Let me be clear from the start: This is NOT about VFX artists, especially those in CGI, as the public is just beginning to realize that the industry has been operating on labor exploitation, impossible deadlines and cutthroat underbidding. And by the way, you could read about this from way before peak-MCU and peak-streaming, forcing a community to churn out eight-figure-budget seasons of TV on a yearly basis. They are doing the best they can under the worst of unethical circumstances: Corporations claiming that there’s more VFX work available than any time before, while they reap record profits and penny-pinch the one item that’s supposed to be the most expensive.
I wanted to write about The Gray Man because it’s the perfect example of our current breed of blockbusters: The ones that become spectacular failures in their utter mediocrity. I wanted to write about how ugly it looked, how unengaging the action set pieces were, how there was nothing about it to make you say “I’d watch that again.” But then my favorite small YouTube channel just released this gem saying everything I wanted to say and then improving on it:
It’s only 20 minutes and a brilliant recap masterclass on the basics of directing action and spectacle, but also goes into the heart of why so many blockbusters look so fugly. For the Too long/didn’t watch: They claim that even without the cliché plot and bored performances, the direction is so choppy, so unbalanced and so hard to follow that it is not an attack on your senses (like good ol’ Michael Bay) but an attack on your memory. Have you ever felt at an MCU movie that your brain is struggling to convince itself that the action is enthralling (or during a Zack Snyder movie for that matter)? That’s what they are talking about. According to In/Frame/Out, this is what the MCU “fix it in post” approach to filmmaking has done with the Russo brothers, who were previously known for directing some of the best action in a TV series and the best action in any MCU movie, period. Some will blame the Infinity War-Endgame movies, but I think it all started with Captain America: Civil War and the overhyped airport battle … which was an excellent set-piece, telling multiple stories through action. However, the MCU took the wrong lesson from it and became enamored with the two-page panel, everybody-on-everybody battles we see in comics. I’m gonna get sh*t for this, but I really hate those mass brawls in comics because you can’t tell a damn thing.
The irony is even worse when you realize the Russo brothers wrote and co-produced what, we have to admit, was a pretty great action movie … for Netflix: Extraction. If they had only dropped the Third-World color filter, I might consider it a future classic. But that’s exactly what the Russos should’ve done with The Gray Man. However, Extraction had the same key ingredient behind John Wick or Atomic Blonde, the kind of action movies we all love and remember: A director who is also a stunt coordinator.
I have a lot of hope for what the incorporation of stunt artists and coordinators above-the-line will have on blockbusters, because they are doctors in two things: How to make a story tangible on the screen through action, but also what it means to put your body on the line, what it means to be a below-the-line film industry worker. It’s no coincidence that the best and most memorable blockbusters of the last decade are a product of a movie star turning himself into a stunt performer (or as it is actually known, doing what Jackie Chan has done since day one). That crazy bastard Tom Cruise has raised the bar; how am I supposed to feel excited about CGI Ryan Gosling jumping from an exploding plane, catching a heavy in the air to steal his parachute when the former did it for real? Or when Point Break also did it for real? Or when Moonraker did it for real? This leads me to the original reason I wanted to write this “old man yells at cloud” screed: This scene from the Uncharted movie:
Cool flex, bro, but they already did it in The Living Daylights, all the way back in 1987, with pretty good transitions between the stunt-double shots and the ones with the actors:
Of course, our current celebrity culture demands that we see the faces of the stars as much as possible, not just the backs of a look-alike, but also, no one wants to become the guys who dropped Tom Holland from a C-17 to his death because the line of succession will move to Timothée Chalamet and he clearly isn’t interested in doing MCU movies. Of course, we now have the technology to replace the face of a stuntman with the star’s, something that was tried all the way back to Skyfall in 2012, but that raises relevant ethical questions and, more importantly for the industry, it f**ks with the actor’s ego. Then again, Tom Cruise raised the bar for Hollywood actors doing stunts, and so did Keanu and Charlize for that matter.
The second agent behind the mediocrity and ugliness in the current crop of blockbusters is, as it has been mentioned several times before, that the artists for the tactile part of cinema happen to be unionized: Stunt performers, costume and production designers, make-up artists, etc. That’s not counting that all the above-the-line workers, as well as editors and cinematographers, are also unionized, no way to get around those. But since CGI artists are yet to unionize and can also create anything from scratch, the neoliberal dogma dictates that you should always prioritize the cheaper, more easily controllable alternative, not only at the expense of workers in every field of the industry but at the expense of the actual product you offer. You wanna get an entire bridge fight scene between Doctor Octopus and Spider-Man filmed inside a room lined with blue fabric? Because that’s how you… you know the joke.
CGI artists suffer from what made their job possible in the first place. They were doing remote work before it was cool. That work can be done anywhere in the world with the same level of quality, but at whatever the local rate is and whatever an independent contractor is willing to be paid. This of course complicates unionization … but it’s also a unique opportunity. I am convinced that the VFX community is in a privileged position for moving toward unionization in a world of multi-national, off-shore-crazy corporations.
Labour rights are always the answer, in evidence NÂº 3,901,765 of why Neoliberalism is self-destructive. As anyone who has bought something from H&M can tell you, exploited work leads to crappy products (f**king set of boxers, ripped apart after merely 6 months). Film executives should be wary because you can’t keep offering crappy spectacle without making it actually spectacular, as In/Frame/Out argues. Otherwise, people will turn to video games, where you can actually be in the experience. Just ask the Zoomers.