The Effect of Digital Effects on Cinema

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The evolution of digital cinema, as described by Stephen Prince in Digital Visual Effects in Cinema, emerged as the culmination of decades of evolution in computer graphics technology and advancements in special effects technology. With the developments in Graphics and the realization of the graphic potential of computers and digital software programs, the late 1980s saw some of the first amalgamation of virtual reality and reality onscreen. However, by the late 1990’s, digital effects were becoming the main means through which a production team could achieve effects that otherwise would be considered impossible or difficult with regular materials, and were generally less costly than going out and paying for the materials to craft live special effects. What intrigued me was just how prevalent digital effects in film have become, and that I grew up in an era in which digital effects were becoming more commonplace than ever before. Movie effects, which at first had focused upon making the real more fantastical, have instead become a race to make the fantastical seem more real. Visual effects with tangible puppets in the late 1970’s and throughout the 1980’s with movies such as Jaws (1975) and sci-fi classic Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) blurred the line between what was possible and impossible onscreen even before the advent of computer effects in the 1990’s. By using a combination of scale models and matte paintings, Star Wars and Jaws achieved on a relatively low budget what no other film had been able to achieve visually, and had utilized a minimalistic approach with what they had available to them. However, as time passed, and digital media became more complex and seen as more efficient for portraying things onscreen that would have been more difficult otherwise, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) would in later episodes of the Star Wars saga began utilizing digital imagery, albeit in a less minimalist fashion, as Stephen Prince goes on to state in the reading that  

Although digital effects were not part of George Lucas’s original vision, the effects created by the artists at ILM became widely identified with the filmmaker and his company as its primary product and influence on cinema at large. In light of this popular legacy, interestingly, Lucas was relatively slow to incorporate digital effects into his own films. Star Wars (1977) included a brief 3D computer graphic visualizing the planned attack on the Death Star. (Other computer screens in the fi lm displaying graphics were animated by hand. The innovative computer work on Star Wars lay not in digital effects but in motion-control cinematography. A computer-controlled camera made multiple, exactly repeatable passes, photographing a model numerous times to create the layers of elements needed for an effects shot.) On The Empire Strikes Back (1980), ILM explored a relationship with competitor Triple-I under which the latter was to furnish a 3D computer animation of an X-wing fighter. But ILM demurred, the effects shot was never used, and the film contained no computer graphics. The sequel, Return of the Jedi, used only a small amount of digital animation to simulate graphics displays. By contrast, during this period the major digital effects showcases were in films made by other production companies, some of which ILM worked on as a contractor. (Stephen Prince, Digital Visual Effects, 21)

This quote demonstrates the need for the progressive attitude that filmmakers had begun to develop towards the usage of the digital in place of the “real”. Some more recent concerns in the film community are that the special/digital effect portion of the modern film making progress will take away the realness of film by replacing every environment with digital representations, and that perhaps the need for actors may cease entirely, however, this is unlikely and foolish, as there will always be a need for the human element to ground certain films in the real world, and bridge the gap between reality and fantasy. The opening cinematics/trailers for the online game Star Wars: The Old Republic below demonstrate just how far digital representation of human expression has come since its early inception into the cinematic world. The other video shows just how revolutionary digital representation is to crafting environments. Which looks realer to you?


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