Faked Out: The Return of Practical Effects



In late April, my seven-year-old son and I watched “The Avengers” in preparation for watching the sequel.

Seven-year-olds being what and who they are, “The Avengers” actually spoiled my son’s appetite for the sequel rather than whet it.

Where loud, intense action films that can be described by using eating clichés are concerned, my son’s eyes are bigger than his stomach.

Watching the original film on the small screen for the first time, I was forced to admit something to myself that I’d overlooked in the movie theater.

I never feel bad about having overlooked something in a movie theater because I know everybody goes there to hide their secret delusions and shames, if only for a couple of hours.

Wait. What was I writing about?

Oh, yeah. Being forced to admit something to myself.

I was forced to admit to myself that the Hulk really doesn’t work as a special effect. He sort of works as a character thanks to Joss Whedon’s writing and direction, but he really doesn’t work as a special effect.

I just can’t make myself believe the computer-generated Hulk exists in the same space as the flesh-and-blood actors in these big-screen movies. His skin looks wrong, like an algae bloom with an oil slick on top of it.


The moment Eric Bana or Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo starts grunting as a prelude to transformation, the part of my brain that is devoted to believing in the reality of things that were added in post-production shuts down.

When the Avengers all stand in a circle with their backs to each other, which they seem to do a lot, all I can envision is the mess of masking tape on the pavement that was put there to let everyone know how much space the Hulk would take up when he was added later.

Computer-generated imagery (CGI) can achieve many wondrous things these days but it can’t create realistic (albeit green and outsize) humans.

Four decades ago, the Hulk was portrayed by a bodybuilder painted green.


Four decades ago, it was a strange thing to be a bodybuilder. Since every man living in the ‘70s wanted to be wiry like Paul Newman or Burt Reynolds, the only plausible explanation back then for having gotten as big as the Rock was an overdose of gamma radiation.

So, times have changed.

Computer graphics guys and gals may not be able to create believable Hulks but they sure as heck can create believable robots.

After I watched “Star Wars: Episode One – The Phantom Menace” in 1999, I decided that watching superheroes destroy rows of computer-generated robots was surprisingly boring – akin to watching assembly line workers inspect rows of commercial light fixtures.

So you can guess how I felt 16 years later when the climax of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” involved superheroes destroying rows of computer-generated robots.

Excited, of course! Who wouldn’t be?

I just read that “Tomorrowland,” which opens today, also has computer-generated robots.

Yippee! You can’t have too much of a good thing, I always say.

Sigh. I may as well fess up right now: I am suffering from CGI fatigue.

I realized how bad it was when I was watching the “Godzilla” reboot last year and I wasn’t sure at one point what arrangement of pixels was attacking the city.

I’m not saying I didn’t care whether I was watching computer-generated dinosaurs or computer-generated Transformers.

I am saying I wasn’t sure whether I was watching computer-generated dinosaurs or computer-generated Transformers.

Since then, I have taken to watching Italian-made sword-and-sandal epics for free on YouTube.


Sure, the guys playing Hercules in those films throw foam boulders, but at least you never doubt the existence of foam boulders.

I am almost 50. The way I figure it, I no longer have to feel ashamed about my fondness for the foam boulders in Italian-made sword-and-sandal epics, not to mention my fondness for the homoeroticism in Italian-made sword-and-sandal epics

Wait. What was I writing about?

Oh, yeah. CGI fatigue.

I even joined a Facebook group devoted to practical effects, a term that refers to any special effect accomplished with an actual thing (prop, contraption or prosthetic) with which an actor can interact.

CGI brought to life cinematic visions that were unfilmable before CGI, but it was the worst thing to happen to many pre-existing franchises, including “Alien,” “Star Wars,” and “The Thing.”

If you are a devotee of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and you’re still angry about the crappiness of the prequel (and the predictability of that crappiness), you will cry actual, non-computer-generated tears at this highlight reel of practical effects created for the film that were largely scrapped in favor of CGI.

Warning. It’s a little gruesome (because these guys knew what they were doing).

The good news here is that Hollywood seems to be returning to practical effects.

I haven’t seen the new “Mad Max” movie yet, but my understanding is that it is a masterpiece of people actually having done the things they seem on the screen to be doing.

Director JJ Abrams appears to be trying to mock up everything that’s mock-uppable on the new “Star Wars” sequel, including a new fully functional droid called BB-8.

It seems like just yesterday that George Lucas’ monomaniacal devotion to CGI meant that his prequel actors spent much of their time doing mime on otherwise empty green soundstages.

The results of that strategy – intentional and otherwise – all ended up on the screen: sumptuous CGI and wafer-thin emotions.

As any fan of the insane and dangerous heyday of Hong Kong action cinema knows, it is far more exciting and compelling to watch an actor do a thing than it is to watch him pretend to do it.

Look, I am not saying we go back to the days of rubber dinosaur suits, but all the CGI in the world did not help the creators of the most recent “Godzilla” reboot solve an essential conundrum: How do you computer-generate a Godzilla that is as appealing as a guy in a rubber dinosaur suit?


Recline With Wine (Hopefully)


While you are deciding which multiplex to grace with your presence this weekend, you may want to take this into account: Regal Coldwater Crossing in Fort Wayne now has reclining seats.


The north side movie complex completed this week a theater renovation that involved replacing all of its old seating with what were described to me as “leather recliners” (although, perhaps the material is more leatherette, leatheresque or leatherish).

Ticket prices will remain the same. There is no extra charge for these seats.

My source at Coldwater tells me that total seating capacity in all the theaters was sacrificed so that the head rests on these new chairs can be pushed back without hitting any knees and the foot rests can be raised up without hitting any seat backs.


Regal started adding recliners to some of its multiplexes in 2014, according to a story by David Lieberman on Deadline.com.

“We’re all going about this strategic objective of improving the premium experience,” Regal CEO Amy Miles reportedly said at the 2014 Gabelli & Co Movie and Entertainment conference.

In a press release touting seating upgrades at Regal Manor Stadium 16 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rob Del Moro – chief technical and theater operations officer at Regal Entertainment Group – said, “Regal is redefining the level of comfort at this theater. Our guests will soon be able to stretch out, relax and recline while watching the movie.”

My Coldwater source told me some concessions upgrades are also coming, although he wasn’t sure what those would be.

But a company called Enomatic Wine Serving Systems announced in September 2014 that they’d partnered with Regal to bring something called the Enoline Elite to some multiplexes.

Basically, it’s a wine vending machine that offering “5 oz pours of 8 different wines,” according to the company.


It seems unlikely that Regal would bring anything like this into Fort Wayne, but a dipsomaniac can dream, can’t he?