Filmism.net Dispatch March 24, 2016

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And now, a eulogy of sorts for the shortest art form in movie history. Make-up effects.

Now, it's true movie makeup has been around for a long time. Lon Chaney Sr did amazing technical work for The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 (coincidentally, the year stop motion animation came of age in The Lost World). But budgets and technology kept it from really moving forward for a long time, and make-up effects right through to the post-war years rarely amounted to more than cheesy scene transitions or white paint (see The Wolf Man, Plan 9 From Outer Space, I Was a Teenage Werewolf).

Inspired by the few groundbreaking make-up effects that existed during that period and Dick Smith, the godfather of the movement, the new guard like Tom Savini, Rob Bottin and Rick Baker gave the field a shot in the arm in the 70s and 80s to such an extent they invented an Oscar category for it in 1982 just so they could give Baker one for An American Werewolf in London.

But now, just a little over 30 years later, the era seems to be over (in cinema, anyway), Baker closing up shop last year after saying Hollywood is more interested in fast and cheap CGI than practical effects.

Of course there are still make-up and practical effects around. One only has to look at TV's The Walking Dead, bought to life by former Savini protégés Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero. But cinema seems to lead the way for entertainment when it comes to creative technology, and CGI is only getting cheaper.

Of course there are a few proud holdouts. JJ Abrams talked a lot about making Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens as in-camera as possible. We all loved it not just because it was Star Wars, but because it was a diamond in the rough of a hundred cheap, CG-overblown action blockbusters (we're looking at you, Marvel) and it adhered closely to the 'built' spirit of the original films.

Another is Chris Nolan. Along with the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino (who's talked about opting out altogether rather than keeping traditions alive) Nolan leads the charge to preserve film in favour of shooting digitally, and it's an ethos that extends to his designs and sets.

In Interstellar you'd assume he built the Explorer set and CGI-ed in the views of space outside on some green screen. In fact he actually built the spacecraft rig in the soundstage and projected the views of space onto screens outside it so the actors could see and react to what the audience would see. The same went for the Tesseract, the incredible interior environment of the black hole.

You might also have marvelled at the realism of the blockish android helpers TARS, CASE and KIPP that accompanied the missions. The reason is that, aside from a few CGI clean-ups, they were like Star Wars' BB-8 – puppets manipulated manually on set.

All of which means that while make-up effects might not be dead just yet, it's certainly on the way out after only a couple of decades in the limelight. Where they are still used will become a kind of nostalgia-tinged marketing tool, the reason purists sometimes buy vinyl LPs instead of digital downloads. If the interviews about and critical reaction to Star Wars: The Force Awakens are anything to go by, we're already at that stage.

We relegated VHS to the dustbin of history because DVD (and then streaming) was easier and cheaper to handle. Make-up effects are ceding ground to CGI in the same way, and when experts like Baker say it, it must be true. The only thing stemming the tide might be moviegoers who appreciate what such artistry brings to the screen. The problem is, those of us who do are mostly fortysomethings who were around for the first Star Wars. As kids bought up on Harry Potter and Marvel movies get older, are they going to care?

I recently, and finally, caught up with another sci-fi classic that's been on my list forever, a stunning vision with ground-breaking special effects and a heartfelt and well-developed central love story, Xanadu. Hope you picked up on the sarcasm there.

I will however also call your attention to a slick, neat little thriller shot in my one-time adopted hometown of Perth called Wasted on the Young. It's not perfect, but it signifies the arrival of a talent to watch in its writer/director.

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