Computer effects can be an amazing tool that allows filmmakers to bring dreams to life, but all too often it's used like a blunt instrument, smashing us over the head with digital ugliness.
Jim Morris has been there from the beginning; his time as seniormost staff at ILM saw Jurassic Park change the FX game, and he was there for movies like Forrest Gump and Starship Troopers. Later Morris moved to Pixar, where he became general manager, and now he's stumping for John Carter, which he produced. And while Jim's producing duties weren't actually heavy on the FX stuff, I had to talk to him about where Hollywood stands with digital effects today. Here he is, in his own words:
Like we’ve seen with every innovation in the motion picture industry, it goes through the abuse cycle where they turn everything up to 11, where you see too much stuff or stuff that’s not used wisely or subtly. I do feel like certainly the major filmmakers have come around and are using things more discreetly. The amount may have been turned down a little bit, but even in cases where it isn’t turned down the subtlety and nuance is improved. I look at a picture - not even talking about John Carter - like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it’s wall-to-wall effects because it’s the ape characters, but you feel like you’re watching a real movie with real characters. It’s not about the spectacle of those characters so much but about their performance. So even though there’s a lot of CG in there, it’s being used in a more sophisticated way.
All of us have grown more sophisticated in how to use these effects. Hopefully we’re getting out of the fad portion of it and getting back to using them as smart filmmaking tools.
We’re so schooled to know where a camera would be if you were actually there shooting, so if you break those barriers it can take you out of the film. [In John Carter] we tried to be very careful in always having the camera be someplace that is credible. Maybe it’s on another flier or something like that. Could have been shot from a helicopter, but never an impossible point of view shot or camera staging. We didn’t want to break the believability. We wanted people to feel like they were there.
In fact that drove a lot of our thinking: what if all this stuff did happen in 1880 and you were able to drop a camera crew there, how would you shoot it? Sometimes you feel like an FX shot is an FX shot for the sake of the FX, that it’s all about the spectacle. Even if the shot is really good it’s a mistake if you’re not focusing on the characters and using the FX as a backdrop. Our point of view was that it’s about the characters. We built more than you can see and have it go beyond the frame, but don’t worry about that - just try to capture the characters.
Our approach to John Carter was to have the Thark characters have the same feel as the [human] characters in the film. Tars Tarkas and Sola have screen time second only to Carter and Dejah [Thoris]. They’re in the film 50% of the onscreen time, maybe more. Our goal was to have them appear in a believable way but also to not have you think about them as being alien characters - you’re thinking about them as characters in the film that fit in and are believable.