Chris Morris: Graphics Content

Chris Morris in Brass EyeNo Known Cure[This is an edited extract from “‘Only This Can Make it a News’: The Language of News Media”, in James Leggott & Jamie Sexton (eds.) No Known Cure: The Comedy of Chris Morris. London: BFI/Palgrave, 2013. In this essay I analyse the use of graphics, idents, and title sequences in the news parodies of satirist Chris Morris. In this section, I discuss the title sequences that begin The Day Today and Brass Eye.]

Station logos and programme insignia serve connotative as well as nominative functions; they iconically refer to the names of things, but their designs also activate meaningful associations for viewers. The graphic design template of each show is firmly established in their title sequences. John Ellis has analysed the Day Today title sequence, noting that it is characterised by ‘a sense of excess of meaning, of heady overstatement within familiar forms’; it exaggerates the tropes and clichés of the opening of a news show.[i]

A montage of library footage filtered through digital surface simulations show the multiple foci of the programme (politics, war, celebrities, sport) in a mixed arena of metallic, granite and liquid structures that fluctuate between solidity and fluidity: the design connotes encyclopedic versatility, the image speaks of confusion. Continue reading

Casting Confirmed for The Invention of Hugo Cabret

[See also The Hugo Trailer.]

The development of Scorsese’s adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret continues apace, with the announcement of some pretty solid casting decisions. Spectacular Attractions is unnaturally interested in this film, partly because it comes from a beautiful book, but mainly because it combines two of my favourite things, Georges Melies and automata.

The cast list now includes Hit Girl herself, Chloe Moretz as Isabelle:

Asa Butterfield from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as Hugo Cabret:

And (Sir!) Ben Kingsley as Georges Melies, a fine selection, and one that hadn’t occurred to me:

Sacha Baron Cohen (just watched his nauseating turn as an Israeli tour guide on The Simpsons – a really misjudged and lazy episode) will most likely be involved as the station inspector. So far so good. But always skeptical…

Performing Illusions: Cinema, Special Effects and the Virtual Actor (Updated 18th March 2010)

performing-illusionsThis post compiles reviews and notices about my book, Performing Illusions, published by Wallflower Press in 2008. Newer updates are lower down the page.

Originally posted 30th September 2008:

I feel a little uncomfortable using my blog to plug my new book. But I’ll get over it. After a long gestation, Performing Illusions has finally hit the shelves. “Just in time for Christmas”, I can hear you all sigh with relief. This is my first monograph, so it was very satisfying to see it in print with such a beautifully designed cover (I bet all my academic colleagues wish they could have Spider-Man on their books). I look forward, with only minor trepidation, to hearing reader’s responses, and I hope they will feel free to find their way to this blog with their queries or objections. My only regret is that, due to the time it takes to fine-tune the layout, design and printing of a book, some of the arguments, particularly those concerning the latest imaging technologies, might have been superseded by the faster publication channels of online journals and, yes, blogging. But, if I had to sum up the book, I’d say that it is rather old-fashioned in its attempts to conceptualise the spectator’s engagement and interaction with illusionistic images: this approach is supposed to be applicable to all kinds of special effects, no matter how “advanced” the technologies used in their manufacture might be. I do this by setting out a template drawn from the 19th-century magic theatre, arguing that the interplay between magician and audience, and the balance between revelation and concealment, might be a useful way to understand the ways in which viewers of films are drawn to an oscillatory position between immersion in a narrative and a more distant (but arguably just as powerful and interpretative) appreciation of the foregrounded display of technology. Of course, there are also many historical connections between stage magicians and early film pioneers, most notably in the form of Georges Méliès, but these need to be understood in the context of the distinct stage practices which influenced them.

Connecting the chapters of the book is the figure of the virtual actor, the so-called “Holy Grail” of simulated images, marking the perceived endpoint of developments in special effects by finally achieving the dream of a synthetic human representation that can pass onscreen for the real thing. The mythos of this idea seemed to me to be more interesting than the question of whether or not it might ever be attainable, and summed up neatly the deterministic, teleological discourses which circulate around special effects, and which I hoped to undermine with my focus on the conceptual continuities between cinematic illusions, as opposed to their headline-friendly novelty qualities. Overall, though, I wanted to offer some ways of thinking about special effects and how they inflect our understanding of the films in which they appear, how they might offer entrypoints to engagement with the plastic properties of film production and incite productive reflection upon the nature of illusion and photographic ontology.


