A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)


[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]

a_trip_to_the_moon_poster[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]

For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.

Click here to read my analysis of the film…

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.

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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?

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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”……

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Update 20th March 2009:

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

Photography prize shortlists

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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)

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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.

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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…

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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.

Digesting Avatar


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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…

Roland Emmerich’s 2012: Build Your Own Review


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…

Read on…

How Special Effects Work #4: The Reveal


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.

Read on…

Things Fall Apart: Deluge (1933)


Deluge was the debut feature film by a 23 year-old with the enviable name of Felix E. Feist. Sounds like a Marx Brothers pseudonym, but it’s the real name of the son of an MGM sales manager, who had an almost-there career in movies until he switched to TV production in the 50s. Deluge was believed to have been lost, until a print surfaced in Rome – accordingly, the suriving version of the film is dubbed into Italian. It is noteworthy mostly because of its spectacular scenes of tidal waves destroying Manhattan, proof that Roland Emmerich didn’t invent the wheel: he just enlarged and nuked it.

The film clips along at an alarming rate. Before the main characters have even been introduced, we’re into a montage of baffled scientists, international news reports of earthquakes, military aircraft being returned to base, preachers predicting the end of the world; this all establishes the communication networks, the babble of opinions that tells us this is global catastrophe affecting even the biggest structures of nation states.

The onscreen declaration at the start really dates this film:

Deluge is a tale of fantasy, an adventure in speculation, a vivid epic pictorialisation of an author’s imaginative flight. We the producers present it now purely for your entertainment, remembering full well God’s covenant with Noah.

Yeah, because nothing kicks off a bit of pure entertainment like a Bible reference.

Note to Roland Emmerich: in Deluge, the buildings start falling seven minutes in – within thirty seconds, millions are dead and the entire Western coast of North America has crumbled into the sea. The radio announces: “Indescribable disaster is causing havoc everywhere. There’s no cause for panic. Shut off all gas items.” Now that’s efficient.

There then follows a remarkable sequence in which all of New York is washed away by the sea. This footage was never lost with the rest of the movie (I wonder if it was a flood which washed all the prints away), because it was reused in the Dick Tracy serial, and in King of the Rocket Men. YouTube helpfully has a clip, though the quality is not stellar:

I wonder if the miniature sets were built especially for the film, or whether RKO had some leftovers from the same year’s King Kong that needed knocking down. It looks like an expensive miniature set, and presumably was destroyed all in one go. The earth trembles, buildings explode into chalky oblivion, and the sea rushes in to wipe out any last traces of life. After this rather definitive destruction, the film follows the plight of survivors. Although a couple of months has passed, within a couple of minutes of screentime, they’re fighting to the death over Claire (Peggy Shannon), who has taken the trouble to wash ashore wearing only her undies.

Shannon has an unhappy biography – a former Ziegfeld girl, she was signed up by Paramount in 1931 as a new “It” girl to replace Clara Bow (who had suffered a nervous breakdown), she drank herself to death in 1941. A couple of weeks later husband shot himself dead on the spot where he’d found her. Incidentally, Feist’s ex-wife Lisa Howard, an actress who became a hugely successful journalist and newscaster, also killed herself in tragic circumstances after suffering a miscarriage. Feist died of cancer a couple of weeks later. Wow, so much death. Back to happier business. In Deluge, Shannon gives a fine account of a self-reliant and feisty (see what I did there?) woman lumbered with the tiresome burden of being the last woman in sight. She sets up temporary home with Martin, who has been separated from his wife and children in the chaos, believing them to be dead.

Elsewhere, life is picking up again, in a sequence of vigenettes from small town life in places where banks, barbers and families are trying to reinstate their old communities. The Italian dub might even allow today’s viewers the fantasies that this is some apocalyptic neo-realist drama. But only briefly. Martin’s wife Helen (Lois Wilson) is still alive and hoping to be reunited with him, but Tom, yet another survivor, informs her that a new law (how quickly people take the chance to pass new laws in the wake of catastrophe!) commands that women of marrying age must marry. Ah, romance.

