OSCAR’S YEAR OF VISUAL EFFECTS, and THE ART OF SEEING AND BELIEVING
If you have been living and routinely interacting with other human beings over the last month, you’ve probably heard one or two words involving this year’s Academy Awards and the heated controversy over the startling lack of both films and people of color among the nominees. Personally, I think that the real focus of concern ought to be less on the back end– awards handed out for films which were financed and/or studio-approved, scheduled for production and filmed perhaps as much as two or three years ago– and more on addressing the lack of cultural and intellectual and experiential diversity among those who have the power to make the decisions as to what films get made in the first place. This is no sure-fire way to ensure that there will be a richer and more consistent representation of diverse creative voices when it comes time for Hollywood to pat itself on the back for its artistic achievements (which, of course, have nothing to do with its achievements in the arena of lucre wrangling), but it seems like the logical place to begin the overhaul.
But in the interest of avoiding yet another circuitous argument, let me direct the spotlight toward one category around which Oscar has inspired almost no arguments this year: Best Achievement in Visual Effects. This category (and the one honoring the year’s finest work in cinematography) represent a bounty of riches for which there seems to be little dissent, and even less consensus, as to what deserves the honor and, more to the Oscar Pool participants’ interest, what movie will actually win.
The rampaging woolly mammoth in the room is most certainly the team that managed to make Star Wars: The Force Awakens both retro-evocative and up-to-the-minute shiny and chrome, a fine line most agree was successfully tread by the film as a whole. SW:TFA’s presence here is not unexpected, and it almost feels, in reading some of the nonstop industry analysis since the nominations were announced, that had the movie been left off this particular list of five, there would have been geek riots to shame the relatively peaceful outrage over the absence of potential Best Actor Michael B. Jordan or Straight Outta Compton on the Best Picture final ballot. Indeed, there’s still a lot of musing that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, like J.P. Morgan/Chase, should have been just too big to fail and that its sheer commercial force (I’m sorry) would have been enough to propel it into Best Picture contention.
Alas, this new-age Star Wars sequel/reboot/reimagining will have to be satisfied with a possible win in this category as a representative of the “Yes, They Can Still Make ‘Em With Computers They Way They Used To With Computers” mindset. The movie is likely to have a tougher time in the other technical categories, where movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant will presumably be more difficult to beat. But its assurance of a win in the Visual Effects competition is not, as I see it, rock solid. The Martian, somewhat less ostentatiously representative of an equally old-fashioned, less-is-more-believable aesthetic, is a strong contender, but of the five nominees it may suffer from being the least showy—ironically, the fact that it’s generally easier to “believe” the world The Martian creates, the fact that you can more naturally forget that the world you’re watching in this movie has been largely concocted on sets and inside computers, may work to its disadvantage when it comes time to hand out the golden candy. That goes double for the seamlessly integrated marvels of Ex Machina—we’re too busy being captivated by Alicia Vikander’s performance to continually be distracted by the fact that she’s sporting a see-through torso.
The computer-generated marvels unleashed along George Miller’s furious road are probably the most eye-popping of the five, not least for having been so well integrated into the physical world of stunts and propping up the illusion of seeing a relentless choreography of action that feels (even if it at times isn’t) as if it could be happening entirely in the real world, in front of cameras. That’s the illusion that is also marvelously sustained, for the most part, in The Revenant, which uses its own kind of choreography of light, movement and sound to coerce the audience into accepting its grueling version of what a particular part of life on the American frontier in the early 1800s might have been like. But ironically the scene in The Revenant that is among its most celebrated—the grizzly bear attack—is the one that simultaneously makes my jaw drop and temporarily jolts me out of the web of reality the movie spins.
Too much is made of what Hollywood likes to term the sophistication of modern audiences. We hear all kinds of stuff about how audiences are tougher to fool these days, how they’re so much more knowing about the tricks of the trade. (Maybe not so much about how to spot fraudulent storytelling sleight-of-hand.) What that usually means is that viewers have traded in their willingness to suspend belief, to give themselves over to the medium, for a sort of inside-baseball knowledge that might yield great dividends for trivia contests at the local watering hole but fewer when it comes to expanding appreciation for everything the movies can do.
