So, it’s been a while since my last article. But I’m back. Inspired by the amazing Rogue One. I’ve now watched it 5 times, and it gets better with every viewing. As my last viewing was with most of the fine crew at Talk Star Wars it was obviously the best viewing yet. Instantly quotable, well-acted and written, edge of your seat brilliance. But the scene that made my jaw drop the most was the introduction of Tarkin.
Now I’m of such an advanced age that I saw all the original trilogy at the cinema. It inspired, not just a lifelong love of Star Wars but movies in general. I think we were the luckiest generation of cinema goers. The movies were often of exceptional quality. We queued around the block to see our favourite movie time and time again. There was no streaming. None of this ‘wait till it gets on video’ mentality (kids if you are reading this videos were the thing before DVD’s, which were before Blu-ray and before digital copies of stuff.) If you wanted to watch a movie you put in some effort and were duly rewarded. There were very few multiplexes. Cinemas were grand often old buildings. They were awesome. The thing about my generation of movie lovers is that we watched an amazing evolution of cinema. The birth of CGI. Unbeknownst to me, I saw the very first CGI interacting with actors in a movie at the cinema. The birth of CGI that has evolved over the years and culminated in the absolute masterpiece that is both Tarkin and a young (always royalty) Leia.
So, although not total Star Wars related I thought I’d look into and share a little history of CGI in the movies. I was there the entire time, were you?
Now I can’t include everything here, so any omissions are accidental and entirely my fault. I’m basing this on my memory of the movies I watched and how the effects have improved with each passing milestone and of how my mind was blown at the time.
In 1985 I went to see Young Sherlock Holmes. It was OK, but not amazing. I never did buy it on VHS in fact, and I bought some right drivel back in those days. But I enjoyed the movie when I watched it. There was a scene in it where a Knight leaps from stained glass windows to commit a terrible act. The Knight is on the screen for all of about 10 seconds. However insignificant this may seem it was, however, the first time a photorealistic cgi character had interacted with an actor and its surroundings. This was a major leap forward. It may look dated now, but it was good enough to win the Oscar for special effects that year, deservedly so.
Leap forward a few years to 1989, and one James Cameron makes his first appearance on my list. I suspect not his last. The Abyss is an amazing movie, well the Special Edition is, only watch that one. Crammed full of practical and other effects it was the first time I remember seeing a movie that ‘starred’ some CGI. In fact, it’s the only CGI water tentacle to make it on my list.
The next jaw dropping movie I remember was Terminator 2, can’t remember who made that though. It was 1991. I sat in the cinema with my jaw agape, none of us had seen anything like what was unfolding. I think in this day and age of effects being near perfect you forget the impact that film made in its day. Add that to the fact it’s just generally a classic movie and you can’t go wrong.
In 1993 dinosaurs were reborn. 1993!! Seems so long ago but I remember vividly being in the cinema watching a movie where dinosaurs were real. It has dated pretty well luckily. Especially compared to some more recent Special editions and Remastered classics. The CGI age was truly born. Movies would never be the same again.
In 1997 two important things happened in the CGI world. George Lucas rereleased the original Star Wars trilogy, packed full of CGI. We pretty much all hated it. Oh, and he made Greedo shoot first, that made us hate it even more. These effects showed us that sometimes less can be more. We didn’t need all the extra beasts stuck in there. Jabba was added back in from a deleted scene and looked awful. Time has not been kind to these additions and 20 years on they look like something from Sharknado. The original 40-year-old clunky practical special effects look so much better now.
The other thing to happen in 1997 was once again James Cameron reinvented cinema with a massive budget and special effects that one again blew people’s minds and won just about every award you can imagine. I am not a big fan of the movie, but I have to respect the advances in technology that it brought about. 20 years on, once again time can be a little cruel. It seems that the ever-advancing special effects of today will look bad in the next 20 years.
1999 brought us the Phantom Menace. OK, so it’s not the best Star Wars movie, but not the worst. It did bring us Mr Binks. A CGI character that split the audience into hating him and hating him even more. He doesn’t offend me and my kids think he is great. TPM was full of green screen and an overload of effects addled the brain. Once again, too much in most of our minds. Very very clever though, another leap forward.
An advance on the effects of Mr Binks was the incredible Lord of the Rings: Two Towers. Andy Serkis proved to be the go-to guy in the world of digital actors. His performance as Gollum was incredible. He furthered this a few years later with King Kong. I really enjoyed this movie, although so much of it was computers it was done so well it didn’t distract you and take you out of the movie.
We can’t talk about computer advanced movie wizardry without a mention of Avatar. The highest grossing movie of all time (at time of writing). James Cameron showed the world what 3D can really do. It was the first time that most of us took 3D seriously and without a doubt 3D has still not been bettered. As a cinematic experience, Avatar in 3D had still yet to be beaten. It may not be anything like the greatest movie (or even be near my top ten) but as sheer spectacle goes nothing could top it. Time, once again, has not been a friend. The big blue space cats on the small screen and not in 3D now start to lose their wonder.
And so, we move on, many years later to Rogue One. Although there have been many many fine films with incredible CGI the next big leap forward must be Tarkin. I loved Peter Cushing as an actor. Not only was he in Star Wars, but he was Doctor Who! He was in many fantastic Hammer films, he was in some of my favourite monster movies as well. I grew up watching him. So, to see him once again realised on screen was incredible. I am not sure the voice was perfect, but that is nothing to do with special effects. The millions of dollars, thousands of hours, and hundreds of people it took to bring him back to my screen was worth it. A new boundary has been crossed. I for one cannot wait to see where we can go from here.
As a footnote. Seeing Carrie Fisher was also incredible, and now more poignant in her passing. Always Royalty even as a CG enhanced actress she was still beautiful and spell binding. Let’s hope cinema and CG will honour her accordingly.
Thank you for reading. MTFBWY
Since writing this article I have had a conversation with somebody who had recently seen Rogue One. As hard as it is for us life long fans to comprehend, not everybody is as 'in' to Star Wars as we are. Some people just watch the movies and their life carries on without the need for 40 years of discussion and passion. Muggles that they are. Anyway, without a knowledge of deceased British movie legends the person in question had absolutely no idea that Grand Moff Tarkin was CGI. We with our sceptical eyes are happy to try and pick apart movies we love. However, the Tarkin Effect was seemingly so good that if you didn't have prior knowledge you wouldn't have realised. This just goes to show how far movie effects have come on.