Posts Tagged ‘Special Effects’

The Language of Cinema

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

Yesterday, I stumbled across the video contrasting the scenes of Medusa in the 1980 Ray Harryhausen Clash of the Titans against the 2010 remake.

I love this YouTube video because, to me, it illustrates precisely how Hollywood has gone so very wrong in the last few years. The original Clash is not a classic, although I am very fond of it. But the scene in the Harryhausen version is so much better in so many ways. Let’s enumerate them:

  • In the original, the scene in Hades takes place underground and is darkly lit. Yet, it is always clear exactly what’s going on. The layout of Medusa’s lair, the location of the two Greeks, the way the action plays out, the strategy employed by Perseus — these are all apparent. By contrast, the remake is completely incoherent. Where are they? What is the layout of Medusa’s lair? There’s a brief moment of “strategy” where Perseus gets Medusa to chase him so one of his men can attack her. But it’s not clear how this is accomplished because he appear to be moving away from his men only to have one jump out randomly. It’s hard to follow, sloppily executed and ends with all three of Perseus’ men dead. Moreover, the scene is simply incoherent. Medusa flashes around the pillars like the CGI creation she is with little rhyme or reason. She smashes through pillars that should injure her instead of snaking around them. It’s like a trailer for a better and more coherent scene.
  • There’s one shot in the original I just love, right before Medusa is killed. The camera pulls back to a medium shot to show Perseus behind the pillar and Medusa slowly moving between the rows of pillars, looking for him. That one shot instantly lays out the terrain so we know what’s going on and where everyone is. No such shot is seen in the remake.
  • The original has a palpable sense of fear. Perseus and his men are scared of Medusa and try to avoid her. By contrast, the men in the remake treat Medusa like the boss in a video game. One of them deliberately looks right at her. The other fails to turn to stone but blows himself up (maybe this makes sense if you’ve seen the whole movie).
  • The blood leaking out of Medusa’s body in the Harryhausen version is a bit unrealistic. But in the remake, Medusa’s body falls into a crevice and explodes. Just ‘cuz.
  • In the original, the appearance of Medusa is clear. If I were capable of drawing, I could sketch her out. In the remake, she’s a murky CGI mess. You can see the beautiful face of Natalia Vodianova, the model playing the role. But around her is just waving CGI bracken, snakes moving at light speed, rather than in anything resembling a believable monster. The emphasis modern action movies place on CGI-enhanced speed of movement has taken away any sense of realism.
  • (And please don’t come at me with “Realism? It’s a movie about gorgons and krakens!” Even a fantasy movie has to play by its own rules and be realistic enough that the creatures, the danger and the action draw the viewer in.)
  • Notice the Kraken at the end. In the Harryhausen version, the Kraken is plainly seen and looks like a mythical creature. I could draw him. The Kraken in the remake is a CGI blob, an indistinct mass of flesh and teeth.
  • I want to be clear about something: CGI isn’t the problem here. The way it is being used is the problem. Contrast the Kraken and Medusa against the CGI creatures of Lord of the Rings. The Nazgul and the trolls have a definite appearance. They look like a real mythical creature might look (in part because they are based on sketches by artists who have been drawing Tolkien’s world for decades). I expect Smaug to be the same. Gollum was so well-rendered that people wanted to nominate Andy Serkis for an academy award (although in that case, Serkis was on set to give Gollum a physical reference).

    Those were creatures. They were rendered to act, move and look like creatures. Medusa looks like someone got at their computer and said “more snakes! Make ‘em move faster! Faster! This is so cool!”. The Kracken looks like it’s not finished rendering. It’s the creature equivalent of the spiny spikey CGI spaceships that have begun to clutter sci-fi movies. It’s indistinguishable from any number of other CGI blobs with teeth like Cloverfield. But at least Cloverfield‘s murk made sense in context, since it was found footage. Show me Harryhausen’s Kraken and I’ll recognize it. Show me this one and I’ll have to guess: the Kraken? Cloverfield? Cave troll? Last night’s Mexican dinner?

    Harryhausen’s movie uses the language of cinema effectively. It establishes the scene and the stakes. It gives us a clear idea of where Medusa is, what she’s doing and what she looks like. It treats her like a real monster enraged by her curse and determined to hunt down and kill those invading her lair. Perseus and his men are scared of her and trying to think of a way to kill this dangerous creature. The scene is 90% tension and about 10% effects.

    By contrast, the remake is a video game. Perseus’ men don’t value their lives and don’t act in a realistic way. And why should they? There’s no sense that this is a real monster. She’s a creation that pops out of the shadows at random moments.

    I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating: a generation of move-goers are growing up not knowing what a coherent movie looks like. This isn’t a style thing or an old-man “get off my lawn” thing. Frequently, when they see movies that are well-made and composed, they notice how much better they are without really knowing why. They are being drowned in a sea of dreck.

    For more on this, you should check out Jim Emerson’s two videos contrasting The Dark Knight and SALT to show how differently they use (or fail to use) the language of cinema. I love The Dark Knight but he does have a point about the way some of its action scenes are laid out.

    The most hilarious part of that, however, is the response from the Dark Knight defenders, which essentially amounts to misquoting Emerson or falling back on the “hey, it’s a movie about a billionaire in a bat suit. You expect realism?!” I referenced above.

    That is is why I love this video. Both movies are about mythical creatures and heroes. But one has tension, clarity and excitement. The other has noise and chaos. The defenders of modern film — not batting an eye from there “hey, it’s fantasy” line — will then claim that, in real life, action is often chaotic and noisy. True enough. But it also follows certain rules (like gravity) and people value their lives and sell them dearly.