So I’m concerned.
No it’s not because of those early reviews that have come out this week. I won’t even link to them cuz I don’t wanna know. (Come midnight, I’M GOING IN AS FRESH AS A BABY’S BOTTOM.) I’m also trying to ignore this Radagast the Binks hubbub. I’m not even worried about Warner Bros’ move to a trilogy. (Which actually makes sense to me: Goblin King/Gollum, Smaug, Battle of the Five Armies. Three story arcs, three films. What’s not to get? You see how far gone my Peter Jackson Stockholm Syndrome is? Please help me.)
I do have a problem, though: Where the bigatures at?
For the uninitiated, Weta Workshop once lovingly referred to their miniature models as “bigatures” on the Extended Edition “Appendices.” And even if you didn’t notice them, they were all over the place, from Lothlorien to the tower of Barad-dur to some stupid tree trunk you probably never thought twice about. But Weta thought twice about it. Probably three or four times. In fact, Weta’s miniatures were so goddamned detailed you could push the camera in real tight for scrutiny and they’d hold up. They often had to do just that, so the miniatures naturally became larger in size. Hence: BIGATURES.
The bigatures were awesome. They required a painstaking attention to detail and an intricacy in production. Of course in an industry where efficiency is king, it’s easy to see why miniatures units are a dying breed. Practical models take too much damn time to make, and they can be costly if you screw up. Still, Peter Jackson and his production team continued to champion practical model-making well into 2005 with their vision for the underrated King Kong. I was convinced that no matter what happened, I could depend on these guys to find innovative new ways to blend two separate effects schools.
Imagine my surprise then when I read in a Collider.com interview that The Hobbit wouldn’t be using any bigatures:
“The technology that advanced the most, in the last 10 or 12 years, is really the fact that we did a lot of miniature shooting on The Lord of the Rings. All of the big architectural structures of Middle-earth were really miniatures, some of them quite large. But you’re limited to what you can do with a miniature. You literally have to have a big camera that has to sweep past it, so you can’t get too close to it and the detail doesn’t hold up too well if you do. This time around there are no miniatures. It’s all done with CGI.“
“The detail doesn’t hold up?”
But- but all those great times we had… Those Elven houses looked so lovingly worn. Even Skull Island was awesome. And what about Minas Tirith? You can’t forget Minas Tirith. Why are you doing this to us? I AM A FAN WITH A SKEWED SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT, DAMMIT.
For lack of a darker phrase in the Black Speech, I felt something die in me after reading that. I mean, don’t we already know where CG special effects can take storytelling? Jump back to 2002 and compare Episode II’s full CGI “Arena Battle” to the massive Helm’s Deep finale in Two Towers, a sequence that pairs digital effects with, yes, bigatures.
Is this even a fair fight? Notice the long take, where instead of cutting from the charge the camera pushes in on the Rohirrim as they bash Massive-generated Uruk-hai. They really wanted that level of detail to hold up to scrutiny, and the final image is so wonderfully blended that a decade after it remains awe-inspiring.
It also looks much better than Obi-Wan and Padme fighting on the surface of Planet Toy Story. It’s clear which effects Industrial Light and Magic focused on in Episode II. The Geonosians (read: those flying armadillo bugs) still look great. Their texturing is rich and the body motions are as lifelike as Smeagol’s classic faltering gait. But if I told you this scene was shot against green screen (it was), would you believe me? There’s no blending between the fore- and backgrounds. It sorta just looks like actors in front of computer graphics.
To really beat this Star Wars nail into the ground, one of the many problems with the Prequels is that nothing looked used. It was this sterile, pristine universe that just happened to have millions of creatures occupying it on a particular day. A New Hope was charming precisely because the Rebel Base was a dump, because the Falcon was a piece of junk. And despite CGI’s many, many strengths, it still has a hard time fooling the human eye. It’s tough to remove that Corsucant sheen and make a world seem lived in.
I’ve long believed that as opposed to the “CGI vs. practical” dichotomy — an oversimplification of industrial innovation, quality, and let’s face it, moneymaking — the best cinematic results are achieved by combining the old ways with the new. I’ve also believed that good ‘ole PJ was a herald of the classical modes of Hollywood production, that for every Scorsese or Fincher there was always a Jackson or Nolan to balance the scales. Digital filmmaking is the future, and the future is now, but sometimes the old ways are best.
With three major studios backing The Hobbit films, Peter Jackson would never come out and say this, but this full shift to CGI models seems like a money issue. Securing distribution and production rights for the story were already a pain in the ass. Toss in a labor strike, MGM’s bankruptcy, and the Director’s Kansas City Shuffle and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if Warners gave PJ the ix nay on the igaturesbay. (Stockholm Syndrome and my repugnant brand of cynicism are a deadly combo — ‘Maker’s Mark/Excedrin PM’ deadly.)
But maybe it was PJ who wanted to do away with bigatures. After all, the guy behind Episode II was irrevocably changed by the studio system, too. Perhaps a decade+ of working in Hollywood slimmed Peter Jackson’s waistline and his patience for budgeting. There’s also the strong possibility that these computer-generated models really do look fantastic, and that I’m just a big idiot. (Considering my prediction that Rise of the Guardians would make BANK, there’s a strong possibility.)
It’s not as if Weta Digital cleaned house and hired a bunch of lazy scabs to take over. I’ve little doubt The Hobbit’s production team is as fond of the source material as I am. I just can’t shake the feeling that getting rid of those bigatures meant getting rid of something else, too. Call me old fashioned.