Tom has other things to take care of, too, leading a mob against the cruel Bellamy gang, who’ve been raping and looting like only a post-apocalyptic all-male crowd of burly guys can. Thus is dramatised the struggle between the opposing factions of society’s remnants – women get the raw deal: stuck between forced marriage and random attacks by randy thugs, they become the fetish objects through which the male survivors differentiate themselves from one another. There’s some nicely ambiguous drama when Helen and Martin are reunited at the end. Claire refuses to give him up just because his wife turns out to be alive – it’s not as if there’s still a church around to give a crap (I’m paraphrasing her words), and for a while it looks as though they’re about to find accommodation as a threeway family, but it all ends with Claire swimming off to sea. An earlier comment that, unable to become an aviator, she became a professional swimmer tells us that Claire is not necessarily swimming to her death, but it looks for all the world like a suicidal martyrdom, as if her brand of trouser-wearing femininity can’t be assimilated with the newest world order. She did earlier escape from one unsatisfactory settlement to another by stripping off and swimming to the next port of call, so I like to think she’s going to keep going until she finds a refashioned society that can incorporate her desires. In any event, God’s covenant with Noah isn’t helping much.

[See more images from Deluge in my slideshow below:]

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A Christmas Carol


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Another Robert Zemeckis performance-capture movie, and that can only mean one thing – another round of reviews complaining that the “actors”‘ eyes all look a bit funny. You know the angle by now (if not, see my earlier post about Beowulf): Zemeckis, director of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, makes a film using digital avatars of popular movie stars (Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins in Beowulf), and critics scratch their heads over why they bothered spending all that money if the CG versions are going to look just like the actors themselves, and bemoan the lack of spark and vitality in the eyes and faces of the digital figures. It’s all part of the mainstream discussion of digital technology, with a widely held distaste for the unnatural, uncanny, inhuman or just plain cold sensations evoked by the experience of watching these souped-up game sprites

 

First of all, let me say that, though I was skeptical about 3D, I’m officially sold on the idea. I don’t really need 3D, and it doesn’t add much except giggly novelty to a film like A Christmas Carol, but if it’s there I’m going to enjoy the fad while it lasts. There’s an argument that Zemeckis’ new film shows Victorian London off splendidly with its 3D fly-by shots  that spatialise the setting and give a vivid sense of period. The title sequence is a swooping, one-take marvel that shifts its attention from the macro of a snowy city’s rooftops and the micro of rosy-cheeked carol singers and mischievous children. It’s spectacular, but it’s such a technical showcase that it feels incredibly modern, canceling out the evocation of a past time or of any of London’s historical specificity. It’s a bit like an animatronic display in a museum – it might give you a fun summary of a time and place, but it won’t transport you, and it’s no substitute for reading a book on the subject. That said, the shots of 3D snow are a wonderfully simple effect, and it’s tempting to try and catch a snowflake on your tongue; that must be the ultimate validation of a special effect – it had me leaning forward with my mouth open like an imbecile (there’s a poster-quote in there somewhere, I’m sure…).

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Zemeckis’s animators have finally solved the problems of unnervingly uncanny digital actors, at least as far as Jim Carrey’s Scrooge is concerned. Click on the image above to get a hit of the full detail of the graphics. You’ll also notice that on close inspection you can see the joins between separately programmed elements like the cloth hat and Scrooge’s forehead: digital animation makes hypercritical geeks of us all! But the face is extremely enabled in its facial movements. The CG Colin Firth is, by way of contrast, a waxy monstrosity that fails to mime the jauntiness of the actor’s voice – that may be one of the problems of hiring stars for this job: you picture the face that you know goes with the voice, and the digital version can only be found wanting. Other supporting parts, and a lot of the extras, seem to have received much less care and attention than the star, and they still have the dead-eyed roboticism of earlier mo-cap efforts. Things are getting better though – a close-up of Bob Cratchit’s wife fighting back the tears is pretty close to being affecting (high praise, eh!), and the CG turkey looked really delicious. Scrooge is caricatured just enough that he is recognisably human enough, but twisted and stretched enough to seem effectively cartoony. There are almost no jokes in this film, leaving Carrey to wring humour out of the physical exertions of embodying tight-wound stinginess and all-consuming self-interest, sucking everything into his tight frame as if conserving all of his energy for himself. His spine is so arched it’s like he’s slowly bending back on himself.

But performance capture was not really about making it easier to control facial expressions – that’s just a problem they need to iron out – instead, it’s part of Zemeckis’ totalising system of drag-and-drop world-building that allows him to craft completely malleable locations and performers. It means he can wring a series of value-added performances out of Carrey (in the process implying that the ghosts, all played by Carrey, are creations of his tormented psyche), making him into a poseable action figure with enough freedom that they can still trade on his name.

