Kurt
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I just heard the sad news for the industry that Kerner Optical's Model Shop is closing its doors. The Kerner Optical model shop is what became of the Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) model shop when ILM moved to the Presidio and went all digital. When you think of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and even Galaxy Quest, it is very often the props and models that these guys made that you think of.

No one died, but for many of us in the industry (and possibly for fans as well) it feels as if someone did. I have moved from sympathy to empathy with the fantasy and western tales that deal with the end of magic and the great adventure of the wild west.

I know that many of us grew up with imaginations fueled by their work, and I think much of their work still looks better after all these years than much of the digital work these days. They were also the primariy inspiration that drove me to the career I have now in animation.

I put together a blog post on what they meant to me and what an honor it was to work along side of them, even briefly:
http://www.galaxy12.com/archives/206
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J Boyes
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Because who wants things to look good in movies? We have CG for that now.
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Chris Tannhauser
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Everyone knows computers were invented so talking babies could sell you stuff.
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Walt
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And Lucas continues to muck around with their legacy. shake

Still, especially in the commercial arena, you can't stop progress. CGI is inevitably replacing models just as computer telephone operators replaced human operators. ("One ringy-dingy, two ringy-dingy.... Is this the party to whom I am speaking?")

Sure it's Art. I miss the Gerry Anderson style. (Though until they started being filmed, making models was just a hobby.) But cave paintings were art, too, currently out of fashion. Maybe next year everyone will want a monolith or a little cave with paintings in their gardens. After garden gnomes, who knows? So, model making will have to survive like oil paintings or lithographs: individual artists creating for individual collectors; no more media-driven profits.

I regret that fair use only allows parodies. You can make Spaceballs, but you can't make a respectful tribute or artistic interpretation of Star Wars without Lucas' permission. Maybe we need mandatory licensing as we do for music: send Lucas ten or twenty percent of your retail sales, and you're licensed under fair use.
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Kurt
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You are correct to an extent. The market doesn't want it anymore, and this model work has become obsolete in the minds of many producers (who hold the money). As you said, it will become the sole domain of a few hold out companies, specialists, and indie artists.

The misconception is that practical models and FX are more expensive. It isn't. It isn't necessarily cheaper either, (though if you were talking value to quality, one could argue that it is in the right place).

Where it is different is where you put the cost:

In practical model making and SFX, the money was spent up front in planning, research and generally understanding what you were going to end up with before you started. Generally speaking you had very limited time and money to 'try things out' and had to make sure you were doing it right the first time.

CG on the other hand appears cheaper up front because you can jump right in and start noodling around with things. However, to get things looking 'real' (which inherently is part of the proces in model making and practical FX) is very expensive, from both a worker time frame as well as computer hardware and usage perspective.

Further, any savings you might have gotten are often lost because no or very little time was spent (relatively speaking) in coming up with the best idea first. Many times I've seen ideas that were 'finaled' go back to the drawing board, almost all the way back to the beginning of the process, because the director knew he could still change things, and was using the 'ease' of CG work.

They would make changes and feel out the movie they wanted to make in the process of making it, rather than making a solid decision up front. Sometimes this worked very well, often it didn't. Financially, I believe it's as much a gamble as hoping a practical effect would work as planned, but without the 'bonus modifiers' to the cohesion of the film as a whole that came from planning things out before you got started.

In my opinion and experience, CG is often treated as a crutch for directors who lack a cohesive vision and use it to make up for a lack of creative vision and forethought. "We'll fix it in post." This is as much a criticism of the industry in general as it is the FX realm. Less thought and more money go into making movies than ever before. It's just how it is.

Ideally, things would have gone the direction of Galaxy Quest that brilliantly blended CG FX work and practical models, using both to their advantages. Fortunately, Weta is still doing this and a handful of other places as well, because it just makes sense, both from a financial and quality perspective.

