Special Effects

The Star Wars Trilogy, the first being the phantom menace, released in 2005 in an attempt to fill in the gaps in terms of the beginning of the epic tale and effects not previously possible in the original trilogy due to lack of technological knowhow was labeled a failure by the majority who filled the cinemas with high expectations. This also showed in the box office as it only netted about 43. 5 million dollars when films like Chicago, even with all the critics managed to bag about 170. 6 million dollars.

It was a pop- culture calamity, a soul less, passionless film whose only real effect was to smudge the happy memories of the three originals (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, Thursday 9 February 2012, 21:45 GMT). Like Mr. Bradshaw, we all were expecting the innovation of CGI effects along with the excellent storyline portrayed in the original movies would finally do justice to the brilliant mind that was George Lucas. After the next two sequels were released, it became obvious to everyone that the story was second on the priority list and the producers probably concentrated on how to make the light saber look like an actual light saber.

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The argument here is does computer graphics imagery enhance the film industry or is it a self destruct button? This essay will attempt to explain briefly the early history of special effects, the term computer graphic imagery (CGI), why the film industry believe it’s needed and its obvious consequences. Examples of certain movies with special reference to star wars) and directors will be cited to strengthen this argument.

Special Effects consist of producing effects that happen either in front of the camera or by treating the filmafter it has been shot in post-production through montage and animation of other filmed material (Dewdney and Ride 2006, p. 42) or they are tricks film makers use to create events that cannot be done normally. Before CGI, special effects was elementary in its approach using the basic knowledge of light to achieve its purpose. Magicians in the 1700s would use the film projector to project images with light onto semi transparent slides to trick the audience into believing that they could summon the dead.

They would even heighten the event by including columns of smoke. Using the concept of the projector, the invention of the magic lantern and the limelight followed. Using light and glass placed at specific angles, magicians could also make an object appear or disappear or become transparent. This technique was called Pepper’s Ghost as it was first used on a member of a theatre audience called John Henry Pepper when he was thought to have been turned to a skeleton. The Motorist, a film done in 1905 with the help of Robert W. Paul was a film that pioneered special effects in the movie industry as he took it to another level.

It was about a couple who drove so fast, they escaped the earth’s gravity and travelled the solar system before returning home (the revolution of special effects in movies). He placed the car on the planet Saturn in one of the scenes because he had built a set in a room complete with the miniatures for all the scenes and cameras in every corner of the room. In the early 20th century, the Schufftan effect which was used just like Pepper’s Ghost was used by various film makers like the man himself, Eugene Schufftan when he made Metropolis in 1927.

He used it to place the actors into miniature skyscrapers which did not exist. More recently it was used in the Lord of the Rings for the King of the Dead whose head occasionally morphed to a more skull like version depending on his mood. As the possibilities of visual effects became clearer, film makers started to expand their ideas. The limitations of the traditional special effects techniques were soon felt by ambitious film makers like George Lucas. The first star wars was released in May 1977 ; it was meant to be released about five months earlier and the production lapses were responsible for this delay.

Like the Motorist, the set for star wars was built with miniatures (which took over a year to build) and the space scenes were filmed with slow camera movements to create the illusion of the spaceships moving in the vast space. The cast had to travel to Tunisia where most of the shooting was done and this poised a problem as they had to wait out several rainstorms in the region. The robots were actors wearing uniforms and it was a battle looking for the right fit and the right material that could fool the public into believing they were actual machines.

