Creating a Monster: Practical vs. CGI
By, Kristin Grady
Monsters make or break a horror movie. Often the title characters, a stampede of fantastical creatures have rampaged across the cinematic landscape, trampling the lines between villains and heroes. Compelling monsters are sympathetic, have anthropomorphic features, and have evolved alongside filmmaking technology. Special effects don’t need to be spectacular to get an audience emotionally invested. Old-school techniques, though quaint-looking in the future, were as impressive as they were inventive for the time. Elaborate sets, props, and costumes are being pushed behind a green screen, but does that make them better? Subjective as it seems, the most memorable movie monsters were crafted by human hands. Are we losing these stunning feats of artistic engineering in a sea of pixels or are we just learning to wield the sharpest tool in the box?
King Kong and Godzilla
The concept of a giant animal attacking a city has kept special effects artists employed since talkies were first introduced. In the early 20th century, dinosaurs and gorillas had only recently been discovered and to the uneducated eye, these animals looked like evil, ferocious, bloodthirsty beasts. That perception was projected onto the big screen in the form of King Kong and Godzilla, two of the most world-famous monsters in film history. The technology used to create these movie behemoths has been updated as our knowledge of their basis grows.
King Kong creator Merian C. Cooper wanted to bring an actual gorilla to Komodo, make it fight a dragon, and film it. When that proved unfeasible, King Kong (1933) was brought to life using brand-new stop motion animation techniques, painstakingly constructed over several months, shooting an 18-inch-tall puppet running amok at 1/24th of a second at a time. Rear-projection and scale models make this t-rex fight rather enthralling, from the serpentine dinosaur tail to the ape-like wrestling moves, we want Kong to win. Even though he doubles in size on the way to New York and Fay Wray’s screaming makes you hope he drops her, the Empire State Building scene has been parodied countless times since. The original King Kong is cemented firmly in our collective consciousness, due to the remarkable efforts of early filmmakers.
The 1976 version gave designers a chance to create a 40-foot-tall, 6.5 ton, animatronic gorilla. Future Oscar-winning makeup effects artist Rick Baker observed gorillas in a zoo for a few weeks before donning an ape costume and a mechanical mask for emotive close-ups. Rather than a t-rex, Kong fights a giant snake whose fangs hilariously change from 6-inch ice picks to little nubs while we’re distracted by Jessica Lange’s side-boob. Much too long after Baker wrestles a rubber Halloween decoration, Kong climbs the World Trade Center with zero long-shots showing his scale to the entire building. Overall, these updated effects were advanced for 1976, but even state-of-the-art practical effects can fall short of their inspiration.
Peter Jackson applied all of his “Lord of the Rings” technology (and credibility) to the 2005 remake, which was fairly well received by fans and critics. The 1930’s allure was cultivated around a digital ape, motion captured by Andy Serkis, the same actor who played Gollum. In what seems like an effort to wildly out-do Baker’s performance, Serkis studied gorillas in Rwanda for months to learn their behavior. New technology also captured Serkis’s facial movements and vocalizations, which were projected through speakers on set to scare the other actors. The t-rex fight (there’s two of them!) is full of heart-pounding close-calls, but the Empire State Building scene goes on for almost triple the time of the original. No one could ever accuse Peter Jackson of being concise. Just because the graphics are visually stunning doesn’t mean it’s necessary to make us sit through a 3-hour movie starring a monkey.
Cold war monster movies produced in the US always had a thinly veiled soviet villain, destroyed by our military might. In 1954, Toho studios created Gojira, the Tokyo-destroying dinosaur mutated by American nuclear tests, a haunting metaphor for atomic destruction. The beast was actor Haruo Nakajima in a 200-pound suit, knocking over intricate wooden models. Gojira inspired a shadowy, chilling presence, slowly sweeping radioactive wreckage in his wake. The Americanized Godzilla was a box office hit internationally, which was very unusual for 1950’s Japanese films.
