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June 23, 2005

In Praise of Dirt

I’ve seen the recent Star Wars prequels. Besides the usual criticisms, I feel that there was something missing from the visual feel of the new movies. And that thing was dirt.

CG effects and sets can’t deal with complex textures and hazy clouds of material. A CG object can never get smudged or scratched. It will never have a texture that changes in the light.

Do you remember that Mos Eisley scene? Do you remember how smoky it was? Do you remember what the gleam off of an over sized black eye ball looks like? Do you remember what non-rendered fur moved like? CG is over idealized and it destroys some of the vitality of Lucas’ otherwise imaginative designs.

But even beyond that, everything seemed sterilized for mass consumption. I know it was supposed to be at the height of the Empire, rather then the nadir, I know it was done on a high budget, but it really looked like a high budget production. A large part of the charm of the original is that the characters didn’t look like they were on a Hollywood set; they looked like they cared about their appearance, but not so much that the grit of daily life was invisible.

The Matrix is a good example of incorporation of CG but maintaining the gritty textured look of real life. However, perhaps the perfect example of a good use of dirt is the contrast between the costume design on Deadwood and the costume design on The Last Samurai. Both are set in the exact same year in the American West (for a few scenes at the beginning of the movie), Samurai in August, Deadwood in December. When I first saw The Last Samurai recently, I remember feeling a disappointing inauthenticity about their portrayal of the exact same year and approximate place of Deadwood. For a while I couldn’t put my finger on it. I am sure some of it was lighting and camera shots, but even then, I found that if I imagined the characters walking around in dusty dirty mud-spattered clothing, rather then costumes that no doubt came straight from the dry cleaners, much of that ambiguous feeling of dissatisfaction dissipated.

-The Jew

June 23, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

DOn't worry, Lucas will CGI everyone's clothes clean for the 30th anniversary super triple special platinum enhanced DVD release.

Posted by: norbizness | Jun 23, 2005 1:53:04 PM

DOn't worry, Lucas will CGI everyone's clothes clean for the 30th anniversary super triple special platinum enhanced DVD release.

Horrifying, but almost certainly true.

But if you want science fiction with dirt (and lots of it!), watch Firefly (on the Sci Fi channel) and Serenity (in theatres September 30). Besides the dirt, Joss Whedon is just a much better writer than Lucas.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 23, 2005 2:47:37 PM

As someone who saw the original Star Wars seven times in the theaters when it was first released, I whole heartedly concur. Aside from the great story telling, the major appeal of the film was its look. It looked like real stuff in real situations. The ships looked beat up and scratched, like battle ships would look like. Corridors and rooms were dusty, even on hi-tech cruisers, because crews apparently worked and lived in them. Heck, the crews and most of the characters looked like they would cuss and spit and belch any moment. We were kids then, but even we noticed that the movie didn't have the fake ultra gloss sheen that previous sci fi stuff had. We like the "realness".
"Alien" is another example of a good production gone wrong. That first movie is brilliantly done, so "real" it is almost too creepy to bear. That series slipped too and the last one was just a joke.

Posted by: sprocket | Jun 23, 2005 3:41:23 PM

I second the recommendation for Firefly.

They actually have the CGI do things like having the camera follow a moving ship, go out of focus and then have the image refocus, just like happens with real cameras dealing with real physical movement. Also engines are often blurred by heat exhaust.
And, yes, they have to deal with dirt (a frequent longing is to have enough shipleave to get a bath somewhere) and rust and oil and even mundane matters like foodprep and bathrooms.
One of the better descriptions I've heard of the series is to imagine if before Star Wars (the original), Han Solo had a larger crew than just Chewbacca. And it was written by Joss Whedon, so the dialog crackles.

It's REALLY worth seeing.

Posted by: Lis Riba | Jun 24, 2005 10:56:53 AM

I agree the new ones look clean, but I also think part of that is intended. The Republic was a place of order and cleanliness. The Jedi and respected nights. Remember the star destroyers in the original trilogy? They were always quite clean, save for the trash compacter scene)

The reason why everything was dirty in the original and because they were on dirty planets more often AND the rebels were, well, rebels, so they had to look dirty to fit with the 'rebel scum' theme!

Posted by: Adrock | Jun 24, 2005 3:39:56 PM

CG effects and sets can’t deal with complex textures and hazy clouds of material. A CG object can never get smudged or scratched. It will never have a texture that changes in the light.
I think my point about Firefly is that CG effects can do these things if the filmmaker cares enough to implement them.

Posted by: Lis Riba | Jun 25, 2005 10:15:17 AM

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Posted by: peter.w | Sep 16, 2007 9:38:41 PM

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