Day 23: Indiana Jones and the Poorly-Composited Image
Ah, the green screen, filmmaking's ultimate cheat.
In the early days of special effects, all they had was rear-projection. Put the actors in front of a screen and have a projector showing footage of a fantastical location behind them. It never looked especially good, and was generally just used to show the background in scenes where characters are in a moving vehicle, as it was cheaper than driving around for hours outdoors with a camera strapped to the car, praying that it didn't start raining.
This primitive technology was quickly replaced by green screen technology, where the actor was filmed in front of a single colour backdrop (sometimes green, sometimes blue), and then 'composited' with another image to create a scene. It allows actors to appear in the middle of arctic wastes without leaving a studio, or stop-motion skeletons to swash buckles with previously filmed actors.
Historically, this technique has had one fundamental drawback. It was nearly impossible to replicate a camera move done out on location with the camera in the studio (or effects house). This meant that effects shots were forced to either be static, or risk completely mismatched perspective.
This dark age ended with the invention of motion-controlled cameras. The idea is that a tiny computer built into the camera records the specific movements a camera makes, and then the computer can tell the motors that move the camera to repeat the exact same move over and over again, indefinitely. So actors can run down a greenscreen hallway with the camera racing along beside them, and no matter how long or complex the camera move is, the computer in the effects lab can reproduce it perfectly, so the hallway will crumble around the actors without any overlapping or accidental footage of people running on air.
Green-screening didn't fully come into its own until computer graphics got to the point that they could replicate real life locations and objects with moderate degrees of accuracy. Suddenly filmmakers were allowed to let their imaginations run free at a fraction of the price that letting imagination run free had previously cost. Why bring an actor to a distant location when they can stand in front of a green sheet? Why build an elaborate set out of styrofoam and fiberglass when polygons and textures can do the job almost as well? Why choreograph an elaborate, potentially life-threatening stunt when digital puppets can be put in the line of fire?
Some filmmakers found this new technology a little too promising however, and began asking themselves why they ever needed to do anything real when they could just simulate it all on a computer. Background, foreground, a few of the actors…
Which brings us to Crystal Skull, which is the best example of green-screen and CGI technology being overused to the point of absurdity. The jungle chase scene, which has fascinated me so much of late, doesn’t look like it has a single real element in it. It’s not just the jeeps speeding through the uncleared jungle as it were two-lane blacktop, it’s the way the characters in the jeeps never actually look like they’re in the middle of a high-speed chase.
Consider the Truck Chase in Raiders. The things that make that scene feel so authentic are the little details. The wind blowing in everyone’s face and hair as they climb along the side of the truck, the dust that’s kicked up as Indy’s dragged under the truck, the blood that spatters on the inside of the windshield when the Nazi shoots Indy in the arm. And the capper, just how incredibly beaten up Indy is by the end of the scene when he tosses the Blond Nazi out of the truck. Some of these details are the result of dedicated work of filmmakers that care about their jobs, but most of them are owed to the fact that, to film the scene, and actual truck was brought out to an actual stretch of road, and driven up and down it over and over again to get the necessary footage.
It’s hard to believe, watching the comparable scene in Crystal Skull, that all of the jeeps are anything but props sitting on a greenscreened soundstage. Where’s the wind in people’s faces? Where’s mud spattering up everywhere? Why aren’t wide fronds and branches hitting them in their faces? Two people stand on the backs of jeeps, swordfighting, and they don’t even bounce up and down a little? Do the foreground and background elements blend well? Of course they do. That’s what Industrial Light and Magic pays their employees for. Does it look convincing for a second? No, because none of the actors have anything to work with.
Which leads to the real question: why didn’t they just take a few jeeps out, build a jungle set, and film the thing for real? Sure, it would have been a little more expensive, but I’m sure they could have found the money somewhere. Maybe they could have not built that decapitatable Marcus Brody statue. That would have been a start.