The transformation of Visual Effects

SpiderwickChroniclesSetIn his book Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality, Prince traces the transformation of “special effects” in Hollywood cinema from the 1960s to present day. Most people still refer to the seduction of reality in cinema as “special effects,” but Prince argues that “special” might not be so special within today’s society:

“In one period, visual effects were ‘special’ because they were regarded as tricks supplementing live-action cinematography–set extensions achieved with hanging miniatures or matte painting, live actors married with stop-motion puppetry via matte-and-counter matte systems. They were special, too, because the joins were generally visible between the elements comprising the effect, and this made boundaries between live-action cinematography and composited shots clears” (Prince, 4)

Chroma_key_heroAs all of us know, visual effects in cinema are no longer visible at their seams. In the past decade so a tremendous amount of Hollywood movies rely on the magic of visual effects, both during production and post-production. Chroma keys, or green screens, are commonly used assets that allow special effects teams to build a completely new world, that spectators can get engrossed by a film. I think the best, and most recent, examples of this kind of experience for movie goers are Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013). The special effects team behind Gravity, a London-based company called Framestore, helped Cuarón create an Oscar winning film that is estimated by BBC News to be about 80% build by digital shots. A visual effects reel was released, from the 2013 adaption, The Great Gatsby, that reveals how the shots were actually composed before post-production visual effects were applied:

Watching the reel above, I could not help but to think of Prince’s discussion of how visual effects are so well intertwined with the live-action action aspects, resulting in a seamless image on the surface, but really are comprised of so many layers and pieces.

“Visual effects are coextensive with narrative film, and digital tools have made them more expressive, persuasive, and immersive” (Prince, 4).

I think that this statement is accurate. So much is done present day filmmaking and production to create entirely new worlds for audiences to immerse themselves in, I often forget that much of it is illusion of digital technology. It is interesting to me, that our generation got to see Hollywood evolve from the 1990s to today, because even though it has been growing for many years now, I think the most remarkable progress has been in the past decade. Here is a chance to watch the transformation of the best visual effects of each year from 1997 until 2013, awarded at the Oscars:

Watching this, it may seem obvious that there has been growth within the visual effects field, but Prince argues:

“Nothing ever happens for the first time in film history” (Prince, 11)

This has stumped me a bit. I cannot decide whether I agree, or not. On the one hand, I think to myself that there must have been many things that have happened for the first time in film history, digital technology for instance. On the other hand, I wonder if maybe he means that similar techniques or tricks have been employed during different decades, but all to achieve the same outcome or illusion. If any of you may have a better idea, or understanding, of what Prince might mean by this, I’d love to hear what you all think.


Work Cited:

Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2012.

Images from Creative Commons


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