And even when modern audiences think that the biggest reward is having a vague sort of knowledge about how one of their favorite tricks was pulled off, they can still pull a real howler out of their hat. While watching the end credits of The Revenant, a guy sitting next to me turned to his girlfriend and, with a truly awesome mixture of puzzled sincerity and hipster cool, said to her, “You know, I don’t think that bear was real.” It was sort of poignant, in a Weird Hollywood sort of way to listen to this guy paw his way around trying to reconcile what he knew couldn’t be true with what he wanted to believe. But that’s the thing about that grizzly bear not-rape scene: it violates the movie’s meticulously constructed illusion of “reality,” one which notably works like gangbusters for the duration of the running time otherwise, not because it doesn’t look and feel alarmingly like what being mauled by a wild two-ton beast would feel like, but because we can’t (or at least I couldn’t) divorce myself from the knowledge that Leo—not Hugh Glass, but Leo—was in no real danger, or distance myself from occasionally musing about how the hell they did that.
All this talk brings me back to January 2013, which is when I put some thoughts together about modern special effects and some of the expected, and perhaps unexpected side effects of prolonged exposure to them. Three years ago I was thinking about movies like John Carter and Trollhunter and even Life of Pi as being the natural and happy fulfillment of the promise inherent in such disparate special effects ventures as King Kong vs. Godzilla and Zelig. And even for their occasional lapses I can see this year’s five Oscar nominees as continuing in that reputable and encouraging trend in modern visual effects, even surrounded as they are by hundreds of annual examples in the art of how not to do it so very well. In that light, I thought you might be find the piece that resulted from all this consideration worth a look. It’s called “Seeing and Believing,” which was originally published at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule a little over three years ago, on January 21, 2013. You are, of course, under no obligation to continue reading. But if you don’t, I have been given permission to send along Alejandro G. Inarritu’s CGI bear, and perhaps Mr. Inarritu himself, to help spur your level of interest. Don’t make me bring out the claws.
“You’ll believe a man can fly.”
That was the promise made to potential ticket-buyers during the fall and winter of 1978, when Richard Donner’s take on the Superman legend was being readied to soar across Christmastime movie screens all over America. We certainly never believed (nor were we asked to believe) that George Reeves, the Superman known to viewers of the popular TV series which ran from 1952 until 1958, could really fly. And even our faith in all things wise and wonderful wasn’t enough to convince us that Julie Andrews had really taken to the air with her satchel and umbrella, to say nothing of the aeronautic abilities of Sally Field.
But after Star Wars (1977) had premiered a barrage of stylish visual effects, themselves doubling up on the groundbreaking realism of Douglas Trumbull’s effects work for 2001: A Space Odyssey, expectations had been, shall we say, heightened. Star Wars was, of course, fanciful in its own way, and certainly in a way that 2001 was not—no Jawas and Wookiees for Stanley. Among the light-sabers and countless other visual marvels offered on George Lucas’s menu, which illustrated a vision of interstellar life whose influences seemed to indicate that its world existed concurrently in the past and in the future, there was that heretofore-unseen height of technical sophistication which seemed to plead for a greater allowance of suspended disbelief on the part of the audience, all the while feeding them a dazzling level of space-age trickery in order to ensure such leaps of faith might be easier to make. Superman promised that we would believe a man (even one from the planet Krypton) could actually fly, but after having already witnessed Luke Skywalker zooming over the plains of Tatooine in his land speeder, seemingly suspended on nothing but streams of air, in many ways we already did.
Of course no one really thought that Christopher Reeve was up there zooming through the atmosphere without the help of movie magic, and if we ever even incrementally believed that a man could fly—and a woman could convincingly hitch a ride on his cape tails—it had a whole lot more to do with the chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder, and the swooning romanticism that propelled their nighttime cruise over Metropolis, than it did the degree to which we were convinced by the wire work and blue-screen techniques employed to get the scene on film. Superman’s effects were, taken as a whole and truth be told, far more rudimentary and far less convincing than the ones that bowed in Lucas’s film a year earlier. But the insistence of the movie’s advertising that belief in what we would see was something we could expect, well, if it wasn’t exactly new, then it at least carried a whole lot more weight (supplied by a major movie studio’s marketing power) than the usual hucksters’ come-ons of exploitation movies past.
