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Are Visual Effects Dramatically Improving Film or Mistakenly Damaging Film?

Introduction

From the very inception of film visual effects have been employed by numerous photographers and film makers to enhance, to realise and create new meaning. The very early days of film took great advantage of ‘visual magic’ to create illusions and trickery which have impressed countless audiences. Over a century ago when photography was emerging as an art form some unscrupulous commercial photographers would capture portrait shots using an ordinary exposure but then as soon as the subject was removed from the studio a collaborator would be positioned within the same setting, a quick exposure would be taken so as to leave a faint image trace on the film. The unsuspecting customer would then be handed a positive copy of their image with what appeared to be a ghostly figure in shot. A more subtle variation involved the customer being placed with numerous props around him or her, the props would be removed for the second exposure of the ghost character, so as they wouldn’t appear too deliberately double exposed. The ghost character would usually be wearing black clothing as film does not ‘see’ black due to the chemical process in the emulsion of film which identifies light only, therefore only the ghost would appear in the second image. And herein began the industry of special effects. This ghost trick was the starting point for what is now known as the matte process where unrequired objects are removed from the exposure by masking them so they do not register on the film. One of the first uses of this process in a moving image sequence was witnessed in Alexander Korda’s Things To Come (1936) in which the upper levels of a futuristic underground city have been double exposed above footage of live actors, matte masks prevented one image showing on the other image. This film provides one of the earliest examples of special effects being adopted to positively improve the aesthetics of a film.

Of course since film’s early experiments with visual effects the industry has today developed into a very sophisticated, digitally driven and technically ultra-advanced visual medium. Computers have taken special effects to an entirely new level and as computers continue to update and improve their spec so too will the film industry develop around these advances; quite simply computers and digital technology have enabled films to be produced which otherwise would not have been. However despite the often profound visual success of special effects in certain cases some people argue that film is now placing an over reliance on special effects, they argue that visual effects in some films are counter productive as they come across as ineffective and some times unnecessary. Some also question the performance of the actors if all they are doing in a film is running in front of a green screen shouting at an imagined ‘alien’ clutching an imagined prop. Others raise concerns regarding the films quality and the processes of putting a film together where much of it is CGI constituted. So is it really the case that films being produced now would be better received by audiences if they did not make so much use of visual effects? Or is it that some studios and directors simply can’t adjust effectively to modern day film making? And who is to blame for this? Man or machine? As visual effects artist Piers Bizony points out:

One of the greatest misconceptions about modern movies is that visual effects are generated by computers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Human inventiveness is the most important ingredient and it always will be. Computers offer amazing new possibilities, but the underlying challenges of movie illusions are the same today as they were nearly a century ago when the industry was young .

Chapter 1:

The Profound Benefits of Using Visual Effects in Film

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Digital effects have significantly impacted on mainstream films, indeed digital technology is now synonymous with exceptional visual effects. Michael Bailey’s sci-fi film Armageddon (1999) provides a good example of a director engaging with digital visual effects which achieves an impressive and hugely successful end product. The disaster film depicts the efforts to prevent Earth being destroyed by a huge meteorite on a collision course with it. Teams of ‘heroes’ are sent into orbit in an attempt to blow the meteorite up and save the world. The film is saturated with digital effects some of which are the result of a very complex process. These computer generated sequences include the entire orbit scenes, the meteorite shots and the film’s climax. The evolutionary process by which the visual effects product is accomplished can be an awe inspiring process in itself; take for example the asteroid in Armageddon which began life as a small sketch on a napkin, the image was then refined and digitized, then colour was added to it in Photoshop. After this a physical model of the asteroid was constructed out of foam. Numerous shots were then taken and fed back into a computer so that other effects could be added such as gasses and rocks. A second and larger model was then built and using an intricate technological process wired the model so that a computer could read every single three-dimensional detail of it. The final product we see in the film is an image which is the result of multiple digital imagery layers with many of the film’s scenes comprising of between fifty and a hundred layers. It is an astounding feat of modern visual trickery. If the film had been made several years before hand it would have had to employ the more conventional optical printing cinematographic process. However this would have left green lines visible on the subjects and depreciated the overall aesthetic qualities of the film, today computers can remove these lines thereby rendering the composite process invisible to the viewer. Contemporary modern visual effects engender a film culture based on a production process that in actual fact is less ‘physical’. As academics and authors Peter Lehman and William Luhr observe:

As a movie like Armageddon makes clear, much of what we now see in Hollywood films never existed in front of the camera and this has had a profound effect upon how we think about movies.

