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Bang for the Buck
by Thom Williams

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Clearly it's going to be bigger, but will it be better?

Clearly it's going to be bigger, but will it be better?
Budgets for films that rely on special effects are climbing faster than the inflation rate, and while gross profits are also going up, profit percentages have been steadily declining. The short answer is simple: CGI has usurped conventional effects as the means to make the wheels on the bus go round and round, and at the moment and for the most part, CGI seems to be a lot more expensive than conventional effects.

However, it's a lot more complex than that. For starters, there's simply no precedent for some effects that are being done today, such as the shot in the new Transformers trailer where robots comet towards Earth and smash into a U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroup. In the past, the amount of sheer devastation would only have been attempted with models, at night or in space, and never would have been on water or looked one tenth as real as it does now. If someone had written that shot into a screenplay ten years ago, it would've been changed or altogether dropped. (This, of course, is overlooking the transforming and animation of the robots themselves; say what you want about Transformers, the special effects were top shelf.)

There's also the fact that people doing CGI today are still in the tail end of that specific field's vanguard; walking precedes running, and there has been a foundation of code the size of a mountain to develop particle programs (water, fire, smoke, debris), reflections, lighting, skin and cloth simulation, rag-doll effects, etc. It's not the least bit surprising that the film and video game industries are becoming more and more intertwined.

Another factor in the increased allotment of special effects bucks is the increasing number of shots with effects in them. With CGI expanding the possibilities of what can be done, filmmakers no longer concern themselves with dropping scenes deemed too complex, but instead insert scenes specifically because they want to see, and want the audience to see, something they've never seen before.

On The Phantom Menace behind the scenes DVD, George Lucas specifically states that when he came at Menace knowing what the new effects technology could potentially do, he immediately thought that they needed a race, not that, “I'm so relieved that we can finally do the race that I always had planned”. Whether The Phantom Menace is a
Impossible without today's filmmaking technology.

Impossible without today's filmmaking technology.
swell movie or not is irrelevant in the face that this is a piss poor reason to put something in a movie.

I imagine that Steven Spielberg, who stated his reason for wanting to make Jurassic Park was that he wanted to see Jurassic Park, wanted to see Jurassic Park for the same reason that I did, to see better looking dinosaurs than the stop-action ones of our youths. Now imagine that Jurassic Park, nor any dinosaur equivalent film, hadn't been made yet, but Spielberg wanted so badly to see dinosaurs that he put one in Saving Private Ryan. It's not as bad as that, but it's like that. Kevin Smith's story about John Peters and his desire to see Superman fight a giant spider, eventually seen in the Wild Wild West, also comes to mind.

I want to be clear that I'm not stating that I think older films are better than newer ones, in fact I usually favor contemporary films over ‘classics'. However, the new technology of filmmaking, not just CGI but also non-linear editing and color correction, does allow filmmakers to be less precise and organized during preproduction and production. If you watch behind the scenes footage as much as I do, how many times have you heard a director state, “We'll just fix it in post”? Lighting doesn't match? No problem, just adjust it in a computer in post. Actor can't be there on that day? Just shoot his or her footage separately and composite them into the frame after the fact. Stuntman can't land the flip? Just use a computer generated stunt double.

I'm not knocking the use of the available tools to achieve the desired effect. The new technology is convenient and, more importantly, it's safer (consider that, were it shot today, the helicopter that crashed killing three people on the set of Twilight Zone: the Movie would be a composite shot or entirely computer generated). I am, however, wondering if some of the rapidly inflating budgets are perhaps overinflated by virtue of crappy producer oversight and general filmmaking laziness.

When considering budgetary inflation in filmmaking, one of the tricky things is the old adage of comparing apples to oranges. For instance, aside from a handful of spikes like Town and Country, romantic comedies have been rather consistent from the standpoint of budget. Science fiction and fantasy films are
No money left for actual shot of Daniel Craig.

No money left for actual shot of Daniel Craig.
generally going through the roof. Horror is almost always rated R and has lower returns, so aside from the occasional I Am Legend, horror has been very judicious. War movies are hit and miss, depending on what aspects are under focus.

