The term “special effects” has become an ugly one for me in modern cinema. There was a time when SFX referred to make up effects, miniatures, green screen, stop motion, traditional animation, puppetry, stunts, and CGI. Now “special effects” only seems to involve CGI. Even traditional make up effects have gone CGI. Anytime someone says a film had “great special effects” they usually mean it had “good CGI.”
Mad Max Fury Road uses CGI. It uses it the way my other modern action film favorite, Dredd, did: to enhance scenes, NOT to create them. Fury Road, like Dredd and like everything directed by my favorite currently active director, Edgar Wright, uses primarily practical effects. Every car you see racing through the dusty desert, every weird character, all their odd costumes, even the crazy life-threatening stunts, are all actually happening. There is one large CGI set-piece used for the close of Act I, the dust storm. It should be noted that the way this scene was shot it was shot as though on a real camera. The angles are believable the camera never does a Peter Jackson-style swing through the top of the clouds, down through the funnel, then out to the cars. So even though the massive storm is computer creation we believe it to be real because it is filmed as realistically as the really real material.
CGI is again used at the end of the film to enhance one of the movie’s spectacular crashes. Pieces were nudged to make them crowd more, and the debris was enhanced to give the scene an almost wryly comical punch (immediately after one of the emotional climaxes of the film it was well-played). Here again the scene was shot realistically, but items added to enhance the scene in question.
There is something about having an actual item in front of the camera. It’s why original Star Wars miniature shots and the opening to Star Trek: The Next Generation have a timeless charm, where the lifeless animated creatures from the newer Star Wars films haven’t resonated as much. It’s also why Lucas’ use of WWII fighter footage made such good dogfighting scenes in A New Hope. Everything behaved or was based on reality. Something in our brains tells us that real items don’t behave the way CGI would often have us believe. I’m not one to rail completely against CGI, but seeing what can be accomplished when computer technology is combined with classical practical effects as seen in Scott Pilgrim, Dredd, and Fury Road as opposed to the dead-eyed, green screen covered worlds often encountered in big-budget action, sci-fi, and fantasy films of the modern era.
Editing is horribly abused in modern film. Everyone uses the same tropes (the silence then punch line, the quick shots and cuts in fights, etc) and no one really understands why these techniques are used. Looking at modern fight scenes, even in fun modern action movies like The Expendables, James Bond, or Bourne films, close shots are used with wobbly shoulder-cams and rapid cuts. It’s almost designed to make it difficult to follow. In his documentary My Stunts Jackie Chan pointed out that in old Chinese martial arts films they wanted to see the toes of each combatant. There is a benefit to this as you see the full scene and understand the narrative of the fight. Chan’s films cut much closer, but still many fight scenes occur in wider shots, only changing angles when scenery or a closer shot is needed as an insert for a stunt that couldn’t quite work. Modern editing seems to be making up for the fact that most actors in these films can’t perform the scenes and also making up for the fact that they can’t create scenes that are well choreographed. Watching Max’s fearsome brawl with Furiosa is a treat. It is shot wide enough to see the action. Everything in the story of the fight (Wrestler Brett “Hitman” Hart often discusses the importance of getting the story of a fight clear, each combat has a narrative and the combatants have to tell their part) is obvious and the fight itself is rousing. Max uses subterfuge at first. Then Furiosa uses distraction. Both attack and defend brutally, Max only holding back as he isn’t, by nature, a heartless killer of innocents. Warboy Nux and Joe’s wives, spectators to the combat begin to interfere, pulling Max and Furiosa with chains even tackling them and attempting to provide assistance to their chosen side. In the end, even though the fight is sped up slightly, put it on full fast-forward, and it still makes sense. You know the story of the combat and who has the upper hand and why.
Editing mixed with great direction is even more important. Prior to the fight mentioned above, Max asks for water. Furiosa begins to bring it to him but Max, studying her carefully, decides it’s best if the rather dangerous imperator doesn’t get too close and gestures for one of the wives to bring him water. Then gestures for another to cut the chain that’s binding him. During this sequence nearly no dialogue is spoken but the messages are clear. In a wonderful piece of combined editing and direction, Furiosa (out of focus in the background) is obscured by the wives helping Max. They shift slightly and we see her rapidly charging him, then she tackles him. It’s a brilliant piece of subtle filmmaking that you just don’t see anymore. A perfect “marriage” as it were of editing and directing.
It’s been said that sound design is one of those things you never notice unless it is done badly; lo-res sounds, poorly chosen effects, a badly cast voice actor can all derail even the best-shot, well-crafted narrative. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film with better sound design. From the rusty roar of engines to the barren sound of the desert, the effects are spot on. Furthermore, the way the sound effects combine the score is even more impressive. Like the famous repeated refrain of Beethoven’s 5th there is a rhythm that appears again and again. It appears when Furiosa knocks dust from the Rig’s intake. When Nux pounds his head on the tank. A repeated “boom” followed by a series of rhythmic booms that almost serves as Fury Road’s heartbeat. Sometimes (such as while Furiosa pounds sand off the warrig’s air intakes) it starts as foley, but is joined with the rhythmic drums of the score. This combination of effects and score are almost wonderfully married in the Doof Warrior, whose guitar strains are both part of the film and part of the soundtrack. Hearing the strains of the warparties’ drummer boy ominously announcing their approach in the distance or over sweeping aerial shots is a great device, to hear it combined with the music during the action sequences suggests sound design that has reached another level. It got everything right in Fury Road and it should NOT be ignored.
So where does this leave Mad Max Fury Road in terms of Academy Awards? A film wonderfully conceived, tightly written, masterfully shot, and beautifully designed? My guess? Without an Oscar. Maybe one for editing or sound design. But none of the “big” awards for which it’s nominated. Why? For one Fury Road is not an “Oscar” movie. Though the Academy has voted for some so-called revolutionary films in the past (though I’m not sure I’d call The Artist that…) it has stayed firmly grounded in typical Oscar bait. Normally traditional. Typically Drama. Portrayals broad and “against type.” It’s why the “supporting” role awards are almost always much more interesting and usually filled with the better performances. So when something entirely traditional (I’m guessing The Revenant) wins everything this Sunday keep in mind that, even though the talented staff and cast of Fury Road walked out of the Dolby Theatre onto Hollywood Boulevard without as many of the little gold statues as they deserve, they do deserve enormous recognition for what they achieved and will hopefully win the vote of public opinion as “The People’s Best Picture of 2015.”