The quality of the visual effects necessarily impacts on the believability of the film for the viewer and most Hollywood films strive to hide any signs of the film making methods used with the aim of providing the spectator with a ‘real’ experience. Some label this style of Hollywood film making a ‘the invisible style’ and digital visual effects in many instances now makes this film making approach even more attainable, and more easier to produce as costs are cut. Films like Cecil B. De Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) used to be a rare event in Hollywood because of the costs involved in creating the special visual effects, but now thanks to modern visual effects financial barriers have been removed and we now see Hollywood increasing their output of more visually daring films. Michael Bailey’s follow-up to Armageddon was the hugely successful blockbuster Pearl Harbour (2002) which again repeated the success of his previous film as regards the use of visual effects and went on to generate worldwide box office sales of just under £300,000,000.

When Ridley Scott’s historical action drama Gladiator (2000) was released there was wide media coverage focusing on many of the visual effects the film had employed . In the film many of the scenes occur in the Roman coliseum and we are treated to plenty of shots of an entire coliseum where hoards of spectators occupy it observing the macabre event taking place below. However the spectacle was in actual fact constructed from multiple digital layers and is another example of visual effects making an invaluable contribution to the film industry. It is only through digital technology that we can enjoy with such visual fluidity the epic structure of the coliseum, the gladiators engaging in their fierce battle and the jeering spectators all in one shot.

James Cameron is a Canadian director with numerous titles to his name and is well known for his use of cutting edge visual effects technology. His first blockbuster foray into the visual effects arena was with his groundbreaking sci-fi The Terminator (1984) in which we witness a director pushing the boundaries of special effects capabilities. The film epitomises a trend of the time in which Hollywood was experimenting with new means of visual effects through the production of films which fused the genres of science fiction and horror including Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Robocop (1987) and Predator (1987), a breed of films which author Mark Jancovich describes as films which:

Contain strong female leads; an interest in the family; concerns about scientific-technical rationality and the military; killing machines which lack conscious motivation; and forms of body/horror .

Within Cameron’s Terminator film we can glean an overpowering sense of directorial creativity which, for all of the film’s impressive and successful visual effects, is still somehow constrained not by the mind of the director but by the technology available to him. The film was low budget costing around £4m to make but due to its huge popularity generated £30m in box office sales in America alone. The Terminator bred a franchise and to date four films have been made although only the first two were under Cameron’s direction. In Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) Cameron teams up with George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic visual effects house and three other special effects houses. Cameron builds on his rendered water tentacle he created for The Abyss (1989); he was encouraged by some of the concepts used for The Abyss and in Terminator 2 created a Terminator constructed of liquid metal – the T–1000. On screen we witness T-1000, a polymorphic assassin, shape-shifting into anyone it touches. To achieve many of the film’s visual effects Cameron fused two elements of computer generated graphics with a film composite to create blue prints which were heavily used with astounding success.

Between Cameron and the four visual effects houses the film boasts three hundred optical and mechanical shots incorporating state of the art computer produced imagery as well as more conventional optical trickeries and process photography. Each of the four effects companies provided the film with their own unique contributions. For example visual effects company ‘Video Image’ produced the twelve TerrorVision shots from the Arnold Schwarzenegger T-800 character’s infra-red point of view. This was achieved by scanning into a computer live footage and manipulating the colour scheme then overlaying it with flashing graphics. ‘Fantasy Film II’ effects company had the task of producing the opening ‘future war’ sequence by improving it with intricate optical enhancements, they also created optical lighting and lasers for the shots of the arrival of the Terminator. It was ‘4Ward Production’ which created the nuclear blast scenes in which Los Angeles is devastated by a nuclear bomb. The sequence was partly electronically created by using a big layered painting of the city which included a blast dome and by using the Apple Mac programme Electric Image very effectively simulated the destruction of buildings to capture the blasts destructive effects. However it was Industrial Light and Magic and Stan Winston Studios working in collaboration who were presented with the challenge of making the T-1000 which would turn out to be a combination of mechanical prosthetics, moving puppets and complex processes of computer generated digital imagery.