One apple that exists to be compared to itself is the James Bond franchise, which ranges from Dr. No (1963), shot for $1 million ($7 million, adjusted for inflation), to Quantum of Solace (2008), shot for an eye-popping, and James Bond chart-topping, adjusted or otherwise, $230 million. Just two years prior to Quantum of Solace, Casino Royale was shot for less than half (and grossed about $30 million dollars more worldwide). Why the staggering budgetary increase? I'm not saying that it's a bad movie, but for more than twice the price, is Quantum of Solace twice the movie as Casino Royale?

This isn't the only franchise where one has to consider whether or not an increased budget is warranted or even desirable. In adjusted dollars, the entire original Star Wars Trilogy was shot for about the same, $150 million, as what it cost to shoot just Phantom Menace. Again in adjusted dollars, Alien, Aliens, and Predator were all shot for around $30 million dollars each, while Predator 2 cost about $55 million and the other sequels, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, and Alien versus Predator, have cost about $80 million apiece. In the case of the Alien and Predator franchises, the box office receipts have steadily declined.

This brings me to my next point. Part of what gives ‘creature features' tension is not getting a good look at the beast. I used to think that this done intentionally to heighten the suspense, but if recent features are any indication, were Jaws made by most of today's filmmakers, it'd be Deep Blue Sea. Seriously, it wouldn't be that bad, but you'd probably see the shark chewing on the skinny-dipper during the opening credits. Remember, in Jaws, the big thing was that they couldn't get the shark to work. Like Lucas not having the money to do exactly what he wanted with Star Wars in 1977, maybe the damn thing breaking made it a better movie; I'm pretty sure it did.

So to recap, these budgetary explosions are the result of more expensive to animate
The shark finally working right, the <I>Jaws</I> franchise really took off.

The shark finally working right, the Jaws franchise really took off.
something that can be done live, more ambitious (unrealistic?) action sequences to utilize the growing technology, inefficient use of the tools, including laziness and poor preparation.

What does it all mean?

I think it would behoove Hollywood to tighten the reigns a little bit, hire directors that have a track record of getting a lot of mileage out of smaller budgets, and don't disregard efficiency simply because you can. I don't think that the only meaningful work is or has to be low-budget independent film, but the seemingly cavalier disregard with which some Hollywood productions throw around money is quite frankly appalling. I mean, instead of $230 million for Quantum of Solace, we're saying that there wasn't a workable James Bond script that could've been shot for $150 million, leaving $80 million to be distributed amongst other worthy, lower-budget ideas?

One of the things that I believe about creativity in general is that true creativity is not about being bigger, better, faster, or weirder, but in the ability to work within a framework, constraint, and/or deadline and be interesting, tense, purposeful, and on point; less can be, and often is, more. Just as a painter is limited by his canvas, filmmakers should be limited by a budget. The budget defines the parameters and forces the storyteller, in this case the director, to weigh the value of each moment, to determine what's absolutely vital to tell the story. Big action sequences for the sake of big action sequences should be thrown by the wayside, while more attention should be paid to the truly pivotal showdowns and battles.

A lot of filmmakers have rued the day that the corporations took over Hollywood, while the corporations have done little to win favor with the creative talent with various property rights shenanigans, mismanaged market research, and the hoarding of wealth and power. Though they don't like to admit it, I think both groups benefit from working together. Creative people are the fuel for the engine obviously, but thinking about money means thinking about the audience which means thinking about accessibility; there are plenty of ‘creative' people out there that would love nothing more than a blank check to tell you about their dream last night. The problem with that is that in most cases it'll end up as coherent as the drunkest chick at a frat party.

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Figure it out.


Other Columns
Other columns by Thom Williams:

To Bear the Arms Right

Be All You Can Be

Hell Lost

Mean Teen Wrecking Machine

Never Go Full Retard

All Columns


Thom Williams
Thom is both a maker and lover of films. He loves, and makes, films of all kinds. He is often as surprised by what he likes as by what he creates himself; Thom entered film school with a distaste for silent, black and white, and foreign films, yet left having made one of each. He likes what he likes and make no apologies for his opinions.


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