The Star Wars and Superman franchises spent the early part of the 1980s refining their approaches vis-à-vis their technical prowess, and perhaps cannibalizing themselves to certain degree as well, all while the market was becoming saturated by low-budget competitors soaked in the fantasy syntax that the two series inspired. Incessant imitation of their visual bravado introduced the inescapable sense of a Xerox copy being reconstituted endlessly, each new generation a little dimmer than the last. And rather than from the loins of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, the apparent inspiration for the next step in the movie audience’s increasing desire to believe would come from a most unlikely place.
A long time ago, in a time far, far away, before the letters C, G and I, spoken in that order, meant much of anything to moviegoers, Woody Allen released a little film called Zelig, the ostensibly slight story of Leonard Zelig, the Human Chameleon, a nobody so lacking his own character that in the presence of stronger personalities he begins to co-opt their physical and psychological attributes. Thematically, Zelig, a movie posited on the notion that, no, everybody isn’t necessarily somebody, was a perfect fit within the totality of Allen’s neurotically fueled canon. And the movie stood out, from Allen’s own oeuvre as well as from every other comedy in release at the time, because it was crafted in a mock-documentary style— Zelig was released in 1983, a year before This is Spinal Tap, and many years before the mock-documentary became an overcooked genre of its own. But even beyond the conceit of its structure, technically it was a step outside the box for American cinema, and certainly outside Allen’s own comfort zone as a director known more for his visually natural, restrained palette. (Despite his constant nods toward Fellini, the excesses and general phantasmagorical reach of Stardust Memories was the exception, not the rule.)
The movie got mostly positive reviews—Allen had not yet fallen out of favor with either critics or his soon-to-be-dwindling audience—though coming between Manhattan (1979) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Zelig was considered a trifle, absent the writer-director’s usual thicket of seriocomically intertwining relationships and emotional baggage. Pauline Kael seemed to admire the movie—she called it “an ingenious stunt” that had been “thought out in terms of the film image, turning the American history we know from newsreels into slapstick by inserting the little lost sheep Zelig in the corner of the frame.” But even Kael had to admit, at the end of her review, that she left the screening hungry for a real movie, presumably one with more meat on its bones than the one Allen offered.
Seen today the movie looks like a standout in Allen’s career, one of the most original and innovative movies of the decade of the 1980s, regardless of its comparatively insular qualities and supposed lack of thematic scope. But Zelig’s real impact, as it turned out, was in the suggestion of what could be done with that familiar newsreel imagery. Cinematographer Gordon Willis ingeniously mocked-up and graded down the gorgeous monochromatic imagery he perfected for Manhattan and Stardust Memories so that footage of the “little lost sheep Zelig” could be seamlessly integrated into the same picture with historical figures like Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge and even Adolf Hitler. The meager audiences that turned out in theaters marveled at Willis’ achievement— Zelig and Willis were even mentioned on the front cover of the highbrow film journal People magazine upon the film’s release, a level of mainstream coverage which would require a sex scandal some 10 years later in order for Allen to duplicate.
But some openly worried that the use of techniques like those Willis used for Zelig were far too effectively blurring the lines between realism and the accepted standard of the special effects of the day—we were suddenly a long way, Dorothy, from fantasy universes which no one could ever mistake for simple photographic representation of actual life. The fretting continued just over a decade later when, in an apparent advance over what Willis had achieved, cinematographer Don Burgess and a vast array of technicians had their fictional character, a simpleton by the name of Forrest Gump, not only sitting in the same frame with well-known figures of history, as Leonard Zelig did, but physically interacting with them.
This “simple” technical adjustment made for bigger press than Zelig could have ever dreamed of, but it was also a sticking point for observers who pointed out that if photographic verisimilitude was the goal, then Zemeckis and Burgess had fallen far short of it—and maybe that was a good thing. At one point Gump, played by Tom Hanks, appears on a mocked-up 1963 TV broadcast during which he appears to shake hands with then-living-President John F. Kennedy, and nowhere else in the movie did the integration between the rock-still digitally-based Hanks with the relatively unstable 40-year-old filmed imagery look less convincing. In fact, the effects in Forrest Gump were often far more ambitious than they were photorealistic— that attempt to visualize physical contact between the living and the dead turned out to be a challenge these technical wizards weren’t entirely able to bring off. And in 2009 the results weren’t any more convincing– the conjuring of 1982-vintage Jeff Bridges to interact with his naturally Lebowski-fied 21st-century version in Tron: Legacy was creepy and problematic for many of the same reasons.