One of the major difficulties the crew experienced was in the creation of the backgrounds. The job was given to ILM, a post production company in Los Angeles. For some scenes in the film, these backgrounds were meant to be projected but they had not been submitted due to technological lapses. As an emergency fix, the production crew projected a blue screen behind the actors so the background could be added later which worked fine but did not recover the time they wasted waiting for ILM. Quoting Peter Mayhem‚Äôs words(http://ebookbrowse. om/the-making-of-star-wars-excerpt-part-one-pdf-d23263526)” They were telling us that special effects would be gong on afterwards. It was difficult to realize what it all meant”. What it meant was that post production would be done almost a year later as their attempts on back projection filming in the few months that followed wasn’t successful. As daunting as production was, Star wars was a huge hit. Star Wars has undoubtedly become the prime mythology of the twentieth century, a tale so well known that it is studied in university courses alongside Shakespeare and Dostoevsky (Kaminski 2007, p. 10).

It had been nominated for ten academy awards and had won seven. What Star Wars also did, which was terrific, and which definitely led into the Lord of the Rings much later on, was create a science-fiction/fantasy world that felt lived in, used. (Rinzler, 2007 p. xiii). Lucas would then go on to create the sequels for the first film with its finances but he never forgot the daunting experiences he had creating the sets for the first one and the numerous disappointments from ILM even the idea for the young days of Ben Kenobi film he would have done but dismissed majorly because of the more complicated special effects he would need. ‘Star Wars is about 25% of what I wanted it to be”. The process of making the film wore him out ( Kaminski, 2007 p. 147) so in 1978, he acquired the Skywalker-Ranch in Nicaso California and set up a Computer division to create the technology required for digital imaging and editing. He was going to address the problems he faced when making the first film. He would turn to CGI visual effects for the solution.

Rather than believing they were contradicting or overturning their generations predilection for gritty social realism, film makers like Lucas, Coppola and Spielberg believed that a move towards optical effects would enable a different style of realism. a 1970’s inflected photorealism that allowed them to build fantastic effects objects, that would be in Lucas words ” … credible and totally fantastic at the same time”(Turnock 2008 p. 23)

CGI, or computer-generated imaging (or imagery) is a relatively advanced method of producing on- screen illusory effects to depict imaginary events and/ or settings (en. memory-alpha. org/wiki/CGI). It is a computer algorithm that determines the position and angle of view rather than the lens and frame of a real camera located in real space (Dewdney and Rider 2006, p 43) but these effects were employed during post production and were classified as ”visual effects’ ‘and not special effects because those were done live on set when filming was taking place.

Before 1990, all effects were called special effects but the distinction became necessary when the computers which were once used to aid post production editing alone were now used to generate visual effects as well. By the beginning of the 21st century, the distinction of visual and special effects had been firmly established. In the early 1980s, CGI sprung to life but it would not be entirely accepted by the move industry. Film makers believed that they could use computers to create images they would spend years making as miniatures and even create more believable environments than horoscope wire frames ever would.

Star Trek ii: the wrath of khan featured the first ever use of particle systems but it was not as believable as they wanted it to be and it was very expensive so the next four series were completed without the inclusion of CGI. Quoting Robert Justman,’ The surface treatment wasn’t totally believable, we could have gotten by, it would have been acceptable but it wasn’t satisfactory'(Star Trek: The Next Generation USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D Blueprints, booklet, p. 14; Cinefex, issue 37, p. 0) This statement suggested the ease at which the work was done and that how unrealistic the results were. Another problem was forging an interaction with CGI and real live elements. In the making of the Abyss in 1989,most notably the water creature interacting with the crew, it was almost impossible to have the CGI image alongside live human beings in the same shot. This resulted to cutting back and forth from the CGI image to the live action, destroying the illusion the story had created.

This led to static formality to such images, similar to the stationary frontal camera used in the earlier films of the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth centuries (Creeber and Martin 2009, p. 64) Those were not the only problems posed by CGI. Visual Effects supervisors also complained that control was taken from them to some extent when post production was shipped off to the CGI artists. More often than not, the results were a shadow of what they had in mind and to get it close to what they wanted, they would have to spend ore time in post production than they could afford. Now this was generating a more dangerous scenario which the traditional film makers were not comfortable with they were also being accessed by time management. The careful forethought that came before a physical edit of celluloid has been replaced by a ‘try it and see’ philosophy which can result in, undisciplined hands, in a chaotic range of barely separable choices, potentially making the editing process lengthier than shorter (Creeber and Martin 2009, p. 63).

