

—————————————————-

Dear Mr. Card,

We get it. You like to attribute movies you don’t appreciate to dumb Hollywood executives and incompetent directors, following the wrong formulas taught in screenwriting classes. I have heard this complaint over and over and over again. But does it really apply to Jackson’s accomplishment?

I remember from one of the DVD featurettes a teary-eyed John Rhys-Davies — who played Gimli, and was therefore heavily involved in the trilogy’s production — giving his thanks to the whole crew and cast, saying of their love and dedication to bringing Tolkien’s work to the screen, “You won’t find that in LA.” If there is any big-budget movie series that wasn’t subjected to the all-too-common incompetence and cynicism of Hollywood, it was the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everything from the dialogue to the props was crafted with the care of a historical epic and the passion of people who had been in love with Middle Earth all their lives. And now The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey brings us another movie that is a similarly excellent labor of love from the same people. Even that doesn’t stop you from parroting the myth that The Hobbit was padded out into a trilogy purely for financial reasons. And doesn’t the accusation of padding fly in the face with the complaint that so many “vital” parts of the trilogy were cut out from Lord of the Rings? Too short, then too long. Are you going to have your cake or eat it?

I understand that you appreciate Tolkien in a very particular way, and have spent decades enjoying the story as only you could enjoy it. And maybe the differences between the original books and Jackson’s interpretation felt like a betrayal to the vision you had cultivated and examined and appreciated for so many years. But that should be a matter that is stated once or twice, and then left alone for the opinion and private reaction that it is. It gets under people’s skin when you go back to the same complaint time and time again.

Take as an example the Scouring of the Shire. How Peter Jackson changed the ending made it work better as a movie, even if the book’s ending worked perfectly as a novel. If he’d kept the Scouring of the Shire at the end of Return of the King, it would have dragged out the story past the central conflict: the danger and destruction of the Ring. Which, again, works fine in the story’s original form, but drags a movie out even more than the myriad endings we already got. I would have left the theater disappointed and more than a little upset.

Granted, I have learned much about storytelling since then, and am in more of a position to appreciate the Scouring of the Shire and what Tolkien was accomplishing with it, but even now that is all I can do: appreciate it. Not love it. Not find it quickening my imagination. And it undeniably would be a frustrating, dour note to conclude a movie on. But because Jackson left the Shire blessedly intact, I walked out of that theater elated, thinking “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to be a fantasy writer.”

Some of us were inspired toward fantasy, toward becoming writers, toward the wonders and treasures of Tolkien’s world, because of Jackson and company’s tireless efforts. I should know; I’m one of them. And in honesty, ever since I read the trilogy and The Hobbit, and then saw the movies, I admit to liking Jackson’s Middle Earth even more than Tolkien’s. That’s partly because of personal taste, and partly because of the necessary differences between novels and movies. I’m beginning to think that it isn’t Hollywood’s fault, but yours that it has taken so long for an Ender’s Game movie to finally get made. Clearly you don’t get along well with the movie business and have been far too lacking in cooperation or trust with people who care about storytelling just as much as you do, only in a different medium.

A writer of your talent and sophistication dragging out the same misguided complaints amounts to little more than eloquent trolling. I will still be reading your work, but will stay firmly within your fiction, where I don’t have to hear this bellyaching anymore. And I do look forward to seeing Ender’s Game in theaters, hoping I don’t find myself saying it was a violent betrayal of your own novel. Because I’ve had my fill of writers saying movies ruin the books they’re based on, and don’t want to fall into the same trap.

With sincerest regards,

John K. Patterson

Of Hobbits and Dark Knights

This week has been a thrilling one for movie fans, to say the least. Now we have the trailers for both The Dark Knight Rises and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It’s a genuine delight to at last see hints of the films which people have been talking about for the past year. Both trailers are, simply put, awe-inspiring.

 

 

If you see a grown man jumping up and down and giggling like a very amused infant at the midnight showing of either movie, it will probably be me. No, I don’t usually act like that, but I’ll make an exception for these movies.

Catch you at the cinema!

The Invisible Man – A Celebration of Claude Rains

The only Universal monster film from the 1930s I saw as a boy was The Invisible Man, with Claude Rains as the title character. (I caught up on The Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein later) But I remember this movie terrified me, perhaps more than any other movie I watched back then. Of course, there was the fact that an invisible man could be anywhere, even in my room or at the dining table. But what scared me even more was Rains’ incredible performance (no small task for a man who isn’t onscreen until the last frame). You have no problem believing that he really is a madman, willing to kill to demonstrate his power. The special effects, which truly were astounding for the time, merely add to what the actor provided.

And it’s sad that Rains is one of Universal’s least-celebrated “monsters” from that decade. H.G. Wells’ character is fully realized onscreen simply because Rains uses a versatile tone of voice, calm and collected when he is not raging or proclaiming his grandiose dreams. In short, I was as mesmerized as I was frightened.

I’m posting the first part of the movie below. It’s just over an hour long, but in my estimation The Invisible Man tells a great story in so few minutes. If you have time, check it out.

The Majesty of Dinosaurs

At the time of writing, I am watching Jurassic Park on AMC. Good thing, too, since it’s the first time in ten years when I have seen the movie in widescreen. John Williams’ beautiful score never gets old, the CGI is still photorealistic, and Sam Neill is as awesome as ever. And beside the pleasure of seeing one of my favorite films again, it serves as a powerful reminder of how majestic dinosaurs must have been.

Sure, some of the traits Hollywood gave to the animals are purely speculative, like the poison-spitting capabilities of the Dilophosaurus, or are outdated, like the Velociraptors we now know were mostly coated in feathers. But something I will always be thankful for is how Jurassic Park made it “cool” to love dinosaurs again. Beforehand, these dragons of prehistory, these works of biological art, were mostly relegated to museums and paleontology departments, or were innocuous fantasies children would love, then outgrow. Then, when Michael Crichton wrote his novel, and Steven Spielberg took on the massive challenge of bringing it to the screen, dinosaurs raced back to the public consciousness. Thanks to Crichton and Spielberg (and paleontologists like Jack Horner and Robert Bakker before them), we started to look at dinosaurs as something more than voracious monsters. We started to see them as the animals they were. Even more than that, we sensed there was something transcendent and mysterious about them. Of all prehistoric creatures, they are the ones that captivate us the most.

May we never lose that awareness. I pray that we will always see these creatures in a light of reverence, as beautiful and strange as they were frightening and powerful. No matter how extinct they are, dinosaurs will always be alive in our imagination. I never grew out of that love for these animals, because it wasn’t something to outgrow.