Only a very special grade of Gump-grade ignoramus would have actually believed that Tom Hanks and President Kennedy ever shared physical space together in order that they could be filmed for a Robert Zemeckis movie. However, the specter of being able to render the impossible, or alter the accuracy of realistic representation in graphically acceptable visual grammar, was one that Forrest Gump raised nonetheless. Suddenly we were in an era in which computers were being employed to try to convince audiences, if only momentarily, that the impossible could happen, that it was happening.
But the purveyors of CGI have always been a little too convinced of their ability to accurately represent reality. Some 15 or so years ago the Los Angeles Times sponsored a series of ads designed to run before the feature in Southern California cineplexes which cast light on some of the below-the-line occupations involved in the making of movies. One such group of artists highlighted were computer effects teams, and the one chosen for the Times promotion attempted, over the course of the 90-second spot, to demonstrate how their effects house would go about creating the digitally generated and animated image of a small basset hound. It was a fascinating glimpse into a process which has undoubtedly become even more refined and sophisticated over the passage of time. But there was no avoiding a certain amount of embarrassment and incredulity when the animators, at the end of the spot, trotted out their digitally generated creature, placed it next to a shot of the real thing, and then began to gush over how difficult it is to tell DigiDog, which bore all the telltale signs of digital rendering, from lack of realistic texture to imprecise body movement, from the real thing.
Companies specializing in TV advertising have seized upon, refined, inflated and saturated the market with the possibilities of computer-generated imagery since long before George Lucas initiated the all-digital assault of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002). The main result has been a double-edged sword, to be sure: advertisers have broken ground on what they can show us in ever-increasingly expensive 30-and- 60-second spots that may be entertaining, but those spots also reinforce our resistance to believe a single thing we see (or hear) in them. (The Nissan spot seen below goes to great lengths to convince us of a certain reality that our heads insist couldn’t possibly play out in real-world physics.)
Do you believe what you just saw?
Digital manipulation of what we see on TV and in movies is so completely pervasive in 2013 that we question even the simplest images. We roll our eyes at a commercial of a mud-caked pickup truck being cleansed by a sudden drenching from above because in the aftermath it looks too damn clean; every speck of grime is washed away in a single thunderous wash, as if the CGI artists– or the corporation paying for the ad– couldn’t resist making every inch of that truck sparkle. (A stunt like this in a commercial from 30 years ago would have had to have been staged in physical reality, and it would have been a lot messier.)
But there’s another unexpected bit of fallout from incessant exposure to the state-of-the-art effects which seem so insistent as to suggest that only permanent alteration of our perceived actual reality will satisfy the ambitions behind them. It’s become clearer to me as I watch movies in 2013, both modern ones and ones that were made in the less technological promiscuous eras of the 50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and even ‘80s, that I crave the lost art of sparking the imagination of the viewer. This is not the same thing as creating a parade of visual effects and techniques intended to fool me into thinking what I’m seeing is actually happening. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As a viewer in 2013, the more plain the artifice, the more likely it is that I will respond—that I will want to respond—to the intended enhancements being made to the film’s basic storytelling devices. These days I find myself far more attracted to and definitely more receptive to those movies whose imagery is less polished, whose effects are clunkier, whose visual schemes are more obviously set-bound or otherwise inescapably artificial, whose artisans had to rely on traditional matte paintings and physical effects that made it necessary for audiences to dive deeper into their stories, to make more concerted efforts to lose themselves in these conjured worlds.
These sorts of movies, either spectacles or smaller-scale stories dependent on a certain level of effects magic, couldn’t rely on technology to bail the filmmakers out by distracting audiences from their deficiencies. They come from the era of the 1950s, when spectacle was a way of combating the relative technical constraints of the tube, up through the 1960s, when the old wineskins of morality and constraints on the depiction of “adult” behavior were the primary concerns, into the 1970s, when those wineskins were finally being traded in for more experimental ways of transporting their films’ content. Of course being given the opportunity to flex one’s imaginative muscles while watching a movie like Jason and the Argonauts (1964), in which the creatures are stunningly depicted within the very stylized parameters of Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation mastery, or even a Japanese horror thriller like The Living Skeleton (1966), in which some of the effects aren’t necessarily any more “convincing” than the average episode of Dark Shadows, points up that there is room for that imaginative interplay even while watching a movie which has been, at most all levels, expertly crafted.
