Visual Effects as a Known Illusion

On page 26 of “Digital Visual Effects in Cinema,” author Stephen Prince discusses the combination of real and digital effects used by director Christopher Nolan while filming Inception (2010) to create a particularly unique image:

“Nolan stressed the value of on-location filming and practical effects accomplished in-camera and with physical sets and props. These were extended with digital tools. Real locations with actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page included Paris streets, which were then treated digitally for a spectacular scene in which the urban environment folds up into a cube.” The same is true for the collapse of the dream sequences.

Nolan understood that he could achieve the “wow” factor expected of him by blending real, physical stunts with high-quality digital effects. The same was true for other CGI inclusive Blockbusters E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Furthermore, “digital motion control cinematography changed [film when its existence allowed] a live-action camera…[to be] programmed to execute the same moves as the virtual camera in computer space” (31). As time went on, directors and producers toyed with the balance between reality and digitization and increasingly developed an understanding of what awes an audience and what properly defends technological determinism; that is, the creation and use of such technologies set a cultural expectation and norm of special effects and the spectacular.

However, Prince goes on to explain that concerns arose regarding the overshadowing of plot and artistic merit by special effects. On page 37, he writes that “Andrew Darley [believes]…spectacle is the anithesis of the narrative. [It] effectively halts motivated movement.” This argument is furthered by Viva Paci’s contribution, which consists of the belief, “high tech special effects” undermine narrative (37). I beg to counter-argue this apprehension by examining the production and effects of the Harry Potter series. More specifically, I believe the film’s photo-realism and combination of digital and physical effects create a believable and skillfully executed film (series).

On page 195, Price mentions that the Harry Potter series (starting in 2001) along with various other films including Men in Black II (2002) and Gangs of New York (2002), and Signs (2002) (an embarrassing personal favorite and the first scary movie I ever saw) were:

the first films rendered using OpenEXR…[which] offers high dynamic range (1 billion: 1) image capabilities, 16-bit and 32-bit floating-point formats, lossless data compression, and the ability to be expanded to as many channels as needed so that separate elements of a render need not be stored as separate files.”

What’s particularly notable about the Harry Potter series is with four different directors–Chris Colombus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, and David Yates–six different directors of photography, and five film editors. Naturally, as time passed, the effects became increasingly advanced and the right amount of believable for an audience. That is, they were believable such that they were photorealistic; they looked as if that thing (magic, fantastical creatures, etc.) would look if it were to exist and to be photographed. By the fifth film, director of photography Bruno Delbonnel gained the series’ only Academy Award nomination for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009).

Take a look at this breakdown of the VFX effects in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010), part one and two:

It’s undeniable that the acting is what makes the CGI so believable. The underwater scene with Harry and the amulet; Voldemort and the Elder Wand; Harry and Voldemort’s wands connecting on the stairwell — the very real acting is what perfectly highlights (while simultaneously distracting from) the spectacle that is the special effects. The use of “floating-point image compositing and HDRi radiance maps furnish visual effects with immersive levels of light and color information. They enable filmmakers to seamlessly blend the image of a real actor to that of a synthetic character or to light a digital environment with the actual light that was present on set or on location” (198). We saw this briefly in the second Deathly Hallows VFX breakdown video with the troll and its respective actor: basic facial expressions layered under hyper-sophisticated and artistic digital illustration.

And, if this weren’t proof enough of Disney’s commitment to excellence in an already excellent series (even if I am a little biased), the Huffington Post reported on Friday that Universal Studios in Orlando will use “lifelike animation and special effects to recreate Harry Potter’s journey aboard the Hogwarts express.” And that is where the real and hyperreal meet; audience members know enough to understand that magic and special effects aren’t real. Hogwarts isn’t real, and the illusion is simply a simulation. However, the effective combination of fandom and special effects allow readers and audience members to experience as much participation as possible, short of revealing that Harry Potter was nonfiction all along.

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