Are Special Effects Becoming Less Special? While the special effects in movies like The Matrix and Transformers caused more than a few jaws to drop, Peter Hartlaub, a film reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle, wonders whether studios have gone too far. He says movies have become an "all-you-can-eat buffet" and action scenes now "feel like an assault."
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Are Special Effects Becoming Less Special?

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Are Special Effects Becoming Less Special?

Are Special Effects Becoming Less Special?

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And now, a summer action film without special effects would be a bit like a call in talk show without any calls. This weekend, the next movie in "The Mummy" series opens, and some scenes look like an expensive video game. And that is the problem argues Peter Hartlaub, reviewer for The San Francisco Chronicle. In a column earlier this summer, he complained that while computers might one day replace the entire department of motor vehicles, they will never be able to take the place of a guy and a gladiator helmet flying off the back of a moving chariot.

What do you think, does Hollywood still needs stuntmen and women? Or can computer-generated effects make the movie? If you are a stuntman or woman, we would love to hear from you, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is and you can comment on our blog, it's at Peter Hartlaub is the pop culture critic and a film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. And he recently wrote the piece, "Why Action Films Need Stuntmen and Women." He joins us now by phone from his office in San Francisco. Good to have you with us, Peter.

Mr. PETER HARTLAUB (Pop Culture Critic, San Francisco Chronicle): Thank you for having me, Lynn.

NEARY: So, Peter if the technologies there will pull off all these elaborate digital scenes, why do we need stuntmen and women?

Mr. HARTLAUB: I think precisely because the technology isn't there. I think that special effects are a great thing, I mean I grew up with the "Star Wars" films and "Terminator" films and just being so excited with whatever was going to come next. But I think the studios have treated it almost like an arms race for the last maybe five, six, seven years. And each one wants more special effects shots than the next and you end up with, you know, the end of a film with two computer animated monsters fighting over a green screen background and you know, we're not ready for that. I mean, it doesn't look real it doesn't look real like a stunt or someone really doing something and then maybe having touched up a little bit with special effects.

NEARY: When did the studios, you know, sort of start to treat special effects, like you say, like an arms race?

Mr. HARTLAUB: Honestly, I think when a movie is successful with special effects, one recent one that I think did a great job was "Spider-Man 2". I thought most of "Transformers" was really good. I think when a studio sees it done well, they say, I want that and I want more. And I think they put a lot of pressure on a special effects house that you know, to do things that just can't be done right now, you know, and again I compare it to an arms race. But things that escalated to the point where you know, I actually really appreciate it when someone takes a step back in a movie like "The Dark Knight" and just focuses so much on stunts and build real sets and just uses the CGI as little as possible.

NEARY: What other films can you think of that do exactly what you just described? That is that give you more of a sense of reality around stunts then.

Mr. HARTLAUB: I think that "Indiana Jones," the last one, while there was a lot of CGI in that, as much as possible, they tried to ground it in some kind of reality. There is a lot of really good stunt work on that. I thought that was a great one. I think one little scene movie that I really liked, the movie itself had all kinds of plot holes but I loved the stunts was "The Descent". And it was in theaters for about 12 minutes, but I loved it. And I think it's going to hold up 30 years from now way better than say a "Fantastic Four" movie.

NEARY: Now, this doesn't mean you're completely opposed to special effect because I know I think in the column, you said you actually sort of fell in love with movies in part because of special effects.

Mr. HARTLAUB: Yeah. And - completely. I mean, I remember watching just the commercial for "Empire Strikes Back" and seeing those snow walkers, you know, on that ice planet, walking toward the camera. And, I mean, I physically didn't know if I'd be able to make it until the day that that movie came out. I mean, I thought I might collapse. I was so excited and I still get excited. I love a good special effects film when they can do things right within their limitation. But too often, they don't. I mean, I think probably the best special effects film I've seen in the last 10 years was "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World." And what I love about it is when I say that, people say, well, there weren't any special effects in it. There were a ton but they were just so seamless and it played in to help tell the story, as opposed to distract from it, and I think it was just a perfect movie in terms of special effects.

NEARY: But, you know, the use of stuntmen and women, that can also be done badly too. I mean, there are times when, you know - I can't think of a specific movie, but there are times when I know I've been looking in a movie and thinking, oh, that's interesting how they're shooting that person so you can't actually see that it's, you know, not Brad Pitt or something like that...

Mr. HARTLAUB: Yes, yes.

NEARY: You know.

Mr. HARTLAUB: Yeah, the bad wig when it's...

NEARY: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

Mr. HARTLAUB: (unintelligible) is five foot four and it's supposed to be Brad Pitt. Yeah.

NEARY: Yeah. And so, if you were to - what is it do you think, though, that the real people do bring to the film. What kind of energy do they bring that's like, that makes you appreciate their contributions so much?