Perhaps the biggest surprise about A Christmas Carol is how reverent an adaptation of Dickens’ story it is. Sure, there’s a bit more flying through the sky in this version, but most of the dialogue is Dickens’ own, and the designs of the ghosts are drawn from John Leech’s illustrations from the 1843 edition:

Scrooges_third_visitor-John_Leech,1843Christmas Carol Ghost of Christmas Present

A Christmas Carol is such a familiar story that I wish they had taken more liberties with the source material and reconfigured it like they did with Beowulf; because the animation comes to life in the big action set-pieces, it gets leaden during the dramatic scenes when the actors are asked to perform tasks devised for humans – it doesn’t play to the strengths of an all-powerful hunk of CGI. When Scrooge is dragged into the grave, it’s a fabulous bit of baroque bombast, but when he has his change of heart, there’s just not a lot of joy leaping off the screen. Maybe that’s the answer – mo-cap works fine for actors, as long as they stay grumpy.

An Excursion to the Moon (Segundo de Chomon, 1908)


Segundo de Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon

[This post is an appendix of sorts to the larger post about Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. If you want to draw your own comparisons between the two films, you can cross-reference the scene-by-scene frame grabs from each film by clicking between the two posts.]

As another academic year draws to a close and piles of marking start … er, piling up, I find myself with less time for blogging at length about things. So, I’m on the look out for things I can work through quickly, to keep things ticking over on this site (and because I enjoy writing for it). I know I promised a double-bill review of some Japanese King Kong movies, and a randomisation of Norman McLaren, more Star Wars randoms, more in the How Special Effects Work series, a post on Peter Tscherkassky’s amazing Outer Space, and probably a few others. In short, I promised you the Earth. And now here I am, giving you the Moon. Again. Will that do for now?

I wanted to do a scene by scene comparison of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon in order to expand my notes here on that fabulous, important film. As an appendix to my ever-expanding scene-by-scene analysis of A Trip to the Moon, I present Segundo de Chomon‘s 1908 remake. Born in Aragon, Northern Spain in 1871, Chomón first worked for Pathé in 1901, where he helped to hand-tint prints of their films in Barcelona (an interest in colour films would stay with him throughout his career). He began making his own films the following year, and moved to Paris to work as a technical assistant to other Pathé film-makers in 1905. Later, he would serve as director of photography on Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and produced in-camera special effects for Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927). Often remembered for his remakes and imitations of other trick films, especially those of Melies, Chomon’s work has it’s own visual wit and immense dexterity with special effects: magicians constantly perform the same tricks again and again with their own personal variations, so it doesn’t seem too odd to find trick films that are very similar in theme and structure. Special effects are always modifications of earlier tricks, visual solutions to the same problem of how to depict an impossible event, and though Chomón’s film is structurally very similar to Méliès’ original (itself an adaptation/absorption of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne), we might find some important differences:

Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 1

From what I can tell, the figure on the right is very upset. He’s desperate for adventure, and I think he’s even yearning to go to the moon. His friends discourage him from jumping for it, and the professorial figure (i.e. the one with the big pointy hat) promises that they will go to the moon. They dance joyously, then exit screen left: as with Melies, they will enter the next shot from the right hand side of the frame, a neat bit of continuity editing, but also a temporal ellipsis. Time and space, in keeping with the theme of this film and others like it, are collapsed to give an impression of a breakneck, reckless voyage.

Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 2

Here the professor describes how the mission will work. It is and isn’t rocket science, folks (see, I can recycle jokes from earlier posts, too): the rocket is shot from the Earth to the Moon, but this is where Chomon trumps his predecessor, for while Melies’ lecturer had to draw the diagram with chalk on a blackboard, Chomon’s scientist has a superimposed animation of a spinning globe and a moving rocket aimed at the moon. It’s beautifully done, as perfect  a matte shot as you could hope to see in the early cinema period. Note that in both these scenes, the camera is closer than in Melies, and the performances perhaps more starkly individuated – there’s a lovely bit of business in the first shot where one of the friends tries to cheer up the miserabilist by popping a top hat on his head, to no avail. Chomon has a smaller cast, and so crowd scenes appear less cluttered. Similarly, you’ll notice that the perspective (see the telescopes in the background of this shot) is less vertiginous, less exaggerated in its distortions throughout.

Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 3

The explorers go to watch the rocket being built – you can see its frame to the left of centre in this image. As with Melies, there’s an industrial accident for light relief: one man is accidentally hooked and hoisted by a crane. Are we supposed to mock the explorers for their clumsiness, their prim and proper incongruence on the shop floor? This composition is less “flat” than the Melies version, with convincing depth to the backdrop and strong lines across the frame, especially the gantry at the top.

Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 4

In the next shot, it looks as though the explorers are now up on one of the gantries around the rocket-building yard. Space and time are still compressed – having seen the rocket being built, we’re now getting ready for the launch in the very next shot (it might be that they’re building a production line of rockets, but either way, we’re being shown the various stages of the mission in linear sequence). The gun that will launch the rocket points upwards and out of the frame in the background.

Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 5

Unlike the Melies film, where the rocket is loaded into the canon by sailor-girls in hotpants, Chomon delegates this labour to a bunch of soldiers, but the composition is almost exactly the same. The explorers are themselves then loaded into the shell and popped into the barrel. The painting on the backdrop is immaculate – the lines of the brushed steel inside the barrel clearly marks out a space that might otherwise seem difficult to distinguish in a monochrome frame. The tinting of these images, often changing colour from shot to shot, delineates each scene.

Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 6

A brief shot follows of the rocket leaving the gun, the force of the trajectory (which matches the direction of fire from the previous shot) indicated by that strong diagonal bisection of the frame.

Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 7Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 7Segundo Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 7

Chomon’s recreation of Melies’ signature shot of the rocket penetrating the moon is similar, but significantly different, beginning with a dolly shot towards the sleeping satellite, but while Melies popped the shell in the Moon’s eye through the magic of a stop-motion substitution, Chomon slows down the action and smoothly flies the rocket into the moon’s gaping mouth. It’s a great, elegant effect without the violence of Melies’ version, even though it’s replaying the same joke of scale.

Segundo de Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 8

Segundo de Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon 8

The moon landing now follows a familiar progression. They watch the sunset in the background. They settle down to sleep. It starts snowing. They retreat into a crater. Again, the action is closer than in Melies, and there is no display of stellar gods and goddesses. The disappointment for the explorers is that the climate of the moon is as unpredicatble as that of Earth. Luckily they brought little umbrellas…

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In the underground cave, the explorers are attacked and abducted by moonmen, acrobats in suits with human faces (as opposed to Melies’ masked, exo-skeletoned crustacea). The action is frenetic, the shroomy backdrop impressively detailed. It looks like bits are missing from the film here, making the stop-motion substitutions as the mushrooms pop up, and the selenites appear, a little jerky. The explorers are hustled off the screen and brought to…

Segundo de Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 10

… the throne room of the king of the Moon. He’s a big, sultanic figure, his minions cowering before him. This is a more cordial meeting than in Melies’ film. The king even puts on a dance show led by a girl who is presumably his daughter:

Segundo de Chomon: An Excursion to the Moon Scene 10

Slightly oddly, this ballet routine takes up a good chunk of the film’s running time, repeating Melies’ interest in decorative female bodies, but transferring the pageantry from the Earth to the Moon. It’s all spoiled when one of the Earthlings, smitten with desire, grabs the king’s daughter and runs off with her. Understandably enfuriated, the king conjures his guards and sends them off in pursuit of the fleeing explorers.

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One of the selenites is hand-tinted here, in this beautifully painted shot. The rocket is tipped over the edge to fall back to Earth, while the creatures are left behind on the edge of the Moon.

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There’s no fuss about the depiction of the return to Earth, just a single shot of the rocket plummeting past the stars. In the next shot…

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… it lands back at the starting point. For this final shot of the film, they’ve taken the trouble to crown the explorers with meticulously hand-tinted pointy hats. The stencilled colour marks this out as a special shot. Notice that the rocket has been destroyed in the fall, and the explorers clamber out triumphant. They’ve taken no prisoners, except of course for the king’s daughter, who seems quite willing to become a trophy bride for an Earthman. So, while Melies’ film ended with a colonial conquest, making the moonman dance for the pleasure of the crowd, here the king’s daughter is presumably to be assimilated with her new society, a very different (but perhaps no less sinister) form of conquest.

