FX Game Changer?

'Star Wars' sequel promises old-school sci-fi

“Star Wars” fans failed to embrace the saga’s three prequels for many reasons — indifferent acting, clunky dialogue and, of course, Jar Jar Binks. They also thought franchise founder George Lucas relied too heavily on computer-generated effects.

Director J.J. Abrams, tasked with rebooting the franchise, vowed to take that last criticism to heart. Boy, did he.

The just-wrapped San Diego Comic-Con featured a 3-plus minute peek behind the making of “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.” The assembled geekdom didn’t see much in the way of new footage. Instead, they got a taste of the old-school effects powering the project. Rubber masks. Actors wearing alien costumes. Life-sized replicas of some of the series’ most beloved “toys.”

In short, Abrams kept true to his word about using “practical effects” in the hotly anticipated sequel. Will an FX revolution follow?

Tony Hudson, a 20-year veteran of Industrial Light & Magic, said computer graphics aren’t ready for the ash heap of history quite yet. Luke, Leia and Han Solo will fight the dark side of the Force this December with plenty of digital help. It’s simply a matter of how much computer graphic work is required to cast a cinematic spell.

“Everyone seems to forget that CG is just a tool,” Hudson said.

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So why the backlash over computer generated wizardry? Hudson blames storytellers looking to paper over problems with ones and zeroes.

… the consumer tide is turning against computer-generated visuals.

“Filmmakers and especially studios have gotten into the habit of using visual effects in post-production as a crutch to allow them to suspend decision-making to an incredibly unhealthy degree,” he said. “They can’t decide what they want the world to look like so they’ll just ‘add it in [post-production].’”

“Other times they can’t even wait on the script, so they just map out some action sequences … and go into production against a green screen and hope the story catches up with them,” Hudson said.  “In the course of this, the visual effects lose their grounding in reality”

The results? Movies focusing on whiz-bang effects, not stories and characters that touch our hearts.

Erik Davis, managing editor at Fandango.com, said the consumer tide is turning against computer-generated visuals. And while “The Force Awakens” will be the year’s most overt ad for practical effects many movie goers already saw them in action.

Today’s storytellers grew up watching practical effects in action.

“Mad Max Fury Road” had tons of practical effects. That was a big thing they talked about … they built all those vehicles,” Davis said.

One reason Davis predicts a return to tactile effects comes down to our collective past. Today’s storytellers grew up watching practical effects in action. The idea that a pivotal character, like crusty counselor Yoda from the “Star Wars” franchise, could be a puppet doesn’t seem far-fetched to them.

Abrams and Disney, the driving forces behind the new “Star Wars” film, also understand how important it is to bring the older generation of fans back to theaters for the sequel. After all, that group now has children curious to see what the Force fuss is all about.

Hudson saw Lucas up close during his FX career. He came away with the impression that the filmmaker wanted to expand the boundaries of film and give the trilogy its own creative stamp.

“I do think that was what he had in mind after living with ‘Star Wars’ for 30 years and wanting something different,” said Hudson, who worked briefly on “The Phantom Menace” along with many other films. “He also had a young son at that time, and I really think [the child] was primarily on his mind rather than, say, me.”

Hudson cautioned those who think practical effects alone will ensure “The Force Awakens” lives up to the massive hype.

“Rubber masks do not equal fantastic characters. For every Yoda there is John Carl Buechler’s ‘Troll,'” he said, referring to the 1986 sci-fi dud.

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