Mr. HARTLAUB: I think stuntmen and stuntwomen - and this applies too, to, you know, the people who do the pyrotechnics - I think the ones that I've talked to are so proud of their work and so proud of their traditions and partly because they're behind the scenes, you know, like the fall guy. I'm the unknown stuntman that makes Eastwood look so fine, you know. I think there's just almost an uncommon pride in their work that, yeah, there's some really bad stunts in movies, but there's so many more good ones. And as they've gotten, you know, more and more, I think, marginalized by a lot of these special effects, I've seen better and better stunt work.

NEARY: We're talking with Peter Hartlaub. He's the pop culture critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. We're talking about the need for stuntmen and women. We're going to take some calls now. Let's go to Ross and he is calling from Chicago. Hi, Ross.

ROSS (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: Good.

ROSS: I was actually calling because I'm an independent filmmaker, and I think one of the things that I run into a lot is that it's so much cheaper to do a digital effect as opposed to, you know, actually blowing up a building. And it, you know, I actually got to work on "Batman," the last one, "The Dark Knight" here in Chicago, and I actually worked as a stunt PA, which is, you know, the bottom rung - the bottom feeder of the production cycle. But nonetheless, it was truly, absolutely amazing to see that, and I have obviously seen the film, and it is truly organic. But when you're doing an independent film, it's easier to do, you know, a bullet or a flash or, you know, a blood splatter in a computer, as opposed to doing it, you know, with a script and everything else because it takes hours of preparation and money and the stunts that you don't have, so, I mean...

NEARY: That's interesting because I've always thought the special effects were really expensive for some reason or added to...

ROSS: They are and they aren't. I mean, you know, now that the, you know - in my computer, I've done bullet hits that looked very, very real, and it's just a matter of, you know, if you have the time to commit to it, and obviously, I don't pay myself so that's, you know, side of it. But, you know, as long as 260 million dollar budgets are around, then, yes, "Batman" will be made and it's going to be amazing. But is that always going to be the case?

Mr. HARTLAUB: If I can jump in, I agree with you. I mean, some of the best special effects movies that I've seen are not the expensive ones. "The Host" is an example of a Korean film that had a limited special effects budget. It's probably not the kind of independent film that you're talking about, but it was definitely a lot cheaper than the ones in the summer. And the special effects, I thought, were fantastic because they served the story. I mean, they didn't look entirely realistic, but there was no more than it needed to serve the story. And the writing in the story was good, and it had a real emotional impact. That doesn't bother me. What bothers me is when they use these computer effects to essentially replace, you know, plot and logic and everything else.

ROSS: Yeah, to replicate reality which is - I agree. It's totally not fair and I think the films that are successful are the ones that remove reality from it and try to go for an aesthetic and try to push the aesthetic of the CG or whatever it is, and those usually do really work out well.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Ross.

ROSS: Thank you.

NEARY: All right. Great talking to you. Let's go to Vanessa and Vanessa is calling from Detroit. Hi, Vanessa.

VANESSA (Caller): Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good. Thanks. How are you?

VANESSA: I am so excited. First time caller, a long time listener.

NEARY: It's good to talk to you. Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VANESSA: I totally agree with your guest today talking about - gosh, I'm so excited. I'm flustered. I'm sorry. Talking about special effects. I'm a big lover of foreign films, and when you talked about "The Host," I just got giddy about watching the visual effects. And I think of actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, who are true martial artists, or Tony Jaa, who are true martial artists, but give such a realism to the films that computers can just not replace. While I think effects are great for like a "Harry Potter" movie, for a kid flying on a broom, but nothing can replace that man or that person actually doing that stunt that just makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

NEARY: You are a movie lover, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VANESSA: I sure am.

NEARY: What do you say to that, Peter Hartlaub?

Mr. HARTLAUB: Well, I agree. I think one trend that I'm really happy to see is that I think a lot of directors now who are about my age, you know, in their late 30s and 40s grew up on a lot of those Hong Kong films on one side and on the other side, grew up watching "Indiana Jones," you know, the first "Indiana Jones" movie and "Road House" and, you know, these movies, and I think they have positive memories. And if you look at someone like Christopher Nolan with "Batman," if you look at Len Wiseman who made the last "Die Hard" movie with a lot of stunts, I think a lot of the directors now who grew up appreciating exactly what your guest is talking about, want to go back to that. And I'm seeing it more and more with films now.

NEARY: Right.

VANESSA: Exactly.

NEARY: Well, thanks so much for calling, Vanessa.

VANESSA: Thank you and you guys have a great day.

NEARY: All right. Great.

NEARY: Peter, I wanted to ask you, because I - there were also those films where martial arts are involved that do use special effects. I can't think of the name of the film...

Mr. HARTLAUB: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

NEARY: Right, where they flew through the air...

Mr. HARTLAUB: "Forbidden Kingdom" was a recent one with Jet Li and Jackie Chan.

NEARY: Yeah.


NEARY: So, it's not like they are - I guess some of them do know the martial arts but then they expand upon that with special effects.

Mr. HARTLAUB: Yeah. You know, a lot of those films I like because - I like them generally for the art direction more than for the special effects. But I think you still get that human performance, even though it's wire work, you know, being done so that they're leaping through the air and doing these incredible superhuman things. It is a real person who's doing that wire work and that would be an example of what I think is, you know, fairly seamless when it's done well, blend of the CGI and some real life impressive performances that I love.

