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how much of the monster do we want to see?

harryhausen-sinbad
It’s safe to say the reason you watch the movie Godzilla is to see Godzilla. Same goes for King Kong, the monsters in Ray Harryhausen’s movies, Alien, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Citizen Kane, and Pacific Rim. When a movie promises a cool monster (often right there in the title), there really is no other reason to see that movie.

But how much of the monster do we want to see? Back in 1975, Steven Spielberg told us we didn’t want to see the shark in the first reel. That’s between 11 and 22 minutes, based on my quick search. His logic was sound: to build suspense you need time. He also found ways of showing the effects of the shark without actually showing the shark itself. By the time you saw Jaws, you knew exactly what it was capable of. The physicality of the monster was imbued with the terror of what you already knew about it.
shark_fin
What we now know about the making of Jaws is that Spielberg had other reasons to limit the screen time of the shark. The mechanical shark they had built didn’t work very well. They had to figure out how to make this ridiculous contraption look both real and scary. The less they used the shark, the less chance it would come off looking like what it was: a waterlogged robot.

Of course, Spielberg had no problem letting us see the monster in three more movies. Does that negate his famous decree? I’d have to ask someone who has seen Jaws 2-4.

Historically, the reason we haven’t seen much of a movie monster has been for technical reasons. Special effects were time consuming and not always reliable to produce satisfactory results. Harryhausen spent years of his life moving small figures a frame at a time so they could appear alive onscreen. Very few people had that kind of skill and patience. There are maybe hundreds of movies featuring a dude in a goofy rubber suit “terrorizing” actors. I wonder if those movies ever fooled anyone. I suspect they were seen, even at the time, as a nice diversion, but were never actually scary.

This all changed with Jurassic Park. Suddenly, computer graphics allowed a much greater range of non-humanoid monsters. Directors didn’t have to limit screen time simply because of logistics. The new digital animation could look as real as anything else in the frame, and it didn’t have to be there on the day of filming. Teams of artists and programmers had as much time as the budget allowed to get the monster looking right.

Now the question of how much we want to see a movie monster is dependent on a cocktail of elements: human characters, plot, and special effects. Are all your human characters simply waiting around to get eaten? Is your plot centered on a few set-pieces of the monster destroying XXXX? Nobody will want to see your monster, no matter how well rendered it is.

Who cares about these guys?
Who cares about these guys?

It used to be that monsters weren’t shown because of technical limitations. Fortunately, that isn’t the case anymore. But that doesn’t let filmmakers off the hook. They need to find ways to make the monster compelling and the movie suspenseful, regardless of the monster’s screen time.

Personally, I’d like to see the monster enough to get to know it, but not so long I become comfortable with its presence.