But even the experience of a narratively muddled movie can be enhanced by its own artificiality. In J. Lee Thompson’s The White Buffalo (1974), Charles Bronson stars as Wild Bill Hickok, who moves through the beautiful and dangerous landscapes of the West in pursuit of the mythical title creature, which haunts him from a series of dreams. If it were made (or remade today), The White Buffalo would undoubtedly have major emphasis and huge expense (at least relative to the original film’s budget) lavished upon scrupulous efforts to render each of its bitter winter landscapes in the most realistic and oppressively beautiful fashion possible. But would those efforts be able to duplicate the best element of the flawed movie that actually exists—the eerie stillness and dreamlike incertitude brought on by the very artificiality of some of those outdoor sets meant to represent the unyielding and brutal wilderness, or the hulking fearsomeness of the title creature itself, which was created in consultation with the late, great Carlo Rambaldi? Probably not. The fact is that much of what we “see” in The White Buffalo, what’s most effective about it, transcends the shortsightedness of its direction and resonates directly with the fact that its protagonist is himself operating in a sort of fugue state, all of which is underlined and reinforced by the strange beauty of the mythologically oriented, obviously constructed environments Hickok often finds himself moving through.
Conversely, one of the movies made recently which has most resonated with me in its attempt to forge a perhaps intangible connection to the mythological through a shared experience of artistic representation did so with a whole bag of technical trickery at its disposal. The 2010 Norwegian thriller Trollhunter fused the modern (here represented by the found-footage documentary) with the fairy-tale fantastical (a countryside populated by a variety of giant trolls who live either deep in the woods or inside mountains). And the reason why Trollhunter succeeds so well at bridging these two points of view is that, rather than running from the supposed limitations of low-budget animation and effects, it embraces the computer’s ability to enhance its signature monsters, to make them look both believable in a realistic setting and fantastical—that is, stylized in the manner of a wood cut illustration—simultaneously.
Trollhunter’s approach to its effects is not one of making you “believe” that trolls exist so much as to coax you into accepting that there is a place on the planet—the gorgeous, rainy climes of the Norwegian mountain countryside—where the fears and superstitions of a forgotten age have been spliced into a world where the presumption is that found-footage video doesn’t lie, even as we try to construct ever more elaborate techniques for fooling ourselves into accepting an alternate version of reality. One of the film’s major set pieces, an encounter on a lonely bridge at night between one of the titular creatures and the master trollhunter, decked out in a protective suit you suspect early on might not be up to the job, displays this sort of eerie fusion of fairy-tale and modern horror in spades.
And to its credit, Trollhunter never attempts to do all the work for you. There’s plenty of room, especially during the film’s many driving sequences, when we’re allowed to survey the landscape and imagine what might be lurking beneath a rocky hill or just out of our peripheral vision on the edge of a rainy forest. In this fundamental way the movie retains a connection with a whole era of films in which technical prowess could not be relied upon as a safety net, or a scapegoat, for lazy storytelling.
But one of the stranger developments in this anything-goes age of computer representation in movies and on television is that, despite all claims to the contrary, seeing is no longer believing. The utter proliferation of CGI, itself hardly the purest representation of evil on any stage, has made us cynical about imagery, which on one hand is obviously a good thing, given how easy it is now to tinker with that imagery to whatever end. However, in terms of storytelling the overuse of computer-generated imagery realizes the complaints naysayers have always leveled against the movies, comic books, TV and other “lower” forms of pop art—it invites the form to do all the heavy lifting for us. CGI tends to work best when it is relatively invisible, when it doesn’t call so much attention to itself, when it enhances the possible, or the believable, without become a jarring endgame in itself.
