You need to be able to laugh at yourself. In the case of the utter disaster that was “Cats” this turns out to be doubly true, as the box office and critical bomb has found a second life through sold-out rowdy screenings at Alamo Drafthouse where the film is being embraced as camp.
It’s against this backdrop that two of the film’s stars, James Corden and Rebel Wilson, were instantly hilarious, dressed in their “Cats” costumes, strutting out into the pomp and prestige of Dolby Theatre stage on Sunday night. That they were there to introduce the Oscar for Best Visual Effects turned the sight gag from funny-to-cringe inducing just as quickly.
“As cast members of the motion picture ‘Cats,’” said Wilson, pausing for emphasis and laughs, before she and Corden finished the joke in unison. “Nobody more than us understands the importance of good visual effects.”
Late yesterday, the Visual Effects Society scolded the Academy for Wilson and Corden’s bit.
“Last night, in presenting the Academy Award for Outstanding Visual Effects, the producers chose to make visual effects the punchline, and suggested that bad VFX were to blame for the poor performance of the movie “Cats,” read the VES statement. “The best visual effects in the world will not compensate for a story told badly.”
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From a pure comedy standpoint, it’s always advisable to punch up, rather than down (well, technically up, considering any VFX crew members lucky enough to be invited to the Oscars sit in the top balcony). If “SNL” Weekend Update head writer and anchor (and Scarlett Johansson’s fiancé) Colin Jost can’t take being compared unfavorably to a bare-chested Brad Pitt, that would only make Tom Hanks’ joke funnier. But conversely, throwing a group of faceless technicians, and their staff of hundreds, under the bus, for the epic failure of powerful people sitting down with the stars, is just gross.
I am one of those people who criticize Hollywood’s use of VFX, but I’m often dumbfounded how the VFX artists themselves are blamed for others’ mistakes. The popular image of nerds at keyboard ruining our movies, the way their comic books have taken over cineplexes, is false on a number of levels. The Hollywood VFX artists working at the top of big and small shops around the globe make up a good percentage of the hardest working and most visionary filmmakers in the business today. We are at a time when virtually every project breaks new ground, calling for invention and ingenuity in how technology can be used to solve new artistic challenges.
The problem with VFX in modern Hollywood is too often they are still relied upon for spectacle over storytelling. Every new technical invention in the history of Hollywood — from sound to technicolor to widescreen — goes through an initial period of spectacle where audiences are drawn to see the newest thing. Then, they become another storytelling tool at the director’s disposal. However, the integration of VFX is in some cases regressing as studios market and sell the prevalence, size, and newness of CG wizardry like the latest in death-defying rollercoasters.
Good VFX story integration relies on a few different factors, including artistic vision and guidance, cross-department collaboration, and time. In the age of supercomputers, there’s a danger in assuming VFX are accomplished with a keystroke. The frame-by-frame, detail-by-detail, painting (for lack of better word) is painstaking, while the rendering and output process is time expanding.
Recently, a few outlets ran wild with a dismissive side-by-side comparison of the final de-aging of “The Irishman” versus work done to that footage by one of these “deep fake” internet clowns. The headlines dismissively focused on how some guy with free software did a better job than what VFX supervisor Pablo Helman’s enormous ILM team could do with Netflix’s checkbook.
The results of the side-by-side comparison weren’t eye-opening, but the reactions to the video were revealing. Not surprisingly, someone could make the cast look younger by making their faces smoother. And sure, in small clips, De Niro looks more like a man in his early 40s, but in the same way an actress looks like an impossibly perfect wax figurine of herself on the cover of a fashion magazine.
If you watched “The Irishman” for more than a minute under the deep fake’s artistry something would feel off. While you might not be able to put your finger on it, there would be a barrier between the viewer and the most important part of the film: the characters’ faces, which lack detail, depth, and dimension. The brilliance of Hellman’s work, and the true breakthrough of “The Irishman” de-aging, was how little it interfered with the actors during production, and their performances’ incredible subtlety in the finished product. De Niro and Joe Pesci, in particular, expressed incredible depth with the most minimal of facial movement, all of which is etched out and preserved in Hellman’s fine-tuned work. In other words, the visual effects were integrated into the film Martin Scorsese envisioned. And while ILM’s rep in Hollywood doesn’t need defending from a silly YouTube clip, it’s another example of how the knives are unfairly out for VFX work.
