Anyone who has ever had a film-related conversation with me has no doubt had to listen to me rant on and on about my hatred of CGI. The human eye is too well trained and can notice little things in movement or color or texture that are clear indication that something is computer generated. Now, I’m not saying that animation hasn’t come a long, long way in the real of realism. But I feel that CGI should not be used as a replacement of something concrete.
Ask any actor whether or not they prefer acting to a tennis ball on a stick versus a giant, mechanical gorilla on set. When a movie does such a good job basing a ridiculous concept in a grounded reality, rampant abuse of CGI can pull you out of the film as a viewer and ruin the experience for you. But when used properly and as an aid to create depth and scale (as a replacement for matte painting), CGI can make the smallest of films feel epic on scale, something not available in the past.
But needless to say, I’m a huge fan of practical special effects and the men that create them. From Dick Smith to Rob Bottin Tom Savini to Greg Nicotera, I have the utmost respect for the skill and the craft that goes into creating some truly memorable and truly realistic effects. If you don’t know who any of those guys mentioned in the previous sentence are, you owe it to yourself to watch Fantastic Flesh, a Starz Channel special. Rob Bottin is responsible to the effects in some of my favorite movies of all time, like Fight Club, Seven, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and more.
Most people identify Savini as the guy who created the look of the modern (non-running) zombie in George Romero’s of the Dead series. He was also Sex Machine in From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Greg Nicotera, who was Savini’s apprentice at the ripe young age of 14, went on to establish himself as one of the greatest FX artists in the industry, working with Quentin Tarantino on nearly every one of his projects. He is responsible for the splatter effects in the House of Blue Leaves scene in Kill Bill (the scene where Uma slaughters about 40 gang members with a sword).
But Dick Smith is on a whole different level. He’s the guy that those guys looked up to. He is one of the true legends in the cinema history, not only in the special effects department. His work can be found on so many movies that you know and love that I can’t possible list them all here (so go here). The Godfather? Dick Smith. Taxi Driver? Dick Smith. For me, the real trick of effects is to be so unnoticeable that it should be completely overlooked. You should even know that what you are seeing is an effect, to be so seemless that it isn’t distracting in the slightest.
But it was his work in The Exorcist that makes him stand out in my mind as the best that has ever done it. Look, I pride myself on my cinema knowledge. I will get into conversations and/or arguments with ANYONE when it comes to cinema and be able to hold my own. But even I have to admit that I didn’t even realize that I had seen the greatest special effects make-up in the history of cinema. When I realized it, I was completely floored. Everyone seems to remember the projectile vomiting and the voice work from The Exorcist. Or how they transformed a cute young girl into a crucifix-f–king monster. All of which is remarkable in its own right.
But it was Dick’s work on Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Father Merrin (the older of the two priests). The character of Father Merrin was an aging, worn down priest who wore his years of service on his face and was probably in his late 60s to early 70s in the film. But this is where Dick Smith’s magic came into play.
Max Von Sydow was only 43 at the time.
And Dick Smith got him to convincingly look like a 70 year old man.
That wrinkled my brain.
So the next time someone tells you that the effects in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the greatest aging make-up in cinema history, spit some pea soup in their face for Dick Smith. Not to mention, he is responsible for creating the demon that showed up during a brief flash during Father Karras’ nightmare about his mother.
So thanks for the nightmares, Dick. Keep up the good work.