Given all that, I hold little bitterness towards 'the men with the money'. It's not much of a surprise and has been slowly creeping towards an end since the early 90's. I just feel a sadness at the passing of an era that had a profound effect on my childhood and my career.
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Walt
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kdiddy13 wrote:
In practical model making and SFX, the money was spent up front in planning, research and generally understanding what you were going to end up with before you started. Generally speaking you had very limited time and money to 'try things out' and had to make sure you were doing it right the first time.

Really, I think this is the case throughout engineering: do it right or do it over. Unless you're building yet another "Bridge, Railroad, Trestle, 100 foot," you have to design or improvise. Nearly all the projects you see going over budget are failures to design. (A lot can be attributed to low-balling estimates to get contracts, but that's the fault of the buyer for not insisting on and reviewing a design.)

kdiddy13 wrote:
In my opinion and experience, CG is often treated as a crutch for directors who lack a cohesive vision and use it to make up for a lack of creative vision and forethought. "We'll fix it in post." This is as much a criticism of the industry in general as it is the FX realm. Less thought and more money go into making movies than ever before. It's just how it is.

But that's true of many aspects. "An airplane flew over--we'll fix it in post (re-dub it)." If you have a good design/plan you're working towards, this can still work well.

kdiddy13 wrote:
Ideally, things would have gone the direction of Galaxy Quest that brilliantly blended CG FX work and practical models, using both to their advantages.

I'll give you another exemplar, sadly ignored. Babylon 5. The last great hope for responsible production. They worked at a much smaller budget than the contemporaneous Star Trek episodes, and they came in underbudget because everything was planned to maximize production efficiency. Sets were set up and torn down once per ep, no more. CGI wasn't ready for everything they wanted to do, but they did a lot with it. They had battles I'm not sure were equaled even in the Star Wars prequels.

Still, they also did a lot of CGI doodling, some of which showed up in establishing shots, which were never repeated. A running gag was that the ep after a space battle would have a hazmat platform somewhere in the establishing shot of the station, cleaning up from the battle.

Sadly, the lessons B5 taught about how to make high value SF were apparently ignored and lost.

kdiddy13 wrote:
Given all that, I hold little bitterness towards 'the men with the money'. It's not much of a surprise and has been slowly creeping towards an end since the early 90's. I just feel a sadness at the passing of an era that had a profound effect on my childhood and my career.

I hear you. When I heard the Star Wars models were made by cannibalizing naval models--well, if I had the least aptitude in that line, I would have dropped a lot of money at my local hobby store.

(The trouble with Lego is, it always ends up looking like Lego.)
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Tall_Walt, I agree with you on all points (and I'm enjoying the conversation with you). Used responsibly and with proper planning, it doesn't matter what the tools are. Improvising when in doubt can work wonderfully, even during the hay-days of models. The happy accident.

The cry of "fix it in post" is sadly often used as a different way of saying "I don't know what I want, but we can add what ever we want afterwards." But yes, there are plenty of times when you've planned ahead and the only thing you CAN do is fix it post.

Film making is a very complicated process, and no amount of planning will ever cover everything that comes up. Fortunately, CG tools have made it far easier than ever before to help fix when things go south (an the always do). Unfortunately, there are some in the industry that use the ease of these tools as a replacement for planning and problem solving. I think in many cases the results are fairly obvious.

On the topic of why we shouldn't always jump to fixing it in post: What if Bruce the shark had worked as planned in Jaws? Or they had simply been able to replace it with a digital double? My guess is that it's one of those happy accidents that ended up making for a better film due to the on set problem solving of talented film crew.
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If you guys are really interested in this topic, I highly recommend you check out Ray Harryhausen's an Animated Life. In particular the intro.

In it he suggests that stop motion (although I think it could be extrapolated to include practical FX) has a dream like quality that the realism of CG misses out on. Because the monsters don't move with incredible precision and realistic detail in stop motion, they automatically remove themselves from reality. The result is that your brain immediately doesn't try to reconcile with 'what is wrong with this' and just goes along for the ride.

I believe he's extrapolating, even unintentionally, the phenomenon of the uncannny valley. That is, the closer we get to reality, and still fall short, the more our brain rebels against it, drawing us out of the experience.

