So @fuckyeahisawthat linked this Cracked article about why big-budget CGI often flops, and naturally I had to compare the whole thing to Fury Road. A lot of the points in that article boil down to ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ – CGI removes a lot of restraints, and directors run waaaaay too far with that.
And yet, Fury Road has zero restraint, and it turns out awesome instead of cringeworthy. So what’s going on? I’m not at all a film critic, but here are my Thoughts.
Most of the issues around CGI involve not quite getting it right, either by messing up gravity, putting cameras in unlikely places, or just pulling stunts that break your belief that this could actually happen. Fury Road avoids this by actually doing their stunts. It looks like it’s really happening, because it’s really happening.
Fury Road does use lots of CGI to build landscapes, and here it goes for the flip side of the ‘that doesn’t look real’ coin: it’s not supposed to look real, it’s supposed to look like a graphic novel brought to life. It’s orange and teal, but
rather than looking like someone put sunglasses on the camera the colors are pushed to the point where it looks like it’s been painted. And as Mad Max has done from the beginning, the costuming and vehicles add to the sense that this is a fantasy rather than a reality.
But then there are places where Fury Road does actually exercise a great deal of restraint. The fights are gritty scrabbles for any weapon they can lay their hands on, not choreographed blocks and high kicks. The energy of sequences never gets interrupted for the sake of a gag or characters being cool. And the wilder the action, the more careful it is about maintaining center frame.
There are two points in the movie where something happens that is so overly dramatic that it makes me question whether people could actually do that. One is the “Witness Me!” kamikaze dive, the other is Rictus pulling the supercharger out of the War Rig.
(I couldn’t find a gif of Rictus. You know the moment I’m talking about though.)
But here’s the thing: Both of those moments are emotional climaxes. Both of them involve people who know that they’re dying and are making a superhuman last stand, because that’s what their world calls for. And both of them are given recognition and a moment of catharsis. This is where special effects usually fall apart for me: something mindblowingly epic happens, but the film treats it like a background moment rather than recognizing the awesome in-universe and giving it time to unfold. Like, here is a classic example of mind-blowing special effects that are also really important to the story and are given narrative weight:
Imagine if this were a throwaway moment happening in the middle of a different fight sequence. It would be cool but forgettable. But because the directors used their shiny new toy in service of the plot, it’s iconic. Compare to any of the action sequences in the Matrix sequels, all of which pushed CGI further and none of which I can actually remember.
All that to say: The line between big-budget action sequences being inane and utterly awesome has a lot to do with restraint and timing, and Fury Road actually has a lot of both.
Something that occurred to me is that if you stripped the cgi from MMFR, it’d still be an amazing movie. The characters, the plot, the emotion – all of that, all of the meat and bones of the movie – would still be there. A lot of big-budget, big-graphics movies these days seem to rest completely on the special effects, often to the detriment of the story.
Yeah…in addition to what’s already been said, there are so many other elements that make MMFR’s action sequences good on a technical level.
They have an amazing sense of rhythm, figuring out the moments that are important enough to slow down for and the moments that should be so unrelenting you can’t breathe. That’s mostly due to Margaret Sixel’s superb editing.
George Miller is fantastic at using wide shots–sometimes really, REALLY wide shots–to create a sense of scale and awe, and also help us stay oriented on where vehicles are in relation to each other. I also noticed by viewing number ~mumblemumble~ that he’s really great at getting reaction shots from the characters around the action and using those to heighten the emotional impact–again, a combination of direction, cinematography, performance and editing.
He’s also really good at planting all the information you need to understand the action sequences (even if you’re too overwhelmed the first viewing…or seven…to absorb it all). Even a new, surprising element like the Polecats is carefully set up near the beginning of the movie.
Sound plays a huge role in making the action feel dangerous, whether it’s the sound effects of weapons hitting bodies and cars hitting each other, or the actual score.
I could probably go on…but the reality is you can have all of this stuff be technically perfect, but what makes action exciting is having a good fucking story. We understand who the characters are and why they’re doing what they’re doing, and we’re invested in whether they succeed. You can have the most technically proficient action sequence in the world, but what makes it scary and exciting is whether we care about the people doing it.
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