WHEN: April 5, 2014, 3:32pm. (Week 14, Mar 30-Apr 5.)
WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME.
FORMAT: Blu-ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV.
COMPANY: Cinemanaut John, because we need motivation to get our viewings done.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Just ate Five Guys and watched some special features.
Hey, Cinemanaut John and I realized that the design team Weta worked on both The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Avatar, so we figured why not get together and check out all the design-related special features that come with each flick? So, we watched the “Weta Workshop” featurette on the Special Extended DVD Edition of Fellowship, then the theatrical cut of Fellowship, then a shitload of tiny Avatar featurettes on the Extended Blu-ray Collector’s Edition (“Sculpting Avatar,” “Creating the Banshee,” “Creating the Thanator,” “The AMP Suit,” “Flying Vehicles,” “Na’vi Costumes,” and “Pandora Flora”), then the theatrical cut of Avatar. This was a terrible idea, as it stole eight hours of our lives this weekend.
Bill: Hi, John. I’m very tired. Fuck you.
John: These feelings are reciprocated. So. These movies. People made them. Sculptures were involved. Your thoughts?
Bill: What wasn’t involved? Holy damn, John, movies take a lot of work, even if they aren’t our respective cups of tea. I was exhausted just watching the LOTR team make all of their chain mail by hand. I can’t wait to notice how good it looks the next time I almost fall asleep during Fellowship.
John: It’s true! It’s so easy to take for granted the effort that goes into a film, particularly in ones as CGI-heavy as Avatar. It was a real eye-opener seeing that all of the clothing the Na’vi wore was hand-sewn in real life before being created digitally.
Bill: Yeah, I truly expected Avatar to exist entirely in a computer, but I suppose there’s no better way to see how skimpy alien cat clothes flap around in the wind than paying a couple of models to dress up in skimpy alien cat clothes and stick them in front of an industrial fan.
John: Most definitely. When those jackasses are flying around on their fucking dragons, the last thing you’re thinking about is how nicely their frilly capes wave in the wind. But it adds to the effect, even if you don’t actively notice it. It’s the little effects that make a world immersive.
Bill: Unfortunately, the little effects frequently go by so fast that I have to wonder: is it worth it? I couldn’t help but notice how many neat-o details went by in the blink of an eye in both movies. When the Elf army in the opening of Fellowship holds up a line of beautifully crafted shields that must have taken days to construct, I could barely make out the pattern on them before *clang clang* on to the next scene we go. And that gigantic ship in Avatar that they built to scale on a New Zealand green screen? That angry army guy hangs out of it in the finished film for two freaking shots, both about a second long. Was this much effort necessary? Maybe I’m just lazy. And cheap.
John: I think that it’s worth it, we just aren’t the people to appreciate the result. You and I hate Fellowship and Avatar respectively, so it’s hard for us to find merit in what just seems, to us, to be frosting on a turd. But to people who like these films, the effect is different. I happen to quite enjoy Fellowship of the Ring, and I love the painstaking detail that went into every last shield. I love that the patterns on Gimli’s axe correspond with the architecture in Moria. I love the little matching leaf-shaped cape buckles that Galadriel gives everyone. It gives everything a rich texture, and I love the shit out of it. I find it hard to feel the same way about Avatar, because I can’t stand the film, but I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who get really jazzed about it, and that’s cool.
Bill: I actually wrote this very note, and wondered if you’d share the same sentiment: “I am sorry you worked so hard to make something that I do not like, but I am glad that others like it.” It seems you do. Still, despite the story punching me in the boredom center, the design work on Fellowship is amazing. Can we talk “bigatures”?
John: Yes! The giant miniatures that the Weta Workshop created are so super sweet! I want to find out if they are on display anywhere, and go visit them.
Bill: I legitimately did not know that many of the locations in Middle-earth aren’t computerized buildings, but are, in fact, painstakingly detailed real-world constructions that have been dropped into the frame like matte paintings. I wondered why the CGI aged so well, and now I know; it wasn’t CGI.
John: Sadly, much in Avatar was CGI, even those items that started life as sculpts, or physical pieces of clothing. Despite the painstaking work that obviously went into these props, both before and after they were converted from physical matter to piles of ones and zeroes, the quality is starting to become less impressive. It’s only been five years, and yet so much is starting to feel like a video game.
