La Vie Filmique // L’Objectif Numérique: The Visual Magic of Modern Blockbusters

Promotional poster for Inception (2009).

Admittedly, it was a pleasant surprise to observe so many connections between Stephen Prince’s Digital Visual Effects in Cinema and the reading/facilitation last week in which we discussed the cinematic old versus the filmic new. The semantics of Prince’s facts and assertions are what held my attention the most, beginning with his mention of George Méliès and his mastery of visual effects in the nascent days of cinema. In an odd sense of nostalgia, many film lovers and even academics consider Méliès work prolific for its time as his skills in creating practical magic through stagecraft and smoke & mirrors were basically unparalleled. Cameron, Bay, Spielberg, Fincher and the various other filmmakers who weave their tales with the help of digital visual effects have been met with hostility or skepticism similar to that of Prince’s colleague who said that she hated the ways that movies used visual effects nowadays. The “gaudy spectacle” (1) of it all baffles audiences to the point of disbelief; we have become both ignorant and desensitized to the artistry behind these characters and images. The spectacular worlds of Middle-Earth in LOTR or Pandora in Avatar deserve just as much praise as their mutual predecessors Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Aliens. 

“WHAT IS THIS DIGITAL WIZARDRY?!” Still from Avatar (2009).

With technology so embedded in our lives and most of the world’s data and information at our fingertips, we have become dissatisfied with the digital magic so prevalent in many of today’s movies. Why? Probably because we don’t fully understand the diligence and work required to create something like Pacific Rim. Audiences who saw Méliés’s A Trip to the Moon in 1902 had a relatively easier time comprehending the efforts that went into creating the defining moments of the film. The same can be said (to some extent) for Spielberg’s Jurassic Park as it used animatronics, puppetry and digital/computer-generated effects. Méliès used adept editing and other ocular trickery to draw viewers into believing the trip to the Moon, Spielberg used perceptual realism and CGI to envelope viewers of his film – what Nolan did with Inception or Abrams with Star Trek is much harder to recognize to the untrained and uninitiated. I’m sure that even Michael Bay would agree that just like Transformers, there’s more than meets the eye when dealing with visual effects.

In my opinion, the magic of movies lives on, despite being said to have only existed during the “good old days”, intrinsic to the celluloid film being used, edited and practically perfected at the time. As discussed last week, we live in a different era, a newer one with a growing number of possibilities able to be realized. Simply because we cannot see the geometrics, motion-capturing or even the green or blue screens responsible for helping create these vast stories and landscapes does not mean that they have no value. Prince perfectly articulates my sentiments on this haggard notion based in wistfulness; CG and CGI do not equate to apathetic artistry and handiwork. These artists and engineers spend hundreds upon hundreds of hours constructing the driving visual forces of multi-million dollar movies. James Cameron didn’t create Avatar, his self-acclaimed magnum opus, in 1995 because the technology did not yet exist. Furthermore, the world was not ready to experience the grandiose spectacle that his film needed to be. The fact that these magnificent displays immerse us so completely that we often don’t  even think of the time and technicalities necessary is a testament to the very power of the magic behind them. Our looking glass has been graciously upgraded and we should appreciate its advancement with every Benjamin Button or Avengers released in our lifetimes. In short, “it is [now] a looking glass into a mathematical wonderland.” (55)


Prince, Stephen. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality. 232: Rutgers University Press, 2011. Print.

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