Special effects by Braden Gunn

Ranging from the practical effects such as stop motion animation and miniature sets used to create classic movie monsters such as King Kong back in the 1930s to the modern day visual effects created using digital technology that is capable of fully realising alien worlds such as Pandora (from James Cameron’s Avatar [2009]) for the big screen. Special effects have been a staple of the filmmaking process for as long as film has existed. In this article I aim to explore how special effects have been affected by digital technology.

To understand how digital technology has effected special effects it is important to discuss what special effects were like before the digital age, before the digital age special effects were commonly comprised of models and miniatures that had been lovingly crafted by a effects team, these effects are tangible and present during the filming process, in contrast a large amount of digital effects are created using a computer and added to the film during the post production process, these effects are more commonly known as Digital Visual Effects (DVFx)

DVFx has opened up the door to creating believable new worlds including Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar and made certain film characters such as Gollum, from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), possible to create, these characters are created through a mix of a human performance form an actor who is present on the set during the filming process wearing a motion capture suit that allows the computer to track the actors movements with the character being added in later, this offers a mix of both the benefits of special effects and digital effects, through having an actor present on set during the filming process, the character they are portraying becomes tangible, suddenly the other actors are able to interact with the digital character, and the digital character is able to walk around the set in a believable way making it seem like they belong in the environment rather than something that has been added via a computer.

 

Perhaps one of the biggest pioneers behind DVFx is George Lucas, who sought to create ways that could improve elements of the filmmaking process (including visual effects) through the computer division of Lucasfilm. In the book Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures, Lucas is quoted as saying “My primary interest in developing digital technology was to speed up the filmmaking process so that I could get my ideas accomplished in a more efficient way.”[1] Lucas championed digital filmmaking, stating “It allows the filmmaker to be more creative – be it special effects or post-production and makes the job of filmmaking easier.”[2]

To compare the difference between pre-digital special effects and post-digital special effects we need look no further than Lucas’s own Star Wars films or more specifically Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Back in 1977, when A New Hope originally released George Lucas had to rely on practical effects to create his vision, the futuristic spaceships were made from models while the aliens who populated the Star Wars universe were made up of a mix of puppets and actors wearing prosthetics and makeup. Fast forward twenty two years to when The Phantom Menace released in 1999, and most of the practical effects were suddenly being replaced by digital effects, many of the films characters (Jar Jar Binks) and settings (Otoh Gunga) were created mostly through computer imagery, this allowed Lucas to better bring the film he wanted to make to life, though many argue that Lucas’s over reliance on DVFx is what ultimately led to the films negative reception arguing that it was harder to become invested in a world that has been rendered by a computer as opposed to the real world locations used for the original films.

In his book, Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film, Shilo T. McClean describes DVFx as “a fundamental element for “blockbuster” films.”[3] this is true without DVFx modern blockbusters such as the upcoming Warcraft (2016), or the recent Captain America: Civil War (2016) would not be able to exist, we would not be able to have Spider-Man swinging around the skyline of New York were it not for the ability to add this in using visual effects. Whilst blockbusters have existed long before the creation of digital technology it could be argued that in recent years they have come to be defined by visual effects with films such as Transformers (2007) and Avatar accused of concentrating on visual effects as opposed to narrative, leading some to cite DVFx as “the means by which Hollywood is ruining storytelling”[4] choosing instead to focus on the spectacle of cinema.

It’s debateable whether Special Effects have been affected positively or negatively by digital technology, while some may argue that it has had a negative effect on special effects by allowing filmmakers to rely too heavily on computer generated imagery it could also be argued that If digital technology had not helped to advance Special Effects then some of the biggest films of the last two decades would never have been possible. A prime example of this is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, as J.R.R Tolkien’s books were originally considered to be unfilmable because the technology to fully realise Middle Earth didn’t exist, however due to the advances that were made in special effects through the development of DVFx, Peter Jackson was able to turn these “unfilmable” books into one of the most beloved film series of all time. There are many arguments that can be made for and against the impact digital technology has had upon special effects but ultimately whether it is for better or worse the biggest impact that digital technology has had on special effects is what George Lucas originally intended the technology to do when he set out to develop it “allow the filmmaker to be more creative”.

 

[1]Ohanian, Thomas, and Natalie Phillips. n.d. “Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures.” books.google.co.uk. Accessed April 28, 2016. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=usMqBgAAQBAJ&pg=PR23&dq=Digital+filmmaking+special+effects&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiRqqON97nMAhXEJMAKHQygDvoQ6AEINzAC#v=onepage&q=Digital%20filmmaking%20special%20effects&f=false.

[2]Ohanian, Thomas, and Natalie Phillips. n.d. “Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures.” books.google.co.uk. Accessed April 28, 2016. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=usMqBgAAQBAJ&pg=PR23&dq=Digital+filmmaking+special+effects&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiRqqON97nMAhXEJMAKHQygDvoQ6AEINzAC#v=onepage&q=Digital%20filmmaking%20special%20effects&f=false.

 

 

[3] McClean, Shilo T. n.d. “Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film.” https://books.google.co.uk. Accessed April 30, 2016. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=LArtjcVwfWEC&pg=PA1&dq=Digital+filmmaking+special+effects&lr=&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q=Digital%20filmmaking%20special%20effects&f=false.

[4] McClean, Shilo T. n.d. “Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film.” https://books.google.co.uk. Accessed April 30, 2016. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=LArtjcVwfWEC&pg=PA1&dq=Digital+filmmaking+special+effects&lr=&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q=Digital%20filmmaking%20special%20effects&f=false.

 

 

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