Visual FX: Primitive vs. Psychedelic

I have two favorite time periods of visual effects in film. Ironically enough, they achieve essentially the opposite impact for today’s audiences. Special effects has changed drastically over the course of film history, due to both technological and creative advancements. Beginning even with the “illusion-filled” sets of Georges Melies, the trick of the camera has always been a creative force in the filmmaking process.

As if it weren’t obvious enough yet, I’m a huge fan of silent film. However, the film I thought of instantly when Stephen Prince was discussing the history of the visual effects process in chapter 2, was 1933’s King Kong.

I first watched King Kong my freshman year of college, when I was introducing myself to classic film. I remember laughing out loud, seeing some of stop-motion’s first attempts at an epic scale.

These effects are extremely entertaining to me. Maybe it is envisioning the primitive action of the stop-motion process, or the hilarity of the final result. Either way, it made the audiences of 1933 freak. We’ve all heard about the one of the silent film featuring a train coming into a station. The audiences apparently beat it out of there, fearing for their lives. Watching these scenes and being aware of how they shocked audiences at their release is both fun and fascinating. It also proves that what they saw, they perceived as being reality. And why wouldn’t they? This is extremely impressive work for 1933.

The process was incredibly complex and intricate:

The final composite (the finished effects shot) was gradually created by this process of rephotographing each of its components. The composite negative would have to be rewound in the process camera so that each component could be photographed. Thus an optically printed effects shot yields a dupe negative, a copy of a copy. (Prince, 60).

Prince’s discussion of reality in today’s society is quite different. As technology has developed over the twentieth century, the expectations of the audience has changed as well. In contrast to my pleasure of watching movies like King Kong, I also have a strong adoration for the visual effects of a more modern film medium.

In chapter two of Prince’s reading, he discusses the film Forrest Gump (1994). This is taking the same process of layering as mentioned above, but reaches such a likeness to reality, it goes by unnoticed.

The physical reality depicted in such scenes onscreen is true and cannot be perceptually denied in spite of a viewer’s awareness that it is dependent on digital effects. In a pre-digital era, scenes with actors playing handicapped characters never achieved such visual credibility (Prince, 58).

Prince references this film because the digital effects often go by unnoticed. The effects in Forrest Gump were meant to enhance reality. The goal was precisely for the effects to legitimize the story, despite the absurdity of the plot. As Prince briefly discusses, people may not believe in the reality of Forrest Gump, the character, but they definitely buy into the visual effects they didn’t even know were there.

The shift to digital modes ended the era in which visual effects were “special,” that is, were allocated to a domain of trick photography regarded as being separate from and periph- eral to the main stage of production. A better term today is “visual effects,” designating an expanded domain of image manipulation carried out with digital tools (Prince, 56).

This is the definition of today’s process of creating a virtual reality on the silver screen. I love the “special effects” in King Kong and I admire the “visual effects” in Forrest Gump. At the way other end of the spectrum for me, I’ll be honest, is the “on-steriods effects” found in Life of Pi (2012). 

I greatly appreciated Prince’s description of seeking reality in digital production. He quotes Ken Ralston by saying:

The toughest thing . . . is trying to recreate reality. The more surreal an image is, the more leeway we have to fake our way through because people can’t identify with it (Prince, 58).

I apologize to my classmates who enjoyed this film, even in particular the visual effects. The film received rave reviews in regards to the cinematography and editing. I don’t even know that much about production, but it was the first film ever that I extremely disliked all because of the visual effects.

I wasn’t a fan of this style of visual effects. The imagery is absolutely gorgeous, I’m not discounting that, but I did not see reality. If I can’t buy into a film’s diegesis, even if it is fantasy, I can’t enter the story. I understand that from the book, the whole thing is an allegory, but I found the psychedelic color schemes and the CGI everything to be distracting. Is this type of visual more popular now due to today’s audience’s constant need for visual stimulation? Should I just adapt?

The three films discussed here represent three very different types of visual effects. Their relationship to how we, as an audience, define reality directly correlates with our general awareness and appreciation of these effects. Mine definitely fluctuate, do yours?

Prince, Stepen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. Rutgers University Press, 2011.


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