In this essay I’m going to compare two movies; original and its remake and focus on how visual effects were made for each movie. Firstly I’m going to write about the original movie and then about its remake and how it has developed opposite the original. I’m going to introduce the movie Poltergeist, its story and using my resources write about some of the most significant visual effects for the movie and how filmmakers achieved specific effects in that time using different techniques.
Poltergeist is telling us a classic story about a family who came to a new house haunted by evil forces. Everything starts with the youngest daughter who senses ghosts calling her to help them. When she is taken by them to ”the other side”, the family must come together to rescue her before she disappears forever.
Poltergeist would prove to be one of the best horror movies of the ’80s, thanks to its terrifying effects and creative storyline. The original moviewas awarded the BAFTA Award for Best Special Visual Effects and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Poltergeist (1982) / The Original
Director: Tobe Hooper
Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) VFX Supervisor: Richard Edlund
Visual effects, if they are done well, are not obvious. The older effects may look lame and unsophisticated for first time viewers by today’s standards. However, Poltergeist shows us that even using almost only practical effects created by hand can be very effective and breathtaking. The original Poltergeist scared a generation with its practical horror effects designed to disturb. These effects became legendary and inspired many filmmakers.
It all began with a description in the script for Steven Spielberg’s film Poltergeist: “â€¦and the house implodes.” It is referring to a one of the most significant scene in the movie in which the house of the Freeling family becomes so possessed by spirits of the dead that it is destroyed by implosion – it collapses upon itself and disappears. ILM was asked by Spielberg to create this effect and VFX supervisor Richard Edlund accepted this challenge.
While the actors shot their parts on a blue screen set, ILM went through months of testing and development to achieve Spielberg’s effect. They crafted a detailed model of the house out of balsa wood and corn flakes by a hand. The house had to break up into pieces and shrink into its center. It had to actually implode. Using vacuum system they finally achieved desired effect by threading thick steel cables through the model and funnel attached to a high powered vacuum. Whole scene was shot with a high-speed camera and done in one take.
One of the most memorable set pieces involved Robbie (Oliver Robins) being pulled from his bed by an evil tree through his window. The tree they used was an entire mechanical tree that actually grab the kid. However, the scene was shot in reverse and despite of this the footage looked better this way. It gives the tree personality.
Another significant and interesting shot was paranormal investigator Marty ripping his own melting face off. The VFX crew built a bust of the actor so there was no need to put special makeup on him. Spielberg was asked to rip the face flesh to bits because the production had only one bust to rip apart so the hands belong to Spielberg.
Some of the scenes were huge to create. Building up set on a huge revolving gimbal is one of them. Scene where Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is being dragged into closet is actually whole set turned 360 degrees so all the stuff just fell into closet. The key was attaching a static camera onto a rotating set. The same technique was used when esophagus is trying to devour the family. For this scene Spielberg wanted a full size enormous esophagus to engulf a bedroom. However, it was a model created by a hand, then filmed separately and then combined to the set. The scene is a masterpiece of optical compositing, as the miniature looks as it is actually part of the live-action set.
One of the biggest parts of the movie was lightening. In Poltergeist lightening was the key to create a mysterious atmosphere. We can see a lot of special lightening effects such as blasting light. Very useful effect was achieved using tanks of water with fishes where they put a big reflector behind the tank so they could achieve the effect of optical flares coming out of the closet.
Poltergeist (2015) / The Remake
Director: Gil Kenan
Shade VFX Supervisor: Bryan Godwin
Soho VFX Supervisor: Keith Sellers
In the early 1980s, there were no major computer generated visual effects but that’s probably to this film’s advantage. Early CGI often looks dated. Having said that, the practical effects crafted by hand and shot with camera tricks in the original Poltergeist really do hold up for the most part. The remake has almost only CG effects. It also introduces a couple of innovative concepts like sending a drone with a camera into the other side. ”There was just too great of an opportunity to put a camera through to the other side and see what it looks like over there,” Kenan said. “I just couldn’t resist.”
Most of the story remains the original but some of Kenan’s effects are not based on the original. For instance, the most significant effect ”the house implosion” from the original Poltergeist doesn’t take the place in the remake. They probably wanted to keep it more realistic so it ends only with the house falling apart without implosion.
It is obvious that Kenan was trying to follow the ”melting face” scene from the original regarding to a shot where we can see Erik (Sam Rockwell) in the kitchen seeing his face flowing black fluid. However, there is no melting face effect at all. I think he was only trying to keep the concept of someone’s face changing.
On the other hand he created something that we couldn’t see in the original movie – Kenan decided to include ”the other side” where Madison (Kennedi Clements) was being kept by ghosts. There we can see ghosts in another way than in the original. Using today’s technique they decided to create more deadly-looking creatures than ordinary transparent ghosts. The movie takes us deep into the other side. The scene where Madison and her brother Griffin (Kyle Catlett) are talking inside the other side is visually very dramatic and dark. VFX artists created 3D models of ghosts as well as the environment of the other side so it was all CGI. For the dramatic closing sequence of the gate of the other side artists form Milk studio created four shots of the evil spirit creatures working with Framestore.
I admire the work on the ”house implosion” effect. The technique used to create this kind of effect is creative and also very impressive. I admire the work of modelers who created the model to the detail so it looks exactly like the house in the movie and it is hardly noticeable.
Another very impressive creation is perfectly done glass matte painting of graveyard in the original Poltergeist where Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Teague (James Karen) are standing next to while talking at the hill. I would use very precise digital painting technique combined with 3D models to achieve this effect. Of course, using today’s advanced equipment it could be also done as a whole 3D environment combined with a real footage.
My personal favorite is the ”melting face” scene in the original movie. However, actor’s face suddenly changes into a bust and we can see it is not his face anymore. I would use different materials such as latex or silicone and make up technique on the actor’s face to make it more natural and avoid unwanted effect.
The scene from the other side from the remade Poltergeist is very well done in my opinion. I like that the whole scene is based on the slow motion with lightening effect creating very mysterious feeling while camera is going through.
In my opinion the original Poltergeist keeps its originality and horror feeling. Poltergeist has become one of the movies we will never forget. It take us to the world of classical effects and keeps us thinking how they achieved that. However, CGI opens the door to many opportunities today. The remake on the other hand is showing us how world of visual effects has developed. Some of the CGI effects in the remake are easily noticeable yet it still keeps its mysterious atmosphere during whole movie. Nowadays, filmmakers don’t have to use almost any practical effect but sometimes the result may not be as desired.
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