Some Thoughts on the Rise of SuperStar Visual Effects

Alex Funke

I have been thinking recently about the way visual effects have moved from a tool to advance a filmic story, to a point where they have as much significance as the actors themselves. I wondered how this came about.

What is contained in that buzzword, visual effects? For this discussion, let’s say that they are the means to put on screen, anything that doesn’t exist (Hogwarts) or is impractical to shoot in the real world (‘non-terrestrial intelligence’ city rises to the surface of the ocean) or is too rich for the budget (high angle, dawn, Constantinople 1870).

Note that I’m leaving special effects out of this mix–those are the practical ones that involve pushing 18-wheelers off cliffs, derailing trains, and causing explosions; and making fire, fog, snow, rain, wind, mud, and such. There is nothing we should say to criticise special effects. The hell with the dialogue, let’s blow something up.

Now, within generic visual effects, I think that I see four distinct categories. And these represent four totally different ways of working.

Let us begin with what we’ll call a “key visual”. The example I’ll use is the last shot in Planet of the Apes. It’s a classic, rightly so:

“…You finally really did it…! God damn you!”

Cut to the single shot of the ruined Statue of Liberty. Wow! What a payoff;   and much that we’ve seen in the story now falls into place.

So, I’d say that this shot is certainly a “key” to the story. But– and this is the point I’m trying to make– this shot is merely a matte painting. It’s been laid into a live plate of a sea cove on the California coast. But from the standpoint of making the film, important as the shot is, it’s still just a matte painting.

Let’s now consider what I’ll call a “free visual.” Such a visual effect may be essential to the whole storyline, but it exists in a space outside the film itself.

Slit-scan Time Tunnel near the end of 2001

Slit-scan Time Tunnel near the end of 2001

A classic example is the slit-scan time tunnel near the end of 2001. This sequence was absolutely unlike anything an audience had ever seen; it was stunning, world-shaking. However, it’s not really connected to the story; nothing we’ve seen before prepares the viewer for it. For Kubrick, it served a valuable function, to wrap the story up without having to explain too much. It’s a visual metaphor into which the viewer can read all sorts of conclusions. But, it exists in its own unique little visual world.

Now let’s consider the third group, “integrated effects.” That’s just a way to categorise images that are built into the story telling, and have a very specific context. I’ll use an example that I know well; the various views of the city of Minas Tirith in LOTR, The Return of the King.

The City of Minas Tirith

The City of Minas Tirith

There are many shots of Minas Tirith in ROTK. A large number were made within the full-size set, which was constructed at Dry Creek, outside Wellington. But those sets were of the streets and halls and gates and courtyards of the city. And they were seldom built over 6 metres tall. So every master shot, every wide establisher, every shot that looks off the truncated tops of the live sets, was created or augmented with miniature photography.

They were extensions of live sets, stand-alone shots of the city in many lights and times of day, mood establishers to help fill out story points. The goal was to create the complete visual environment of this huge cit,y while minimising the amount of full scale set to be built. Early in production, the miniature photography was specified to serve particular storytelling tasks. Then, as the film came together, the Miniatures Unit was repeatedly given new shots, new sequences, as the director and editor found that they needed visual help to establish a place, an environment, a time within the evolving story.

And at last we arrive at visual effects as we so often encounter them today, and I think these may be called “Featured Effects.” The visual effects have swelled outside the boundaries of “here’s what we need to tell the story,” and have become so much a part of the movie that the effects have actually become as much a character as any of the actors.

The danger that exists when effects become so prominent in the overall experience is that the audience reaction is no longer focused upon the storytelling. Contrast that last shot in Planet of the Apes; the one shot does everything that is needed, and anything more would have simply diffused the impact.

Yet we see altogether too many films today where effects sequences demand more attention than anything else in the film.

It would be unkind to criticise films that are essentially pure effects, such as Avatar or Gravity. Within their own mini-genre, these films have completely bypassed any kind of integrated visual effects, and carry the story forward completely embedded in an effects-driven world.

Consider, for example, another film set in Middle Earth; the first of the three Hobbit films, An Unexpected Journey. The film contains a number of sequences, which are self-consciously intended to be stars in their own right–rather than parts of the story. Take the battle of the Stone Giants, in a raging storm atop the Misty Mountains.

The battle of the Stone Giants, in a raging storm atop the Misty Mountains.

The battle of the Stone Giants, in a raging storm atop the Misty Mountains.

Now, this is an elaborate piece of complex CG animation, very atmospheric, and it’s a pretty good fight. But as soon as the film stops narrating the story of the quest of Bilbo and the Dwarves, the filmmakers have said, loudly, to the audience:

“…OK watch this! This will knock your socks off…”

The filmmakers have abandoned their storyline, for the sake of sheer visual self- indulgence. And no matter how amazing that rocky battle is, it’s not going to advance the characters or the story.

