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Buck stops here
Suckered in by a wildly mendacious trailer, Camus is a pushover for dog movies. But it turns out that THE CALL OF THE WILD's lead dog Buck is more a technical exercise in CG one-pupmanship. In comparison, Camus re-examines a landmark from last year and what it may mean for civilisation…
 
  "I think part of the comfort they give us is because it's tactile. They have this lovely fur that we like to run our hands through. They're warm, little living creatures. And they're defenceless, basically. And they respond very directly and simply to our moods, to our behaviour, to our attention – and they become very loyal companions."
  Harrison Ford (Jack Thornton)*

 

So what does a computer-generated cast of animals have in common with a young Will Smith? It's what they don't have in common that's the point.

If I know something someone else wants to know regardless of its importance to the fate of the world, if they turned on my dogs I'd not only spill the beans, I'd vomit launch codes. Dogs manage to crawl under that protective layer shielding emotional vulnerability and make a scrunched up nest in there. If there is a greater sight to soothe the soul than a dog running for the pure joy of running, then I don't know what it is. I have two and both are almost a constant joy to me. I only say almost because there have been a few moments of copious solids and fluids let loose in our kitchen that take an age to clean up. I despair of the cracks in the floorboards. Dogs can teach us to live in the moment because they do nothing else. I often wish that dogs weren't so vulnerable but that aspect of their character makes our responsibility to them even more important. And then, there's that 'special' level of hell reserved for those that mistreat dogs. I'm not going to spend too much time (in fact the next two paragraphs) reviewing The Call of the Wild because computer generated effects threw up a more important event – some might suggest world changing – last year. More on that after this…

It's the late 19th century and Buck, a pampered St. Bernard cross, lives in luxury in California. Stolen by dog traffickers, he ends up in the Yukon working in a pack pulling a mail sled across the frozen wastes. The charming and charismatic Omar Sy and Cara Gee play the mail couriers Perrault and Françoise. Gee's wonderfully rasping voice would be enough for me to be entertained. She's an actress with that rare gift of being still and prepared to really listen to her fellow actors. She simply shines in this role despite her modest amount of screen time. Omar Sy is just a simple, but glorious powerful force of nature. They both warm to Buck after he saves Françoise's life. Just as we were getting used to Buck getting settled, the couriers are laid off and the dogs are recruited by a small team of desperately ill-equipped city-schmucks led by mega-schmuck Hal including the only person with any sensitivity but no power, Mercedes (Karen Gillan). For all the subtlety of Dan Steven's performance as Hal (not his fault), you'd expect to see callouses on his fingers from all that moustache twirling. As directed, his über-rage may even be inappropriate in a pantomime. Harrison Ford's grieving and hurt John Thornton releases Buck (making an enemy of Hal) and nurses him back to health. Once recovered, Buck and his intrepid new master brave the rapids and find an abandoned log cabin where Buck meets his wild ancestors and Thornton has a run in with the bad guy. Most of the secondary comments about the film have reminded us how unfaithful the film is to its source material. Let's put it this way; the original tale is a lot darker but, I presume, the filmmakers were chasing the toddler ticket, which is why they perhaps weren't too concerned about what has dominated the reviews and prompted this one. The Call of the Wild is more an animated film with some live action than vice versa…

Harrison Ford as John Thornton

If you've seen the trailer or read a review or two you will know that all the animals in this film were computer generated. Now the very young are probably used to this from their exposure to the Disney remakes and will let the characters' obvious artificiality wash over them. As long as Buck does funny things and makes readable human expressions, the kids are happy. Buck gives the word 'anthropomorphic' a steroid injection or ten. But the filmmakers must have known that they were not going to pull this off and have a more mature audience accept CG animals as real. It was central to the vision of the film that the director had absolute mastery over the animal performances, hence there's not one real critter in the whole enterprise. Shots were designed and one might say over-produced because they had pixel-control over their animal characters. There was no way they were going to mix live action and CG animals because comparisons would leave the CG creatures in the snow (unless they spent an obscene amount of money or employed the once mighty Rhythm and Hues – the company responsible for the extraordinary effects of Life of Piand spent an obscene amount of money). But is that control worth denting and damaging the suspension of disbelief? As Buck and co. go about their business, the only thing going through my mind was "CG," and like 1917 where the only thing going through my mind was "one shot", it didn't allow me to engage as much as I might have. For all the extraordinary skill of the animators, the animals are patently not real (which begs the question, 'were they ever intended to be?') and for an old purist like myself, the film and its emotional connection was lost. A film about a dog! I'd thought that hardly possible. Now I bring this up to directly compare it with a film whose very existence depended on the effectiveness and reality of its visual effects. What simply failed to work in the wilds of the Yukon (and I imagine a great deal of the locations were also computer generated) worked rather too well in Columbia, Budapest and Georgia…

