“Avatar: The Way of Water” and the upcoming “Mission Impossible: Death Reckoning Part I” are more than just films. Standing where we are today, they are lessons for filmmakers and a relief for movie-goers. Setting the bar further high through their visual style, both films up the ante of visual storytelling and pull us out of the cliché bombardment of VFX that we have all been subjected to in recent years. Suspension of disbelief had been completely thrown out of the window, thanks to Marvel and DC, who have left no stone unturned to utilize visual effects to the point of saturating and sabotaging their very purpose. With James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” and Tom Cruise’s love for the big screen, we can finally relish cinema the way it was meant to be. We already got a taste of it in “Top Gun: Maverick,” and while the approaches of the two above-mentioned films towards visual storytelling are different, they both serve to push the boundaries of filmmaking while also arming us with the ability to look beyond the cloak of traditional visual effects to appreciate films for the right reasons.
Before the advent of practical effects as such, we got big-scale films like “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws,” and “Titanic.” The reason we are not mentioning “Star Wars” here is that it was a breakthrough in visual effects. Each of the other films made use of practical effects and then used visual effects to complement them and make them more effective. Steven Spielberg got life-size dinosaur animatronics built, while James Cameron literally made people swim in a tank with a huge ship broken in half. Even the ship breaking into two was practically captured on film. This kind of work is not seen anymore because it costs a lot. Thereby, by saving money and opting for computer-generated effects, production houses are willing to compromise on the effect that films have on the audience.
Moreover, an important thing to notice here is that, with time, visual effects have become oversaturated. Whether this is due to the passage of time that eventually makes any new thing lose its glam, or due to its overuse, is a matter of debate. One explanation would be that since visual effects have come so far as to enable creators to achieve feats that were tough earlier, by means of techniques that have gotten much simpler with passing years, that the intention and attention to detail, and thus meticulousness, have diminished considerably. Think about the first Iron Man film, or, for that matter, even the first Avengers film. They felt so tangible and appealing to the eyes. Yet “Iron Man 2” and “Thor” were mediocre. So it’s not just about the technology but also about the approach, and the production houses, needless to say, play a big role in determining this and thus also share a large part of the blame due to the time restraints they impose on their VFX artists as well as an apparent decrease in the depth of research that goes into creating computer-generated characters and worlds. We all know of the recent backlash that Marvel faced from many VFX artists who pointed a big finger at the production giant’s VFX management and methodology, as well as pay. And we all know how Joss Whedon’s Justice League was received and the notorious Superman mustache. Such results have been in front of our eyes for the past ten years at least. “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Transformers” look far more stunning and appealing than “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Thor: Love and Thunder,” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Having said all this, we are not demeaning or even criticizing visual effects. They allow us to see things that otherwise would have been impossible. And this brings us to James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water,” the film saw the introduction of multiple new visual techniques that helped Cameron shoot the underwater sequences as well as give his characters a more realistic appearance. And since the details are in the little things, only a big-screen experience will be able to do them justice. If you haven’t seen it in the theater and don’t know about it, look it up online. Surely, Cameron’s innovations will help directors make their films much better visually. However, we must not forget that it took him more than ten years to develop these technologies, along with a proper way to put them to use. The film is a work of art, patience, merit, and vision. New visual effects can serve as the means, but it is the vision of the director that turns them into something magical.
As for the significance of practical effects, we cannot negate their presence in films completely. Stuntmen doing stunts, jumping off tall buildings, hanging by wires, fighting, and taking punches and kicks are all practical. However, the practical effects we are talking about here are the large-scale ones that were once thought impossible, then achieved by diminishing their scale, and then finally carried forward to computer-generated effects. Films like “Titanic,” “Jurassic Park,” and even the original “Star Wars” are instances of “diminishing the scale.” On the other hand, Tom Cruise single-handedly decided to up the ante of stunts by doing them on his own rather than opting for stuntmen, and in doing so, made us realize just how much risk stuntmen take during shoots. Tom climbing the Burj Khalifa remains one of the greatest stunts ever in film history (but we must not forget Jackie Chan, whose countless stunts in his films in the 80s and 90s, especially Police Story, are all equally thrilling and unforgettable.) He then decided to stick to the side of a cargo plane (MI 5) and then fly a helicopter (MI 6), and in “Mission Impossible: Death Reckoning Part I,” he is going to jump off a cliff on a motorcycle. Meanwhile, he has already flown a jet in “Top Gun: Maverick,” which basically proved how practical effects could not be replicated by VFX no matter how close they get to reality. But the thing is, not everything shown in films can be shot practically, can they? We cannot see Spider-Man in space. We cannot see Kaijus fight each other that way. And neither can we see a dog the size of a house. So the question is: where do practical effects end and visual effects begin? Well, the answer lies in not differentiating between them but bringing them together, and the best example of this are the films of Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay. Both these directors have a sophisticated approach toward their films, albeit in different ways. Michael Bay prefers real locations, real explosions, and the rush of adrenaline on set to give his films the gravity that they carry. “Bad Boys,” “6 Underground,” and “Ambulance” are good examples of this. “Transformers” too can be added to this list if we are willing to consider the digitally-created robots because, other than the robots, almost everything is practical. On the other hand, we have Nolan, who has always been a proponent of practical effects and someone who knows the proper use of visual effects. Films like “Inception” and “Interstellar” are proof of that.
So, in order to realize the re-emergence of visual and practical Effects in Hollywood films, there is a need to address the faults and accept them. With so much development going on in visual effects and how new camera systems allow us to capture shots that were once thought impossible, creators and production houses need to understand that a good story can only work when it is portrayed in a good way. That shouldn’t be that tough now, as the change has already begun. Thanks to Marvel and DC for claiming the over-saturation of VFX in films, which ironically resulted from their immense popularity, it is high time for them as well to realize that this baton of re-emergence will have to be carried forward by them if they want to survive. If not, then they will lose to other films very soon and will remain as animated films. And the world will be better for it because, just as every good thing comes to an end, every bad thing does too.