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.
I haven’t seen the Swedish adaptations, nor read the Stieg Larsson books on which they are based, which either makes me hopelessly unqualified to comment on this piece of the franchise, or a blank slate for judging this film on its own terms. All I can say is that I once overheard sections of the audiobook, and it seemed to involve mostly people emailing each other (here’s a full plot synopsis if you need it). After The Social Network, I wondered if David Fincher was going to go one step further and make a whole film about electronic communication. Not quite. Continue reading
[Credit for this post must be shared with a group of my final-year students at the University of Exeter. The assignment was to re-edit a piece of writing for re-publication online. I hadn't tried this before, but wanted to experiment with collaborative work using Google docs. To begin with, I posted the first draft of an essay I wrote in 2003, the first book chapter I ever had published (the finished product had ended up in The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded, edited by Stacy Gillis and published by Wallflower Press in 2005). The task was to re-edit a 6000-word essay to about half that length, correcting errors, adding web-links and images, removing academic jargon and generally formatting it for an online readership (however they might interpret such a thing). There were 28 students on the module, and each had access to the document - the only rules were that other students' edits should be respected: if you wished to change something that had already been reworded, you should add a comment to say why. The integrity, argument, grammar, tone and style of the original text demanded no such respect, and was to be disregarded completely. Almost every sentence has been altered in some way. More than 3000 words have been excised, either by making my youthful, eagerly excessive prose more succinct, or by hacking out wholesale paragraphs that distracted from the central argument.I wouldn't want to have them treat another writer's work in this way, and the essay was mostly concerned with close reading, clarifying an argument, addressing a different audience and working collaboratively, so in future, I'll give this another go and divide students into smaller groups and let them work together to build a blog post from the ground up rather than just cleaning up my old messes. It was a very interesting process to watch, and I hope they also found it productive/instructive. The results are posted below.]
Film studies once saw special effects as extrinsic to narrative progression; more often than not, spectacle was seen as eye-candy for the benefit of viewers unable to concentrate without pyrotechnics. Whilst visual spectacle can be used as a fig leaf to hide the shame of substandard storytelling, critics such as Michele Pierson and Norman Klein have seen special effects as an integral component of commercial cinema, rather than as a side-effect of its perceived deterioration. In addition, Hollywood’s gleeful embrace of digital technologies for the production of photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) since the early 1990s has promoted a simulationist aesthetic that has caught the attention of postmodern audiences more than hubcap UFOs and rubber dinosaurs ever could. In the Matrix trilogy, we see not so much a striving to stultify and patronise the cinema audience with immersive sights, and more a special effects agenda which connects text with context, image with apparatus. The Wachowskis’ films deploy almost the entire panoply of available effects, including digital matte paintings, miniature models and prosthetic make-up. We will here concentrate on one particular scene from The Matrix: Reloaded – the sequence which has come to be known as ‘The Burly Brawl’. This scene allows the viewer to observe the full mobilisation of virtual actors in computer-generated backgrounds, and places the human cast in conflict with digital doubles.
While the media puppies were distracted by the Oscar chew-toy, the Visual Effects Society was handing out its 8th annual batch of awards. Soundly trounced by The Hurt Locker at the Academy, Avatar could take some comfort from its haul of six statuettes in the shape of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. You can see a full list of winners here. The VES recognises films, TV shows, commercials and videogames that exhibit innovative or outstanding visual effects: these are effects completed in post-production as opposed to special effects, which is meant to refer to things done on the set, but which has become a catch-all for visual trickery of all sorts. As a result, almost every nominee (the stop-motion Coraline is the honourable exception) is featured for its digital effects. And what do you think was the single most impressive effect of the year? Was it the destruction of L.A. in 2012? The plane crash in Knowing? Nope, it was a shot of Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri drinking water from a leaf. A CG character dribbling CG liquid into her mouth. It’s less obviously spectacular than the fire and brimstone of its competitors, and techie insiders obviously recognised the complexity of modelling and compositing all of those separate elements, but it points to the micro-spectacular properties of digital effects. Aside from the capacity for large-scale destruction, they chase after the possibility of the sensuality of surfaces, skin and fluid, hoping for their successful integration, the thrill of their touch. This, depending on your view, is either a marvelous re-direction of the spectacular towards haptic, luxuriant pleasures, or a complete waste of time when there’s plenty of serviceable skin and water to be found in the real world at any time.
[See also the follow-up post, Digesting Avatar.]
Do you feel like the game has changed? Are we in a new age of spectacular cinema, freed from technological limits? That’s what was promised, but has Avatar rescued us from our humdrum lives of everyday movies with everyday special effects? My initial verdict is, well … sort of.
First things first (and here’s where you’ll find the greatest concentration of potential poster-quotes) Avatar looks astonishing. Really. It has wondrous moments when you momentarily accept the tangibility of the lanky blue folk on the screen, and it makes perfect sense that these are couched in a narrative about a man exploring a new world via a new body: Cameron meshes together the diegetic events and the experience of their spectacles perfectly, so the spectator’s exploratory view of Pandora (where the film takes place) can be focused on discoveries of plants and species that are, at the same time, discoveries of CGI novelties. It means you don’t have to feel bad about stopping and staring: it makes gawping at stuff feel like a plot point. But the plot is so stale that it might even be seen as a deliberate strategy to choke off any sense of suspense or complexity and force the audience to focus on the immediate splendour of the present moment: don’t worry about what’s going to happen, just check how good it looks as it’s happening.
2012 is not a film that has divided critics. Most people think it’s crap. I was undecided about Roland Emmerich. Is he just another Michael Bay, marshalling expensive mayhem and ill-gotten sentiment painted by numbers to a strict blockbuster formula? Or is there some wit and irony folded into delirious excess of the whole enterprise? Emmerich seems to be making the same film again and again, continually dressing up one idea of global catastrophe’s effect on families in ever bulkier clothing. I myself can’t quite decide. I oscillate between giving it some credit for fabricating a committed deconstruction of the blockbuster disaster movie, and trying to pretend that I ever went to see it at all. So, maybe you too can indulge your indecision, or flatter your hardline opinions with another of Spectacular Attractions‘ patented “Build Your Own Review” posts. Think of it like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach to film reviewing. That way, you won’t be distracted by the sight of me weaseling out of my responsibility to give my own view…
The latest in my semi-random, long-neglected series of asides on special effects continues with the concept of the “reveal”. This is that moment when you finally get to see the spectacular object that has been withheld from you for so long. A good reveal will not just happen, but will be the culmination of a series of gestures that draw you in to a state of curiosity, suspense and anticipation. In short, if they’ve spent a lot of money on their biggest selling point, they’re going to make you wait to see it.