I think I agree, but I'm wondering if you could still make that sale to audiences on a large scale today. In the realm of 'opening weekends' deciding a film or video game's success rate, routinely "they" will choose bigger and flasher first, with quality often (not always) being a secondary consideration. Again pointing us back to the earlier point that this idea/technique is likely going to remain the domain of the museum, and indy artist.

Anyway it's a very interesting read, and an inspiration to me as I'm going to be dropping the CG stuff for an indy project I'm working on in favor of trying my hand at some stop motion work. I don't need a calling card to get in to the industry anymore, and I might as well have fun with it and enjoy what I'm doing. Plus, I've always wanted to do some stop motion work.
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kdiddy13 wrote:
I think I agree, but I'm wondering if you could still make that sale to audiences on a large scale today. In the realm of 'opening weekends' deciding a film or video game's success rate, routinely "they" will choose bigger and flasher first, with quality often (not always) being a secondary consideration. Again pointing us back to the earlier point that this idea/technique is likely going to remain the domain of the museum, and indy artist.

I'm not sure about, "The closer you get, the further away you are," but maybe I'm too used to computer game approximations. I will agree that the dumb little Choplifter sprites were just fine: they got the game across, and that's all that was needed. We see a lot of this in web games: just enough graphics to get the point across.

I think what fails, and another thing B5 did well, is when CGI things don't match real people--then you get cognitive dissonance. All CGI like Polar Express or Roughneck Chronicles works, at least for me. When care is taken to match CGI and people well, as in B5 or Sanctuary, I think that works. A real fail--with miniatures--was Indiana Jones II; the scale of the miniature mine car they cut to was ridiculous! If it was larger than HO scale, I'd be shocked. I think what made the Harryhausen stuff work okay was that monsters stayed stop-motion and people stayed people: a clean divide, where you suspended disbelief in the monsters in multiple ways. (I saw these as Saturday matinees when I was growing up.)

I think stop-motion is still viable: look at Aardman Studios. (The Chevron ads, Wallace & Gromit etc.) Although, seeing Curse of the Wererabbit in a cinema was maybe a little too high resolution: seeing fingerprints on Gromit's muzzle was definitely cognitive dissonance.
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I came across this stop-motion Vimeo, by a fan of the Johnny Quest series:
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One thing to note in this whole conversation is that there is also a difference between CGI effects that are created with motion capture, and those created by animators frame-by-frame... the latter still carries the potential to capture that "dreamlike" status. Although that would not be a given, of course.

I personally think that we've done ourselves no favors in eliminating the flicker from the moviegoing experience. By engaging that part of the brain that fills in the blanks, we have a different, and in my mind more "movie-magic-friendly" experience with film than with flicker-free digital display.
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I believe you when you say it doesn't bother you, but you may be in the minority when it comes to believability and The Polar Express. Although for many it may come out more as "There's something not right" rather than "That's really awful." Anyway, here's more info on the "Uncanny Valley" if you were interested:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley

I totally agree on the flicker in film. There have been studies done on this and the effect it has on brain waves (as opposed to television) but I couldn't find any links. Mostly, they support what you're saying.
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OTOH, flicker is extremely annoying, if not painful, to some people, even if it's faster than epileptic-fit frequency. Some people had problems with 60 cycle per second fluorescent lights, though I suspect they've gone to longer-lighting phosphors now. (I once synced a white stripe on a rotating wheel to 60 cycles, and the dim parts of the fluorescent lights were very dim, indeed.) While you may not consciously perceive the flicker, your neurons are fast enough to detect it, even if you cognitively filter it out.

Polar Express had problems other than CGI, in my opinion.

Try to find Roughneck Chronicles if you like Robert A. Heinlein. In spirit, I think it's the best attempt at Starship Troopers, even if it doesn't get into the book's political theories. (To be sure, I respect the opinion that something that avoids the political theories cannot possibly be a good adaption of ST.)
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