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. 

The Spielberg Hundred #002: A Letter from Jean Renoir

Francois Truffaut_close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-francois-truffaut-claude-lacombe

[Following his appearance as French scientist and UFO-researcher Claude Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, François Truffaut, more famous for his work behind the camera on his own films (though Spielberg cast him because he loved the way Truffaut had acted alongside children in L’enfant sauvage [1970]), received this letter from his friend, the great director Jean Renoir.]

7 March 1978
Beverly Hills

Dear François,

We have finally seen Close Encounters. It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France. This type of popular science would be most appropriate for the compatriots of Jules Verne and Méliès. Both men were Montgolfier‘s rightful heirs. You are excellent in it, because you’re not quite real. There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet. In the South of France one would say he is a bit fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies.
These fairies who reside with you have agreed to let themselves be briefly borrowed by the author of the film in question.
Love from Dido and I.

Jean Renoir
[Source: Jean Renoir: Letters, edited by David Thompson & Lorraine LoBianco. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. Dido Freire was Renoir’s second wife, from 1944 until his death in 1979.]


Postscript: While Renoir’s letter was on its way to France, Truffaut’s own letter, written the same day, must have been in the post to Renoir in Beverly Hills. Here’s an extract:

My dear friends,

I appeared on a television show about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the last thing I spoke about was Le Coeur à l’aise [Renoir’s 1978 memoir], showing the book itself on camera. In my enthusiasm, however, I didn’t notice that I was holding the book upside down, so millions of viewers had to bend over and look at the TV screen upside-down to be able to read the title. I don’t have to tell you that my daughters were on the floor laughing about this.
I think of you constantly and send you all my love and affection.

The Spielberg Hundred #001: Introduction

Spielberg directing a dinosaur on the set of Jurassic Park: The Lost World

I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming anthology of extended essays on the work of Steven Spielberg, to be published in 2015. I’m going to be focusing on his use of special and visual effects, with particular interest in his longstanding relationship with the effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Aside from a couple of pieces on Georges Méliès, I’ve never done a study based on a single director, so this will be a fun exercise for me. I might even manage to produce a couple of articles out of it if it proves fruitful. Aside from his recent work, and a couple of films I re-watched during research for Performing Illusions, I haven’t seen the old Spielbergs since I was firmly in their target demographic. His films defined my childhood cinematic experience. It’s a toss-up whether Close Encounters was the first film I saw, or if it was Pete’s Dragon, at age 3 (memory eludes me), and I followed avidly anything he made, or had a hand in. Continue reading

Fragment #36: Suing Spielberg

Twister Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton

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

345-Word Reviews: War Horse

My childhood is strewn with memories of animal movies: KesWatership DownPlague DogsStorm Boy, Ring of Bright WaterTarka the Otter etc. Invariably, these served as starter-wheels of grief, early encounters with death and loss. Things rarely ended well for these critters. Don’t worry, though: Steven Spielberg is not in the business of scarring children. His entry into the genre is Saving Private Horsey, which is ostensibly told from the point of view of a horse as it changes hands from one carer to another. Continue reading

Super 8: Victory Through Lens Flare

There’s no question that I overuse lens flares on occasion … The kneejerk reaction from the director of photography is usually, “OK, we’ve got to flatten that light because it’s going to flare.”  I think it’s one of those things that you want to make sure that, obviously, it’s … To me it’s such a cool beautiful image, the light through the glass. There are times that I feel like it sort of adds another kind of smart element, and it’s hard to define.  But it is a visual taste that I do like.  I think there are a couple shots in Super 8 where I just think I should definitely pull back here or there, but I can’t help myself sometimes.

J.J. Abrams interviewed by Peter Sciretta

I had begun plotting to write about lens flare in Super 8 shortly after leaving a screening this evening. Living in the Netherlands, and being quite busy at the moment, I often get to see films later than most people who profess an interest in cinema, so I was not entirely surprised to find that somebody, in this case Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope, had already offered a perfectly fine analysis of that very topic nearly three months earlier. He made many of the points that had occurred to me while watching the film, along with many others that had not; I agree that, while the use of lens flare (which, as in the example above, whether simulated in post-production or a natural by-product of scattered surplus light entering the lens) might be seen as an authorised tic beloved of director J.J. Abrams, it is better understood as akin to the affected (and affectionate) artifacts in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, where the pops and scratches on the over-worked “prints” of the film were a shortcut to evoking the conditions under which their film might wistfully be watched: i.e. it is a nostalgic device to reinscribe the image with the traces of pre-digital imperfections, from a time before the fetish for immaculate, malleable visuals arrived (though I would humbly submit that such a time never really existed, since digital technology was invariably used to couch its visualisations in the tones and trappings of analogue processes). Continue reading

Spectacular Attractions Podcast #3

Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

In this week’s podcast, I discuss Back to the Future, now 25 years old and itself the subject of much nostalgia. I talk about its political subtexts, its depiction of the 1950s, and its clever-clever structure. There’s also a guest appearance by Ronald Reagan as himself. I wouldn’t do the voice myself, so I took an extract from his 1986 State of the Union address where he invokes Back to the Future as setting a good example to the kids or something. I think I’m getting the hang of this podcast thing now, so it’s a better recording than before, and I’m now more comfortable speaking into a microphone and pretending there’s a listener (maybe even two). I would still appreciate any feedback on how things might improve in any direction you might suggest.

