Sense of Scale (2012)

Sense of Scale is an independently produced documentary, in which filmmaker Berton Pierce interviews some of the most high profile models makers from the visual effect industry about their work. The documentary contains virtually nothing but talking head interviews and stills.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this film is not for everybody. Only those with a certain interest in visual effects need apply, and if you're one of those folks who thinks CGI is the best thing ever, don't bother watching at all. Or wait a minute, maybe you should watch it! Maybe this film is exactly what you need?

What Sense of Scale does is paint a picture of how the model makers worked, and what kind of people they are. The film opens with a few of the interviewees explaining how they got started in the business, then we move on to stories from Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Space: 1999 (1975). Those who have followed the model makers through their most exhilarating period - the late 70's to the late 80's - will see many familiar faces.

The film moves from interview to interview at a decent pace. There's a good flow of information, and these people have so many fantastic stories to share. Plenty of well-known movies are covered, from Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) to recent projects like Moon (2009), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010) - and I have to highlight The Abyss (1989) as one of my personal favorites.

Sense of Scale doesn't seem to have a big central theme or point that it's working towards, it sort of goes around in circles a little bit, but since the stories are interesting, it doesn't really matter. Even at 136 minutes for this extended cut I never got bored for a second.

The film covers a couple of central subjects with headlines like "High and low budget productions" or "CGI and Practical effects". Surprisingly most of the model makers enjoy the low budget productions more than the big budget films, and their explanations for this are wonderful. When the discussion turns to CGI there's a certain amount of bitterness to detect among some of the model makers, and rightfully so. It must leave a bitter taste to be pushed aside in favor of shiny CGI, only to watch this new toy produce so many inferior results (especially in the early days). I guess the film occasionally gets a little inside baseball, but since we've already established that you need to have a certain interest in the field to begin with that's not surprising.

In terms of the filmic style Sense of Scale is not rocket science. Each interview is only shot from one angle, with one framing, but the footage looks reasonably good and the sound is very clean - only a bit of mike noise here and there.

Hundreds of behind the scenes stills are used to break up the interviews or illustrate what the model makers are talking about, and perhaps that sounds a little dull, but I must underline that these are AMAZING stills, and I could easily watch a slide show just with them. A simple moody score occasionally plays in the background, when there's a title card or a headline for a new section, and that's it. It's very simple, but it works. We're here for the stories, after all, not flashy filmmaking.

One thing I was missing, though, was some film clips to illustrate the stories, but for an independently produced film like this it was probably impossible to secure rights to actual film clips, and that's a shame. It's also a shame that more behind the scenes footage was not included - all we get is a handful of brief clips - but again, this was probably impossible to get.

Another thing I could have used was film titles on the behind the scenes stills. Mostly this is not a problem, but every now and then there was a model or a landscape I couldn't identify, but it didn't affect the overall appreciation of the film.


No bells and whistles on this one.

Disc 1 contains the main feature, with a running time of 136 minutes. There's a "play feature" button, and that's it. No subtitle options, no alternate soundtracks, no chapter overview, no extras, nothing. Take it or leave it. Disc 2 features 45 minutes of deleted scene. There's also only a "play deleted scenes"-button and that's it.

The footage is presented in 16:9 with stereo sound.


I feel like I should underline the low-budget nature of this film. This is not a big polished behind the scenes documentary, but there are still several reasons for buying and watching it.

First of all, it's a treat to watch these talented artists talk about their work. Second, making models for movies is a disappearing art form. That's a real shame, and we need to remember all the wonderful images models have given us throughout film history. This film will help us with that.

And finally, you should buy and watch this film, because a guy like Berton Pierce took the time to make it. Sense of Scale is a work of passion, and there's simply nothing else like it out there.

NOTE: The film can be bought from this official website.


Why do CGI creatures always scream at the camera?

So I was watching Show White and The Huntsman the other day (*). There's a scene where the titular duo stumble upon a huge, giant (**), computer animated (***) monster thingy (****), and what does it do? It screams at them. Directly at the camera (*****)(******).

And then I was thinking.... That happens quite often doesn't it? I mean, a CGI creature screaming directly at the screen. I wonder how often. So I went through my shelves, just to get an idea about how many of those shots I could find in a quick search of my own film collection.

These are the ones I found:


Troll in Snow White and the Huntsman (2012).

Cave troll in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001).

The Kraken in Clash of the Titans (2010).

The zombie leader in I Am Legend (2007).

The mummy in The Mummy (1999).

And the mummy in The Mummy (1999) again.

The flashback creature in The Mummy Returns (2001).

Zombie pygmies in The Mummy Returns (2001).

Hulk in The Avengers (2012).

Some alien soldier from The Avengers (2012).

Arena creature in John Carter (2012).

Ice planet creature in Star Trek (2009).

King Kong in King Kong (2005).

Jake in Avatar (2009).

... And his flying buddy in Avatar (2009).

The kid in Up (2009) (*******).



That's what I've got, though I'm sure I missed some obvious ones. If you think of others, sound off in the comments below.

I'm off to watch Jaws, I'm pretty sure it's got no CGI creatures screaming at the camera.


