Are practical effects getting a reboot?
In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, accomplished director John Carpenter hinted at a future sequel for his cult classic The Thing. Although he hasn’t sat in the directing chair since 2001’s Ghost of Mars, Carpenter has been busy scoring films and touring with his music which is every bit as haunting as his famous theme for 1978’s Halloween.
Known for his spectacular practical effects on limited budgets, Carpenter might feel out of place in a world of filmmaking that relies heavily on green screens and visual effects. Would he embrace these new advances or pave the way to return to simple and real filmmaking?
The influence of visual effects on modern cinema has not left anyone short of words. Perhaps no other film series has inspired more heated discussion than George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel series, particularly Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. With almost every scene filmed in front of, at the time, revolutionary green screens, the fans had a lot to say.
Twenty years later, technology has evolved. It is sophisticated, realistic, and costly. While the green screen as we know it hasn’t entirely disappeared, its successor is much more intimidating. The Volume is one such example: a large LED screen wraps around the stage, generating a background in real-time. Its most significant difference from a green screen is that actors and the production crew actually get to see the world they inhabit. It’s like a set… but not.
The Volume was used extensively on the upcoming reboot The Batman. But this type of LED wall is no stranger to the sci-fi fantasy world. For example, an earlier version called StageCraft was used when making Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the perfected version on the popular series The Mandalorian. For the latter series, the cost of the LED wall amounted to 100 million.
Staging a New Direction
These LED walls have changed how films are shot. Twenty feet tall, 270 degrees, and 75 feet across, this mammoth screen is an outlier in the competitive world of VFX. “The filmmaker can design and scout in advance of the shoot,” according to Industrial Light and Magic, thus allowing them to “capture that vision in-camera during principal photography.”
To call it just another green screen would not do this advancement justice. The StageCraft Volume technology ILM developed allows for shorter shoots, eliminates on-location footprints, and decreases post-production edits.
Additionally, they reshape the way we approach technical effects and acting methodologies. Because the actors are no longer standing in front of a boring green screen and are instead immersed in the actual world of the scene, they get more opportunities to deeply embody their characters.
“That 3D scene is directly affected by the movements and settings of the camera,” explains TechCrunch. “If the camera moves to the right, the image alters just as if it were a real scene.”
So how exactly does the technology work? LED walls use photogrammetry: the process of extracting 3D information from photographs. This process prevents the screens from looking like video game backgrounds and will hopefully keep the practical effects loyalists somewhat appeased. We’ve come a long way from Revenge of the Sith.
Despite the costliness, it's expected to save studios and productions money over time. Once you have this LED wall, you have it forever.
Although 2022’s The Batman uses the Volume for most of its depiction of Gotham City, the filmmakers still had to rely on practical effects when shooting the iconic Batmobile. This choice reveals some of the limitations of an LED wall.
“We didn’t use it in the Batmobile chase because you couldn’t really take a Batmobile and move it through a Volume,” explains director Matt Reeves. He takes pride in his incorporation of practical effects but is quick to say that the fans might get it wrong when guessing what is real and what is computer-generated.
An incendiary sequence shows the Batmobile flying through fire, something Reeves promises the audience was a real shot, even if he speculates fans won’t believe it.
Why did The Batman have to turn to practical effects when filming this complex chase sequence if the Volume can do almost anything? Its shortcomings are simple: its height limits and setting off explosives near the screen run the risk of damaging it.
Will these sequences clash with the visual effects? One thing is for sure: the fandom will have something to say about it, and their reactions could shape the trajectory of The Batman’s future.
LED walls like the Volume may represent the latest and greatest of tech developments, immersing us further in a world of virtual reality. Still, its structure has been as much a part of Hollywood as lights, cameras, and action. A large screen projector is something you will find in films going back to the silent era. Even 1966’s Batman uses a screen projector.
Could there be a resurgence of small-budget films dependent on practical effects? An LED wall might save money long term, but it requires a big budget deposit that might not be possible for most films.
And what about the fans?
In a Hollywood dominated by reboots, requels, and remakes, nostalgia is always at the forefront of filmmaking. If the fans demand a return to practical effects, it is possible Hollywood’s dependence on the Volume or StageCraft could wane. And with groundbreaking directors like Carpenter dipping their toes back into movie making, a simpler approach could be possible.
However, if the financial benefits stay the same or grow, VFX may become an impregnable force on how we watch and make movies.
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Featured Image Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment.
Justin McDevitt is a playwright and essayist from New York City. His latest play HAUNT ME had its first public reading at Theater for the New City in September. He is a contributor for RUE MORGUE where he lends a queer eye to horror cinema in his column STAB ME GENTLY.