You can now subscribe to the Spectacular Attractions podcast via the iTunes Store, which is very exciting. Once subscribed, each new episode will be automatically downloaded to your computer as soon as it is published. Which means you won’t have to check back here and click on these posts every week. But for now, you can always just click here and download the whole thing for this week:

DOWNLOAD Spectacular Attractions Podcast #3

[If you want to read the original article, you can find it here. Find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here.]

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Picture of the Week #28: Super 8 Trailer

Am I allowed to use a trailer as my ‘Picture of the Week‘? Of course, I am. It’s my blog, and nobody’s checking. Yesterday, American viewers of Iron Man 2 were treated to a “surprise” trailer for J.J. Abrams forthcoming collaboration with Steven Spielberg, entitled Super 8. Despite rumours that this was the teaser for a Cloverfield prequel, echoing the way that film had been unveiled without warning in an untitled ad preceding the far less interesting Transformers movie, this has proven not to be the case. Abrams gave away enough before screenings to confirm that this was not the case. But it might as well be. Although it gives away more than the Cloverfield trailer did (the first one didn’t even have a title on it), Abrams is still messing around with monsters and mystery. The trailer shows a pick-up truck causing an apparently deliberate derailment of a train carrying materials seized at “Area 51”. The use of that phrase immediately clues you in to a film about aliens (I kind of wish they hadn’t said anything so obvious indicative of the finished product). The final image is off something thumping at the walls from inside one of the carriages, about to escape and reveal itself.

I’m hoping it will be more interesting than another tale of alien cover-ups in Nevada – Spielberg has covered that extensively in Taken, and Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) releases his own Area 51 later this year, about a group of teenagers uncovering the government conspiracy to conceal the evidence of alien visitors. Rumour has it that Super 8 will also be told from the point of view of teenagers who accidentally capture an alien on film while playing in the woods with a cine-camera.

Slashfilm has a fairly comprehensive list of stuff that is known about the film so far, most notably that the trailer was shot a month ago, independently of the film (the Cloverfield trailer was also shot before any of the rest of the film), under the pretense that the special effects were for Abrams’ forthcoming TV show, Undercovers (also prepping Star Trek 2, and having just overseen the completion of Lost, he’s obviously a busy guy).

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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…

Back to Back to the Future

Back to the Future[Should you need a plot synopsis, try hereYou can also download this article as a podcast.]

