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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR SFX?

"Have you ever watched newer movies and felt like something was missing?"

I know that I'm not alone in noticing that movies have lost a lot of their magic.  They've become considerably more spectacular and impressive over time, with amazing effects and enormous catastrophes being easy to depict.  Movies routinely show images and events that cannot be filmed normally or are impossible in real life, like Iron Man flying through a portal into space or buildings falling over and crashing to the ground in an earthquake.
But at the same time, these effects are less breathtaking and wondrous than the old ones.  When you saw Superman fly in a movie in the 1970s, it was amazing.  When you see Superman fly now, you shrug because you know its just computer effects.  Movies are more fantastic and amazing than ever before, but they feel less magical and impressive.  How can that be?  Well this video attempts to explain why and how this came about (warning, very odd voicing, almost computer-like):

His argument is that modern special effects are presented in such a way that it damages our suspension of disbelief.  In other words, we aren't pulled into the movie.  We know its a movie at all times; we know that these are special effects.  Our brains are never fooled, and we're always at the surface watching rather than being a part of the story.  You always know you're watching a movie that has computer generated effects.  So some or all of the magic is lost and its just a display of interesting looking things rather than an immersive story event.
He thinks that believability is more important than beauty and impressiveness.  The idea is that instead of trying to make things look wonderful, they should focus on making things look plausible.
A second video, which is less content-focused and more dumbed down "hey brah hipster" but has good insights is this one:

He compares Jurassic World and Jurassic Park, two movies separated by more than a decade. The truth is that the dinosaur effects in the 1993 Park movie was stunning, because most of them were actually models and practical effects, with relatively few computer effects.  Of the 14 minutes of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, only 4 were computer generated effects.
Basically he argues two things.  First, too much of what is going on is so disconnected from our experiences and life that its impossible to make any sort of attachment with what is going on.  What is it really like to slide down a gigantic elephant's trunk like you're surfing?  Who knows, but what Legolas does, does not feel right.
Second, he argues that excessive use of color correction - something WETA pioneered with the Lord of the Rings films, and was used to great effect in O Brother Where Art Thou where everything seemed like a tobacco leaf - is making everything seem less real and less believable.  Its being over done for effect and in the end is taking us away from that suspension of disbelief.  Its one thing to do this for a specific effect or setting, say, 300.  Its another to use it all the time, everywhere, because its pretty and helps the director make a statement visually.
Its interesting to think about and does make some sense out of why when people watch movies with awe-inspiring, stunning scenes and effects, they are neither awed or stunned.  They go "neat looking CGI" and chew some more popcorn.  Its not pulling them in, there's nothing emotional at stake, the story is just external and speculative rather than internal and compelling.
This isn't to say that things cannot get better.  Directors and cinematographers are getting used to these new tools and the power that computer rendering and scene manipulation are able to accomplish.  Like I wrote about a while back regarding Keanu Reeves' surprisingly good documentary "Side By Side," this is still an experimental phase, and eventually I suspect that at least one great film maker will come along - soon, I bet - that shows how to use these tools for storytelling rather than simply to look amazing.  Black and White movies took decades to reach the point of amazing use of color and storytelling we saw in films like the Maltese Falcon.
So one day we'll get that feeling back in films, where you feel like you're part of the story and forget you're watching a movie.  But until then, we're just going to get more spectacle than story.

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