Cameron’s Titanic (1997) was until very recently the world’s most successful box office film. The film made great use of visual effects as well as employing some more traditional special effects processes. Cameron constructed an entire Titanic replica which was able to be flooded and broken apart for the sinking sequences. Most of the visual effects were supplied by Cameron’s own company Digital Domain which made use of both CG and miniature models to recreate the journey and eventual fate of the ship. Digital Domain also generated hundreds of digital passengers, digital water and numerous digital matte paintings and also created particle effects which simulated smoke. Other visual effects work on the film was carried out by VIFX who composited icy breaths onto some of the characters to ensure maximum authenticity for outside scenes. A number of other collaborators include POP Film who created some very clever digital face replacements and complex matte paintings. And CIS Hollywood made blue sky substitutes and bluescreen composites. The whole collaboration ensured the final product did what it was supposed to do. The film’s visual effects are an overwhelming credit to a Hollywood narrative film which, in true Hollywood style, hopes to ensure its audiences’ beliefs are suspended so the journey is as real as it can get, there can be no doubt that the visual effects in this film was a key ingredient in helping the audience achieve that belief suspension.

On the 29th August 2009 the Daily Mail ran an article with the title ‘How James Cameron’s 3D Film Could Change Cinema Forever’. The story previewed James Cameron’s latest sci-fi adventure film Avatar (2009) and the article’s author claimed:

A movie revolution will take place at the end of the year - potentially offering as big a leap in our viewing experience as the change from black-and-white television to colour.

The remark was perhaps a little over zealous but nonetheless captured the sentiment of the huge visual success celebrated by the release of Avatar. The film had been a concept in Cameron’s mind since the mid 1990’s but due to the deficit in technological capabilities the film remained unmade. In actual fact Cameron didn’t completely wait for the technology to catch up he made technology catch up by creating specialist cameras and equipment required to make the 3D film a reality. The imagery in Avatar constitutes 60% CGI and most of the CG character animation sequences are filmed using live actors with groundbreaking new motion-capture processes. The other 40% of the film comprises of live action imagery and relies on more conventional special effects. In bringing Cameron’s CG characters to life he has essentially created a whole new method for filming motion capture; he makes his actors wear special body suits with a standard definition camera attached to a head ring which will repeatedly take photographs of their faces. Then the data is sent to another camera which creates a real-time image of the ‘live’ actor in costume. Of the processes used to create his visual effects in Avatar Cameron stated:

It’s this amazing ability to quickly conjure scenes and images and great fantasy scapes that is very visual…When you are doing performance capture, creatively it’s very daunting. It’s very hard to imagine what it will look like. But if you can see it, if you can have a virtual image of what is it going to be like, then you are there .

Avatar adopts further new motion capture processes with its Facial Performance Replacement (FPR) technique which allowed Cameron to reshape the facial movements of the actors. So where dialogue is altered after principal photography on a scene it is still capable of being perfectly integrated into the final scene thereby avoiding actors having to re-shoot another take with their body suits and head rigs on again. It’s as though Cameron is constantly merging the boundaries of CGI and live action imagery but appears to have created the desired result although at cost. Whilst the film was in production James Cameron said in an interview on Canadian television that:
We're in CG hell. We're trying to create a world from scratch. It's like trench warfare. We're working with computer-generated characters that are photo-realistic. That's tough. We set the bar high. We're just now getting confidence that it's going to work .
It’s the type of remark that embodies the drive behind an artist’s creative intelligence and reveals his determination as well as frustration of a project which ultimately will be successful, James Cameron must be sitting comfortably with the knowledge that he broke his own previous record. Avatar is now the biggest box office success in cinema history.

Chapter 2:

When Do Visual Effects Damage Film?

It is incontrovertible that visual effects have augmented many film experiences and that today’s modern technological advances have created a film industry capable of exceeding audiences’ expectations. However despite the immense success of these visual effects there is a growing feeling among many people and film makers alike that digital effects are eroding the quality of some films. CGI used to be a hugely expensive process so much so that George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) only contained a ninety second CGI sequence which took three months to complete. However almost twenty years later and the cost of CGI has significantly reduced which enables Pixar Animated Studios to profitably produce an entirely computer generated film – Toy Story (1995). Just another six years later and Sony manages to remove the difference between cartoon and ‘real life’ with its production of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001). Today CGI is an integral ingredient for many filmmakers who employ its use for most of Hollywood’s big action sequences. Despite the affordability of CGI it still remains an expensive process and is very time consuming and this is precisely why it is often contracted out of Hollywood to specialist visual effects companies. As we have seen above Avatar had at least four different visual effects companies work on it, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) had eleven outside companies produce the visual effects. Herein lies one of the key areas of concern regarding the use of visual effects in contemporary film making.