I first saw Back to the Future when I was eleven years old. Probably not the most discerning consumer, but always good for a poster quote, I immediately declared it “the best film I’d ever seen”. A year on from Ghostbusters, and weeks after The Goonies, with Highlander a year away, competition for my all-time-favourite film was stiff in those days. Oh, for that time when every new Hollywood blockbuster was more marvelous than the last, and the wait for a sequel was an interminable, indefinite one. I bought a skateboard as a result, and tried to get my mum to tow me around behind her car; eventually, this request was granted, but only at low speed around the Sunday school car park. The soundtrack album was the first cassette I bought with my own pocket money. I bought the Panini sticker album and filled it: if you never saw one of these, they’re books that tell the whole story of the film scene-by-scene, and you buy packets of stickers until you’ve collected the whole set; I have a vivid recollection that, accidentally or not, several of the Back to the Future stickers were taken on set showing things that weren’t in the film – Einstein the dog in the front seat of the time machine being played by a stunt driver in a dog mask, Michael J. Fox rehearsing the Johnny B. Goode number in a tracksuit, Fox’s stunt double taking a fall in the skateboard chase. This may say something shocking about the randomly exact nature of my memory (I dread to think how much art and culture has been shunted out of my brain to make way for these obscurities), but it’s also a testament to how auxiliary products and merchandise extend the life of a film in the minds of its viewers, anchoring remembrances of the text with a range of prompts across several media. I think I saw it twice at the cinema and never again. Until now. I’m teaching it this week on a course on American cinema. We’re up to the Eighties now, and this is one of the films up for discussion. Thankfully, my memories of the film are not crippling partialities that might prevent me from thinking about it critically: this is, after all, a film about nostalgia.
Back to the Future: Crispin Glover Back to the Future: Crispin GloverWhat was impressive about Back to the Future a quarter-century ago (ouch!) remains so today – it’s a tightly structured, internally consistent piece of work: in shuttling between two time zones, 1985 and 1955, it sets up a mass of cues to link them; Marty McFly’s skateboard ride to school seems like a minor transitional scene (and a chance to squeeze in another hearing for ‘The Power of Love’), but it’s a guided tour of Hill Valley, feeding you a set of memories that will later be referenced in similar shots of the town in 1955.Back to the Future: Twin Pines Mall Back to the Future: Lone Pine MallIt’s a remarkably efficient set-up that ensures that Hill Valley 1985 feels familiar, a home to return to, and keen-eyed viewers will be attuned to the little differences between the two versions of the place – Twin Pines Mall becomes Lone Pine Mall after Marty runs over one of the saplings in ’55; the same episode of The Honeymooners is on TV in both times, a technical marvel in 1955 that becomes a background flicker thirty years later – its resonance changing  over the years (watching it in the 80s, his hair still oiled, his body still twisting like an awkward teenager, George is shown to be stuck in the past);  Doc Brown ’55 is seen holding a portrait of Thomas Edison that was seen in the opening shot of his automated home; on his way to school, Marty waves to the girls at the gymnasium, an action he will repeat during the skateboard chase back when the gym was a diner; Clock Towerthe clocktower is the centrepoint of the town, the film set and the plot throughout. Nearly every element of the opening ’85 section will be shown to resonate with 1955, or will later be altered by his actions in the past. This is a very contained sort of butterfly effect, where disruptions in the course of history affect components of the narrative without affecting world events. It’s a solipsistic kind of time travel: even as a kid, I recognised that this version of time was nonsensical, throwing up all kinds of paradoxes; why is Marty’s personality unchanged by his parents new-fangled go-gettery when he returns to 1985 (they notice nothing strange about him)? Who wrote Johnny B. Goode before Marty went back in time and gave Chuck Berry something to plagiarise? Where did the earlier versions of the McFly family go after Marty returns to a changed Hill Valley? This was time travel as narrative framework rather than as scientific possibility: the ability to travel in time is a magnificent gift to screenwriters, since it makes events malleable in the same way that word-processed scripts are malleable. The life of the McFlys becomes an adjustable plot. It’s a teen movie that eschews the social problem aspects of other teen movies, and tilts towards the wish-fulfilment end of the genre; Marty gets to outwit the school bully, and outsmarts his parents with his privileged knowledge of their time – instead of agonising about turning into his parents, he gets the chance to go back in time and make them turn into people closer to himself. Imagine if Rebel Without a Cause‘s Jim Stark (the James Dean film was released in the US a week before the setting of the 1955 events in Zemeckis’ movie) could go back and sort out his emasculated dad, and you’ll understand what kind of play Back to the Future is making with the conventions of the youth drama – Back to the Future II even references Rebel directly, with McFly going nuts whenever anyone calls him chicken, and climaxing with a Chickie Run car chase.
Back to the Future: Michael J. Fox, Crispin GloverBack to the Future cuts against the grain of dystopian science fiction that emerged in the 80s (see, for example, Escape from New York, Outland, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop). It also seems to exhibit what Stephen Prince refers to as “ideological conglomeration”, where ambiguous politics prevent the film from alienating sections of its potential audience:

Given their high production costs, American films need to attract as many viewers as they can, and the broad-based appeals they offer are often incompatible with strict ideological or political coherence. This is why the tradition of ‘message’ filmmaking in the American industry is so minimal and toothless. To maximise its commercial (audience) base, Hollywood film operates through a process of conglomeration, mixing a variety of sometimes disparate ideological appeals into an ambiguous whole. American film foregrounds narrative and character emotions, and while those narratives may manifest on occasion a political view, more often this is a matter of metaphor and implication. To be overtly political except in the most general terms (e.g., affirming patriotism or family) is to risk loss of market share. Thus, Hollywood has mostly regarded political filmmaking as being incompatible with box-office success, except in times of exigent circumstance, such as World War II. But here is a paradox. Box-office success requires a degree of topicality. Filmmaking that is vital, vibrant, and connected with the concerns people feel in their lives offers a powerful incentive for going to the movies. In many cases, the indsutry resolves this paradox by designing films so that their sociopolitical dimensions are matters of implication, material forming the background of a narrative, and conglomerated values. This process is a basic mechanism for linking film to a multitextured society from which viewers and profits alike come.