It can also work in the way 3D works best, that is, in service to pulp material that doesn’t demand hyper-realism anyway but instead merely a stylized take on fantastical material—John Carter’s effects, for example, have the ultimate sensation one gets from looking at a series of great old-school matte paintings, as if the Edgar Rice Burroughs book covers had seeped into the imaginations of its technicians and artists. There’s no distressed attempt to render this fantasy in anything like what we might consider Martian, or Barzoomian “realism,” and even though the movie is packed to the gills with eye-popping digital artifice, somehow the movie resists the kind of Lucasfilm overkill that scuttled the Star Wars prequels (and the attempts to fudge the original three films into some acceptable level of effects “sophistication.”) As a friend suggested in a blog post last year, the rendering of CGI imagery has started to take on a certain sameness about it, in the degree of “realistic” detail and also in effects artists’ apparently irresistible urge to make reality more special by giving, say, the urban landscapes of Paris a twinkling vibrancy, an overabundance of detail, they have ceased to trust would come naturally through a 35mm camera lens. John Carter was unfairly kicked liked the family mule by most of the press when it came out last year, but somehow it manages to avoid that sameness that afflicts many other heavily computer-generated productions.
In many circles all this worry over the way visual effects have come to dominate what we see, how we see it, even the ways movies are made, could be (and undoubtedly has been) construed as an old man’s argument. And the positions of people like author and film historian Neal Gabler, who fretted in a very generalized way in the Los Angeles Times recently about a generation that allegedly finds classic films boring and antiquated, don’t strike too many blows for dispelling that perception. Obviously for many young people who consider anything made before 1990 as belonging in the realm of “old movies,” the presence of black and white film is a sort of perceived poison, and it does seem that the majority of young people—college age and younger—aren’t being encouraged to investigate movies that don’t look or sound or feel like the ones they’re used to. But even if, as Gabler says, “part of this cinematic ageism is the natural cycle of culture,” I find it the experience within my own admittedly microscopic sphere of influence encouraging. I’m starting to watch my own kids begin to prove out the notion that guided exposure at a young age to the pleasures of movies and literature outside a child’s comfort zone is the best way to ensure their continued receptivity and interest as they grow up among a social group who may not be similarly inclined. And certainly among my own circle of friends, I always get the feeling there’s something going on beyond simple nostalgia or the desire to define one’s experience along generational borders.
A while back my friend Larry Aydlette, editor at the Palm Beach Post, dropped a comment on Facebook that I find typical of this sort of perception, and reassuring to boot. He was talking about revisiting Paint Your Wagon, a movie that was never high on anyone’s list of cinematic achievements during the year, 1969, in which it was released. And quite apart from whether or not it was a good movie (as I recall, Larry liked it quite a lot), he made the observation that among the many things to be enjoyed about seeing it again was the presence of “real, densely populated sets with real people, not CGI stick figures. It made the film a richer experience.” When I read this, I immediately thought about that Coliseum filled with cheering little ones and zeroes staring down at Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. I wondered if just a little bit of weight not unlike the “real, densely populated sets” my friend observed in that ill-fated Lee Marvin-Clint Eastwood musical might not have helped Ridley Scott’s Oscar-approved spectacle from seeming as if it were about to float away on the first stiff breeze, as most movies seem to that are built around attempts to generate a degree of CGI realism, a mere 10 years or so down the line. For me, it comes down to not feeling as if I have to be constantly on my guard, questioning the representative veracity (or lack thereof) of every damn shot.
It’s not just about what feels or looks real, though. Plenty of movies that I love, even on the most base level, have precious little to do with being in any way “realistic” or displaying any interest in making me believe what I’m seeing could in any way actually be happening. One of the signature shots of the studio era, when it comes to spectacles based at sea particularly, is the studio tank shot, in which a battleship or a fishing boat or some other vessel is seen floating on an relatively smooth ocean surface bereft of the kind of white-capping wave activity or vessel movement that is the hallmark of documentary footage. These shots are usually accompanied by blatantly false background skies or constructed in such a way that emphasizes how the water has a peculiarly antiseptic look, a clue that the only life hidden beneath its surface is the buildup of algae clinging to the tank walls. They’re also some of the most easy to recognize and, therefore, easiest to disparage and feel superior to, for those who have a tendency toward the indiscriminate MST3K-ification of our movie past.
