CGI is okay – I’m no hater (I’m just a he-man woman-hater). But it can be obvious, no matter how good the effects are. The Tin-Tin movie had brief moments of, ‘wow, that looks really real!’, mainly down to lighting, but I wasn’t completely immersed. Animatronics, however – well I’ve always loved them, largely because I know the thing I’m looking at is tangible. Even if it is dated, there’s a creative charm to watching a little girl’s head spin 360 degrees, and knowing that creepy model is collecting dust in a back room in Hollywood. So here’s some weird stuff from the 80s and 90s.
The 80s saw a plethora of wild creature designs adorning films throughout its decade. Some were cute, some were scary, most were fucked up. The Jim Henson Company, of whom we need no introduction, created some cult classics. Far from the adventures of Kermit and his pork addiction, we were introduced to the alien world of The Dark Crystal, the trippy, dream-like land of The Labyrinth, and some truly disturbing creatures in The Storyteller. Hoggle, while being a nickname for an inebriated family member of mine, is also the famous goblin/dwarf/whatever, of the film Labyrinth. Yes, they got a little guy to run around in a suit, but the head piece of Hoggle was all gears and wires beneath that wrinkled face. He’s alive, and you never once think Jennifer Connelly (dude, come on, she’s like 15) is talking to herself.
For those who haven’t seen the DVD extras for the original The Thing, check it out. Not only are the effects still gruesome today, it even drove one man crazy. Rob Bottin (according to the crew) worked seven days a week for a whole year, creating all the creature effects (apart from the dog, of which Stan Winston is credited). It’s clear to see why his brain must have misfired a few neurons, when you see spider legs growing out of dismembered heads and men’s arms being torn apart by a torso with teeth. Although the effects show their age, there’s something visceral and far more disturbing in seeing these, in comparison to the recent prequel’s CGI.
Rick Baker’s most famous make-up/animatronic effect can be see in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. Aside from scaring the living hell out of me as a child, the morphing of man to beast is still one of the most impressive physical effects seen in a movie. The main character – played by David Naughton – had to endure hours of make-up, as Rick Baker’s idea came to fruition on the screen. Watching a man’s bone structure change from human to wolf’s is painful to say the least, and still scares me to this day. It’s also worth mentioning the effects used for Griffin Dunne’s character, as his reanimated corpse pops up throughout the movie, his features becoming ever more rotten and grotesque.
Of all the creative masterminds behind these puppets, Stan Winston is perhaps the most acclaimed. He took life sized models to the limit – so much so that some were even super-sized. The queen xenomorph in James Cameron’s Aliens was a behemoth of a model – no CGI here. That phallic face in front of Sigourney Weaver isn’t one of L. Ron Hubbard’s fantasies – it’s a real-life model. The same can be said for the majority of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park: the T-Rex pushing its head through the windscreen of that jazzy coloured jeep; the dilophosaurus ejaculating black slime into Wayne Knight’s face; the triceratops lying next to a big pile of poo. They all stand up today, unlike the T-1000’s liquid metal man, or even Gollum (ten years down the line).
Nostalgia plays a large part in these prosthetic, rubbery creations, but it’s a creative feat on behalf of the designers that these creations stand the test of time (for the most part). I can’t help but think of Yoda in Episode II and III, and feeling that lack of creativity and attachment. A CGI of the killer plant, Audrey II, wouldn’t be the same. Neither would E.T. if he were all polygons, and there certainly wouldn’t be the same cute factor for Gizmo in Gremlins. Think about it. In the meantime, here’s a fucked up picture of what Hoggle looked like a few years back. Sweet dreams…