Published on January 19th, 2015 | by Matt Wolsfeld


Interstellar: In Defence of Practical Effects

Interstellar should win an Oscar for Best Visual Effects for use of practical effects over CGI — the future of filmmaking may depend on it.

It’s that time of year again. The 2015 Oscar nominees were announced last week and it’s officially time to begin the online shouting matches. But this time around I’m not interested in which film was snubbed (The Lego Movie) or whether tired biopic stereotypes should be retired from the nominations (Yes). No, this year I had only one major thought after seeing the list of nominees.

Interstellar has to win for Best Visual Effects.

That’s right, I’m going to be the one who brings up that middle-of-the-show category that nobody really cares about. The only category that films like X-Men: Days of Future Past have a hope in hell of being nominated for. This is because I believe that this category, more than any other year in recent memory, truly matters for the future of filmmaking.

Interstellar’s fellow nominees were all notable this year in terms of visual effects. It is interesting that three of the five nominees in this category are comic book adaptations, perhaps speaking to the benefits of having a rich artistic canvas to draw visual inspiration from. In fact, as much as I enjoyed Interstellar I would argue that I found Guardians of the Galaxy to be the more enjoyable movie of the two.

And yet there is no way I would let Guardians, for all its colourful comic starship glitz and glamour, be deemed better in terms of visual effects. The reason for this decision is that Interstellar proved this year the importance of practical effects in filmmaking. In a time where almost every film is digitally altered in some way to include CGI monsters, lasers, and sets, Christopher Nolan made the conscious decision to film a massive blockbuster while returning to the oft-forgotten art of real, tangible props and set design.

I remember seeing Star Wars for the first time as a child and being blown away by the planets, space stations, and starships flying across the screen. When I expressed interest in how they did all of that, I was shown images of sculptors crafting tiny monsters and spaceships that were re-scaled to look as big as planets. I was shown painters who used oil and canvas to create a jaw-droppingly gorgeous city in the clouds for Harrison Ford to walk through. I saw a man being put into a giant, ill-fitting metallic suit and mimicking the uncanny movements of a nervous robot. The argument for nostalgia adjusting the reality of these memories can be made, but the realization that the fantastical elements of a film I loved were created out of real things by real artists stuck with me.

Cut to the Star Wars prequels, where as a jaded teenager I saw behind-the-scenes images of Liam Neeson awkwardly fighting air in front of a solid green wall. Gone were the oils and clay and engineering masterpieces, replaced by a man sitting at a computer digitally sculpting an all-too shiny and flexible Jar Jar Binks. I told myself that this was just the way of the future, that computers could now do everything we used to do faster and better. But the results were telling. Fight scenes felt flimsy and without impact. Star fighters raced across the screen creating an explosive battlefield of lasers and explosions, and yet there was entirely no tension running through me. Everything felt safe. Of course they were going to win – the computers would make sure of that.

As I sat in the theater this year watching Interstellar, I dealt with the return of those long-lost feelings of tension and wonder. The simple act of watching a space shuttle trying to dock with a space station became the ride of a lifetime as I was forced to watch a real chunk of metal seemingly spin wildly, trying desperately to connect properly with another chunk of metal. There were no close-ups of the digitally rendered locking pin, no long, sweeping shots of a computer generated starship trying to make its match. Just two artfully decorated chunks of metal in a mostly static shot. And it felt oh so real. There were scenes in Interstellar that had me quite literally sweating just from watching a static frame of the outside of a prop space shuttle being blasted by industrial fans.

And that, despite the beauty and accomplishments of its CGI-decorated fellow nominees, is why Interstellar not only deserves, but needs to win the Oscar this year for Best Visual Effects. Because at a time where you can’t expect to go see a film where a coffee shop scene is loaded with CGI, Christopher Nolan took one of the biggest movies of the year and reminded us why computers are not always better. Yes, the digital technicians behind the CGI wonders we see on screen are immensely talented at their craft. But the artists involved in painstakingly creating the practical effects seen in movies like Interstellar have few other venues to showcase their craft. Their sweat and blood literally adorns their work, and it reminds us of the human elements on screen. The emotions we associate with that only heighten our experience, and it is an experience I desperately wish to continue seeing at the theater.

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About the Author

is a Saskatoon-based environmental consultant, musician, and media vampire. When he's not finishing 'just one more quest' in Skyrim or binge-watching Twin Peaks, Matt can be found barricading himself into a room with his keyboard and a 3rd cup of coffee to write more songs nobody will ever hear.

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