Back to the Future is not a political film. It avoids broad commentary on the politics of either of its time zones, except to make swipes at the apparent absurdity of Ronald Reagan’s ascent from gunslinging movie star to rocket-stockpiling president (the 1955 cinema is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, in which he co-stars with Barbara Stanwyck).Back to the Future: Michael J. FoxReagan even referred to the film in his 1986 State of the Union address, citing it as a good example for young people, but also using it as a springboard for some “creative” extrapolations of science into religious, then patriotic territory:

Tonight I want to speak directly to America’s younger generation, because you hold the destiny of our nation in your hands. With all the temptations young people face, it sometimes seems the allure of the permissive society requires superhuman feats of self-control. But the call of the future is too strong, the challenge too great to get lost in the blind alleyways of dissolution, drugs, and despair. Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”cattle-queen-of-montana

Well, today physicists peering into the infinitely small realms of subatomic particles find reaffirmations of religious faith. Astronomers build a space telescope that can see to the edge of the universe and possibly back to the moment of creation. So, yes, this nation remains fully committed to America’s space program. We’re going forward with our shuttle flights. We’re going forward to build our space station. And we are going forward with research on a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low Earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours. And the same technology transforming our lives can solve the greatest problem of the 20th century. A security shield can one day render nuclear weapons obsolete and free mankind from the prison of nuclear terror. America met one historic challenge and went to the moon. Now America must meet another: to make our strategic defense real for all the citizens of planet Earth.

It’s a tenuous, opportunistic leap from “say-no-to-drugs” rhetoric to “missile defences in space” via “squeeze-God-in-there-somewhere” grandstanding, but it shows how flexible the film is in allowing all of those associations to bounce off it. It’s worth remembering that a later Robert Zemeckis film, Forrest Gump (another one in which an outsider is dropped into a history of which he never seems a part, and manages to affect its course, even inventing rock n’ roll again by teaching Elvis to dance), was similarly co-opted by right wing conservatives during the 1994 campaign to re-elect George Bush to the Presidency; attempting a return to “traditional” family values as their key electoral theme, they promoted a view of Gump as a damning indictment of the counterculture of the Sixties and invoked an ideal nuclear family epitomised, at least in the public consciousness, by the 1950s. So, in both cases, the 1950s Golden Age America was posited as a quasi-mythical place of good, wholesome values.
Back to the Future: Michael J. Fox, Lea ThompsonTo be honest, I suspect Back to the Future of being politically timid rather than sinister, but watching it again it’s hard to ignore the soft-pedalling of the era’s social conservatism and civil rights issues. The imperatives of “family entertainment” are not enough to explain the convenience of the fact that Marty McFly travels to a pristine and glorious past set just a couple of weeks before Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on the bus and gave Martin Luther King Jr. a prominent public platform in defending her cause. Portrayals of the 1950s as a prelapsarian museum-piece of innocence and virtue are themselves outdated, now that the era is just as likely to be shown as a site of repression, racism, mind-numbing conformity, social control, paranoia and institutionalised sexism and emasculating office-dronery (see season one of Mad Men for the most recent version of this revisionist approach). Back to the FutureIt’s not that there wasn’t prosperity and optimism in postwar America, but that it was defensive and exclusionary, and historical depictions that elide that downside and efface those inequities are increasingly intolerable, coming across like a wish for a time when things seemed to an empowered majority to be just fine, rather than a wish to rectify the actual problems that were present: it’s probably no coincidence that the nightmarish marker of McFly’s deadline is a fading photograph, a nutty bit of physics but a blatant sign of the destruction of the nuclear family or, more importantly, Marty’s erasure from the sphere of representation.
vlcsnap-25143 vlcsnap-34538For Zemeckis and executive producer Steven Spielberg, whose influence on such a high-concept, family-orientated blockbuster can be felt throughout, the 50s are memorialised as a set of cultural references, especially the music, television, and the kinds of science fiction they had both clearly been influenced by: Zemeckis directed an episode of Spielberg’s SF anthology series Amazing Stories (1985-87), and the latter’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. had set out his desire to revisit and revise the lexicon of tales of alien visits to Earth.  Marty McFly gets to become a SF character, and to observe credulous 1950s-folk being whipped up into terror when faced with advanced technology. Sandbagging the film against the weight of social history by hiding behind harmless pop culture is a crafty technique. But, to return to that idea of conglomerated ideology, I’m left uncertain about how exactly the film wants us to remember the 1950s. It’s not a simple case of showing it as a time sexual innocence: although Marty’s mother evokes 1955 as a time of chivalry and virtue, time-traveller Marty gets to see that she was far more “experienced” than she let on, hinting at the hypocrisy of soft-focus remembrances of the period. But it might also be seen to allegorise and reinforce the Reaganite notion of power as self-assertion, as George McFly changes the entire course of his life by beating down his enemy, seizing his woman (who conveniently likes a guy who can defend her physically) and effectively turning the tables to make the bully servile. Freedom, it seems, requires the suppression of someone else, or at least, unfreedom is simply a product of your own state of mind, and can be corrected at the throw of a punch.Back to the Future

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