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Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Cast of Thousands

A dear friend of mine, recently laid off from her usual job at an ABC hit show, was lucky enough to get a gig propping an action movie. Monday, she told me with some trepidation, 1,000 “background” (that’s extras to you and I) are needed on set for a huge crowd scene. It’s going to be one long day on that set.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz (CLEOPATRA) and Cecil B. DeMille (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS) were known for (among other things) casting literally thousands of extras for the crowd scenes in their epic movies. They had to – how else could deMille depict an Egyptian army racing after those crazy Red Sea pedestrians? How else could Mankiewicz capture the grandeur of Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome? Of course, we all know how well that movie did.

But these days, for the most part, crowd scenes are CGI. Computer generated. Sometimes it works, meaning the viewer is half-fooled and half too entertained to care – for me, that would be LORD OF THE RINGS. Other times, it’s just so obvious that it really takes away from the movie – for me that would be THE SCORPION KING. Of course, with the latter, my reaction, I think, was to the entire movie, and it was cumulatively negative.

300 had massive CGI, as do most epic movies today. GLADIATOR had a great deal of CGI but when it mattered – in the gladiator ring – the crowds were a mix of real and CGI and it was good enough for me.

It’s been interesting to note the modest box office returns for BEOWULF, a movie made with Image Capture, a confusing (to me) method in which actors are suited up with teeny little sensors and then act against a blue screen. Or something. POLAR EXPRESS was made using this methodology and apparently had some pretty disappointing box office returns to show for it.

I guess the Wave-inatrix is old school but the "we-wease Wogah" scene from THE LIFE OF BRIAN is funnier because of the several hundred extras assembled on the hot, dusty set. Perhaps for me it is a call back to being in high school plays and being one of the crowd in Brigadoon and Hello, Dolly! The makeup, the giggling, the costumes, the singing and shouting or moving as one - all as a backdrop to the larger story. Today, little of that is necessary. Budget constraints make it costly and difficult to have 1,000 extras on a set. CGI is the more dramatic, cheaper solution.

But what of the action movie I mentioned above? With their cast of 1,000 extras? Well, that was a scene shot in the "US Congress" so CGI wouldn't have captured the individual faces and personages voting and clamoring or whatever they had to do.

Do Rouge Wavers know that there are actually "background directors"? Just before a television scene begins to shoot - say, in a busy cafe or hospital - the background director shouts ACTION to the background (extras) and they start pouring coffee and opening envelopes or whatever they need to be doing a few seconds before the director of the episode shouts ACTION to the main cast. It's interesting to hang around and watch the extras saying "watermelon, watermelon, watermelon" to simulate real conversation. But I digress.

So I ask Rouge Wavers - can too much CGI or other technology in a movie (such as Motion Capture) distance audiences from the material? Does it distance you – or does it add to the magic of the movies?

ShowHype: hype it up!

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Raven said...

Motion capture is enough to keep me away. I can handle live action and I can handle animation, but motion capture is something in-between, and I'm not down with it. Maybe part of the problem is I simply don't see the point. You've got the actors right there. Just do it live action already!

Tavis said...

The worst use of CGI I've ever seen was in Attack of the Clones when there was a CGI lens flair over a very CGI landscape shot. Isn't that kind of contradictory?

Anonymous said...

I'm with raven. I can handle pure animation, and pure CGI, and live-action. But the in-between just freaks me out. Sonny from I, Robot is one thing, but an entire film like Beowulf? Seems silly and pointless to me. And it pulls me out of the story because I'm so focused on how sort-of fake and sort-of real the characters look.

Steve Axelrod said...

CGI is awful. It doesn't look real. It looks like holograms of real things. Lucas is a good example. He actually visited the extraordinary exterior set for Gangs of New York and supposedly said something condescending to Scorcese about how antiquated the whole construction was. I guess he thought that was the last time anyone would bother, now that we have the 'magic' of CGI. To me the real magic is the world that a team of artisans created out of brick and lumber. None of these cheesy fake settings in Star Wars even approach the grandeur of Scorcese's 19th Century New York. One can only hope that Lucas was wrong.

Christian M. Howell said...

CGI is great on everything except human skin. It doesn't have pores and wrinkles don't really wrinkle.

Now for buildings, fantasy creatures, etc CGI is why I go to the movies.

Best CGI: Revenge of The Sith
Worst CGI: A Sound Of Thunder

The Style Bard said...

Hire the extras! Let some ambitious kids get work.