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Summer is coming, and with it comes big summer movies, stuffed full of computer-created aliens, monsters and giant explosions. Not all filmmakers want to use CGI, however, and many of them gathered to celebrate the craft of "practical effects" at a recent convention called Monsterpalooza in Burbank, Calif.
Sara Karloff is the daughter of one of the most famous movie monsters of all time: Boris Karloff. She says she never saw her father's Frankenstein makeup in person. "I'm awfully glad I didn't see him in those makeups," she says. "I would have probably been a damaged child."
Karloff says that the face for Frankenstein's monster took almost four hours to apply and another three to remove. That's a downside to creating monsters outside a computer, but no deterrent to Monsterpalooza's makeup traditionalists.
Practical effects are those created on the set or in camera. They include the Frankenstein monster's elaborate makeup or things like stop-motion animation, suited actors, puppets or animatronics. Monsterpalooza pays tribute to those artists and craftspeople who make their movie magic manually.
The convention floor is crowded with monsters. Some are in midtransformation, as makeup artists work their magic right before your eyes. There are also werewolves, zombies and aliens wandering freely. You can even find the occasional human, like actor Chris Sarandon.
"As we're talking, I'm just looking at a woman who is carrying what looks like a baby, but it's actually a little monster," he says.
Sarandon was at Monsterpalooza for a panel discussion on the 1985 film Fright Night, in which he played Jerry the Vampire. "I don't think there's any doubt that there is more of a verisimilitude in the moment when you really look like the thing you're portraying rather than you're standing there with buttons all over your face so that the CGI people can go in and lay in the face later," he says.
The late effects genius Stan Winston — responsible for films like Jurassic Park and The Terminator — wasn't opposed to using CGI. He was always on the cutting edge of new technology and even co-founded Digital Domain, a groundbreaking digital and visual effects studio. But his son, Matt Winston, says his father's passion was for doing as much as possible live and on the set.
"Acting is reacting, that's really what great acting is," Winston says. "And by giving an actor a live dinosaur on the set or a live zombie on the set, something that's right there in their face, no acting is required."
Winston now runs the Stan Winston School of Character Arts, which preserves and promotes the style of effects his dad made famous. That practical approach is still attractive to young filmmakers. CGI may be able to create anything, but visual effects artist Christian Beckman says the results aren't grounded in the real world and forced to obey the laws of physics, so your brain doesn't always buy into it.
"When you have a performer in a suit, that is the movement. That's your body. That's your anatomy," he says. "There are some CG characters that you're going to watch and they just don't have the right movement and right away you lose it."
Makeup effects are now being celebrated in reality TV shows like Face Off, which reveal the tricks of the trade. "That's kind of helping to bring a little bit of a practical effects renaissance," says makeup artist Frank Ippolito, who was featured on Face Off. "I think it's great for the industry all around."
That renaissance has been fueled by the likes of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Guillermo Del Toro's Hellboy films, which mix old and new technology to create fantastic worlds. Jackson's latest installment, The Hobbit, won't open until December, but in the meantime, eager fans have been consoling themselves with behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Shire and all its strange and wonderful inhabitants — most of which will seamlessly blend the practical and the digital.