Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality

Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality

Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality

Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality

Synopsis

Avatar. Inception. Jurassic Park. Lord of the Rings. Ratatouille. Not only are these some of the highest-grossing films of all time, they are also prime examples of how digital visual effects have transformed Hollywood filmmaking. Some critics, however, fear that this digital revolution marks a radical break with cinematic tradition, heralding the death of serious realistic movies in favor of computer-generated pure spectacle.

Digital Visual Effects in Cinema counters this alarmist reading, by showing how digital effects-driven films should be understood as a continuation of the narrative and stylistic traditions that have defined American cinema for decades. Stephen Prince argues for an understanding of digital technologies as an expanded toolbox, available to enhance both realist films and cinematic fantasies. He offers a detailed exploration of each of these tools, from lighting technologies to image capture to stereoscopic 3D. Integrating aesthetic, historical, and theoretical analyses of digital visual effects, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema is an essential guide for understanding movie-making today.

Excerpt

Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Iron Man, The Lord of the Rings—these are the kinds of movies that people think of when the subject of “special effects” comes up. The blue Na’vi of the planet Pandora, flying atop giant winged beasts; the diminutive Alice tumbling into a 3D wonderland; a superhero in an iron suit; wizards and Orcs battling for Middle-earth—in these story situations, filmmakers use visual effects to open doors onto imaginary lands and characters. Indeed, common wisdom holds that “special effects” take movies far away from realistic characters, situations, and locations. According to our customary way of thinking about cinema, this dichotomy in film, between the real and the fantastic, is nothing new. The progenitors of cinema included Auguste and Louis Lumière, who filmed actualities, slices of life that were portraits of everyday events, and Georges Méliès, a magician who made movies about fabulous trips to the moon or to the bottom of the sea. Again, according to conventional wisdom, “special effects” belong to the domain of fantasy that Méliès helped to establish rather than to the actuality-based lineage of the Lumières. As we shall see, however, “special effects” are more profoundly connected with cinema than conventional wisdom supposes.

At a recent cinema studies conference in Los Angeles, a colleague asked me what I was working on. When I told her it was a book about digital visual effects, she exclaimed, “Oh, I hate those movies!” For her as for many people, visual effects call to mind gaudy spectacle, overstuffed blockbusters, or action adventure fantasies catering to young audiences. Visual effects are sometimes viewed as having taken over Hollywood blockbusters and overwhelmed good storytelling. Yet scholarly thinking about cinema has been relatively slow to grasp the important and myriad roles that visual effects perform beyond those associated with spectacle. Dan North writes that visual effects are “a mistreated and misunderstood field in film studies.” He notes that . . .

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