How Special Effects Work #3: Now that’s magic…


Georges Melies ~ Vanishing Lady

Since I started researching the topic of special effects for my PhD thesis, I’ve been interested in the interactions between stage magic and early cinema. The development of film as a mass cultural medium coincides strikingly with the decline of magic as a popular theatrical form, but magicians were amongst the first to fully exploit the cinematic apparatus as a tool for creating fantastic entertainment. Early film-makers often made records of music hall, vaudeville and carnival performers, perhaps because it made sense to turn the camera on people who were well-versed in the mechanics of addressing an audience and completing an action in an allotted time and on cue (so as not to waste precious film stock!). But it might also be that recordings of stage acts, often with direct gesticulation to the spectator, allowed the viewer to contemplate the distinctions between the recorded performance and the live original. Films such as the Lumière BrothersL’Arrivée d’un Train a la Ciotat (1895), shot outdoors on a railway platform, with a train approaching from the background to the foreground, displayed the camera’s ability to embalm a fraction of time and drag it, pale and quiet into the theatre, providing the marvel of incongruity between the dark enclosure of the theatre and the bright spacious air of these distant locations. The aim was to reconstruct a sense of physical space extending beyond the borders of its two-dimensional canvas. When a magician takes to the stage, there is a promise that integrities of space will be disrupted, either by making something disappear, reappear or transform (whether it be an elephant, a coin, or “your card“). The thrill of seeing a magic trick performed live is reliant devants-egg-trickupon the physical presence of the magician in a solid space, and the sense that, if we try hard enough, we can locate discrepancies in the performance that will reveal how it’s done; even though we know that it’s not really happening,  it is riveting to watch space being twisted: “Where did the card go? It was right there, and now I can’t see it – does it still exist? Did it ever? What kind of world is this where such a … oh, there it is; it was in his other hand all along. Cute.” This dynamic interaction between performer and observer, with the former attempting to divert the latter’s attention from the secret, would seem to be dependent on liveness and presence.

So, what is lost and gained when a magic trick is filmed? How do magic films compensate for the loss of liveness? First of all, there are two types of magic film – the first is when a trick is recorded “whole”, with a fixed camera and no camera tricks. See, for example, David Devant in The Egg-Laying Man, a brief record of one of the Egyptian Hall stalwart’s oldest tricks, plucking a succession of eggs from his own mouth. It’s a bit of sleight of hand, and while it’s clear that Devant is skilfully performing the illusion in real-time, he could easily have re-recorded it if something had gone wrong or if an ill-chosen camera angle had given away the secret at the first take.

buatierdekoltaThe other kind of magic film is that which requires a filmic manipulation in order to effect the illusion. You can see these kinds of effects on profuse display in the films of Georges Méliès (see also my ever-expanding blog post about A Trip to the Moon). One film in particular, L‘Éscamotage d’une Dame chez Robert-Houdin (1896) illustrates so many of Méliès’ trick principles in such a succinct format that I can’t help returning to it again and again, and I like to use to illustrate . In this film, Méliès recreates for the camera one of the staples of his stage show at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris – the Vanishing Lady, a trick which, in this form, is usually attributed to French illusionist Buatier de Kolta. If you don’t want to know how this trick was done, look away now:

de-kolta-vanishing-lady1. The magician places a newspaper on the floor of the stage.
2. On top of the paper, he puts a chair, and invites his female assistant to sit.
3. He drapes a sheet over the woman, hiding her completely from view.
4. He pulls away the sheet and … she’s gone!
5. He removes the chair and shows off the newspaper, still whole, to prove that nothing has passed through it.

Under the sheet is a wire frame that holds the woman’s shape while she disappears through a trapdoor in the stage – the newspaper is made of rubber, with a slit cut in the middle to allow the woman to pass through without tearing any paper. It’s easy when you know how.

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For the film version, Méliès stages the trick in almost exactly the same way – he keeps the newspaper as “proof” that the stage is not gimmicked, but instead of disappearing his assistant through a trap-door, he effects the vanishing through a stop-action substitution. This trick is the cornerstone of Méliès’ special effects work, and I’m sure you’re familiar with how it works: by stopping the camera and re-arranging the scene before recommencing the shooting, the magician could give the impression of a continuous space in which instantaneous transformations occurred.

