A discussion that rages through the fan community since the early days after the premiere of The Phantom Menace is that about the use of practical vs. cgi effects. Often these are discussions about whether one has been used too much in the prequels or the other too little before they descent into counting ‘numbers of practical vs cgi effects. Or they are arguments about why practical effects are ‘real’ and cgi is ‘fake’. In all practicality of course this distinction is not as straightforward as it seems and as a result the discussion are often riddled with inconsistent argumentation and barely disguised ‘taste’ being represented as ‘fact’. So I want to look at a slightly different question! Practical vs CGI: what does that even mean?
It’s a movie … nothing here is real!
I know, this seems like a totally obvious statement to make and not likely a great starting point for an analysis. But I think it is useful to remind ourselves of this insignificant fact. Nothing in a movie is real! The emotions acted out by the actor, they are not real! The deaths, the weddings, the relationships or the struggles … it is all not real.
Only pre-adolescent teenagers actually sometimes believe that actors playing characters in a relationship might actually have that relationship in reality … for the duration of the shooting. And of course cheap celeb-magazines are all to willing to suck out your cash by reporting the unconfirmed rumour that this is indeed the case in this example or in that instance. Even when actors would suggests there is some truth to it … in my mind it would never be more than a PR gimmick and believe me in the film/celebrity business people are willing to do anything to generate a successful PR-gimmick. They might even believe in it themselves … but that is not the point here.
In movies things are not real, ever. That however does not make them fake because fortunately life is not that black and white. Whether we call a movie, it’s characters or it’s narrative ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ is usually about whether it manages to seduce us into suspending our disbelief. George Lucas is an excellent craftsman in giving us things to hold on to when we suspend our disbelief and he knows that for us to buy into such a suspension of disbelieve what we see needs to have the right balance between what is realistic and what is in line with our expectations.
There are things you expect to be real that are not realistic
The picture you see on the right is what most people expect a tsunami to look like. As a result most disaster films on tsunami’s show waves that are similar to the one on the right. Of course we all know that this is not what a tsunami wave looks like in reality. The physics of the ordinary wind-driven waves that break on our beaches is very different from the physics of tsunami waves. But because the ‘movie-waves’ are in line with our expectations we are happy to suspend our disbelief despite the fact that the wave we see is not realistic. There are many real-world phenomena that, when some of us see them, they appear unnatural or ‘constructed’ to us. In the skies such phenomena usually give rise to ufo sightings. So the relationship between what see interpret as ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ and what happens in the real world is actually rather complicated and has a lot to do with our expectations. A viewer of a movie might suffer a break down in his suspension of disbelief by seeing something that is truly realistic!
Real and ‘Real’ dialogue
Anyone attending a Shakespeare play performed in the bard’s original language has this strange experience of seeing people converse in ways that are definitely not realistic. Normal people in our age do not communicate in iambic pentameter and neither did the ordinary folks living in Shakespeare’s own times.
I once attended a performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ in which the English actor nailed the battle speech, of that English king to go to war against France, so devastatingly well that even the French guy to my left and the Dutch girl to me right my were all pumped and ready to follow Henry into battle. That suspension of disbelief was not achieved because of the superbly realistic words spoken by this acted king, it was not real dialogue and yet, given the effect on the audience, it was ‘real’ dialogue.
The Prequel Trilogy received a lot of flak for dialogue lines such as ‘I don’t like Sand …’ or the exchanges between Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker. But interestingly when you look at those same lines outside of the context of the movie they are not at all unrealistic. The reason why for some fans such lines broke their suspension of disbelief was because the dialogue was not the one they expected! The reason for that was, as I argued elsewhere, partly because Anakin Skywalker was not the one they expected. Another reason is that for decades Hollywood has taught us a different form of romantic dialogue which is not at all realistic but our expectations present it to us a ‘real’.
Are practical effects more ‘real’?
So in a movie nothing is real and yet in order for us to be able to suspend our disbelief we need elements that are so ‘real’ that we are willing to believe. If you watch an episode of Wallace and Gromit most of you will be perfectly happy to accept Gromit as a dog despite the fact that he neither is a real stuffed or living animal nor does he behave in a particularly doggish way. But he retains enough ‘doggish’ characteristic for us to be willing to suspend our disbelief. But what is more important for our discussion here, his play-doh clay-like nature as a ‘practical effect’ has become a hallmark of Gromit. If you would see a fully digitally animated film about Gromit you would probably sense a deep uncomfortableness until you got used to the ‘new’ Gromit. Some viewers might actually never be willing to get used to an animated Gromit and would simply reject it as ‘not real’ … most probably adding that practical effects are simply more realistic. But the ‘practical effect’ version of Gromit is exactly as unrealistic as a cgi-version would be. The key difference is of course that being made from clay has become a defining characteristic of Gromit in our expectations.
X-wing fighters do not actually fly, nor do Naboo Starfighters, lightsabers do not actually work and if they would actually work then most likely they would not be handled like Japanese Katana’s or medieval European swords because their physics is entirely distinct. In A New Hope we see a lightsaber flash up once before it is first used to cut someone’s arm off in a cantina dispute. The fact that the arms lies bloodied on the floor did not disturb anyone as they held no expectations of a light saber. But of course it is entirely unrealistic as such a blade that can melt metal would immediately cauterize any wound. In Attack of the Clones this is exactly what happens when Jango Fett looses his head, the depiction has become more realistic but not neccesarilly more ‘real’ for every individual.
