Special Report By Scott Essman
At a recent Hollywood event, some information came to light that the new WOLF MAN movie has beautiful makeup work by Rick Baker's team and a great performance by Benicio del Toro, but that the filmmakers are in the throes of determining how to cinematically transition from shots of Benicio as the forlorn Larry Talbot without makeup to shots of him as the Wolf Man (and back). Baker's work on the film has been finished for seven months and is surely another supreme notch in his belt of masterworks. But his skills were reportedly not utilized for any transformation scenes.
All of which leads inquiring minds to believe that the transformation work, if anything substantial, will be achieved by that popular pinch-hitter, computer-generated imagery.
Pardon the analogy... but a CGI man-to-wolf transition is about as exciting as a fully-clothed centerfold. The problem is that CGI can be visually stunning, but it is rarely funny, seldom memorable, and never scary. It's just the nature of that particular beast. The CG man-wolf transformations in VAN HELSING were empty eye candy. In the UNDERWORLD films, the were spectacular but forgettable. In AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS they were dismissible. But who can forget the transformations in CAT PEOPLE (1982), THE HOWLING or AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON? All done practically and all groundbreaking - and, dare I say, none have been surpassed. They were certainly a huge improvement on the red makeup/filter transitions in the 1932 DR JEKYLL and MR HYDE and the lap dissolves of Jack Pierce and John Fulton in 1941 THE WOLF MAN and its sequels. But the next level has not yet been reached.
CGI doesn't work well when overused in a live-action scenario to fully replace live-action elements. Certainly, in THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON CGI enhanced and/or manipulated Greg Cannom's beautiful old-age makeups to the total benefit of the film. Cannom deserved his Oscar and the film works well for its implementation of CG with live action. CG was stupendous in JURASSIC PARK as it was matched seamlessly with Stan Winston's actual-size practical dinosaurs. And, of course, it is lovingly used by Pixar et al in wholly computer-animated films. The problem is that when it is used in a live-action film, it is more often misused than aesthetically used in a productive manner.
Filmmakers of late seem to resort to CG as their primary go-to technology when achieving a particular effect in a film over older methods such as modelmaking, pyrotechnics, and makeup effects. But why? Because it is a new technique? Surely, nascent technologies are exciting and have limitless possibilities. But these producers, directors, and visual effects supervisors need to be reminded of the adage, "just because you can doesn't mean you should."
Until the computer-based technology is more aesthetically pleasing and enhances the storytelling ability in greater stead than traditional techniques, it must be relegated to secondary status in lieu of its current primary status. Surely George Lucas would not agree, but few classic Star Wars fans prefer his recent trilogy of films when compared to the originals. Sometimes the original method, regardless of new innovations, is truly the best.