Pre-2000’s computer graphics were nowhere near the hyper-detailed artwork being produced today, but Warner Bros. apparently took notes from the failures of the previous remake to recreate Godzilla in 2014. A distant sequel of the original, this incarnation revived the basic look of the mutated reptile, intricately rendered in modern technology. Facial expressions were added to the character, which lizards are not known for, but hey, it’s a monster movie. A most stunning visual difference from the 1954 version, Godzilla uses his radioactive breath to kill the bad guy monsters, becoming the hero. The cascade of sequels spilling from movies like King Kong and Godzilla are never rated higher than the originals because no amount of graphics can make up for the extraordinary amount of sweat equity put into their creation.
The Pinnacle of Practical Effects
An American Werewolf in London was the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Makeup, due to this two minute and forty second scene:
What makes this lycanthropic metamorphosis so stunningly horrific? Director John Landis snatched Rick Baker off The Howling to spend several painstaking months creating pneumatic/mechanical “change-o-parts” of actor David Naughton’s anatomy. David (also the character’s name) is fine one second, screaming in pain the next. The shock is almost funny until the horror of realization sets in. Landis wanted us to feel the excruciating transformation, as one would imagine such spontaneous body contortion to be. Bright lighting illuminates the tortuous process.
Close-ups of his hand lengthening, his vertebrae rising up under the skin, and his knees turning backwards generate a revolting visceral response. Amongst David’s agonized screams, popping, stretching, and cracking foley sounds over Sam Cooke’s somber rendition of “Blue Moon” feels as absurd as it is disturbing. This inexplicable 4-second shot of a Mickey Mouse figurine, right before the famous “face-extending” shot, breaks the tension just enough to heighten it:
Rick Baker reprised his werewolf-creating skills for Wolfman (2010) and won another Oscar. Benecio Del Toro in final wolf form was impressively crafted and resembled the original Lon Chaney, Jr. monster, but the digital transformation sequences were a significant let-down. The cartoony result lacked the rubbery realness that made the first sequence so memorable. When it comes to werewolves, intensive practical effects have yet to be out-done by CGI.
Frank Oz: Master of Puppets
Little Shop of Horrors (1960) became a cult classic despite the laughably fake-looking effects. Puppetry is a malleable art form, but the two halves of the plant don’t even move in sync with the words “Feed me”, let alone explain how a lip-less creature can annunciate. Such a campy b-movie had surprising moments of horror amongst the silly attempts at dark comedy. The ending where the faces of Audrey 2’s victims bloom on sunflower spawn is by far more disturbing than the remake, which was overall a better film.
Frank Oz pulled in his Jim Henson connections to recreate the carnivorous plant in 1986. New Audrey 2 had sinuous vines and leaves, a human-like mouth, and a sinister seductive quality. The director’s commentary explains how the foam-rubber puppet didn’t move fast enough to seem alive, so the solution was to film at 16 frames per second and speed it up to 24 frames per second in editing. Pre-CGI directors had to implement such clever solutions, which are often foisted onto digital artists in modern times. In order to match the speed of the plant, Rick Moranis had to act (and sing) in slow motion. The veins on his neck strain to hold this high note for much longer than we see on screen:
The Future: Digital and Practical Melange
Will CGI eventually replace all practical effects despite rampant criticism of the practice? Rendering remarkable characters on a screen can be as intensive as fabricating them by hand, it just puts all of the creative burden on the mind. Notorious monster-maker Guillermo Del Toro has a knack for using just enough digital enhancement to enliven their magic. This behind the scenes still from horror/fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth shows the edited-out legs of actor Doug Jones inside an intricate fawn costume:
Militant horror fans tend to be numb to scares and overly-critical of special effects. Both practical and CGI have been called out as unrealistic, so there’s no way to convince everyone. Filmmakers would be wise to take notes from early horror films and stop waving cinematic challenges off to fix in post. Effects go beyond the visual and are only effective when surrounded by a well-crafted movie. Horror films of the future will either be so detailed there will be no difference from reality or Hollywood will revive the practical process, utilizing every resource to create the monsters who haunt our dreams.
Kristin Grady is a freelance writer, video editor, and graphic designer in Hollywood. Check out more content on imaginationforsale.blog!