An extraordinary landmark was achieved last year and as far as I can see, not many commented on it out of its context. Perhaps it was because it was hidden in a well made but unremarkable Hollywood action film by an 'auteur' who to me will always be associated with not giving credit where astonishing credit was due when he picked up a directing Oscar for an effects heavy film. Let's get back to this individual later. In the days of old, if you wanted to shoot something, you had to put that something in front of a movie camera. Animal characters used to be represented by trained creatures whose reality was never in question. Kudos to stuntman and animal trainer Tony Smart who trained a horse to quietly accept imminent pretend-drowning as featured in The Never Ending Story. Reality is something we are slowly turning back towards as Tom Cruise seems to want to prove every time he goes on a mission. But we all must acknowledge that as soon as Photoshop and its ilk were invented, we could no longer rely on the truth of the photograph. When Trump shouts "Fake news!" he has the relevant technology to point to even if that supreme idiot wouldn't know the truth if it threatened to reveal his tax returns. The truth and reality of sound is lost to us now as it's being manipulated in such a way that it's now impossible to prove the veracity of any recorded voice (not to mention the skill of the analogue voice impressionists). Up until last year, we were safe with moving images as the synthetic Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia proved in Rogue One. But not anymore. After the tragic death of Paul Walker, WETA Digital in New Zealand had to pull out all the stops of their ambition and ability to create a believable digital actor. They created some extraordinary effects work for Fast and the Furious VII but they were just warming up.

Omar Sy as Perrault

Once again we return to the man who seemed to be uncannily heartless accepting his Oscar for directing The Life of Pi. Ang Lee thanked the world and its husband but the effects company (without which there would be no movie) was not even name checked. Accepting the Oscar for its work on the film eleven days after the company had gone into administration, the Rhythm and Hues team was drowned out by the Jaws theme as they tried to make a simple, political point, one the Academy did not want aired. Bidding for work and sticking to the price agreed was killing visual effects artists who often laboured out of love and a desire to make it as good as they could make it for no increase in budget. Imagine how a perfectionist director might take advantage of a pre-done deal. The artists often had to uproot to move to where ever the tax breaks were more lenient to the studios. Have a look at the short film Life After Pi, the thirty-minute 'what the hell happened to Rhythm And Hues?'** I just took another look at the 'real tiger' / 'CG Tiger' comparison in the documentary and it still knocks my socks off. A director like Ang Lee would push for the absolute best (that's why he's a fine director) and in the animal work, Rhythm and Hues delivered stunning effects as you may have seen. So why Lee would want to work on a standard action picture with one significant technical challenge was beyond me. Perhaps it was that technical challenge. So he made Gemini Man and of course the twist is that a clone of Will Smith as a young pup was needed to go after his older self. Lee decided to shoot 120 frames a second in native stereoscopy at 4K resolution. Do you have any idea what that did to increase the effects work required? It meant that each shot had forty times the work that a standard shot would take. So, Will Smith Junior was rendered as well as any FX facility could render him.

And not only did it work extraordinarily well…

…it convinced me that we have reached that moment, the moment when we cannot trust any moving picture for fear of it being digital manipulation. The irony of the animated performance of Smith's young digital avatar is that its fakery could only be noticed in the speeded up action scenes, small give away moments whereas the full close up interaction with real actors was close to flawless. I just watched another scene in the mausoleum and I take the 'close to' back. It is flawless. We can now trust nothing and where does that put our civilisation? That question is not asked with tongue in cheek. If the media control the public perception of the political process and there is no part of the media that cannot be faked in such a way that millions are bound to be fooled, where are we headed as 'civilised' societies? Yes, the effort and money to make a brilliantly convincing young Will Smith may only be harnessed by Hollywood at the moment but if the rich really are controlling the political landscape, then it's the rich that can afford and stoop to such deception. And what is our defence against it? And remember, James Cameron's 'state of the art' morphing effects were available for laptops less than a year after Terminator 2 Judgement Day's release… Once this tech is on our phones, the truth can never, ever be known. It may be out there but who are we going to trust to find it?

postscript

That said, I am still in some awe at the work WETA digital has done on this film so must name names… visual effects producer Karen Murphy, Visual Effects Supervisors, Bill Westenhofer, Guy Williams and Mark Hawker, Technical Supervisor Ben Gervais. In the 'WETA Digital would like to thank…' ad in Cinefex magazine, the following names are listed so we'll go with those… Guy Williams, Sheldon Stopsack, Ben Pickering and Paul Story, not to mention the hundreds of CG technicians that also made this small but significant miracle possible. I am in no small awe at the achievement.

 


* https://screenrant.com/call-wild-movie-harrison-ford-interview/

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lcB9u-9mVE

The Call of the Wild poster
The Call of the Wild

USA | Canada 2020
100 mins
directed by
Chris Sanders
produced by
James Mangold
Erwin Stoff
written by
Michael Green
from the novel by
Jack London
cinematography
Janusz Kaminski
editing
David Heinz
William Hoy
music
John Powell
production design
Stefan Dechant
starring
Harrison Ford
Omar Sy
Cara Gee
Dan Stevens
Bradley Whitford
Jean Louisa Kelly
Michael Horse
Karen Gillan
Colin Woodell

UK distributor
20th Century Fox
UK release date
19 February 2020
review posted
4 March 2020

See all of Camus' reviews