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Up from ‘The Abyss’ and Beyond ‘Jurassic Park’: The Decline of Practical Effects

Up from ‘The Abyss’ and Beyond ‘Jurassic Park’: The Decline of Practical Effects

The 80s, man. It was a time of astounding achievement within the worlds of special effects makeup and creature design. The realm of sci-fi and horror gave birth to an array of badass movie monsters from the Alien Queen, The Thing in its multitude of forms, and Brundle-fly. The artistry of latex and silicone was reaching greater and greater heights. It seemed as if there were nothing that could be imagined that couldn’t be brought to life by one the madmen of cinematic illusion. Rick Baker, Dick Smith, Tom Savini – these guys were rock stars in the 80s.

Recently, I had the chance to catch the awesome documentary Creature Designers – The Frankenstein Complex. Unfortunately, the film is not available yet in the US but is streaming on Amazon UK *cough-cough*. Creature Designers details the rise of in-camera effects and the swift “transition” from practical to digital toolsets.

Looking back, there seems to be a definitive moment where practical effects landed themselves on the endangered species list. Interestingly, it happened to coincide with dinosaurs being brought back from extinction. With Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg reinvented the summer blockbuster (again) to represent tentpole titles with dazzling, industry advancing effects work. And, while Jurassic Park may have broken the dam, another film a few years earlier started the pressure building.

The Abyss

James Cameron’s bloated Aliens by way of Titanic underwater extravaganza, The Abyss, was a true game-changer in the film industry. The majority of the effects work, from the neon-tinged craft looming at the ocean floor to the angelic creatures themselves, were created by FX bad-boy Steve Johnson and his team. They were tasked with the near impossible. Cameron wanted creatures that were able to operate underwater, emit light from within, and were “glass clear” – which meant, to pull off the see-through effect there could be no visible “moving parts.” They were to be ethereal…the most beautiful creatures ever put to film. Despite that laundry list of prerequisites and ever changing production demands, Johnson rose to the occasion. After many tests, he and his team managed to land on “NTIs” made of thin, lightweight silicone with embedded fiber optics.

Of course, Johnson’s creations were backed by astounding set design. Crews actually built a life-size rig to be housed within a 7.5 million gallon capacity tank…where the majority of filming took place. It took five days to fill the tank with water. To make sure the “look” of the faux-ocean wasn’t too bright or reflective, tons of black beads were floated atop the surface to help control the light. Suffice to say, shooting conditions were rough. In fact, some consider this to be the most difficult production in Hollywood history. With a worldwide box office of $90 million, it’s still up for debate whether the film was a huge success or barely broke even. On the record, the budget was $43 mil, but rumors proclaim it ballooned to upwards of $70 million. Either way, the bar set by Cameron’s perfectionist standards meant the film would become a landmark in fantasy cinema.

Come time for the Oscars to be doled out to the films of 1989, The Abyss seemed to be a shoe-in for a number of technical awards. Among “Best Cinematography” and “Best Sound,” The Abyss scored a nomination for “Best Achievement in Visual Effects” against Back to the Future Part II and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Only, it wasn’t Johnson’s effects house that got the nod. The honor went to Industrial Light & Magic. Despite Johnson’s achievements, the moment that really got people talking was the “pseudopod.” In this revolutionary scene, the amphibious lifeforms attempt to make contact with our sequestered characters by taking on the shape of…well, water. A long, sentient tentacle of H2O with the power to emulate our heroine’s amazed expression was created entirely on a computer over the span of eight months. There was a cool new kid on the block, and his name was “CGI.”

The effect was a huge leap forward in the realm of computer-generated imagery. Not only was it the first time CGI was used to animate water, it also looked damn good (even by today’s standards). In the end, the pseudopod is on screen for only 75 seconds of the 2 and 1/2 hour runtime, yet it still managed to be the film’s main draw! The Abyss, of course, took home the Effects Oscar. The conversation in Hollywood began to focus on just what could be done with these new tools, and Johnson may have a been a bit miffed from the Oscar snub.