One of the challenges in interviewing any film or TV craftsperson — from top cinematographers to VFX supervisors — is they constantly pivot to the vision of the director. They shy away from the perception that they are artists and storytellers, rather than technicians executing the clear vision of what’s in the director’s head. In talking about his collaboration with cinematographer Robert Richardson, I asked Quentin Tarantino if the luminous images Richardson shot for “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” mirrored the 1969 Los Angeles he envisioned while writing the film.
“The goal isn’t just to make the movie that’s in my head,” said Tarantino, bristling at the premise of the question itself. “The movie that’s in my head is the starting point. If we fail completely, we get that. All right? That’s the launch pad, is the movie that’s in my head. And then I bring great artists and great craftsmen together and then expand on it and that’s the paint box.”
Part of what made Tarantino’s film successful is not only does he surround himself with the best craftspeople, but he also clearly communicates how his world looks and feels. All the while, he gives his collaborators the space and time to elevate his work while also assuring it melds with what their peers are doing in other departments.
In the case of “Cats,” its entire conception remains fuzzy at best. And while the film’s VFX were only a byproduct of that, it would seem extremely doubtful there was enough time carved out for the VFX team to do their job properly. We don’t know exactly what kind of shit show director Tom Hooper conducted down the stretch, resulting in new DCPs having to be struck after opening weekend — but it is safe assume hundreds of VFX artists pulled 18-hour shifts, seven days a week in an effort to save it.
Take as a counterexample Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja,” with its titular super pig, which represented some of the most incredible VFX work of the last three years. On the surface, the super pig could be considered just as ridiculous at “Cats” as it ran through malls and played with a small girl, but the work that went into capturing the way the animal’s body moved, the texture of its skin, and a million other details created a perfect balance of photorealism. Yet the real work came in how Bong needed Okja to move through frame, the pig being the catalyst of his camera’s rhythms and its nonverbal relationship with the girl at the film’s heart. Two years before the film began, Bong started discussions with visual effects supervisor Erik De Boer, sparking a vigorous back-and-forth as they cracked step-by-step how to get the performance anchoring Bong’s vision.
Bong didn’t only need to get the super pig right; he needed a VFX plan that could be integrated with the cinematography and production design. As VFX increasingly takes up more of what’s on screen, its relationship to light, color, texture are the difference between looking seamless and painted on.
Comedian George Carlin once joked that, right now, someone is being seen by the worst doctor in the world, and not all VFX artists are created equal. Yet, the blame for good versus bad VFX, from the perception of a moviegoer, is more often tied to the lack of vision, conception, and collaboration of the director and producers who hired the VFX team.
And just for the record, MPC, one of the two companies responsible for most of the “Cats” VFX work (along with The Mill), was the same company that supplied most of the 600 VFX crew behind Sunday’s Best Visual Effects Oscar winner “1917,” and were thanked on stage while Corden and Wilson stood and watched. In fact, some of the team that helped finish “Cats” did so after completing another Best VFX nominated film, “The Lion King.” In other words, of all the hundreds of people behind the failure of “Cats,” these are the last people who should be dismissed as hacks.
I’m not sure we should expect better from the two “Cats” performers: Wilson, who has continually erased the contribution of women of color by insisting she’s the first heavy-set star of a romantic-comedy, and Corden, who has continually erased the concept that a late-night host be funny. Both were desperate for their roles in “Cats” to be seen as a cool thing (“look, we’re in on the joke!”), but I think we should demand better from the awards show’s producers Lynette Howell Taylor and Stephanie Allain, along with the Academy’s new president David Rubin — a casting director who has worked tirelessly to shine a light on below-the-line artists.
VFX artists are continually overworked, while VFX studios find themselves handling impossible cost overages to meet the unrealistic demands of corporate-owned studios and filmmakers trying to make the next billion-dollar franchise. It’s an unhealthy service-client dynamic that is in desperate need of reform and assistance from organized labor to preserve the health of the craft itself. They are, as a group, often used up and spit out by those seated in the orchestra of the Dolby. So, is it too much ask, that for the 60 seconds every year that the VFX craft is celebrated on the national TV, before tens of millions of movie-goers, that they are treated with respect, and not as a scapegoat?