So that this type of digital outsourcing can be facilitated the film is essentially divided into two separate productions: firstly the studio or location based live action scenes and secondly the CGI element which is made on computers. During the live action filming the actor will quite often be working on what’s called a ‘limbo set’ in which there will be few physicalities to the scene, instead the actor will be required to simulate particular actions and even mouth certain words of dialogue, all the omissions will then be filled in at a later stage on computer when engaging the CGI stage of the production. It will paint bold background imagery, place elaborate costumes on characters, implant certain objects into the actor’s hands and create sounds and dialogue befitting of the scenario. When the live footage has to be completed and even the editing of the live film the divide between the live and the CGI work becomes more distinct and problematic as quite often directors haven’t seen any of the CGI imagery at that stage. One classic example of this situation was during the filming of Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3. The film began shooting in July 2002 and Warner Brothers required the film to be submitted within twelve months for its release. However the sub-contracted CGI element of the production would take eight months for the subcontractors to complete, and so due to the time restriction this meant that Mostow had no choice other than to provide storyboards to the CGI teams so they could begin work and so were not working from the live footage which Mostow had yet to film. The split nature of this method of film making is epitomised, almost bizarrely, in the film itself in the face of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The right side of his face has ordinary make-up on it, the left side is green this is because the digital animation supervisor San Rafael directed the CGI which would become Schwarzenegger’s right side of his face, whereas Mostow directed the left side of his face in Los Angeles. Once the CGI had been completed there was simply no time to facilitate a re-do. Mostow stated at the time:

For a filmmaker that is the worst thing you can imagine. In the regular rhythm of making movies you shoot, you edit, you hone the editing, and then you add the finishing touches. Computer graphics turns the normal procedures of filmmaking upside down .

This method of filmmaking was also witnessed in the production processes of Avatar which outsourced the digital effects work to a number of different companies. One of those companies was London based Framestore and some of the work they had to carry out vividly illustrates the production issues of films which employ heavy use of CGI, Jonathan Fawkner of Framestore said:

So what we got from the production was literally an actor in a green background, and we were required to put everything else, including set material props and people .

Hollywood studios often believe that digital effects are worth their price, even if it is just to enjoy the profit margin from the spin off sales of merchandise of toys and computer games. However if CGI can not sustain audience interest because it lacks other fundamental film elements such as narrative then no groundbreaking computer generated graphics will compensate for an audience dissatisfied with the story of a film. This was illuminated when Sony had to learn a bitter lesson after it released the sci-fi digital effects imbued Stealth (2005) which performed abysmally at the box office. DreamWorks also had a bloody nose in the same year with the release of The Island (2005) which again generated disappointing box office sales. As journalist and author Edward Epstein states:

If this new economy of illusion allows the CGI side of a production to overwhelm the director's ability to tell a coherent story in his live-action side, digital effects may prove to be the ruination of movies .

Another aspect of film erosion some argue is occurring when film requires the use of stunts to increase the action to higher levels of intensity. When American actor, writer, producer and director Douglas Fairbanks in the 1924 film version of the fantasy Thief of Baghdad impressively jumps from one huge pot to another with all the anticipation captured beautifully in the film he does so himself, with two unseen trampolines used to support the actor as he performs the stunt. The action sequence is thoroughly effective because it is real. Martial arts actor and director Jackie Chan brings to us films which are highly charged with plenty of karate sequences, this is for many part of the appeal of his films. The fighting scenes always use trained martial arts experts to bring the audience closer to the fighting action so they don’t just see and hear it they feel it. However CGI threatens this authenticity by injecting scenes of action which are physically impossible for the human being. The reality is that sadly with the continuing development of CGI there will be less impressive live stunts in film to enjoy.

