The Spielberg Hundred #005: The Magic of Special Effects


This is the complete screen recording of a paper I gave last month at a conference in Montreal, The Magic of Special Effects: Cinema, Technology, Reception, 10 November 2013. Aside from the final plenary talk by Tom Gunning, I was the last speaker at this intensive, 6-day conference, so I will plead a little bit of fatigue and befrazzlement; I mostly resisted the urge to rewrite my paper over the course of the week as I heard so many stimulating ideas from the other speakers, but I will no doubt feed some of that stimulation back into the next draft of my paper. What I presented was an early sketch of my chapter on Spielberg for a forthcoming book, and thanks to helpful comments and questions from other delegates, I have a better idea of what I need to do to develop it into a longer, stronger essay. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a work-in-progress, but let me know in the comments section if you have suggestions for improvement. Although the finished chapter will explore in more historical depth the relationship between Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, what I presented here is an attempt to characterise what Spielberg does with visual effects set-pieces, and how the audience is embedded in a “spectacular venue” for the presentation of marvellous things. 

Gravity: The Weight of Water


Gravity Sandra Bullock

[This post contains spoilers for Gravity, but since I seem to be the last person in the universe to see the film, that shouldn't be too much of a problem...]

By the time I got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, so much had already been said. It received rapturous reviews, then a bunch of criticisms of its scientific plausibility, then prompted, or at least chimed with, talk about space debris, roused the obligatory Oscar “buzz” (i.e. somebody somewhere thought it might win a couple of awards), and generally came on like an end-of-year blockbuster that showed the summer how thrills and spectacle should have been handled. So, while I feel like I want to write a little something about the film, I’m not too keen to burden you with a retread of opinions you might already have found elsewhere.

Continue reading

Fragment #37: Jack Conway on Romance and Illusion


In case you thought complaining about how special effects are just not as exciting or authentic as real stunts, spectacle and peril was a new thing, here is an article from a 1933 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, in which film director Jack Conway worries that the spread of camera trickery might be depleting the excitement of film. One problem he notes, is that audiences have just become too wise to the illusions, and just aren’t fooled any more. Conway Hollywood Reporter[I found this article using Lantern, the amazing new search tool for the Media History Digital Library. It's a great way to search for film and media articles from public domain journals. Read David Bordwell's appreciation here.]

Pacific Rim


Final_Four_Jaegers, Pacific Rim

One of the signature images of the contemporary action blockbuster is of human operators manoeuvering artificial bodies. Whether it’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, operating a lanky blue alien chassis while napping in a metal cocoon, Wikus (Sharlto Copley) in District 9 in a cyborgic war-machine suit, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) operating his hi-tech Iron Man suit, or the combatants of the Jaeger programme in Pacific Rim working the mind-and-body controls of their gargantuan monster-punching robots, we are accustomed to seeing the spectacular visual effects doing the heavy lifting while the human performers, seen in occasional cutaways, take up subordinate roles. This is partly a way of finding something for the people to do while the focus is on the big machines that are the agents of action in these movies, but it is also the visual logic of films dependent on motion-capture to fuel their digital heroes: these are films that celebrate technology, but remain anxious that those technologies are inscribed with the markers of human input that make films about machines relatable and engaging. Continue reading

Fragment #36: Suing Spielberg


Twister Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton

In 1998, writer Stephen Kessler sued the makers of Twister (Steven Spielberg, Michael Crichton, Warner Bros and Universal studios), claiming that they had plagiarised his script “Catch the Wind”. At the same time, Dreamworks was being sued by Barbara Chase- Riboud who accused them of borrowing extensively from her novel Echo of Lions in the production of Amistad. Kessler alleged that he sent his script to Spielberg’s agency in 1989, and later found out that it had been adapted by Michael Crichton (who denied ever hearing about Kessler or Catch the Wind) to make Twister. The case went to a US District Court, but Kessler ultimately failed to win any compensation. At one point, Spielberg himself was cross examined, and the text below is extracted from the court transcripts. I wonder if he would still stand by his ruthlessly “pragmatic” assessment of the value of a script to the success of a film. Screenwriters, cinematographers, and composers may want to look away… Continue reading

Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions


I started writing this post about the films of Peter Tscherkassky nearly three years ago, and never finished it: that happens sometimes, if I don’t have time to complete a bit of writing, or I lose my train of thought, or if I come across an article that says exactly what I wanted to say. I can’t remember what happened to this one, but I was reminded of the unfinished piece when I attended a talk by Tscherkassky at the newly opened EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam. It was the first time I’d seen the films projected on film, and it reignited an interest that had begun for me after seeing them on DVD and trying to use some of them in my teaching. Listening to him explain the incredibly painstaking methods he uses to create his films made me think the least I could do was knock out a few words in response. Continue reading

Digesting Hugo


These are some preliminary thoughts from a first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. I’m in the process of writing a chapter on representations of Georges Méliès for a forthcoming book, so this will be one of my primary texts, and I’ll need to watch it again. I thought I would assemble some notes as I go along. As a result, this might read like a string of disjointed observations at times, but hopefully there will be some points of interest for you along the way. I’m happy to discuss the film, too, and I’m aware that it has divided moviegoers in a way that it didn’t necessarily divide the critics. A quick perusal (which is all anyone should usually have to endure) of the IMDB comments page will give evidence of popular objections to the film. It was looking like a weighty flop on its domestic release, but Hugo will probably just about claw back its $170million budget  (the best evidence that this greenlit at a time when it looked like 3D was an infallible cash-cow) when the totals are added up from international markets. So, please leave me a comment if you have an opinion about this film.  Continue reading

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001


This week, I present the first of what I hope will develop into a regular series of short video podcasts. Last year, I experimented with ten audio podcasts, most of which adapted posts previously published on this blog. As much as I enjoyed making those shows, I missed being able to show images and clips, so this is an opportunity to refer very directly to particular scenes from films; sometimes I’ll analyse a single clip, and other times the subject will be more of a video essay like this first entry, which revisits a post about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You can read the original entry here, but I really wanted to start with something familiar to get used to the editing software. I’m using iMovie for now, but might progress to something more complex if needed. This equipment serves my purposes for now.

I plan to follow this with two more short videos about 2001, and then a broader variety of films. If time allows, new video podcasts will appear every fortnight. Feedback on episode #001 would be greatly appreciated:

Spectacular Attractions Video Podcast #001: 2001: A Space Odyssey – This Way Up from Dan North on Vimeo.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn


Steven Spielberg has owned the rights to the Tintin books since 1983, when they were passed to him by Hergé‘s widow. Apparently, the Belgian author was an admirer of Spielberg’s work, and had indicated that he was the only director who could do the stories justice. Presumably, both Spielberg and Hergé saw common ground between Tintin and Indiana Jones but, if I may be allowed to presume a little further, neither of them can have expected that the finished film would take nearly three decades, and be a fully-CG 3D motion-capture extravaganza on a budget of $130 million. For comparison, Raiders of the Lost Ark had been finished for $18 million, and Hergé’s death coincided with the release of MS Dos 2.0. But while the new film appears on a wave of publicity about its state-of-the art technology, it is also resolutely old-fashioned. Continue reading

Norman O. Dawn Collection


These wonderful cards are from the collection of Norman O. Dawn, as displayed at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin last year, as part of the special effects section of the Making Movies exhibition. Dawn was the creator of many innovative special effects for photography and film, most notably the glass shot, where the mise-en-scene is augmented by scenery painted onto a pane of glass that is placed between the camera and the set/location. Here’s an example of Byron Crabbe (who also worked on King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game before his untimely death in 1937) painting set extensions onto glass for a scene from The Last Days of Pompeii (1935):

[This image was taken from NZPete's fabulous blog about old-school special effects, including matte painting, glass shots and the like. Pete has managed to round up an impressive array of images and info about the techniques and personnel that made so many extraordinary moments of Hollywood's golden age.]

Dawn created these cards to record his array of techniques used on more than eighty films, and to illustrate them for the producers and executives who had to be convinced that such amazing illusions were possible. If nothing else, with their miniature watercolours, oil paintings, sketches and handwritten notes, they stand as testament to the artisanal, hands-on nature of early special effects.