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Actually, these effects were not necessarily done “in-camera” – splice marks on the film tell us that the transitions were finessed with some careful editing to ensure the greatest continuity between the separate actions. These may be amongst the earliest match-cuts, though they are matched not to draw comparisons between two separate spaces, but in order to preserve the integrity of the framespace. Even if spectators don’t notice the substitution that removes the assistant (Jeanne d’Alcy, whom Melies would eventually marry in 1926) from underneath the sheet, the next trick is far more obvious. Striking a pose with arms outstretched above the empty chair (the graphic matches of stop-motion substitutions are easier to effect if figures in the frame hold a posture across the change, but in later films he has refined this to an astonishing level of fluidity, and they are played so fast that they are often difficult to detect), the magician conjures instantaneously a grey skeleton. This is a game with death, life and the absolute control of the representational field offered by the cinematic apparatus, but what is striking here is how Melies has toyed with expectation. He has begun a trick in conventional style, suggesting that this is a simple record of a well-known trick, and then diverged to deliver a bit of conjuration that could only be achieved cinematically.

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The aim seems to have been to preserve a sense of continuous space and time – the film is, after all, imitating the conventions of a stage performance (the newspaper, the bows to the audience etc.) – but this act of preservation is, I suggest, primarily so that Méliès can subvert expectations of how that space will act. The rest of Méliès’ trick films will take this principle to extremes, using frenzied repetition to create a markedly unstable filmic space in which any object can transmogrify, disappear or spring into life at any moment. Whatever the Lumière Brothers had done to show how their Cinématographe film camera (you can see one here) could extract fragments of time for the world and grant them a powerful sense of actuality, the use of stop-motion substitutions provided a powerful lesson in how malleable the filmed image really was, which should have been heeded as a sign of its limited status as ineffably objective proof of presence and actuality. This, I believe, is not just an exploratory theme of “primitive” cinema fidgeting with its new powers, but a fundamental facet of special effects, wherein a film-maker will take what you know about cinema and twist it, not so much that it will be incomprehensible, but just enough to play upon your expectations.

See also: How Special Effects Work 1: The Sandman & How Special Effects Work 2: Virtual Actors are on the Way.

How Special Effects Work #2: Virtual actors are on the way.


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In some of my earlier writing about special effects, I regularly found myself banging a particular drum, and eventually had to stop myself getting repetitive. In my research on special effects, I continually found practitioners, and some critics espousing a belief that virtual actors were soon going to reach such a perfect state of simulation that spectators would be unable to tell them apart from the real thing. The following comes from a paper I wrote for Stacy Gillis’ collection The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded:

It would be all too easy to fall for the suggestion that the age of the synthespian is imminent, and that soon human actors will interact with computer-generated co-stars without the audience realising which is which. Will Anielewicz, a senior animator at effects house Industrial Light and Magic, promised recently that “Within five years, the best actor is going to be a digital actor”. The apotheosis of an animated character into an artificially intelligent, fully simulacrous figure indistinguishable from its carbon-based referent is technically impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, but visual effects are not definitive renderings of a character or event but indicators of the state-of-the-art offering “a hint of what is likely to come” (Kerlow) in the field of visual illusions in the future. It is understandable that such a competitive industry needs to maintain interest in the potential of its products, but the mythos of the virtual actor has infiltrated the Hollywood blockbuster in recent years […]

For the record, I regret the phrase “technically impossible”: I think the barriers to producing perfect synthespians are not primarily technical, but cultural and economic (if there was enough demand, money would have been found for even more research and development even sooner). I was using the “mythos” or concept of the virtual actor, the belief in inevitable progress, as an example of the kind of teleological argument that I wanted to unpick. It wasn’t hard to find it surfacing in other places. This from another essay in James Lyons and John Plunkett’s Multimedia Histories: From the Magic Lantern to the Internet:

Kelly Tyler, of NOVA Online, a science-based website, has identified the photorealistic human simulacrum as “a new digital grail.” Damion Neff, an artificial intelligence designer for Microsoft video games has called it “the Holy Grail of character animation.” In his keynote address at the 1997 Autonomous Agents Conference, Danny Ellis listed the emotionally intelligent virtual actor as one of four “holy grail” in the field. In May 2003 John Gaeta, discussing his visual effects work on The Matrix Reloaded in the Los Angeles Times, referred to a believable digital human as “the holy grail” of our world. It seems that the Grail analogy has found some currency, at least amongst those working in the relevant creative industries. This frequently uttered analogy sums up the suggestion that technologies of visual representation have been working inexorably towards a final goal, but they might also inadvertently hint that such a goal is essentially elusive.

