Spotlight : January 1998

The Modern, Digital Illusion
By Todd Vaziri

The art of visual effects is the art of illusion. Film, in and of itself, is an illusion of movement--still frames projected 24 times a second on a screen tricks the brain into seeing flowing, 'real' motion. For over 100 years, film audiences have been witnessing cinematic illusions, some more 'real' than others.

With advances in film techniques, photographic effects graduated from the revolutionary in-camera illusions of the Lumiere brothers and George Melies, to optical dissolves, to

"Since the use of digital technology in feature film visual effects, confusion has reigned."

stop-motion animation, to in-camera glass matte paintings, to the bluescreen optical process. When audiences were treated to visual thrills in GONE WITH THE WIND, MARY POPPINS and 2001, the opticals were simply referred to as 'special effects,' with little or no examination into the techniques involved. The general public was happy to be amazed year after year, culminating with the fascinating, awe-inspriring effects of STAR WARS.

The media reported these illusions to the public only in the most general terms, usually mentioning the use of model miniatures, matte paintings, or the bluescreen process. Few 'behind the scenes' documentaries were made, and those that were made only scratched the surface as to the remarkable techniques and talent behind the illusion. Certain heroes of effects emerged throughout the ages, with top, talented names surfacing like O'Brien, Harryhausen, Ellenshaw, Trumbull, and Lucas.

But since the use of digital technology in feature film visual effects, confusion has reigned. Computers have not only become a part of everyday life for most Americans, but have become the key tool in the production of visual effects, which has made everyone an expert. Just listen to the media discussing modern visual effects. "It's all done in the computer, now." "That's a computerized effect." As shallow as the Hollywood media is, they are misrepresenting the techniques and talent involved with today's visual effects. They continually confuse the talent with the tools.

If you were to listen to E! Entertainment and Access Hollywood, every single visual effect in TITANIC and FORREST GUMP, for example, was created 'in the computer.' What

CG Ship or Not CG Ship?
Confusion over techniques used in TITANIC is a symptom of the glorification of CG animation, as well as the lack of accuracy reported by the mainstream press. [Not a CG ship.]
that means, apparently, is that the entire image is computer generated. A director sat down at a workstation and punched in some parameters, like a 1912 steamship, water and dolphins, and hit a button. Bam! Out comes your computer generated effect.

If the previous description sounds silly, it's only because media coverage of visual effects has totally dehumanized the craft. Just look at the confusion over the visual effects of TITANIC. Some media outlets proclaim that every Titanic shot was created as a CG effect. Viewers who are not effects-savvy are seeing CG effects shots when they really are not. Because of the proliferation of behind the scenes documentaries, 3D software available for desktop computers, even web sites like VFX HQ, everybody's an expert.

Three major situations are arising. One, the human element is disappearing. Especially disappointing was listening to the director's commentary appearing on the recently released CONTACT, available on laserdisc and DVD. Director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey were surprisingly abstract and impersonal in discussing the complicated effects that appear in CONTACT. While effects shots were onscreen, one could hear Zemeckis repeatedly state 'it was done in a computer,' or 'it's amazing what can be done on a computer, nowadays.' Where was the mention of Sony Imageworks or any of the other firms involved? What about the people behind the effects, who possess the rare combination of artistic and technical skills? What about the 80 hour work weeks of artists and TDs? The anemic, impersonal way they discussed the film's effects was quite disheartening to any visual effects aficionado. The obsession over the digital tools involved in effects, and the ignorance of the human talent and skills using the tools, are dehumanizing effects work.

Secondly, non-CG techniques are being lost in the shuffle of public awareness. Apparently, it is more interesting to the media to discuss the 3D character animation of JURASSIC PARK or THE MASK, or to repeatedly report that a CG Titanic was used in many shots. This goes on, while the media seemingly ignores the fact that the hero shots of the ship were completed with motion control passes of a 1/20 scale model miniature. While people are amazed

"Non-CG techniques are being lost in the shuffle of public awareness."

at the character animation in STARSHIP TROOPERS, ALIEN RESURRECTION and THE LOST WORLD, the compositors, rotoscopers, painters, model builders, cinematographers and other artists are essentially ignored in the public arena. 3D CG character animation is still new and exciting to the general public, apparently more exciting than the other techniques in visual effects production.

Thirdly, unrealistic expectations are being set. Since 'everything is done in the computer,' and since NBC Nightly News repeatedly instructs us that computers can do anything, the level of believability must be higher than ever for audiences to be satisfied. Viewers are more savvy at picking out effects shots, and are sometimes finding them even when none exist. Hollywood cynicsm is also rising; people are losing faith in filmmakers to truly photograph an event instead of 'creating it in the computer.'

The illusion of films is deteriorating, as is the humanity of visual effects. With each documentary, with each innaccurate news report, with each mention of 'computer effects,' a little bit of movie magic is lost. But more importantly, the people behind the illusions and their enormous efforts are being ignored. In a way, the confusion over the techniques used to create the effects of TITANIC, for example, is the modern illusion.

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