Why do computer-generated special effects in movies today look so shitty? Despite some outliers like the spellbinding Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), recent big budget action and sci-fi movies are comprised of drab and weightless images. At a glance superhero flicks can be mistaken for Nissan commercials: green screen blob shapes and grey color palettes without the proper blocking and framing to build a sense of relational space. How did we get here?
In the recent doc Jurassic Punk, director Scott Leberecht offers an answer in the tumultuous career of VFX firebrand and troublemaker Steve "Spaz" Williams. Along the journey, Leberecht paints two tragic portraits: one of a promising young artist who couldn't get out of his own way and one of an industry that prioritized tech over art and used computers to deface Hollywood.
Watch the first five minutes of Jurassic Punk (2022) and the brilliance of Steve Williams becomes apparent. Williams was one of the first people to combine a background in classical animation with one in computer engineering. In 1988, Williams worked at George Lucas' visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) — renowned for their work on the original Star Wars — and became chief animator on James Cameron's The Abyss (1989). There, he worked with a small team of artists who used Silicon Graphics computers and Alias Research modeling softwares to animate the figure at the center of the deep sea creature feature, an alien pseudopod they dubbed the "water weenie." Their goal was to achieve, for the first time in history, photorealistic special effects for a lifelike creature with rippling water and refracting light. Their work would go on to win the film the 1990 Oscar for Best Visual Effects.
After his success on The Abyss, Williams joined James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) along with a team of fifteen computer graphics artists. The success of Terminator 2 and even Cameron's burgeoning career hinged on the team's ability to bring the villain, a shapeshifting android assassin, to life. Nothing like that had been done in computer animation before. Williams trail-blazed the process of animating the T-1000 android; this was before the proliferation of mo-cap suits so Williams and the team had to paint a grid onto the real actor, Robert Patrick, to capture human-like movement, similar to how Eadweard Muybridge had captured motion through photography at the beginning of film history. Williams' work in animating the liquid metal transformations stands up 32 years later when so much computer-generated imagery from other films of the early 90s looks archaic and janky now. The documentary tells us that Cameron was saved and Williams broke new VFX ground. But like an early warning shot of the concerns actors and artists have today of being replaced by artificial intelligence and its capacity to replicate their likenesses, modelers saw the advent of this new technology (and Williams’ techniques) as a threat even back in 1991. If animators and rigging artists can generate the monster in virtual reality with only a computer, the modelers and artists who would have built it are out of a job.
Trouble in Paradise...
Nonetheless, Terminator 2 launched Steve Williams and his coworker/buddy Mark Dippé into the CG hall of fame and protected them from getting fired over an incident. You see, with his new renown came new scrutiny of the rebellious "punk" persona of Steve Williams. On a trip to George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California during Terminator 2, Williams and Dippé invaded and smoked "cigars" (which was probably weed — let's be real) in Lucas' personal office and gave fake names to the Skywalker police force when questioned before being kicked off the premises. The only reason they weren't fired from ILM is because Cameron needed them on Terminator 2.
Steve Williams had other predicaments too. The doc goes on to follow Williams' conflicts with the more established special affects supervisor Dennis Muren who, according to Williams, purposely left his name out of his acceptance speeches at the Oscars year after year despite Williams' key contributions. As leader of the animators, Muren was often tasked by big directors like Spielberg to manage the team, a role that put him at odds with the greenhorn but adept Williams who didn't take well to authority and liked to march to the beat of his own drum.
One of the main conflicts the documentary regales took place on Spielberg's original Jurassic Park (1993). According to Williams, Muren and the other higher ups on the movie prevented Williams from attempting computer-generated dinosaur modeling in favor of the approved go-motion approach even though Williams knew the CG would look better.
To revolt against his superiors, Williams rigged a 3D virtual model of a walking T-Rex skeleton in secret and snuck it into the VFX presentation to be shown to the crew. Legend has it that Jurassic Park's producer, Kathleen Kennedy, saw Williams' computer dinosaur model and immediately recognized it as genius. This was enough to convince Universal Pictures and Steven Spielberg to change Jurassic Park's special effects from stop motion to computer-generated. Despite the victory, Williams never benefitted from his breakthrough; he was disappointed to tell the camera he wasn't made animation supervisor on the movie after all. As a matter of fact, the CG dinosaurs earned Dennis Muren, Williams' boss-turned-nemesis, the Oscar for Best Visual Effects and he never credited Williams for his creation.
The Cost of Being a Rebel...
These clashes with Muren, including a time when Steve Williams referred to the ILM top brass as "pencil neck geeks," culminated in Williams being fired from ILM after the movie Spawn (1997). For Williams, it turned out his punk disposition, his sticking it to The Man, only limited his promising career. “Art is about always questioning established systems” Williams says. Yet unless you’re making a Stan Brakhage abstract film in your garage, you can’t forget that moviemaking is a cooperative business as much as it as an art, and as such, you have to make deals with people you often don't even like to achieve your artistic vision.