(*) It was Saturday, September 8th.

(**) "Huge" and "giant" mean roughly the same, I realize that.

(***) This is NOT a dig at those wonderful people who work so hard creating these wonderful monsters. It really isn't. I promise.

(****) It's a troll, I know.

(*****) Yes, I realize there's technically no camera, since the creatures aren't real.

(******) Sorry for these notes, but recent experiences have taught me to be extra precise when I mention CGI.

(*******) This is a joke.


Did CGI break the visual effect industry's back?

Yesterday it was announced that one of Hollywood's big effect facilities, Digital Domain, had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. At this time it's unclear if the studio will make it through this crisis *. This came in the wake of the news that another prominent effect facility, Matte World Digital, closed its doors only a few weeks ago. There's no denying that the visual effect industry is under pressure.

Digital Domain was founded in the early 90's, backed by three industry heavies: James Cameron, Stan Winston and Scott Ross.

The studio quickly made a name for itself, by producing visual effects for True Lies (1994), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and Apollo 13 (1995), and earning Academy Award nominations for two of them. In the early days James Cameron put his full weight behind the facility, but he has long since left it behind. Since 1997, when Digital Domain won the Oscar for Titanic, the company had been struggling. They worked on countless huge effect films, delivering outstanding work, but they rarely found a high profile project they could call their own. In 2008 the company did win the Academy award for one of the most impressive visual effect efforts in recent memory, the David Fincher directed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but that was the exception to the rule.

Industrial Light and Magic has a profile, WETA has a profile, Double Negative has a profile. There's still a small chance that Digital Domain can pull through, but if they do come out on the other side, this lack of a clear profile will have to be addressed.

In 1993 Jurassic Park opened, and changed the visual effect scene overnight. A gross simplification perhaps, but not entirely untrue. Since then the effect industry has been on a downward spiral. Full service facilities - capable of creating effects using a wide variety of techniques - have shut down or changed. Model departments were discontinued, optical departments were a thing of the past, matte paintings were now done with a mouse and a digital pen, rather than actual paint and brush.

Simultaneously the attitude towards visuals effects changed, and the need for effects rose dramatically. In the past even big effect films had only a couple of hundred effect shots, but today big budget effect films often have over 2000.

Computer opened new possibilities, but they also closed the door on variety and ingenuity. Old school visuals effects forced filmmakers to think outside the box, to use every trick in the book. Not only that, but they were forced to hire highly skilled, experienced artists to pull off their illusions. Anybody can do visual effects on a computer. We all have computers, we all work with them every day, and off-the-shelf software can easily be used to create perfect illusions. There's no longer any need for complex, versatile companies, with large studio spaces, model shops, and mechanical departments. Nothing is built, nothing is created.

The entry level for working in the visual effect industry today is so low that anybody could do it. The highly skilled artists that used to form the backbone of the industry are disappearing, and they won't be replaced.

The competition is fierce. Small companies underbid each other to extinction, just to get material for a show-reel, only to shut down after a few months, because they're not making any money. It's a vicious, self-destructive circle.

The effect industry is broken. And to be perfectly blunt: It's only going to get worse.

Flashback. 1990. Little Mr. Bjerre walks into a comic book store to check out their selection of film magazines. He's drawn in by a cover showing the familiar sight of two heroes carrying suspicious looking ray guns, the kind you bust ghosts with. This was the cover of Cinefex issue no. 40, featuring stories about Ghostbusters II (1989) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Cinefex is the industry's leading visual effect magazine. Since 1980 editor Don Shay and his posse have written about the major effect films four times a year. I remember flipping through those early volumes. I could barely read the highly technical text, but the images spoke volumes. They presented a completely unique look behind the scenes, and they were endlessly fascinating.

Present day. Cinefex has launched its iPad app and Mr. Bjerre considers canceling his subscription to the print edition. He hasn't done it yet, but he probably will.

It's been a long time since I read Cinefex magazine cover to cover. The articles just aren't that interesting any more, and the images do not entice me. It's no fault of the dedicated writers or the editor. It's not the articles that got smaller, it's the films. How much can you write about the rendering of metal surfaces on the robots of yet another alien invasion film? How interesting is it to consider the complicated mathematics behind the perfect breaking of a computer generated window? What kind of interesting behind the scenes stills can you use to bring the text to life? Another picture of a man behind a computer? A wireframe model? The empty shot, before the CGI was added?

I have no illusions that we can go back in time, I'm not even sure that I'd want to if we could. The perfect solution would be to combine everything a 100 years of visual effects production have taught us, with the capabilities of computers. That would take patience and skills, so it won't happen. It's too easy to go the CGI way. Easy for the producers, and for the directors. CGI has no soul, but the images are too good, to try something else.

I'm sorry if you read this far, thinking I had some sort of solution, or some comforting words. I don't. The game is over. It's all done. CGI is the future. The only thing we can do is remember the old films, and the artists who worked on them. And support the hell out of any current effect company who has the balls to do the same.

* Note: For a more comprehensive look at Digital Domain's financial structure and possible future, read the extensive article on FX Guide, by Mike Seymour.