Update 19th November 2008: You need more books like this, apparently…

Two reviews published so far. But who does a writer have to shag bribe to earn a fifth star these days?



In answer to Empire’s no doubt pressing concern (the real answer to which is that the book was finished back when The Golden Compass was just an ill-conceived, mis-titled tangle of re-writes, before it just became a big mess of a film), I have no idea why it won. Out of the nominated films, which also included Pirates of the Caribbean: At Wit’s End and Transformers, Michael Bay’s masterful fusion of Futurist montage and anti-corporate situationism (just kidding – it was a load of dog-knobbing shite not my cup of tea), I guess it was the least obnoxious of the choices offered to the voters. But that doesn’t explain why The Golden Compass‘s Playstation bear fight was rewarded with anything but scorn. Maybe giving an Oscar to a film about jive-talking toy robots was just more than the Academy could countenance. I greatly admired Philip Pullman’s books, so to see them reduced to just another electrified Narnia knock-off was very sad, especially when they had the National Theatre’s grotesque puppet-show version to draw upon for inspiration. I hope that answers the question. OK, that’s a little uncharitable. VFXWorld has a very honest and congenial panel discussion between the various nominees where they compare notes on what was good and bad about each other’s films. The Academy Awwards are voted for by specialists in the field who have a very sound working knowledge of their craft, and are not necessarily voting on the basis of dramatic or aesthetic success. Personally, I might have voted for The Bourne Ultimatum, if only for convincing everybody that it didn’t use any visual effects. But Spider-Man 3, despite being a hateful waste of everybody’s time, did feature that one fascinating moment with the origin of the Sandman, a long-take spectacular gesture that summarised the very essence of foregrounded visual effects work (i.e. nailing your eyes to the screen for a sustained performance of technological delicacy) and briefly revived the hope that the franchise could retain a little of its promised wit.

Now, I’d just like to know why my first two book reviews begin with the words “thick” and “dense”……


Update 20th March 2009:

Performing Illusions has been shortlisted for the 2009 And/Or Book Awards, as announced at the You can download the full press release here. The Times online has a slideshow of all the nominees here.

Photography prize shortlists


The two shortlists for the 2009 And/or Book Awards, for books published in the fields of photography and the moving image, have been unveiled.

A winner from each category will share a prize fund of £10,000. The prizes will be announced during an awards ceremony at the BFI Southbank, London, on Thursday 23rd April.

More than 150 titles were submitted across the two categories for the awards, which have been narrowed down to a final seven books by the two judging

panels chaired by Martin Parr (Photography) and Mike Dibb (Moving Image)

The shortlisted titles for the 2009 And/or Photography Award are:

  • Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840-1900 edited by Corey Keller (Yale University Press)
  • From Somewhere to Nowhere: China’s Internal Migrants by Andreas Seibert (Lars Müller)
  • Susan Meiselas: In History edited by Kristen Lubbin (Steidl)
  • The World from my Front Porch by Larry Towell (Chris Boot)

The shortlisted titles for the 2009 And/or Moving Image Award are:

  • Photography and Cinema by David Campany (Reaktion Books)
  • Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and the Early Cinema by Dan Streible (University of California Press)
  • Performing Illusions: Cinema, Special Effects and the Virtual Actor by Dan North (Wallflower Press)


Reviews added 1st November 2009:

Reviewed by Deborah Allison at Bright Lights Film Journal:

As the standard model of high-budget filmmaking moves ever closer to twenty-four lies per second, North’s articulate musings on our relationships with cinema and technology are both puissant and timely. His impeccably researched potted history of the most canonical titles of American special-effects cinema is in itself a job well done. Yet the author also has things of importance to say about contemporary culture beyond the bounds of the cinema frame, and it is this that elevates Performing Illusions from a simple history to a challenging and engaging inquiry. Developments in editing, double exposure, and the animation of plasticine may indeed hold their fascinations, yet these somehow fade into the background when one is invited to reflect on the extent to which synthespians embody “our own fear of replication and obsolescence, our replacement by digital constructs capable of outstripping our every ability and nuance.” Here indeed is some real food for thought.

