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. 

Final Call for Papers – Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts


Call for Papers!

The deadline for submission of abstracts is fast approaching. We’ve had some amazing submissions so far, from a variety of contributors, but there’s still time for a few more. Full details are below, but you can ask for more info if you need or want to know more…

Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts

Edited by Michael Duffy [Towson University], Dan North [University of Exeter], and Bob Rehak [Swarthmore College]

Deadline for Abstracts: 1 March 2011
Deadline for Submissions: 1 January 2012

Recent decades have seen ever more prominent and far-reaching roles for special and visual effects in film and other media: blockbuster franchises set in detailed fantasy and science-fiction worlds, visually experimental adaptations of graphic novels, performances in which the dividing lines between human and inhuman – even between live action and animation – seem to break down entirely. Yet the cinema of special effects, so often framed in terms of new digital technologies and aesthetics, actually possesses a complex and branching history, one that both informs and complicates our grasp of the “state of the art.” At stake in studies of special/visual effects is a more comprehensive understanding of film’s past, present, and future in an environment of shifting technologies and media contexts.

We seek contributions to a volume focused on special effects as aesthetic, industrial, and cultural practices, moving beyond formal analysis to a wider consideration of special effects’ historical roots and developmental paths, their underlying technologies and creators, and their intersection with other domains of art, commerce, and ideology. We are particularly interested in essays that elaborate on specific periods of change that special and visual effects have undergone over the course of their history. Although we welcome work that deals with digital technologies and contemporary cinema, we encourage contributors to contextualise recent developments in relation to broader histories of visual illusion and spectacular artifice.

The book will integrate an online forum to develop an extensive bibliography, web links to further reading, and a scholar/practitioner directory.

Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • Theoretical approaches to the study of special effects history and technique, including (but not restricted to) ‘ontology’ debates surrounding the interplay between analogue and digital technologies.
  • Theories of spectatorship, visual illusions, and special effects.
  • Critical histories/analyses of individual processes, e.g. matte paintings, compositing, bluescreen, the Independent Frame, miniatures, stop-motion animation, animatronics, prosthetics, motion capture, etc.
  • Pre-visualization techniques, including production design, concept art, and animatics.
  • The ongoing influence of effects pioneers including Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, James Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl, Albert E. Smith, R.W. Paul, and other makers of early ‘trick films’.
  • Changes to studio structures and the evolution of the special-effects ‘house’.
  • Industry “stars” such as Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, Richard Edlund, Tom Savini, Eiji Tsubuyara, Rick Smith, Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, John P. Fulton, John Gaeta, etc.
  • The uses of special effects and spectacle in the  experimental or avant-garde works of film-makers including Peter Tscherkassky, Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren, etc.
  • The significance of special effects in non-Hollywood, low-budget and independent cinema.
  • Special-effects fandom, connoisseurship, and critique
  • How animatronics, puppetry and make-up are adapted/reconstituted/re-contextualized for studio/franchise rebirths.
  • Visual effects in television, video games, and transmedia.
  • Spectacular uses of colour, widescreen, IMAX, and 3D processes.
  • Self-reflexive uses of special effects as a commentary on the history/ontology of media.

Essays should run between 3000 and 6000 words in length. Send abstracts (title, 500 word description of project, and author bio) or requests for further information to: fxnewhistories@gmail.com

Editors can be contacted individually at:

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I must stand by my initial response to Avatar, which was that it was visually exciting, but dramatically leaden. It also fades from memory quite quickly, and sours a bit in the recollection. James Cameron’s film has, however, excited quite a lot of debate – despite mostly favourable, if qualified reviews (mine was very much in line with the majority, I think), there is already a backlash that shows how quickly cultural products can be mined for the subtexts and counter-readings that will be exercising students on film-studies courses in years to come. I can see it being used as a prompt for discussions of Hollywood’s myths of hegemony, race and history very soon, even though there are unlikely to be any campus lecture theatres to show it in 3D as intended. These post-hype analyses will not be dazzled by the arc lamps of spectacular, IMAX-sized action, which might make them more clear-minded and less likely to be swayed by special effects, but this is not necessarily a fair fight if one believes that visual spectacle is a part of a film’s lexicon rather than the fig leaf for an under-endowed plot.

Read on…