A Tested Illusion: The State of Visual Effects in Modern Day Film

Still from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Do you remember the first time a movie genuinely amazed you? At one point or another, we all have experienced that moment where we forget our other distractions, and where we became one with the film for a precious few moments. For some of us that moment had a greater impact than others. Personally, I fell madly in love with the cinematic experience during a scene in Peter Jackson’s 2003 epic The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. As a horde of massive wooly mammoths converged onto the battlefield in front of Minas Tirth, that was the moment I knew film and I would have a special connection forever.

The impact this scene had on me is a perfect representation of what film at its very best can accomplish. The art of the visual is an asset that make movies the unique experience that they are today, especially with the advancement of the visual effect in recent decades (both in the practical and computer generated sense of the term). Films with visual prowess are accomplishments unlike any other; some films are made or broken by how they look. I’ve been recently reflecting on what makes the visual effect so important to film. I want to be able to thoughtfully analyze why it’s so important, and I also have some questions about the future of the craft.

Before we dissect what a visual effect can do, it’s important to define what it means. I define an “effect” in this context as something that causes an out of the ordinary reaction or emotion. This seems like a broad definition, but I think any good visual illusion fits that description. Ever since the days of magicians such as Harry Houdini, artists have been fooling the human eye with their various forms of trickery in order to elicit some sort of reaction. When confronted with the trick, we may feel shock, anger, confusion, or even wonder, it doesn’t matter. At its core, a visual effect is just an elaborate hoax.

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That explanation serves its purpose in defining what a visual effect is, but it’s certainly too broad to apply to the film world.  I believe you can divide the purpose of an effect in a movie into three different roles. The first role is the easiest to recognize; The Visual Effect Aims to Entertain. At the very least, a fictional film is supposed to capture your imagination for a certain period of time. It’s supposed to evoke every type of emotion possible, and the use of visual effects are crucial to this idea. Whether it be the tension created by the groundbreaking dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, the exciting spectacle of watching man versus alien dogfights in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, or the amazing sensation of swinging with the world’s most famous wall-crawler in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, all of these examples demonstrate the art form used for pure entertainment purposes.

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The second role of the visual effect is a bit more complicated yet important to the overall product: The Visual Effect Aims to Create a Setting and Mood. Movies are placed in their respective genres by the tone that they suggest. Among other things, the visual imagery of a film can dictate the identity of said picture. Would the menace of the skeletal crew aboard the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film be as effective if they looked less undead and more cartoonish? Speaking of cartoonish, would the wacky energy of Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? work as well without the wacky look of the Toon Town sequences? Would you buy the scope and stakes of Zak Snyder’s 300 without the stylized cinematography and the recreation of the enormous Persian army? These are just a few examples of how important the visual stamp is to setting and atmosphere. Perhaps the best instance of this example was in last year’s Gravity; Alfonso Cuaron’s stunningly detailed recreation of the vast outliers of space significantly aided his efforts to make a grippingly intense thriller.

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The final role of the visual effect builds off of a concept established in the second role; The Visual Effect Serves to Advance and Sell the Story. No matter how sleek and stylish a film may look, story will always come first. If you don’t have an emotionally investing and well written tale to tell, many of your efforts as a filmmaker will be rendered useless. The ways that studios have been using visual effects for their storytelling purposes are linked with the fascinating advancements in Motion Capture Technology. For those of you unfamiliar with this process, it involves actors performing the motions and audio for the character they are playing only to be replaced in post-production by the fully realized CGI creation. The technology represents a huge benefit for studios and allows for a lot more directorial freedom, with this visual wizardry allowing the auteurs to work outside of the restraints of makeup and physical impossibilities (such as getting animals to act). This format became especially prevalent due to the work of actor and motion capture professional Andy Serkis, who has done work with the technology as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films, King Kong in the 2005 remake, and Caesar in the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (the inspiration for this write-up). His work has shown the industry the potential of this product, as his performances in these aforementioned films are not only technically impressive, but emotionally nuanced. This development allows for legitimately great performances to come out of created characters, serving both spectacle and story in perfect alchemy. Whether it be the catlike agility of the Navi in James Cameron’s Avatar, the hardcore destruction delivered by the Hulk in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, or the marijuana-fueled laughs produced in Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, any director can see his dream fully realized with Mo-Cap.

The use of these effects in a way that no longer is separate from the importance of scripting makes me ecstatic. But it also leaves me wondering about the future. I believe that finally establishing the bridge between the work of the crew and the work of the cast was the last major obstacle that visual effects had to overcome to realize their full potential. They had to jump that huge hurdle, and with some of these films in the past few years, it appears they’ve succeeded.  However, I now have a few concerning questions; Have We Seen Everything That Visual Effects Have to Offer? Is the Age of These Huge Advancements in What Visuals Can Do Over? And If It Is, What’s Next?

One can look at recent trends in cinema and possibly say that those fears have been realized. There used to be a time where the visual spectacle of a film could sell a movie by itself. People had to see things on the big screen to believe it. With the introduction of HD Televisions and home movie theaters, some people are now more content to watch things at home, and that includes even the biggest of blockbusters. This has forced the film industry to push their various gimmicks, such as the return of 3D and the recent introduction of a 4D virtual simulator. This is all part of the elaborate and increasingly complicated plan to get butts in the seats. Again, I have more questions. Are the Studios Using These Gimmicks Because They’ve Run Out of Ways to Surprise Us With Visual Effects?

Honestly, I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. I want someone to answer them for me, but I don’t know if anyone has a response to my rambling conjectures. After this hour and a half of typing like a crazy rabid homeless man, I’ve come to a conclusion. The days of breaking new ground with visual effects may be over, or at the very least on hold for a few years. I think it’s fair to say we’ve reached a breaking point, and how much of a surprising impact this department can have remains to be seen. Having said that, I will never tire of impressive visuals. Eye candy is eye candy, and as long as we can continue to watch the results of these artists’ hard work, I will be satisfied. I long for that genuine amazement Peter Jackson gave my 11-year old self, and hope I haven’t felt that sense of surprise and awe for the last time.

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Author: Andrew Auger View all posts by
Andrew Auger is a student at Marist College and is majoring in Journalism. He is a huge fan of movies, and considers the late film critic Roger Ebert his idol. He hopes to one day be a prestigious film critic just like Mr. Ebert.

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