Reviewed by D. Harlan Wilson in the new edition of Extrapolation. You can read the first half here, but I reprint some choice extracts here for my own blushing self-aggrandisement:

Performing Illusions is among the finest and most inventive books on film I have read this century […] Canny analyses and insights regarding the technocapitalist aspects of special effects render unique, often metanarrational readings of cinematic flesh and desire and the relationship between spectacle and spectator.


Review added 10th February 2009:

Posted by Pat at Bill Bop‘s Razor Reel:

Performing Illusions is an easy-to-read study, that sheds a light on the different techniques and guides us through a history of tricks & illusions. However don’t be fooled, this book is definitely aimed at film scholars and comes with a certain degree of difficulty that might scare off common fans! It’s not a book about special effects and how to learn them, but a study about special effects and the importance of them in film!”

I hadn’t intended to scare anyone off, Pat. And I’m not the one with a blood-stained razor blade in my website logo…


Review added 18th March 2010:

Elizabeth Lathrop has reviewed Performing Illusions for the latest issue of Film Quarterly. It’s a mostly positive review, except for “a few minor objections”, including my focus on the virtual actor of the book’s subtitle:

the inclusion of “virtual actor” seems strange, given North’s reservation about treating the history of special effects in teleological terms (implying some end state of perfection of the synthespian toward which the technology is moving). In fact, in keeping with North’s skepticism about the entirely revolutionary status of digital effects, perhaps his most distinctive contribution to the study of special effects is the first chapter, which links them to the illusionism and performative codes of nineteenth-century magic shows. Why then emphasize the virtual actor in the subtitle?

Hey, I like Chapter One best, too. As for the virtual actor, I guess it served a specific purpose – it’s a structuring device, to be sure, a marker of changes in the uses and depictions of synthetic bodies onscreen, and though it occasionally takes a backseat to whatever else I found myself writing about, the reader is rarely more than a few pages away from a status update on some form of synthetic, animated body, often a human one. Primarily, though, I wanted to argue that, despite the appearance of a series of incremental movements towards “improvements” in simulations of human figures, this rhetoric of perfectibility should not be understood as a story with an ending, but as the ongoing management of expectation and the reception of visual effects.

Scorsese to Direct The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Another “watch this space” announcement for you today.  Spectacular Attractions is still committed to keeping an eye on developments on the two Moby Dicks currently in production, and will update you as soon as there’s something to update (my suspicion is that Timur Bekmambetov’s version will get postponed indefinitely, especially if the forthcoming TV version is a popular success), but maybe it’s time to start getting a little bit excited about the upcoming adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Especially now that director Chris Wedge has been replaced by Martin Scorsese, a genuine cinephilic historian who might be able to do something interesting with the Georges Méliès angle. A vision in graphite, Selznick’s book is the tale of a young boy’s meeting with Melies and the automaton that may contain a message from his father. It’s all beautifully drawn, but most enticingly offers a rare opportunity for a blockbuster to tip its hat to Melies’ foundational achievements in film. I blogged about the book a while ago, alongside my own interest in automata and stuff like that.

Now, Variety reports that Martin Scorsese, who has owned the rights to the book since 2007, is signed on to make this his next film, with a script by The Aviator‘s John Logan. This will delay the rest of the stuff on Scorsese’s to-do list, including the Sinatra biopic, the Teddy Roosevelt biopic and the adaptation Shusaku Endo’s Silence, which was sounding pretty interesting with Benicio del Toro in the lead. I’ll be intrigued to find out how they’ll preserve the book’s distinctive aesthetic (without making it look like the Take on Me video), and look forward to the casting sessions for Georges Melies. There can’t be a better choice than Jean Rochefort, surely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they go with Jean Reno, or maybe Christopher Plummer.  And let’s not rule out the possibility that Tom Waits can do a French accent….

Whale-watching: Forthcoming Moby Dicks

[The image above (like the one at the bottom of this post) is from a design by Paul Lasaine for an abandoned version of Moby Dick developed by Dreamworks, directed by the Brizzi brothers. You can see several more images at his blog. The plan was to tell the story from the whale’s point of view; a fascinating idea that the studio didn’t want to follow up. My whale fixation continues in a post about Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies.]

I’m planning to post updates here on Spectacular Attractions about the two forthcoming adaptations of Moby Dick, along with notes about earlier versions. It’s something I’m distracted by at the moment, so this is an outlet. If anyone has further information than I can gather from the Web, please add comments below.

