Movie Editor's Blog

Movie Editor's Blog

Hobbit green screen gripes: Why Ian McKellen is right

Ian McKellen doesn't like green screens. He's made himself clear on that.

Yesterday Gandalf himself told how he cried with frustration over filming scenes for Peter Jackson's upcoming 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey', with only pictures of his castmates for company. "I cried, actually. I cried," said the 73-year-old, "Then I said out loud, 'This is not why I became an actor'."

[Related story: Hobbit running time revealed]
[Related story: How Ian McKellen almost turned down Gandalf]

"Pretending you're with 13 other people when you're on your own, it stretches your technical ability to the absolute limits."

With over 40 years of stage experience, you can forgive McKellen for preferring props and people to the power of post-production, but does he have a point? Can the digital backlot ever be a substitute for soundstage?

Grumpy... McKellen broke down on 'Hobbit' set (Credit: Warner Bros.)

McKellen of course appeared as Gandalf in the first three of Jackson's voyages into the Middle Earth storyverse, so you'd think he'd be used to digital dwarves.

However much of the first 'LOTR' trilogy relied on good old fashioned camera tricks and optical illusions. Size doubles frequently stood in to make hobbits look smaller or Gandalf look taller, and miniature as well as "bigature" sets were used throughout.

So, filming an entire hobbit movie (technically three movies) on green screen came as a shock even to McKellen, but he's not the only one to get the blues over green.

Speaking to Access Hollywood back in 2010, Emily Blunt, then appearing in 'Gulliver's Travels', said of her experience: "It is hell. I find it really tedious and confusing. You're like begging a tennis ball on a pole for help and crying. I think that's the moment when you're like, 'Oh wow. This takes a lot of imagination'."

Surely though there must be some benefits? Frank Miller adaptations such as '300' and 'Sin City' received enormous praise for their extensive use of digital backlots ('300' featured just a single shot on location). Both technically and visually brilliant, they set the standard for the graphic novel movie.

But as Lena Headey, '300's Queen Gorgo, said of her time on set:"It's very odd, and emotionally, there's nothing to connect to apart from another actor."

Before and after... '300' with and without CGI (Credit: Warner Bros.)

And this is the downfall of the green screen: big budget films, with economy performances. Emile Hirsch, who starred in CGI-heavy train-wreck 'Speed Racer', described the process to About Movies: "It's like doing independent New York theatre because you don't have any backgrounds or props. So it's kind of like making the lowest budgeted film you could possibly imagine, plus $100 million."

For the finest example of this theory, see George Lucas. The three 'Star Wars' prequels, aside from committing blasphemy in many a fan's eye, are full of awful acting from capable stars. Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lee and Samuel L. Jackson all appeared wooden, half-hearted and lost.

Lucas' dire script and questionable skill directing actors was undoubtedly a problem, but so was his obsession with shooting on green screen, piping in the environment afterwards, and even placing stars' different takes side-by-side with digital trickery. McGregor memorably described the process to Jonathan Ross - he was told by Lucas to "look at the moons!", but had no idea where they were.

Changing times... 'Star Wars' prequels mostly digital (Credit: Themovieblog.com)

As far as we could find, only one thesp actually enjoys the green screen process. Predictably, it's Nicolas Cage, who seems to live in his own world anyway.

"Acting is imagination. That's what it's all about," the unfazeable star told Screen Crave. "I actually enjoy working with green screen because I can imagine all that stuff happening. I had to imagine four page dialogue scenes with my twin brother who's nothing more than a tennis ball and a gas can. So, I was really up for it."

Do you get annoyed with CGI-heavy flicks? Or do you even notice? Let us know below...