Conversely, it’s entirely possible to appreciate a boat afloat on a soundstage studio tank solely on the basis of its very artificiality. Richard Harland Smith, film historian and writer for Turner Classic Movies’ Movie Morlocks site, admitted in a recent Facebook conversation a special affinity for this familiar practical effect, which has probably never once really fooled anyone into thinking it was anything but obvious trickery:
Scenes set at sea but filmed in a water tank on a patently obvious soundstage have always filled me with a wonderful sense of dread and wonder. I suppose Toho is to blame, as any shot at sea in one of their movies ultimately ends with some behemoth rising up out of the drink to snap a fishing trawler in half. But Hammer’s The Lost Continent (1968) contributed to this latent fear as well, bless it. I miss the days of practical fakery in the movies. Stormy seas have never been the same… With the old Toho water tank gambit, you were always waiting for some guy in a monster suit to jump up, ooga-booga style, to scare you. It’s really a primitive, childlike effect… that works a charm. Every. Time. It’s too bad an establishing shot of a water tank sea these days will draw ‘knowing’ laughs from movie audiences, even ones who should be more charitable to old school special effects.
And speaking of Toho, recently I had a chance to revisit one of my old favorites, the none-too-revered King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962). It was delightful to remember how fascinated I once was by this movie—the first Toho production I actually saw on the big screen—and how it retained a certain fascination even through viewings on afternoon TV when I was considerably older and more aware of how movie effects were achieved. While watching this classic battle of titans again this year, I thought a lot about the gulf between what captivated us as children and how we supposedly become more sophisticated from years of following the development of special effects, and how we often reject some of these early spectacles as too silly or somehow less worthy of our attention because the tricks are easier to see through. Despite their reputation for obvious or “cheesy” effects (Oh, how I’ve come to hate that word), it’s easy to see why the Japanese monster movies, often orchestrated by physical effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, and many of their descendants, have held such sway over kids, even spilling over into appreciation by manga and anime enthusiasts.
It’s because these orgies of destruction, these epic battles staged over the skylines of cities just waiting to be decimated, are almost literally the incarnation of a child’s most elaborate dream of toy sets come to life. There’s a sequence about halfway through King Kong vs. Godzilla in which the military digs a big hole in the ground to use as a sort of Burmese tiger pit in ensnaring one or both of the monsters, and I couldn’t help but be struck by all the shots of construction equipment digging around in the dirt, dump trucks moving loads of earth around, and noticing how the scene was exactly the sort of scenario boys play at all the time in their backyards, perhaps even staging battles between their favorite monsters in the same way. Seeing this scene played out on the big screen as a kid was thrilling, and despite our apparent hunger as a culture for ever-escalating levels of “realism” in our movies, those scenes still worked on me in the same way. I feel sure that the special effects wizards who recreated Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Pier, that rolling Ferris wheel and the lurking Japanese submarine captained in that giant studio tank by Toshiro Mifune in 1941 were after some of the same feeling of awe, of imagining that the biggest things in the world were really only our play toys. And look what we did with ‘em, Ma!
The pursuit of those ever-escalating heights of “realism” is what bothers me most about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It has been said that the inauguration of the movie’s highly touted 48-frames-per-second projection speed (known as HFR, or high frame rate) was created so that viewers might experience an immediacy of imagery unlike any ever seen in a movie before. One might reasonably ask what use a movie so steeped in the make-believe as another epic journey through Tolkien’s Middle Earth so obviously is might have with a heightened sense of “realism.” But beyond logic, the unfortunate side effect of this revolutionary technique seems to be that it has rendered much of the movie’s imagery as looking far “fakier” (to co-opt a phrase in heavy usage when I was a kid) than did anything in the three films of Jackson’s previous trilogy. A side effect, perhaps, of trying to bring what is essentially an animated action film into the realm of perceived reality without initially shading the imagery more toward realism to begin with? It’s a question for someone far more technically accomplished and fluent than I am, that’s for certain.
The most accurate and damning description I can think of, one which was echoed over and over again by critics and observers regarding The Hobbit and its HFR experiment, is that it’s like watching a big, loud action epic on a badly calibrated HDTV set in the middle of a CostCo or some other big box store. Experiencing The Hobbit for myself, I not only came to realize that there is a point where image clarity as an end in itself is something less than desirable, but I also began to worry about what this blind pursuit of technological innovation for its own sake means for the way movies might be made in the future. If this sort of visual debacle, in which one of our most technologically minded directors really seems to believe that what he’s achieved is the wave of what’s to come, a new standard for digitally created imagery, then really what hope is there for retaining anything of magic, of what is consistent, even when digitally recreated, with the texture and quality of film?
