So one of my favourite films is 'the dark crystal', and another of my favourite films is 'the world of the dark crystal'.
I strongly suggest you watch the whole thing:
The hour-long documentary details the two years of preproduction on the film, from earliest concepts all the way through to the filming. One of the reasons I loved it so much is it seems like a forgotten world of actual things made of actual stuff. It seemed like the very height of technology, as what they were doing was inevitably going to be superseded by the computer graphics that were just around the corner. I didn't know of any films that had a more intricate construction, and for the same reason that I love The Thing, from the same year: This, for me, was the peak of a brief period in cinema where the technology existed to create genuinely different, and realistic-looking, creatures, which could then just be filmed. The same year, Tron came out, a film that relished in unrealism, but that started a trend that fantasy films would be easier to realise on computers, which we are now seeing the fruits of. Later years presented Return of the Jedi (mostly people in suits and stop motion animation), Ghostbusters, Gremlins, even Labyrinth, but none of these for me match the achievements of The Dark Crystal.
"Do you remember the material world? Actual things?" said Stewart Lee in his recent run on the bbc. He was satirising observational comedy and nostalgia, but what was great about these films is that they were real things, put in front of the camera. The Thing was such an achievement: an explicit rejection of 'man in a suit' monster films. The techniques employed to create something that just could not exist in reality, but had to be created for the camera, are staggering. Watching the making of these two movies in 2011 is heart-rending. I maintain that all films are animations, and by using actors, puppets, drawings, computers or whatever, what matters is how you feel when you watch the flick-book. But I love the art and the industry that surrounds a physically grounded film. More recently Coraline broke my heart, with the incredible and round-about efforts that went into making the film.
I'm so glad that Guillermo del Toro has shown me to be wrong.
Watching the making of Hellboy 2 - there's 11 hours of bonus materials on the 4-disc hellboy boxset - gives me as much of a thrill as the films mentioned above, but more, because it proves that actual skills are still in use.
Hellboy definitely owes a huge debt to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth (as well as to 'The Wizard of Oz' in its 'three weird things and a girl learning life lessons' themes, and the troll market is reminiscent of the mos eisley cantina in star wars), in terms of the needless detail of its worlds, the look of some of its inhabitants (the elves not only look like gelfings, they look like they're made out of wood), and the variety of labours needed to be performed to bring it to life. But del Toro is doing this in the 21st Century, with competition from computer graphics and budgetary constraints, because he knows that the best way to get something to look real is to actually make it. Look at the wink character in this back-stage footage:
It looks just as good as in the film. And its not that del Toro doesn't use CGI; he just uses it when necessary, or to enhance the already-elaborate techniques employed in the making of the film. Plus, it's a massive improvement on the first film, which felt clichéd and generic, and repetitive, whereas The Golden Army feels like an amazing and fresh work of imagination. I suppose that's the main thing.
Take the last scene of the film; I was amazed to discover they actually built that rotating set, and got an olympic gymnast in to do those real leaps that the elf prince does. Dangerous stuff. It just feels like a counterblast to (especially) George W Lucas and his incessant star wars fiddling, which employs CGI in it's laziest, worst aspects. I just wonder what del Toro has left sitting in The Hobbit, and vice versa.