Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hank McCoy (Before the Fur)

Recently, I read a report that Kevin Smith visited the set of the new Star Wars movie. He said good things. If I read his meaning correctly, it seemed to me that Smith was saying that it felt like they had been hard at work. He used words like 'tangible' and emphasized that he didn't see any green screens. This is incredibly enticing to me.

A few weeks ago I got into it with a friend about special effects. Now, I love awesome special effects. I'm not saying that movies like The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and others don't dazzle me. They do. But see, Star Wars did a little certain something that made it beloved to us. Well, I mean, it did a lot of things that made it beloved to us, but I'm referring to one aspect of why it was beloved to us that I bet we don't even stop and reflect on that much.

I admit, seeing George Lucas go crazy with CGI was impressive in some ways. It's cool to see his vision of the Star Wars universe realized in a way that it couldn't have been realized before. But one of the things that made the original Star Wars great? Besides the music, the epic story and the action?

Two words: models and puppets.

That's right--they build every spaceship and imperial walker in the movies. Tiny models. And they designed every costume, every weird suit an actor had to wear in order to look like an alien. And see, because of that Star Wars felt real. I'm serious. I don't just mean you were a kid and you were totally awed by it and now you've grown up, seen a billion movies and you're like "yeah, yeah, seen it before." I mean somewhere beyond the laws of time and space Star Wars felt as if it had actually happened. It was like you were watching something that felt true, as strange as that was.

And a big part of the reason Star Wars felt that way was Yoda.

Yoda was a puppet and could never embody the amazing animated figure he's become these days. Still, there was something about seeing Luke there with Yoda. Physically. It was like Luke could reach out and grab him. The strange irony is, the lower budget special effects made Star Wars feel more tangible, more accessible. Again, not saying new Star Wars doesn't look cool, but there's just so much going on special effects wise in every shot that you're left sort of feeling like this couldn't exist. Not in real life. And even though the old Star Wars never really existed in real life either, you just sort of believed. Hoth felt like a place that the camera crew had traveled to for Empire Strikes Back. The sets, the costumes, the puppets, the felt real because they built Star Wars, not animated it (most of it, anyway).

You might think I'm writing about Lucas, whom I love, despite many who have decried him in his later years. Believe it or not, I set out to write about Jim Henson. Without Henson there wouldn't be the renaissance of fantasy movies and pop culture that there is now. You heard me. Henson paved the way for Lucas, J. K. Rowling, Peter Jackson and countless others. This was the guy who didn't just imagine worlds. He built them.

Recently, I rewatched a few episodes of the Muppet Show. I'm so impressed by how well it holds up. It still makes me laugh out loud. And what kills me is how many impressive celebrities made appearances, from Jon Cleese to Peter Seller. See, in a time when CGI didn't exist, Henson brought fantasy to life and it must have been hard work. Somehow, you briefly find yourself suspending your disbelief and the muppets feel real. Somehow, it feels like they exist and are the actors and not the puppeteers (who, presumably, are hard working and incredibly under-appreciated). The muppets are just one example. Fraggle Rock, Dark Crystal, Labyrinth and--for the super-hardcore Henson fan--Jim Henson's The Storyteller are great examples of how Henson brought fantasy to life.

I don't mean for this to be one of those things where I sit around as a crochety old man and always complain about how much better the old days were. I'm impressed with the new days. I love video games. I love seeing Optimus Prime brought to life. I'm psyched for Rocket Racoon in Guardians of the Galaxy. It's okay for things to change. What I'm going to say is that there was this certain time in film and television when there was a certain way that things were done that will never exist again--at least not that way. I think the new Muppet movies are excellent and I'm psyched to hear about the Star Wars set. All I'm saying is that the era of special effects that at the time captured our imaginations and did more with less in making things feel real and tangible has come and gone.

If the new Star Wars can capture any of that old feel I'll be even more psyched.


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