The Fan Who Cried CGI: An Analysis of the Visual FX in 2017's "IT"

By: Heather Seebach

***Warning: The following contains spoilers about 2017's IT***

The modern era of horror films has brought with it a slew of irritating fans. I'm not referring to ALL of them but you know the ones - the keyboard warrior slinging insults in the YouTube comments section, or that hipster rolling his eyes at every genre movie made since 1990. Their catchphrases are "overrated" and "meh", and they are triggered by the word "remake."

Then there are those three letters that every would-be critic throws around but only a fraction of them do so correctly - CGI. Every horror fan born before the ought's bemoans the loss of elaborate practical horror FX, and who could blame them? Like many people, my childhood was made better by the jaw-dropping work of legends such as Rob Bottin , Rick Baker, and Stan Winston. 

As an adult, I am a makeup effects enthusiast and I get very excited about practical effects in any film. Naturally, CGI has become the enemy of any "old-school horror fan" but it is not always a fair criticism. I personally cannot stand computer-generated blood on film - it is cheap and inauthentic. I HATE IT. I also hate to see the digitization of creatures that could have otherwise been created practically.

Laziness and cheap shortcuts have indeed been a bane upon modern horror. The same is true of remakes but then again, not all remakes are shit. And likewise, not all CGI is bad. Countless films use CGI without you even knowing it, for things like rain and fire. And then there are films that use 90% practical FX and still get berated for having 10% digital effects. Worse yet is when a film uses practical effects and the viewer still mistakes it for CGI!

Those latter scenarios have become annoyingly prevalent lately with the release of Andy Muschietti's film, IT. For the most part, critics and fans alike love the movie. Still, one criticism keeps coming up again and again: "Too much CGI."

It is an interesting argument considering how little CGI is actually in the film. I have not seen a single person discuss - let alone compliment - its extensive practical effects. The biggest example of course is Pennywise's fantastic FX makeup. From that giant cranium to the less-obvious touches like his cheek prosthetics [source], it is a sight to behold. Then there is Beverly's bathroom nightmare which utilizes gallons of practical FX blood and in-camera tentacles of hair filmed seemingly in reverse. One of the film's best scares is Pennywise leaping out of the projector image like a jack-in-the-box -- very much a practical effect -- and, thanks to forced perspective, suddenly appearing gigantic. The list goes on and on.

On the flip side, the film does have some CGI and it is not all good, either. Before I get into what works, I will start with what does not work. The worst offenders for me were Stan's flute lady and the moment when Pennywise bites Georgie. Granted, neither took me out of the film. Could flute lady have been created practically? Perhaps. I could have done without the character altogether, to be honest. As for the Georgie attack, I really wish it had been a practical effect but I suspect it was a logistical choice. The director told GQ: "Georgie talking to Pennywise was really complicated for the technical challenge. Having a six-year-old kid under the rain, talking into a hole. We shot part of that on location, and part on a stage we built. It wasn’t easy. We had to have the rain all the time, so there’s a water issue and a sound issue, and the logistics around putting a camera inside the tiny space of the hole, where Pennywise was." [source] So it stands to reason that it might have been too difficult to implement a fully-functioning mouth prosthetic in a tiny space filling with water. But a girl can dream, right? 

Then there are the CGI moments that do work, like the Deadlights scene or Pennywise unfolding from the ice box. I cannot imagine either being done well without digital effects. I think CGI was for the most part used appropriately and to great effect. To quote producer Barbara Muschietti:“Neither my brother, nor I, nor the other producers, nor New Line are fans of CGI....CG is used as a support tool in every circumstance; never as an element standing on its own. In every film, in this day and age, there is some CG, but we will use it as little as possible.” [source] In another interview, she added: "To be candid again, the effects budget is actually tiny [laughs]. There’s always support. We use CG mostly for transitions. So when you have things that are impossible then you have to do a little CG bridge." [source]

Since when do we let one or two weak CGI moments ruin a horror film anyway? When people talk about how great Let The Right One In was, they don't say "But that cat scene was garbage, took me right out of the film!" IT is a well-crafted movie full of great characters and performances with a solid heartfelt story. It does great things for modern horror, but all some people can add is, "Ew, CGI." And sometimes it's not even CGI! People demand original horror and practical effects, but when you deliver exactly that, they do not even recognize it. For instance, some people have criticized the fake appearance of Pennywise's eyes, and yet Bill Skarsgård has said he can move his eyes independently of each other [source] which, along with glowing contact lenses, gives him that bizarre look.

A behind-the-scenes photo from the set. Wonky yellow eyes and all. 
So too has the leper, Eddie's nightmare vision, been criticized as being "all CGI" and yet actor Javier Botet had this to say about that claim:

Botet in make-up as the leper on-set
Botet is often mistaken for a digital effect, having brought to life such nightmares as Mama from the same-titled film, and Niña Medeiros in [REC]. In fact, in The Conjuring 2, his portrayal of The Crooked Man fooled even me. The final effect looked very cartoonish but it is not CGI. As director James Wan explained:

IT too suffered from viewers mistaking camera trickery for CGI. From Pennywise charging the camera to his now-infamous jig, that odd sensation is not CGI. Muschietti & co. have not yet revealed how exactly those moments were created but it appears to involve foreground and background being independently manipulated. Pennywise's face remains fixed while the background rocks, shakes, and jolts. Call it an editing trick or call it silly if you like but please do not call it CGI. Admittedly, those scenes did not initially win me over, though I appreciate the filmmakers trying something unique. Upon repeat viewings, those moments have become part of the piece as a whole and I appreciate them more and more. 

Every time I see someone criticize "CGI" that is not even CGI, I think of how insulting that is to Muschietti, Skarsgård, Botet, cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (Chan-wook Park's go-to DP), and the entire effects team, which includes FX legend Tom Woodruff, Jr. Disliking a film or its effects is fair enough but too many people toss the term "CGI" around haphazardly these days. I am reminded of the complaints about Alien 3 having "crap CGI" when in fact it had almost none. Did those alien rod puppets on a blue screen look shitty? Yes but that does not change the fact it WAS NOT CGI. Needless to say, it is a pet peeve of mine as an FX enthusiast.

For clarification, I have no problem with anyone disliking the film or even its FX, specifically. I only take umbridge to the lazy assumption that everything you dont like is CGI, and the closed-minded notion that good horror can't use digital effects. It is especially bothersome when the target of such complaints is a film loaded with creative practical effects such as this one.

I suppose I mostly have grown weary of horror snobs, particularly ill-informed ones. From the moment this incarnation of IT was announced, it had folks against it simply for existing. All remakes suck, they say. Never mind that it is a re-adaptation of a novel where the first adaptation was not very good. GASP! That's right, the 1990 adaptation was dull and has aged even worse since then. Tim Curry is a brilliant actor who elevated that otherwise tedious mini-series. Still, there are half-committed snobs who will tell you no modern version could ever be as good. The same folks who insist that all CGI sucks, period, and that this looks absolutely flawless:


**Editors Note: I felt my use of the term 'millennial' in the intro was creating a combative tone against all fans born of the millenial generation which was not my intention. Being a millennial myself, I was referring only to the particular type of nay-saying fan that seems most common to my generation but I do not want to come across as trashing an entire group of fans so I have altered my wording. Thank you.**

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