Read on…

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Hugo Cabret

The story I am about to share with you takes place in 1931, under the roofs of Paris. Here you will meet a boy named Hugo Cabret, who once, long ago, discovered a mysterious drawing that changed his life forever. But before you turn the page, I want you to picture yourself sitting in the darkness, like the beginning of a film. On screen, the sun will soon rise, and you will find yourself zooming toward a train station in the middle of the city. You will rush through the doors into a crowded lobby. You will eventually spot a boy amid the crowd, and he will start to move through the train station. Follow him, because this is Hugo Cabret. His head is full of secrets, and he’s waiting for his story to begin.

Brian Selznick (yes, he’s related to David O., who was his grandfather’s first cousin) has written and drawn a very beautiful book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There are words, too, but it is most effective in sequences that move through space and time in a series of quasi-cinematic “shots”, all precisely etched in crumbly pencil. You almost want to try and blow the lead dust off its pages. I’d like to show you some pictures from it, but I can’t get it into my scanner without cracking the spine, and I’m rather prissy when it comes to my books (is it just me? Don’t you just hate it when you lend someone a book and it comes back creased, dog-eared and decorated with coffee circles?). So, I’ve borrowed some images from elsewhere, and you can watch a slideshow of the book’s opening section here. Hugo Cabret lives in Montparnasse railway station, hiding out from the sinister station master. His father, a clockmaker, has died in a fire, and Hugo is obsessed with fixing the writing automaton his father left behind, convinced that when its mechanism is complete, it will write him a message that his been hidden for years. He has a run-in with the old man who runs a toy stall at the station, and the connections between them all are slowly revealed.

Various pages from The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Various pages from The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Georges Melies selling toysI don’t know if this counts as a spoiler, because it’s the key selling point of the book for me, and it’s the reason I’m posting about it in this blog (but please skip the rest of this post if you don’t want to know any of the book’s secrets), but it turns out that the old man is French early film pioneer and magician Georges Méliès, whose films have received a fair amount of attention on this blog. As a result, the film makes glancing connections with actual history, and treats Méliès’ films as glorious lost objects, precisely as they must seem to children today.  The brilliant director really did end up selling toys in a kiosk at a Paris train station. There are stories that the magician had built an automaton that could write, but no proof of this survives today, and there is no photographic evidence (as ever, I would be very happy to be corrected at any time on this).


Variety announced last year that Chris Wedge (Ice Age, Robots) was going to direct a film adaptation of Hugo Cabret written by John Logan (Gladiator, The Aviator), though things seem to have gone a bit quiet. If it does get off the ground, does anyone have casting suggestions for a Méliès? Personally, I think there’s one very obvious choice so perhaps I should ask if anyone has a better idea than Jean Rochefort? Actually, Rochefort has already played  Méliès on the concept album La Mécanique du Coeur, by French band Dionysus, based on the book by lead singer Mathias Malzieu. Luc Besson has optioned it, so we might be looking at two Méliès movies in a short space of time.

Plenty of magicians, including John Nevil Maskelyne, whose whist-playing android “Psycho” is still on display at the Museum of London (though the galleries will be shut until next year, sadly) and Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, displayed trick automata in their acts. That is, the machines couldn’t really perform the feats of which they were reputed to be capable – they were moved by hidden operators or wires.


Selznick has said that he was inspired by Gaby Wood’s book on automata, Edison’s Eve, published in the UK under the title Living Dolls. That’s another interest we share in common. I’ve been a fan of moving mechanical figures for a long time, and I’ve sometimes speculated that automata might be one of the missing pieces of the historical puzzle of proto-cinematic media. I wouldn’t want to force the comparison, but automata share the same facet for recorded movements, the capturing of performance and the uncanny endowment of inanimate objects with signs of life. A couple of years ago I was travelling in Europe, and one of my most memorable stops was at the museum of art and history in Neuchatel, Switzerland. On the first Sunday of every month, you can watch a demonstration of the Jacquet-Droz androids. Here are some pictures I took:


Sorry about the focus. It was very low light (the dolls, I was told, were very shy and didn’t like flash – i.e. they’re almost two and a half centuries old and a bit fragile). The doll on the right in the background is a writer. He dips his quill in a pot of ink and writes in a beautiful script on the card in front of him. The draughtsman in the foreground can draw a small repertoire of pictures in pencil. On that day, he was drawing a portrait of Louis XV. I managed to get my hands on their handiwork. I still have the cards on my desk. Here are some more pics. Click on them to see the remarkable detail:

jacquet-droz-writing louis-xv

You can see the full set of pictures at my Flickr page, or watch the slideshow below (I’m testing out Vodpod for the first time, so let me know if it doesn’t work properly):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

But for something extra special, here’s a video I made (sorry, just on my little camera, no professional equipment) of Marianne, the Jacquet-Droz harmonium player.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Notice that after she’s played her tune, she takes a bow, and if you look very closely, you can see her breathing. I can’t be the only one who suspects that she must have been the inspiration for Hoffman’s living doll Olympia in The Sandman.

