Godzilla has returned in all his city-stomping glory in the title role of a new early summer, special-effects blockbuster. He looked so real! Or did he? We've been conditioned over decades to a particular kind of movie realism, says Julie Turnock, author of "Plastic Reality," an upcoming book on the development of special effects, and a professor of media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois. Our perception has been shaped, Turnock says, by the groundbreaking innovations on display in 1977's "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and by the effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) - all of which are a focus of her book. She spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
You say that the evolution of special effects in the 1970s was as revolutionary a development as the transition from silent films to talkies in the 1920s. How so?
The transition to sound was not just a new technology slapped onto an old form, but influenced nearly all areas of film production and exhibition, including acting styles, narrative forms, camerawork, lighting, scriptwriting, marketing and theater design, just for starters.
Although much slower - over decades instead of years - the transition of the U.S. film industry to one based around special effects has had a like impact on moviemaking: a greater emphasis on "world building," scripts organized by spectacle, broader acting to interact with animated characters, sound systems to "sell" the effects, and imaginative fantasy worlds designed to be enhanced by ancillary media, such as toys, video games, and Internet activity.
Is it even accurate to talk about a special-effects movie anymore?
Some would say no, since nearly all movies, from Steven Spielberg to Wes Anderson to Woody Allen films, make extensive use of various digital technologies with "invisible" manipulations. However, as movies like "Godzilla" or this summer's new Transformers movie demonstrate, many movies are still promoted on the promise of their spectacular effects' ability to realize impossible environments and creatures; or as in "The Hunger Games" or Harry Potter films, to visualize pre-existing fantasy fictional properties through effects technology.
What role did ILM play in determining how we think movies are supposed to look?
The most prominent myth about special visual effects technology is that it simply matches "what the eye sees" in real life, and your eye "knows" if it looks real or not. In fact, there is no consistent way to generalize what the eye sees, since there is a great variety across human vision. More accurately, special visual effects imagine how an object, if it existed - an alien, a dinosaur, a Gollum - would look and move if it were shot by a camera. The "shot" part is the important aspect: Cameras translate light and perspective, for example, differently than the human eye, but in a way we have become used to.
ILM, since the era of the original Star Wars trilogy, has understood that mimicking the marks of filmmaking in its special effects work is the way to make it seem most believable by seeming most immediate and direct. What this means is that effects sequences are conceived as if a documentary cameraman were there to shoot it, so the image is a little shaky, the framing is a touch off. There are light artifacts like lens flares and backlighting to make the image look less "perfect." This is the style that ILM developed to match the 1970s style of live action cinematography, but eventually it hardened into a house style that others imitate. We have become so used to it now in movies, we mistake this specific style for "how the eye sees in real life."
What have been the long-term consequences of the special-effects revolution? What has been lost or gained?
In terms of effects work, what's been lost is the possibility for less naturalistic styles of effects. Previously, such as in Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation movies ("Jason and the Argonauts," "Clash of the Titans"), the effects could be recognizable as "fakey," and we as viewers could gape at the artistry that went into them. Now, if the monster doesn't look perfectly photorealistic within rather narrow parameters, the sense is that the effects "failed" to supply a sufficient illusion.
As a broader cinematic question, many believe "blockbusterism" in the conglomerate-dominated era we're in now has narrowed the entertainment niche for theatrical release movies largely to big event movies like "Godzilla." However, as the low-budgeted independent cinema movement of the 1990s suggested, historically these trends come and go. If lower budgeted movies become consistently profitable again, conglomerates will fund more of them. Nevertheless, those films will still feature plenty of special effects!