Jurassic Park

Just a couple years later, Michael Crichton scored a big fat payday from his upcoming novel, Jurassic Park. Universal managed to outbid several other studios in order to obtain the rights. Steven Spielberg was brought on board to direct and instantly began to devise plans for bringing Crichton’s dinos to life on the silver screen. Stan Winston was hot off his amazing work on Terminator 2: Judgement Day. While that film, too, was considered a milestone for CGI, you’d be amazed to know just how many shots were Winston’s animatronics as opposed to a wad of pixels.

It was clear that Winston would be tasked with creating animatronic puppets for various medium and close-up shots. For long shots where the entirety of the creatures’ bodies would be in frame, Spielberg knew he would need something convincing to pull the film off. Phil Tippett was once the lead stop-motion animator for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) before leaving to create his own effects house. Tippett was well known for originating a technique called “Go-Motion” during the filming of The Empire Strikes Back. Go-Motion was essentially stop-motion but with the addition of motion-blur to characters’ movements, thus creating more realistic images than the jittery cuts of its predecessor.

Spielberg planned to hire Tippett to bring his Go-Motion technique to Jurassic Park. Animatics were created for a couple of key sequences, including the raptor attack in the kitchen. Unfortunately, Spielberg wasn’t impressed. What could have been a huge opportunity for Tippett’s fledgling studio, simply wasn’t to be. ILM, who were already a part of the crew focusing on digital compositing, swooped in when they heard the production’s woes. They felt they could pull the effects off with CG and offered to create test footage to prove it. From their show-stopping work on The Abyss to this point, it should be a no-brainer what happened next. Tippett was out of a gig (though he remained on as “Dinosaur Supervisor”), and CGI was officially on the map as a viable filmmaking option for all directors, even those who weren’t James Cameron.

Aliens, Dragons, and Tornadoes! Oh, My!

In the following years, computer effects-driven blockbusters were around every corner. Just take a look at the three “Visual Effects” contenders for the Oscars in 1996, only three years removed from Jurassic Park. TwisterIndependence Dayand Dragonheart were representative of the new wave of fantasy filmmaking. In the years since, some of the great practical effects masters continued working, though, not as regularly. Others, like Phil Tippett, adapted. Tippett actually worked on Dragonheart, helping design and choreograph the titular beast’s movements. He’s since worked steadily as a “Visual Effects Supervisor.”

In 2015, Rick Baker finally threw in the towel, closing his shop. In an interview with VICEBaker was far from seeming bitter but unafraid to face facts. “I had a guy making some teeth, in this 60,000-square-foot building, by himself, in summer. My air conditioning bill was more than I was getting paid to make the teeth. So it just became time. Those big jobs don’t exist anymore.” Still, it’s clear why the demand for the skills of someone like Baker have grown increasingly sparse. “When CG first became popular, we instantly became dinosaurs…I was always hoping for a much closer marriage between the CG and the makeup stuff.”

A marriage of digital and practical is surely the best way to go, but so many productions rush through filming with the problematic mindset of “fix it in post!” When a film becomes wall to wall CG, it begins to feel lazy. Look no further than the infamous The Thing remake where amazing effects were created by the team of ADI only to have them painted over with shoddy CG work before release. Thankfully, in recent years, there has been a push from some of the up and coming filmmakers to bring back more tactile effects work. J.J. Abrams was a big proponent of having tangible sets and makeup effects for part of The Force Awakens. Even with Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow was insistent on having at least one animatronic dinosaur.

It might not be ideal for fans of old school, man-in-a-suit, animatronic, latex and silicone, Karo syrup, and foam rubber artistry, but we’ll always have the classic films to look back on fondly. Plus, there will always be that exciting film or two to buck the trend like Mad Max: Fury Road, or on the indie scene, The Void.



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