The development of special effects over time suggests scientific progress as motion towards a logical conclusion, their development effected by a series of refinements and improvements to existing mechanisms. Certainly, computer-generated imagery, with its increasing photographic verisimilitude permitted by faster processing speeds and more efficient rendering software, appears to be advancing at a quantifiable rate, implying a final destination of absolute simulation, a point where a digital human being can be rendered to a level of detail indistinguishable from actual flesh and bone, and possessing enough (artificial) intelligence to be a star offscreen instead of just a hyperreal cartoon upon it.

So, how can this teleology by questioned? How do we construct a more continuist approach to historicising these spectacles in the face of such persuasive technological progress? By drawing the focus away from the dazzling verisimilitude of illusory technologies and focusing on the conceptual questions which underpin their fascinating surfaces. We can observe antecedents of the virtual actor and note that the same spectacular strategies, prompting the same ontological questions, were in play.

That’s enough self-promotional recapping. I hope you get the message that, whatever actual developments there might be in imaging technologies that can simulate properties of human figures, there is another narrative here. As Lev Manovich put it in The Language of New Media, “throughout the history of computer animation, the simulation of the human figure has served as a yardstick for measuring the progress of the whole field.” So, just to make sure you stay interested, every now and then some industry insider pipes up and tells you that you’re just months away from being fooled into believing in a bit of CGI as a living, breathing person. So, here we go again. Only this week, Image Metrics have announced that they’re very close to the Holy Grail. Take a look at this video of actress Emily O’Brien:

[Find out more about the process, or watch a higher resolution version of the video here.]

Pretty impressive stuff. As you can probably tell, her face has been digitally captured and mapped over her actual face, not because it’s a useful thing to do, but because it puts the digital and the flesh versions of Emily close enough that we can compare them. Presumably, the real benefits of the process will be seen in applications that can map her face onto her stunt double, or onto another actress if Emily, heaven forbid, suffers a terrible accident halfway through shooting a very expensive blockbuster movie. Or it might help our already beloved stars transcend the limits of their own bodies. Here’s the original post I spotted on IMDB:

1 January 2009 1:30 AM, PST

“Silicon Valley is on the verge of producing sophisticated software that will allow motion picture companies to create actors on a computer who are visually indistinguishable from real people, San Jose’s Mercury News reported today (Thursday). In the words of the newspaper, which closely follows the sofware industry, when software engineers finally achieve what it calls “the holy grail of animation,” stars would be able to “keep playing iconic roles even as they aged past the point of believability like Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft or Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter.” Rick Bergman, general manager of AMD’s graphics products group, told the Mercury News that his company “is getting real close” to producing computer-generated actors that will look identical to real human beings.”

Does anyone honestly believe that there is a call or a need for technologies for sustaining the shelf lives of these people? Of course not – it’s just a distracting excuse to avoid the real explanation, which is closer to “we’ve got this cool gadget, and we really want to show it off.” I remain skeptical about claims of impending perfection in virtual actors not because the technology isn’t impressive, but because the grand deterministic narrative  of progress is overriding the reality of the situation. One savvy poster over at the Blu-Ray forum says it all in a manner that needs no elaboration from me:

Oh, dear lordy, they (meaning, JU) posted the article here, too…

The same exact article (with different star insertions, hence the ’01 dated Tomb Raider ref) that studios plant once a year by the clock, in the hopes they can finally get that CGI resurrected dead-Karloff-and-Chaney Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman movie going again, because it sounded like such a neat idea back when Forrest Gump shook hands with JFK–
Twelve years, Final Fantasy, and Beowulf later, and they’re STILL trying to sell us on “With virtual actors, we could bring George Burns back from the dead, and he’d look so real!

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In case you needed more convincing, I dug up this old article from The Boston Globe, 23rd May 1999. There’s that grail again:

It sounds like a plot from a sci-fi pulp, or an old B movie: A snaggle-toothed scientist toils in the laboratory, perfecting his creation. A touch-up here, a tiny tuck there. But this is not some green-gilled monster from the house of Dr. Frankenstein; it’s a realistic human with shiny hair, glittering teeth, and liquid eyes. The pressure is on to beat other genetic geniuses racing to create human clones. Suddenly, there’s a burst of energy – and voila! – the model comes to life. Blink your eyes, and it’s Marilyn Monroe. Blink again, and it’s James Dean.

