Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film

Article excerpt

DIGITAL STORYTELLING: THE NARRATIVE POWER OF VISUAL EFFECTS IN FILM Shilo T. McClean. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, 303 pp.

Critiques of motion picture production techniques treat digital visual effects (DVFx) as one of the least desirable production/postproduction techniques available to today's directors and writers. In the past twenty-five years, DVFx have become a leading but badly misunderstood production technique valuable to writers and directors of today's feature films. The author of Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film spends 300 pages defending the use of DVFx and argues for their value in supporting the narrative of the film's story. The book is not a how-to-do-DVFx text nor a guide on how to write award-winning feature scripts, but a history of DVFx and a detailed explanation of their proper use in storytelling and the pitfalls of using the technique improperly.

McClean's defense of DVFx is well constructed around many specific examples of the technique used in films, with homage to directors Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and George Lukas in the final chapter. The key to the argument is that any effect, including a dissolve, a montage, or even short, quick shots, may or may not impede the movement and value of the story being told. Some uses of DVFx may be guilty of such crimes against the story, but they also are the rescuer of just as many films that desperately need the power of a shot or sequence that could not be created physically.

The text does not specifically define what a digital visual effect is because the techniques used to create DVFx cover such a wide range of physical, optical, electronic, and of course, digital systems to create the effects desired by the producer of any film.

The first three chapters trace the development of effects- digital effects and their predecessors- the foundations of storytelling as a craft, and the basic technology of DVFx. The next three chapters explain the role DVFx may properly play in assisting and developing characters, the framework of using DVFx within any story, and the dangers of adaptations relying on DVFx.

McClean offers a detailed analysis of film genres and the relationship between genre and the role DVFx play in each genre. The various definitions of "genre" given by journalists, marketers, and creators of films themselves make applying criticism of DVFx to the genres most commonly associated with DVFx- science fiction, honor, action-adventure, and fantasydifficult at best. In each case, misconceptions of what makes each of these genres work as a compelling story require effects, digital or not, to convince the audience of the acceptance of the story. A full chapter describing a case study of the Alien franchise ties together most of the arguments used in the book.

An interesting section of the book compares the negative changes that sound and color brought to filmmaking to the same charges brought against DVFx. Bulky cameras, restrictions on the movement of the camera, and the difficulty of using wide shots when dialogue was involved convinced critics that sound had ruined motion pictures and destroyed the telling aspect of the stop/. But the filmmakers found ways to compensate for the addition of sound and soon found that not only did sound not destroy the story; it added to it benefits that a silent film could not provide. …