One of the big talking points about First Man, the new Neil Armstrong biopic, is its special effects. Production VFX supervisor Paul Lambert and his team subtly retain the feel of ‘60s archive footage for the film’s realistic in-flight and space sequences. They achieved this by not leaning too heavily on computer-generated effects but filming as much as they could for real (or in-camera).
Another great example of in-camera work from 2018 is Spike Jonze’s brilliant Welcome Home film for Apple, featuring a mind-boggling array of effects that begin with a stretching coffee table and climax with an entire apartment morphing into a fantasy space that FKA twigs dances to.
With more than 15 million views on YouTube, Welcome Home is an astonishing showcase of the filmmaker’s creativity. And it’s made even more astonishing when you realize that, except for a brief section where the star dances with herself, everything from a magically extending light-filled corridor to a self-propelled sofa twirling across the room was done in-camera.
Work with soul
Even when filmmakers have reached the level where they can afford to produce work like Welcome Home or the amazing zero-gravity fight scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, another in-camera masterpiece, there’s a slight imperfection about the results that sets them apart from the bland flawlessness of computer-generated effects. There’s a warmth and a credibility, a soul about it that digital work lacks.
Filmmakers like Nolan and Jonze clearly love working in-camera, but it also reflects a growing consumer appetite for something different to the ubiquitous polished, computer-generated look. People seem to prefer the analogue quality that’s fueled the resurrection of vinyl records and film photography. It turns out we love imperfection, and Apple’s film shows that the smartest brands are picking up on that.
Tactile, collaborative, different
The creative process for in-camera work is fundamentally different. Rather than everything happening inside your own head as you sit alone in front of a computer, you’re collaborating with others; you’re moving around a studio; you’re making things with your hands. It’s a tactile, interactive process that exercises a different part of the brain. It’s a bit like being a performer on a stage. There’s a creative freedom at play.
The result is often a piece of work that exceeds clients’ expectations and engages audiences at a deeper, more memorable level than is possible with anything made on a computer. It feels more meaningful; there’s less empty noise. Look at the brilliant GMUNK film for Audi that uses 3D projection mapping to produce a mesmerizing blend of art and technology.
Producing top quality computer-generated work is a painstaking process that involves a huge number of manhours and processing power, which don’t come cheap. At the top end of the scale, it took 400 hours to render every single frame in some sections of the trailer for Disney-Pixar’s Coco.
Of course, it’s possible to produce simpler CG work, but in-camera is still usually quicker and cheaper to make so it offers a great return on investment.
Clients get high-value work filled with impact and excitement, tailored to their needs and destined to get people talking. Audiences get something inspiring that fully engages them. I’m convinced this mutual benefit means in-camera is here to stay.
Of course, technology will keep progressing in computer-generated effects, and they’ll keep getting better. But technology is also constantly creating possibilities for in-camera work, and for as long as inspiring work is being produced, people will be inspired.