I mean, I'll reiterate. I don't dislike CGI films. I love them but I love them when they're done well. And for the most part, I mean, there have been a couple of misses. A lot of those films that have used that kind of special effects blended with the martial arts that have made their way to the United States are the ones that are done really well.

NEARY: Peter Hartlaub reviews films for the San Francisco Chronicle, and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I've got an email here from John. He says, special effects absolutely cannot replace real actors doing real things. And CGI can't really replace real models. CGI absolutely ruined the latest "Star Wars" film, for instance. And even where CGI worked at the time, like in "Lord of the Rings," it looks pretty hokey now, like an outdated video game. And I think that's also a point that you made, Peter, that the special effects get outdated pretty quickly.

Mr. HARTLAUB: They do. I would disagree slightly with the "Star Wars" movies. I think - I'm one of those, you know - maybe there aren't so many of us, but I'm one of the defenders of the newer films, especially the last one. I thought they had sort of a unified look, you know. Yes, it was excessive at many times, but - so I do kind of defend those films a little more and I am a little biased, too. I grew up with "Star Wars" so they could, you know, make a "Star Wars" breakfast cereal I'd (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARTLAUB: But what I love, I mean, what I really love is - "Children of Men" is one...

NEARY: Oh, yeah.

Mr. HARTLAUB: It was a director who was so talented as an action director that, you know, the tension that was built and the way that he shot things was done in such a way that when the special effects came, you didn't even know it, you know. And there wasn't that much. That's a film I just - if people like, especially if you like the science fiction fantasy type stuff with a little bit of intelligence, I mean that was another just really great action film that I don't think enough people went out and saw.

NEARY: All right. Let's hear - we got another caller here, Daniel from Raleigh, North Carolina. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

NEARY: Yeah, go ahead, Daniel.

DANIEL: Yeah. Well, I just want to comment on the thing that real actors bring is the happy accident. And a good example is in "Indiana Jones," one of the classic things when the guy with the scimitar is swinging the sword and then Indiana Jones shoots him. It's a classic laugh line and it's great. But that's not originally how it's scripted. But Indiana or Harrison Ford has been injured earlier and so they are unable to shoot it the way they want it. But if you don't have the real actor there, you can't get those happy accidents that they'll become kind of classic scenes.

NEARY: Daniel, it sounds like you're...

DANIEL: (unintelligible) right now walking down the street.

NEARY: I was going to say it sounds like you're doing some stunts while you're talking to us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DANIEL: Yeah, exactly.

NEARY: All right. Let me ask Peter to respond to your comment. Thanks so much.

Mr. HARTLAUB: It's a good point. One of my favorites of the special effects films recently was "Cloverfield." It was - the effects were done by Phil Tippit(ph) from Berkeley. It's his studio and he's the one who did a lot of the early "Star Wars" stop motion stuff. And what I liked about it was, OK, you know, you had to take Dramamine to watch it. The cameras are moving all around like "Blair Witch Project" and some people aren't going to be able to get past that. But so much of it was done with handheld cameras and the dialogue and a lot of the events that went on just felt completely improvised. And, you know, that's an important thing, I mean, that your caller just brought up. I think if you start scripting out every little, you know, every little special effect that's going to happen throughout a movie, you know, I kind of wonder what that does to the improvised performance.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Daniel.

DANIEL: Thanks.

NEARY: We'll try and get one more call in here. Now, let's go to Mike and Mike is calling from Massachusetts, I think. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

NEARY: Yeah. Go ahead.

MIKE: Hi. Yeah. I would just want to talk about how the sort of the spectacle of it and that you don't really get any more of, you know, when you're looking at something that's really been filmed. For example, in "Spartacus," when you're seeing the scene where Rome sends this whole legion of soldiers across the hill and you're seeing this big wide shot of these thousands of guys marching in formation, and just how when you're looking at it, you're like, wow, that's really thousands of guys, whereas, you know, like "Lord of the Rings," you got big armies that are flashy but you know that for the most part, it's being done with computer and it just doesn't really have the same sort of effect.

NEARY: Yeah. All right. Well, thanks so much for your call, Mike.

MIKE: Thank you.

NEARY: That was a good point because I know, I think when I found out that, you know, in "The Gladiator" that all the people in the stadium were, you know, half the people were sort of computer-generated, I was disappointed to learn that.

Mr. HARTLAUB: You know, but that's always the question for me. If you know, if you can discuss it and wonder afterwards, it's like plastic surgery, you know, good plastic surgery. If everybody in the office is discussing whether you got it or not, then you probably did it right.

NEARY: Right. OK. We're going to have to...

Mr. HARTLAUB: That's what I feel about "Gladiator," that's how I feel about most of "Lord of the Rings." I think was done pretty well. I can pick out four or five scenes over three movies that I'm disappointed at.

NEARY: Peter? Good talking with you, Peter. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Mr. HARTLAUB: Yeah, yeah.

NEARY: Peter Hartlaub is a film reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. I'm Lynn Neary. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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