This is the balance every legend of cinema has had to strike. It was the divide within the New Hollywood movement between the post-60s anti-establishment auteurs who wanted to tear everything down and the Movie Brats who wanted to emulate those before them. In his newest book Cinema Speculation, Quentin Tarantino illustrates this civil war by reporting on a dinner between up-and-coming Dennis Hopper and Peter Bogdanovich and Old Hollywood legend George Cukor in which Hopper says "we're gonna bury you" to Cukor. Bogdanovich was mortified that his buddy Hopper was disrespecting a legend they should be worshipping and learning from, but for Hopper, the revolution entailed animosity.
Tarantino goes on to write that Hopper's side of the movement, sometimes referred to as the Hollywood Hills Hippies, viewed the legends of Old Hollywood like John Ford, John Wayne, Howard Hawks, Charlton Heston, Julie Andrews, Blake Edwards, and Rock Hudson as the establishment. Like Steve Williams, they saw themselves as revolutionaries overthrowing the old order instead of up-and-coming artists carrying on the old guard’s tradition. Hopper's approach was shared by Robert Altman, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, Arthur Penn, John Cassavettes, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson. For them, "it was the foreign directors of the 50s and 60s plus Orson Welles that had made them want to be filmmakers. But it was the counterculture that made them want to be artists." And to hang their art up, they had to tear down what was already there.
The Movie Brats like Bogdanovich, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, Milius, Schrader, and De Palma saw things differently. They viewed themselves as the grateful inheritors of a tradition that began with directors like Howard Hawks and John Ford. Tarantino jokes that “Bogdanovich had seen more movies in one year than Altman had seen in his life.” The Movie Brats didn’t want to make art film meditations on genre film, they wanted to make the best genre films ever made. They were such cinephiles that many of their own films were remakes or homages to the works of the masters. When Brian De Palma went on The Dick Cavett Show in the late 70s, his nickname was the New Hitchcock.
Ultimately, the Movie Brats prevailed and became the most culturally impactful cohort of the new wave and (arguably) of American movie history. By doing so, they became the new establishment they once looked up to. I fear Steve Williams favored the approach of Hopper and the hippies to his own disadvantage and that he would have been better off appealing to Dennis Muren. If Williams had secured his own strong foothold at ILM first, then he could have made whatever anti-authority statement he desired. Or as Robert Downey Jr. once said: "Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the fuck you were gonna do anyway."
"Computers Transform Tinseltown..."
At the same time that Steve Williams' career took a turn for the worse, the entire industry declined. The success of Jurassic Park (1993) made computer graphics the hot new thing; Hollywood began pumping out poor digital effects and monstrous spectacles that, according to Williams, destroyed filmmaking. In an interview, Williams, now being referred to as Dr. Frankenstein, admits that he regrets pioneering the CGI technology which resulted in the triumph of tech over art. People wanted more junk and they wanted it faster and faster. Leberecht brings in a series of seasoned experts to weigh in on the decline. Legendary creature design and stop-motion VFX artist, Phil Tippett, whose movie Mad God (2021) I reviewed here, agrees that the era between 1994 to 2002 was the period when motion pictures stopped being director-controlled and started becoming corporate-driven shallow spectacles. To him, this was the beginning of the end. Tippett has an air of "the corporations took it all over and fucked it up and made crummy superhero movies." Another one of Leberecht's interviewee agrees and explains that a movie is a triangle of art, technology, and business and that if any one of those elements gets bigger than the others, the movie falls apart. Executives coopted this new tech and began saying let’s re-do everything digitally 3D that was done 2D the first time, creating a wave of horrible rehashed films similar to the remake craze of today.
Just as the industry's fate is sealed, Leberecht's portrait turns tragically personal when he shows Williams' self-destructive alcoholism brought on presumably by his divorce and his unemployment after a poor reception of his animated directorial debut The Wild (2006). We hear about Williams' struggles and flaws from his daughter and two exes. We see a shot of him chugging a beer while arriving at an alcohol addiction clinic. It's frustrating to watch a brilliant animator who was championed by James Cameron and who helped bring Jurassic Park's iconic dinosaurs to life now struggle to pay his mortgage and stay sober.
You feel for Steve Williams but you also want to reach through the screen and shake some sense into him; he's convinced movies are about "questioning established systems” but you can't help but think he should have been more concerned with "playing the game," getting out of his own way, and cooperating with his boss enough to enact his punk change from within. Director Scott Leberecht is also a little too eager to accept Williams' story as the victimized kid genius shut out by the evil executives without challenging this more or hearing the other side of the coin. That said, if the mark of a good documentary is its ability to simultaneously explore the precisely personal as well as the spirit of an entire era, than Jurassic Punk shines as a sort of gonzo journalist crash course on the decline of Williams and the industry at large: as long as Leberecht doesn't claim any objectivity in his fiery telling of this tale, 3.5/5 stars.