Three distinct problems were now cited with the use of CGI effects earlier on: cost, unrealistic feel and time wastage( which was ironic because this was one of the key reasons why it was incorporated). Attempts to address this problems were seen in later in Jurassic Park made by Steven Spielberg in 1993 where the actors were walking in front of the dinosaur. That frame was held for nineteen seconds so the audience could register this achievement; more than enough time for a scrutinizing spectator to spot the artifice and break the illusion (Creeber and Martin 2009, p. 65). hese scenes were also frontal shots which took the three dimension feel away but that was no longer an issue after the release of Gladiator in 2000 where the cameras moved in 360 degrees and up to see the computer generated coliseum and the live gladiators coming in for the showdown. It was a huge hit and CGI became an invaluable tool from then on. We would then have popular film studios like Warner Bros, Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks inventing greatly in CGI incorporated films. Notably Disney that was made famous by its traditional cartooning prowess has dived into this craze of CGI.

CGI effects on its own is not a bad thing; animations like Toy Story, the Incredibles, Monster House, How to Train your dragon are examples of strictly CGI movies that were very successful but what happens when there is no need for CG to tell your story? The visual effects of Beowulf, a 2007 motion capture animated film based on an old English poem were outstanding and to recognize the efforts of the producers, it was shortlisted as a nominee for the Oscars for feature animation but that was all it got.

It was easy to spot the Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich models to show the extent of the hard work put into creating this 3d film but where they failed was the screenwriting, camera language and possibly the emotions were missing to fully grasp the story. Problematic as some of the visual elements are, “Beowulf is still something to see than hear. Rarely has so much expensive technique been put at the service of such feeble and pathetic screen writing. (Kenneth Turan Los Angeles Times Staff November 16 2007) .

In reanimating the actors performances, ‘enhanced motion capture’ makes of them creepier specters than the creatures by which they are often surrounded. None of them can compete with the sheer, unsettling oddity of their milky blind eyes(Wally Hammond Time Out London Issue 1943: November 14-20 2007) A much better picture of an epic English poem would be actual actors with unpredictable movements and emotions took the place of their computerized counterparts. What about when CGI takes over the story? The latest Star Wars Triology unfortunately falls into this category.

Film lovers acknowledged the advantage of CGI as all the supernatural events were well carried out but the story line was not as strong as the original prequels. Many critics complained that the movie is packed with action and effects, but contains very little plot development (Bowen, 2005 p. 94) The author argued that the critics had probably not seen the original sequels but isn’t the phantom menace supposed to be the very first episode that should explain the original sequels instead of the other way around?

Transformers II and III fell short of their expectations because of this same problem. Wonderful cg display but had two plots that had no connection to one another and succeeded in confusing the audience. In Transformers, the revenge of the fallen, the directors subject is as blatant and consistent as his cluttered mise-en- scene (By MANOHLA DARGIS new york times published june 23 2009). We now have film makers who have gone lazy on ideas and making remakes of classics.

A remake of Clash of the Titans was done in 2010 but the plot which made the movie a classic was lost in the new version. The action sequence was chaotic, the plot is difficult to follow and the cheesy sets sometimes look like props from a theme park ride (Neil Pond, American Profile, Sept 26,2011). Another film critic, Greg Maki clearly stated the obvious, ‘3d is but one of the many problems plaguing Clash of the Titans’.

Even with the stop motion animation of Calibus and Medusa that was sometimes jerky, the movie still outclassed its pathetic imitation. The New Adventures of Spiderman and Superman Returns are also in the same category. What we see now are film makers who were first passionate about story writing and screenplay, who believed the story would appeal to the audience even if their special effects wouldn’t have become slaves to the virtual world of

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