Another argument which criticises digital visual effects concerns the relationship with the aesthetics and the deeper meaning of what the aesthetics are depicting. If we look at a much older film such as the The Thief of Baghdad (1940) we observe a film which makes very effective use of visual effects for its time. It is obvious watching the film that the visual effects are easily identified as visual augmentations but in those aesthetics they actually capture a large degree of reality. Clearly the audience knows that horses and carpets are not capable of flying by themselves yet in the film that is precisely what we see and a visual treat it is despite its lack of visual sophistication. If those scenes were filmed today they would be produced through CGI processes which would load the scenes with fast paced shots of the horses imagined responses if it could fly which would be generated with intricate detail and seamless visual flow, we would see overview shots of the landscapes beneath and we might even see an eagle or two because the whole sequence would be so busy that the audience just doesn’t have time to appreciate the whole point of the scene that someone is flying through the air on a horse or carpet! And this is the problem when visual effects take over the scene it reduces the significance of what it portrays. Digital visual effects also seem to engender a type of laziness amongst some film makers. However in the film X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) attention was focused away from digital support in favour of more traditional effects, the audience is aware that they’re not always seeing real bodies or real severed body parts but the effects were impressive and no CGI was used, the film makers instead employed model making efforts to realise the visual characteristics of the film. US scriptwriter and film critic Roger Ebert says:

I have nothing against digital technology. It tricks the eye just as matte paintings and miniatures did. What I'm concerned about is that filmmakers take it for granted. When you're not dealing with something physical, like a matte, you're tempted to go for broke, and then your ‘real life’ movie feels like a cartoon. The best effects are those that are entirely story-driven and character-driven.

In many peoples view CGI is simply becoming overused. Steve Beck’s horror Ghost Ship (2002) received strong censure from critics and spectators for its digitally constructed scenes and lack of attention to narrative. The unreal look which comes with CGI can often destroy credibility for the audience. Special effects co-ordinator Randy Cabral believes that CGI has a damaging effect on some films, he says:

I go to the movies often and I’m taken out of the moment completely when you see something and it’s so unreal, so unbelievable and it just screams CGI that it completely ruins the film for me.

Conclusion

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Looking at the top ten most successful films of all time, commercially speaking, every single one of them has employed CGI to a significant extent . From Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) to The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003) through to Toy Story 3 (2010) and of course Avatar (2009) between them these films have thrilled worldwide audiences and rewarded them with a visual feast. There can be no denying the merits of digital effects and the overwhelming contribution it has made to cinema. The success in sales figures both at the box office and in DVD and Blu-ray profits matches the success of what CGI has achieved on screen. The advantages to the film industry are plenty as is evident from above, but what some directors and film makers some times overlook are the negative aspects of this technology. CGI can not replace a good story or substitute an intelligent script with meaningful dialogue and whilst it can indeed create stunning three dimensional characters it can not produce the depth of character which audiences can relate to if the character has no characteristics or depth of expression. It seems that some directors and the Hollywood system have not learnt these lessons fully yet. The recent sci-fi film Skyline (2010) relied heavily on digital effects, some which were quite clearly weak in parts, and lacked depth of narrative. The film attempted to ride on the back of recent successes in the genre like War of the Worlds (2005), Cloverfield (2007) and District 9 (2009) but failed to match their achievements. Skyline unfortunately is a modern example which demonstrates that Hollywood continues to ignore fundamental film constituents in favour of computer generated sequences to realise a film, perhaps after the box office failure of Skyline Hollywood may begin to effectively address this issue. Even directors like Tim Burton who have strong views on digital effects and resisted using them extensively for his remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) still don’t appreciate the damage CGI can do, as the film still featured many scenes that were not enhanced by the visual effects but were in fact weakened by them. Having considered many of the advantages and disadvantages of the use of visual effects within the film industry there are clearly two opposing perspectives. Some advocate the continuing and indeed increasing use of CGI as a key method for the production of major film projects and to realise the creativity of the human mind whilst others prefer a more moderate approach to the use of digital effects. James Cameron when being interviewed by Charlie Rose said:

I threw everything I had at making it a great piece of entertainment and that was the 3-D, the CGI and creating the world and every trick I knew to get people to come to a theatre, and then every trick I knew as a filmmaker to engage them in terms of the story and the actors and so on .

It is probably fair to suggest the most efficacious means of producing films should incorporate a balance, and ensure the right calculation between using digital technologies to realise the film and the other essential ingredients which makes the film successful. If the film industry chooses to ignore the genuine complaints of digital effects use then it may well find itself producing more films which do not connect with audiences, and thus runs the risk of damage not only their profits but their credibility also.

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