In some ways the proliferation of movies which depend so heavily on visual effects is reminiscent of Baroque theatre in the mid to late 18th Century. The complex staging, mechanical effects, scenery changes, and abundant gadgets of stagecraft that had engulfed the theatre by that time meant that audiences had become more interested in the staging than the play itself.

To understand better how this excess–effects proliferation came to be, we have to look back to the era when visual effects were just another line item on the production budget, really no different than greens or transportation or set dressing. The script and production design require a certain number of effects to tell the story on screen; matte paintings, glass shots, hanging foreground miniatures, landscape miniatures, water shots, freeze frames, reverse action shots, and on and on. The appropriate studio departments received a list of shots that would be required; and when the time came, the shots were made. That’s exactly (for example) the way that the Statue of Liberty shot came to be.

Think of all these craftsmen–optical camera operators, miniature builders matte painters and all the rest–who were the ‘invisible men.’ With supreme skill, they provided the images that were needed; and all in the day’s work. Swing a hammer, age a rockface, run an Acme printer.

Time passed and this system began to fade away. The heyday of the disaster films of the early 1970’s--Airport, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno and their kin–marks the end of that mode of getting effects on screen.

With the lessening of one-stop-shopping for visual effects that had been part of the studio system, individual crafts attained much more power. Now the quest was for the one person who could actually get a particular vision onto the screen. This marks the rise of the specialist, the person who can draw on industry and science as well as traditional film.

This was the era when men like Doug Trumbull and Con Pederson could be handed a vague sketch for an effects sequence and then be turned loose, to perfect something totally new— the slit scan photography for 2001. Thus began the rise of the Visual Effects Artist as SuperStar.

 The New Gods

The New Gods

The first Star Wars and Blade Runner were catalysts for a new creative reaction: the understanding that effects could be integrated into a film to drive the story, instead of just filling needed story points. Writers and directors were inspired to approach thematic material that would have been unworkable 20 years earlier. How the image was created really didn’t change; only the method. The visual tools, and their clever, excited young users, evolved in novel ways, and they became the New Gods.

Of course, this continues today. Nothing is impossible, although, to cite an ancient engineering aphorism, the impossible may take a little longer There are so many ways to get the wildest imaginings of the creatives onto the screen, that a major task of the Effects Supervisor is to decide which of a dozen approaches will be most cost effective, most time and labour efficient, and will still carry the day. It’s a heavy burden.

But fascination with hyperbole is a trap. If you can draw from the entire world for your inspiration, there is a great temptation to incorporate much more than your story can bear. And visual hyperbole is a fitting label for what visual effects often becomes in our theatres.

Every time that the viewer reacts to a visual effects as effect, the story telling has failed. The viewer has lost his emotional commitment to the tale being told. And this is a tragedy. “…Wow, that was amazing CG animation…” is a remark that should turn any effects artist’s face red.

And the old adage of   “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” still holds.

One last (probably apocryphal) anecdote. In the mid-1970’s, out at Industrial Light and Magic, Richard Edlund and John Dykstra and their cronies were cranking along, creating the vast array of visual effects for the first Star Wars.  The 20th Century Fox producers began to get cold feet. The notion of a gang of keen young men dithering away (and spending lots of Fox’s money) in a warehouse out in the San Fernando Valley was completely outside their frame of reference. So they dug up one of their old visual effects guys, brought him out of happy retirement, and sent him over to ILM to oversee what was going on. And after a considerable length of time, he returned to Fox to report. And what he said, supposedly, was this:

“…I don’t know what the Hell they are doing out there, but they sure as Hell know how to do it. Leave ’em alone!”

Bio: Born in Santa Barbara, CA. A fourth generation Californian, Alex has been a cinematographer for over 30 years. He studied biochemistry for several years in college, but in the early 1960’s he switched to UCLA Film School. He subsequently worked with Stephen Burum, ASC. He spent eleven years with The Office of Charles and Ray Eames (shooting over 30 films at that time). His first effects project was Battlestar Galactica, at first with Apogee and then at Universal-Hartland. He founded Precision Film Group in the late 1970’s, doing effects for TV and features. Later, at Las Palmas Production, he co-designed the first-ever system for pin-registered transferring of film to video. Although he is a specialist in miniatures and visual effects, he also shoots live action of all kinds. He has taught advanced cinematography courses at both UCLA (full-time faculty for two years) and Loyola University. He has been invited to give lectures on visual effects photography in Italy and Norway.



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