As far as waves of the future go, I’m much more heartened by what Ang Lee and his battery of artists and technicians have achieved in adapting Yann Martel’s seemingly inadaptable Life of Pi into a satisfying, transcendent, breathtaking movie, one that uses all the digital tools of the trade to conjure life from a story that, technologically speaking, probably couldn’t have been told five or six years ago. It’s full of genuine awe and terror and supreme flights of cinematic imagination, with no capitulation to the pull of standard-issue Disney-style anthropomorphizing– the tiger that hitches a ride with the title character after a horrifying shipwreck remains a mysterious and potentially deadly companion whose persistent threat compels Pi to find ways to survive. (That shipwreck, by the way, is far scarier and more frightfully beautiful than anything James Cameron has yet committed to film.) And the movie marks perhaps the best use of 3D I’ve ever seen in a narrative film to date– it makes Hugo look like a cold piece of clockwork.
Ang Lee takes his time in getting the story cooking, in both visual and emotional terms. But even the movie’s more placid first third turns out to be a kind of blessing, through the contrast it provides between the routine predicaments of daily life and the soaring spectacle of a survival fable which seems to glow with a heightened, magical reality that makes perfect emotional sense, especially as you tumble back through it when the lights go up. It’s a thrilling movie, a near-great one from a director for whom consistency of vision has always seemed elusive. Life of Pi feels like a wondrous summation of Lee’s strengths as a filmmaker and a storyteller– it has the feeling of a story uniquely interpreted by someone whose destiny it was to tell it through the magic of the movies.
And it also feels like a great summation of the possibilities yet to be tapped within the realm of realistic and hyper-realistic effects on screen, as well as the great justification for the full-body plunge into CGI that has characterized American and, increasingly, world cinema over the past 15 years or so. Experiencing the spectacular beauty and fear and adrenaline and grace manifested by this movie, watching that tiger interact with the unfortunate Pi, knowing that it couldn’t possibly be real, yet unable to deny what my eyes, and my beating heart, was telling me, and then reading of how it was done, and how little screen time was actually taken up by a living, breathing creature, has only increased my appreciation for the movie’s achievement. And yes, when I see articles designed to highlight the movie’s technical achievement, I can’t help but flash on how far we’ve come in terms of the realistic representation of animals in movies, not only since that inadequate little basset hound in the Times commercial of 15 or some years ago, but even just in the last two or three years, when the digital stakes seem to have been ramped up ever higher.
No, I didn’t ever really believe that Superman could fly. I didn’t believe that digital basset hound for a second either, especially when it was sitting right next to the real thing. But I believed in Richard Parker, Life of Pi’s triumphantly, magisterially frightening Bengal tiger costar, and while watching Ang Lee’s movie I instantly believed once again in the power of visual effects to do something other than just strive for spectacle, for a hyper-realized representation of life, to make us believe in the impossible. For those two hours the measure of what the movie really achieved could be found in how it encourages us to remember why it’s important to be able to imagine in the first place.
In a very real way, movies like Life of Pi, and King Kong vs. Godzilla and Jason and the Argonauts and Trollhunter and even Zelig ask us, yes, to “believe” in what we see, but they never allow us to forget to believe in ourselves too, as an integral part of the storytelling process. These movies, minor and major feats of imagination, don’t simply insist on paving imaginations over and supplanting the spark inside with yet another recycled series of images. Instead they assist in augmenting our own imaginations with grace notes of wonder and brash appeals to our inner believer, encouraging us to make connections and leaps of faith as we marvel and laugh and gasp at what they show us. Even as they take flight they leave us with a bit of the work left to do for ourselves, that their visions might stay buoyant, soaring through the air.
For further reading on special effects, I direct you my pieces of Kinji Fukasaku’s The Green Slime, one piece published here at Trailers from Hell and the other more visually oriented post at SLIFR. The original version of “Seeing and Believing” can be found here.