This scenario isn’t as far-fetched – or as far off – as it might once have seemed. In this case, the scientists in question are digital doctors: computer programmers developing the software needed to create a photorealistic digital actor, or ”synthespian.” Special-effects wizards have already created convincing digital dinosaurs and dolls, aliens and ants, stuntmen and superheroes. And the two biggest box office draws of the moment – The Mummy and a certain prequel that unfolds in a galaxy far, far away – showcase digital creatures.

So why not digital humans? Why not virtual stars?

”The digital actor has been the Holy Grail forever, since the dawn of 3-D computer animation,” says Brad Lewis, executive producer of visual effects and vice president of Pacific Data Images, the firm that gave life to insects in Antz. ”There’s always been someone trying to do a hand or a face or some aspect of a human being that looked real.”

Some say realistic digital humans will be on-screen within the next five years. These synthespians could be brand-new characters or reincarnations of old legends, long cold in the grave. One Hollywood producer, for instance, is planning a film that would resurrect martial-arts phenomenon Bruce Lee; another is reportedly working on a digital version of an aging screen star (rumored to be Marlon Brando), restoring his youth and making him a contender for a manly role. Another producer got permission to re-create the late George Burns in a film called The Best Man, and a California firm, Virtual Celebrity Productions, has obtained the rights to digitally reproduce a handful of stars, including Marlene Dietrich and W. C. Fields.

wcftorsoHang on. Did I read that correctly? W.C. Fields? I can understand how Dietrich’s pictorial stillness might translate relatively easily to a digital avatar, but is there anyone less suited to a CGI resurrection by the pixel pixies than W.C. Fields?! Well, they gave it a go a few years back with the Gepetto software (nice puppet reference, there) for real-time 3D animation. I can’t say the results were ever going to replace the memory of the real thing, but that’s not really the point. These rumours and promises build anticipation, expectation, and a sense that something is at stake. The defiance of death, age and human inadequacies is just a cover story for the real business of special effects.

Look at the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The stated aims of the film, in which Brad Pitt’s character ages “backwards”, might be to integrate visual effects so seamlessly that they don’t distract from the character-driven, Oscar-baiting emotional truth of it all, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, by centralising the concept of a spectacular body like Benjamin’s, a magnet for diegetic and extra-diegetic curiosity, the film can’t help but draw attention to the visual effects used to achieve the concept’s visualisation. Pitt’s body becomes a laboratory for all kinds of tricksy bits of CG animation and performance capture, and there’s a complex connection between the fascinated gaze that attaches to the character’s condition, and the one that fixes on the image of a movie star transformed into a recognisable but fundamentally changed series of physiques by means of cinematic tricks. When Benjamin strikes muscleman poses in the mirror, it’s as much about technological display as it is about his own narcissistic enjoyment. The discourses around the futuristic capabilities of digital imaging technologies shape expectations about how a particular special effect is to be viewed and appreciated. There’s an element of promotional hype in play, but by providing a set of measurable goals and projected rationales, the impression given is that special effects are contributing to a worthwhile cause with a pre-determined path, instead of offering random and occasional attractions; it all makes sure that you stay interested, and keep buying a ticket for the next attraction, and then the next. Special effects, like movie stars, exist intertextually – they provide reassuring continuities: we are expected to keep watching how they develop from film to film, how each is an improvement upon the last – so it makes sense that a certain weight of expectation should hand on the predicted hybrid of a special effects movie star, an all-digital, perhaps artificially intelligent character actor who passes for flesh and blood before your very eyes. But to truly deliver on that promise to deceive would defeat the object of the special effect, which was to attract and hold that multi-focus spectatorial gaze. What’s the use of a spectacular attraction if nobody notices it?

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See also How Special Effects Work 1: The Sandman & How Special Effects Work 3: Now That’s Magic…

Lisa Bode, ‘“Grave Robbing” or “Career Comeback”? On the Digital Resurrection of Dead Screen Stars’, in History of Stardom Reconsidered. Edited by Hannu Salmi et al. (Turku: International Institute for Popular Culture, 2007) Available as an eBook at http://iipc.utu.fi/reconsidered/.