CBC News
Special effects become Mannerist
Dan Brown, CBC News Online | Jan. 13, 2004

As long as there have been movies, there have been special effects.

But in decades past, special effects served a different purpose than they do now. Once upon a time - say, back in the 1970s - the visual trickery employed by filmmakers was meant to look real. In many of today's movies, however, the effects are meant to look cool. The difference is huge.

When director John Guillermin remade King Kong in 1976, to take one example, he and producer Dino De Laurentiis went to great lengths to convince moviegoers that they were seeing an actual giant ape on the screen in front of them. They spent a lot of money and time trying to make the illusion believable because the goal back then was to convince ticket buyers that a monster like Kong could really exist.

The Matrix
With a film like 1999's The Matrix, however, the objective is not the same. Co-directors Andy and Larry Wachowski used computer-generated imagery (CGI) not intending to produce lifelike results, but to put a highly stylized accent on the visuals. In one now-famous fight scene, Canadian performer Carrie-Anne Moss is about to boot a bad guy when she is frozen in mid-air; the camera then sweeps around her, providing a panoramic view of the kick to come. The image is so arresting, it has already been parodied in several subsequent movies.

The difference is that the Wachowski brothers were not attempting to convince viewers that a person could suspend herself as Moss does. Instead, they were trying to come up with a shot that would make jaws drop.

Some directors are upfront about using special effects in a stylized way. When he was doing publicity in advance of the release of last year's Hulk, Ang Lee addressed the concerns that comic-book fans had expressed about his reliance on CGI to animate the rampaging green behemoth. "Whether it's 'real' or not is secondary to me," he told one interviewer.

The Hulk, ILM via AP Photo
Vincenzo Natali is the Canadian director who has carved out a name for himself as the thinking-man's science-fiction auteur with films like 1997's Cube. His latest film, Nothing, will be released this spring. It tells the story of two roommates who inhabit a white wasteland after successfully wishing the world away.

Natali says he deliberately avoided making the film look viscerally lifelike.

"I actually did not want to make the effects look real per se," he tells CBC News Online from Los Angeles. Instead, he went for what he describes as a "fairy-tale" look.

This approach is not a blanket policy for the young director, who is a believer in using the right filmmaking tool for each individual film. For Cypher, for instance, Natali adopted the traditional strategy of making the effects look real. But he says the temptation to overuse technical sleight-of-hand is strong.

"I fall into that trap all the time, except I'm lucky enough or unfortunate enough not to have that much money to work with," he says.

According to one effects expert, filmmakers still try to come up with visual magic that appears convincing. In the view of Allan Magled - the visual-effects supervisor for soho vfx, a Toronto firm that has worked on such features as the Mike Myers vehicle The Cat in the Hat - exaggerated or stylized effects are just one more way to engage the audience.

"I think they're just trying to get you more involved as a viewer," he notes. "There is a definite coolness factor."

The Matrix
Magled says the effects used to dramatize the martial arts in The Matrix were just a way to put a new coat of paint on timeworn fight scenes that moviegoers had seen countless times before: "It's just to bring it up a level."

"I think that everybody's just trying to just outdo the next guy. And once you've got something looking real, at a certain point it looks real - you're not going to do any better. So I think that they just want to add a new element or a new twist."

Magled's team is competitive. When they are hired to do an effect, their first step is to see how the same effect has been done in other movies. They then try to top the previous efforts.

"You always want to do the coolest effect, I guess, or the best effect," he says.

Filmmakers of old may have desired to bring their effects up a level too, but they also wanted their motion pictures to be on the level of reality. That's not necessarily true anymore.

Screenwriter Mark Rosenthal has worked on science-fiction films like Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes remake. He has boyhood memories of being terrified by the original 1933 version of King Kong.

"It was meant to be realistic, without question, and I think it was taken that way," he says from his office outside Philadelphia.

Rosenthal describes modern special effects in terms of 16th-century painting. He believes special effects have entered a Mannerist phase; what he means is that painters in the 1500s got so proficient at reproducing scenes from real life, they eventually became bored, which spurred experimentation. What resulted was a highly exaggerated, distorted form of art.