The story of Hugo Cabret hinges, like so many stories, particularly those aimed at children, on a secret object with magical powers (the automaton’s drawing abilities are beyond anything that has ever been built) passed on from father to son, and as such creates a compelling subtext about the way we remember things over long stretches of time, and the machines we use to help us do it. Melies’ films memorialise a certain period in time, but they also transform it, like dreamy misremembrances of how things might have been. If this book can introduce young people to the actual wonders of Melies’ films, it will have done a valuable service already, but it can also remind adults of the beauty of filmic bodies, with their ability to disappear, rocket to the moon and fall back again, or multiply indefinitely. The automaton might be a previsualisation of the malleable cinematic body, one which can carry messages through the decades across several lifetimes, replaying the same performances for audiences separated by centuries. A living doll like Marianne exudes an eerie presence, a feeling that she has been a imperious and imperishable witness to history.


Review at NPR, with Selznick reading an extract.

The Rain Before it Goes to Earth

In Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, The Rain Before it Falls, a character describes the joy of appearing as an extra in Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth. Her excitement at getting close to Jennifer Jones is a hint at her burgeoning sexuality, but the recollection fits in well with the books central themes of memorialisation, and the power of photographic records to record some, but crucially not all, of the truths of a particular moment. The film gives her a glimpse into the past lives of herself and her friend. Coe illustrates the sequence vividly:

“I can describe exactly the clothes that Beatrix found for us to wear for our appearance in the film. This is not a feat of memory on my part: it’s because I have the film on tape now, recorded from the television some years ago, and she and I can be seen quite clearly in one of the earliest scenes. Oh, the excitement, of glimpsing myself – just for a few seconds – on the big screen, when I saw the film with my parents when it was first released! We went and saw it four or five times in a single week, just for that thrill. (And most of the time we were almost alone in the cinema, for it was not a popular film, not popular at all.) And then the poignancy of glimpsing myself – of glimpsing both of us – once again, when the film was rereleased almost forty years later, and I saw it with Ruth at that cinema near Oxford Street shortly after our dinner party. […] Since then I have seen it many times – so many times; it is the only moving record I have of Beatrix at all, the only one where she is not frozen in time. It is precious to me for that reason, mainly, although there are other reasons too.
Our little appearance takes place in what I believe the film-makers call an establishing shot. A sculptor is seen chiselling the date – 20 June 1897 – on to a memorial stone, against a background of bright blue sky. Behind this, already, we can hear the noise of horses’ hooves clip-clopping along the street. We then cut to the street itself – the bottom of the High Street, at its junction with Wilmore Street, so that the old Tudor guildhall and buttermarket buildings are also in view – and there, immediately, you can see Beatrix and me, standing in the left-hand corner of the frame, laughing and talking together.”

The description of the scene continues for a couple more pages. But as soon as I read it I knew that I was going to find a copy of the film and check whether or not this shot exists, and whether or not our two characters are visible in its left-hand corner. And here, with apologies for the dodgy old VHS quality, is, I think, the relevant shot:

It is a little spooky to see fictional characters transported into another medium. Maybe Coe anticipated the little frisson that would greet readers when they saw the film, as if throwing in an uncanny authentication of the story told in the novel. In the book, the dying Rosamond leaves a series of tapes for a blind girl whose family relationship is initially mysterious. On these tapes, she describes a series of photos that mark out key moments in her life. But the images never tell the full story, and sometimes they obscure it. Coe pulls off the neat trick of offering us, in this moment from Gone to Earth, a concrete example of an image that lies to us – it is, of course not Rosamond and Beatrix in the left hand corner of the frame. The image has just been borrowed and put to a new fictive purpose. I’d love to hear about more examples of books describing, and re-imagining scenes from actual movies.