Practical Effects and CGI usually come together
It is not surprising that many from the Original Trilogy generation had to adjust their expectations regarding the visualisation of their beloved Galaxy when they first saw The Phantom Menace. Those who could not, or did not want to, needed to find a reason for why their suspension of disbelief was broken. The obvious things to complain about in such a case is anything that was new or unexpected in the movie, the new actors, the new filming techniques introduced or the new characters. Or specifically; Lloyd/Christensen, CGI and Jar Jar.
Phantom was the first Star Wars film to use extended CGI that was technically different from, and vastly superior to, any of the special effects techniques used in the Original Trilogy. Of course George Lucas had already started introducing such elements into the Original Trilogy Special Editions. As in the Special Editions, the visual effects shots in Phantom are all composites of actual footage of actors, practical props and practical effects and CGI-elements and enhancements. So in the transition from Originals to Prequels the visual language was about to change and hence the question of how to deal with the audience’s expectations became crucial.
Building a bridge
I think what he intended to do with the Special Editions was to build a bridge for the ‘older’ and more conservative fans. I think he must have known that the dark times between 1983 and 1999 would have cemented a particular set of expectations in the heads of fans, that many of them would be very unwilling to let go of. Many of the visual enhancements of the Original Trilogy in the Special Editions are inserted just for that purpose: to build a bridge of visual narrative elements from the Originals to the upcoming Prequels. Some of the slapstick elements added in the Mos Eisley scenes of A New Hope for example are, in my view, almost direct bridges to the Buster-Keatonesque humor of Jar Jar. Some of the added ‘Falcon in Flight’ material in Empire Strikes Back and some of the added stuff in the space battles over Yavin and Endor as well as the changed celebration scene at the end of Return of the Jedi are clear bridges to the visuals of the Republic Era of the Prequels. It is exciting to contemplate that the changes in the ‘Han shot first’ scene could also have been intended as a bridge to a slightly altered Han Solo character to appear in the last Prequels. We will never know, probably, whether the backlash against that change led Lucas to drop those ideas, just as the backlash against Jar Jar likely diminished his role in the subsequent prequels.
Practical vs CGI … does that make any sense?
The whole discussion about whether or not practical effects are more ‘realistic’ is essentially pointless and as a result there are so few consistent and well-argued points of view. Most ‘opinions’ are nothing more that just statements of taste disguising as some form of analysis. In the Prequel Trilogy most visual effect shots are composites involving real actors on a partial set with practical props, complemented by practical effects such as backgrounds that are actually miniatures and CGI enhancements. Evidently the degree to which one or the other type of effect is in a shot will differ wildly throughout the different shots in the films. The fact that some CGI elements disrupted the suspension of disbelief for some fans most likely is not caused by the CGI, nor by the quality of it, but by the expectations that the fan had constructed about a character or a visual appearance. Making a separation of visual effects into ‘realistic’ practical effects and ‘unrealistic’ CGI effects is nonsense. To me the digital Yoda of Episodes 1 through 3 was a better fit evolving into the Original puppet Yoda then the puppet originally used in The Phantom Menace. But what is more important was that Yoda’s character was one of which it was very clear how it needed a narrative and a character arc before it could turn into the Original-Trilogy Yoda.
Whether or not a scene destroys ones suspension of disbelief is determined by many factors, not in the least by the expectations of the viewer. But an equally important element is the degree to which the viewer is willing to ‘unlearn what (s)he has learned’ and is capable of taking a fresh view on things. There are people who will never accept an animated Gromit and who might claim that the clay version is ‘more realistic’ or has a ‘more realistic feel’. Reality is however that the animated Gromit is just as little a dog as the clay version. I think the Original Trilogy Special Editions were a watershed. It was George Lucas’ bridge for those of us who wanted to truly relish the great vista’s and visual language of the Prequel Trilogy. Yet for some this was a bridge to far.
The Sequel Trilogy
The new ‘practical effect’ kid on the block is of course BB-8. The revelation of the practical form at Star Wars Celebration was awesome. But viewers of The Force Awakens should not kid themselves, the BB-8 we will see on screen will be the practical effect whenever that was the best choice to make according to JJ Abrams. But I am confident he will not hesitate a second to use a CGI BB-8 in other shots where that seems the best solution to him. The Sequel Trilogy will have its own visual signature and I expect that there will, again, be enough fans for whom it is a departure that will disrupt their suspension of disbelief. They might again argue that Abrams used to much, or to little CGI, or to many old-fashioned practical effects, or to few. But the underlying themes is not at all how many CGI or practical effects were used, nor how ‘realistic’ the movie is. What it is all about is whether you, as a fan, can keep an open mind to embrace a world that is larger than a mere reproduction of what you liked best from the past.
Many Original Trilogy fans had no problem to embrace the Prequel Trilogy because they appreciate that there needs to be visual change in the Galaxy in order for there to be a story arc and character development also within the visual narrative. All fans face this challenge again now with the Sequels. Everyone who believes the Sequels represent a return to the visuals of the Original Trilogy is just deluding him/herself. Of course there will be a bridge for you to cross, but for those who refuse to there will be nothing left but to whine in comment threads. Many of us have crossed that bridge before, I am sure we can do it again.