Rosenthal thinks the motion-picture industry has undergone the same sort of transformation because directors have pushed digital effects as far as they can go. When they were first used by Canada's James Cameron in films like The Abyss and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the computer-generated images looked real. By the time Carrie-Anne Moss starting kicking butt, the aim had changed.

Says Rosenthal of the seminal fight scene in The Matrix: "That is clearly not meant to be taken in real time, which special effects used to be."

Technology is partly driving the trend. Some directors, confirms Magled, use effects just for their own sake. Natali says it's always easier to bludgeon the audience with an elaborate visual than to try to evoke an emotional response with good acting or a striking line of dialogue.

"I think we're in a gluttonous phase right now in that people are just throwing it all on the screen," he adds. What that means is that moviegoers, who are paying higher and higher prices for tickets, have come to think of eye-popping spectacle as a standard feature of every Hollywood movie.

Says Magled: "They're paying a lot more money, so I think they want to see a lot more, too."

But Natali predicts there will eventually be a reaction in the opposite direction.

"I think what will eventually happen is that the pendulum will swing the other way," he says. "I do think that audiences will grow weary of it. It'll just become harder and harder to impress them with a shot of a big spaceship so I think they'll return to reality."

He doesn't see this happening immediately: "If anything, they're just going to keep going down that road for a while until they have a few more giant effects pictures fail miserably."

There have, of course, always been movies that portrayed, in Natali's words, an "alternate fantastic escapist reality." The first science-fiction film ever made, 1902's Le Voyage dans la lune, had an almost satirical quality to its visuals. And Natali points out that even The Wizard of Oz was pretty stylized for its day.

Jeff Bond is the executive editor of Cinefantastique, a Los Angeles-based magazine devoted to genre films. He says Ray Harryhausen, the king of stop-motion animation who worked on pictures like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Clash of the Titans, always strived to bring an abstract touch to his creations: "He really believed that he was not attempting to make things look real."

Bond says Harryhausen was put off when Steven Spielberg used CGI to make Jurassic Park. "He always said it lost the whole dream-like quality of what he did," he remarks.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema via AP Photo)
Since Jurassic Park, however, people like Peter Jackson have used CGI in much less literal - more Harryhausenian - ways. Rosenthal points to the vast armies of orcs that populate the battle scenes in The Return of the King, the last chapter in Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, as a perfect example of effects pushed to the extreme: it's impossible for the eye to calculate how many bad guys are on screen. "Certainly, it's more expressionistic than it was literal," says Rosenthal.

In other words, past generations of filmmakers did not want to call attention to the fact they were trying to trick viewers. In many cases, that's now the point. Effects used to refer to an outside reality; they now refer to themselves.

It's Magled's opinion that this is one easy way for filmmakers to impress increasingly sophisticated viewers.

"You always want to see something that's sort of refreshing and different, I think."

Some recent milestone movies in the history of special effects:

2001: A Space Odyssey 1968
Star Wars 1977
Terminator 2: Judgment Day 1991
Jurassic Park 1993
The Phantom Menace 1999
The Two Towers 2002

"I think he's now just doing effects for the sake of them."
– Screenwriter Mark Rosenthal on George Lucas' new Star Wars trilogy.

"They're worth seeing because they're not movies. There's not even an attempt to make it a movie. It's just a series of special effects."
– Rosenthal on the Tomb Raider movies.

"I think after Star Wars, there was really a lot of one-upmanship and attempts to top the previous movie."
Cinefantastique executive editor Jeff Bond.

"The goal is still photorealistic, but just to bring it up a level, just to be original more than anything."
– Visual-effects expert Allan Magled.

"In a lot of cases, movies have effects in them just to say they have effects and because they can do it and they have the budget. And in some cases, they're used just to help the story. Unfortunately, there's also many cases where the effects drive the movie, not the story."
– Magled.

"There's definitely something about a real person risking their life in front of a movie camera. You'll never get that from a special effect."
– Director Vincenzo Natali.

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