Bill: Oh my, I just remembered: the cave troll, easily one of the more dated CGI effects in Fellowship, also started life as a sculpture. And today, I learned that sculpture has a cock and balls.
John: This is true. I wonder if Peter Jackson requested that the troll have junk, or if that was all Weta’s doing. It kind of seemed like he had a less hands-on approach to the design elements than James Cameron did. It seems like everyone in the Avatar featurettes made note of how often Cameron would come in and fiddle with their work.
Bill: Okay, yeah, I wanted to talk about that too. Peter Jackson is barely in the Fellowship design featurettes. Most of the talking comes from the founder of Weta, Richard Taylor, whereas James Cameron seems to be the face of all things Avatar. Cameron’s approach to the designs seemed based in engineering and biology, and he was mostly out to make kick-ass vehicles and animals. Whereas Mr. Weta… I didn’t know where he was coming from sometimes, like giving the octopus monster finger-tentacles so he could wear the Ring, or designing Sauron’s mask like “the rotting face of a horse corpse.” Is this overthinking? If I’ve watched Fellowship a dozen times and never figured out that Monsterpus wanted the Ring, have his meticulous plans failed?
John: No, I think his plans worked out fine. He probably never intended for us to see Sauron and say, “Hey, check it out, horse corpse!” But that unrecognized influence still helped to create an intriguing-looking costume. If anything, I find it off-putting when a design is too blatant. When I can immediately tell which two animals James Cameron squished together to make, say, the hammerhead rhino, I get pissed off at the seeming laziness of it.
Bill: I’ll say this: Richard Taylor seemed a bit nutty, but he had passion. I could feel the nerdiness flowing through him as he picked up swords and gauntlets and showed them off for the camera like, “Check this out, armor lovers!” Cameron was sort of cold and scientific about his creature designs. He saw a documentary about bats, so he said to make the Pandora dragons more like bats. End of story. Wait, except that one part where he said something about getting to the heart of what a creature means rather than what it looks like. What’s your take on that idea? Artist in motion or pretentious ass pull?
John: Yeah, I wasn’t sure where he was going with that. No matter how symbolic James Cameron thinks the Banshees are, they still just look like wonky dragons to me. I don’t care if they have the power of a shark, and a corresponding shark-like muscle tone. I don’t dig it, but maybe that’s just what works for Cameron. The film reached a lot of people, maybe those flying sharks made their hearts beat in a special way that I don’t comprehend. Whatever.
Bill: It seems to me like both productions had different goals. (It should be noted that Weta was only partially responsible for the designs in Avatar.) Fellowship seemed to focus on creating a world that felt real, without ever “winking at the camera.” Avatar seemed to aim for creating a world that had never been seen before. I’ll let you answer first: which is the better ideal for a film’s design, and which creative team accomplished its goal?
John: I don’t think I can speak to which goal is better, both are fine things to aim for. As to who hit their mark, I would without hesitation go with Fellowship. Every costume piece, prop, and creature fits into a world that seems like it has existed for millennia. Avatar’s world, while extensive, constantly seems like a pastiche of elements of our own; we may not have seen this end result before, but we can recognize all the original components. What do you think?
Bill: Well, in my weeks and weeks of being bored to tears by Frodo and the gang’s shenanigans, I must admit that Fellowship‘s world nevertheless felt very real. It was a bit like watching a documentary on a subject that I didn’t care about, and looking behind the curtain with this Weta featurette was a bit of a shock. It was all fake? Every last helmet, glove, and knife was crafted by a bunch of ingenious and hard-working humans, not a bunch of Elves and Dwarfs and Orcs? Well, good job, team. Even after what I know now, the illusion holds. As for Avatar, I think they’re a bit up their own asses with this “something you’ve never seen before” mission statement, but I still think the creatures look cool. I don’t care if they smooshed animals together, they just shouldn’t pretend that that’s not what they did. Ultimately, I think a world that feels real is a more important objective, and perhaps Avatar would seem less like a digital cartoon if that were Cameron’s mantra.
Permission to wrap this up with a thing I do at the end of every viewing?
John: By all means.
ONE THING THAT WOULD HAVE IMPROVED THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING:
If this positively perfect line misquoting that John blurted out was actually in the movie.