A Return to Reality?

In a world (voice-over optional) where virtual worlds and special effects are done in a computer and filmed on a green screen and/or motion-tracking suits, fantasy can become reality. That’s all well and good but do we actually believe that the world exists or do we pay more attention by looking for the tell-tale halo of green that breaks our suspension of disbelief? I’m not knocking those who do this for a living. After all, without them we wouldn’t have The Lord of the Rings, Avatar, Life of Pi, Gravity, or any of the movies from the past decade or so that required digital assistance. Each of them are essential in the telling of the story that needs to be told. BUT, the story comes first before the spectacle.

The thing is, very few films made today entrance me through the combination of story and visuals. Already, my mind tells me “it’s virtual, it’s not real”. Part of me accepts that fact and wants to move on but another part tells me I should see how well the virtual visuals work within the story. Too often I read about the bomb that had a lot of razzle-dazzle invested in it but had a flimsy storyline. There are even moments where it can be the other way around. While all of that is part of the content of the film, it is up to the viewer as to whether or not it succeeds in suspending disbelief. Even for a film like Hugo, not making it’s money back in the box office by a small margin, I was able to immerse myself in the world of the film and be entranced by the visuals, even if at moments they were a bit too polished.

Going through the 1001, I find myself more impressed with films like A Trip to the Moon and The General because of the use of physical special effects. With those films and when they were made, there was no green screen, no After Effects and compositing plug-ins. What you see was what you got. When the bridge in The General collapses, that’s a real bridge, not a model. Knowing that, my mind comes to the realization that there were some nifty things done with practical effects in the early days of cinema.

In terms of spectacle or appearance, I find that things are becoming more and more smooth. Curves and soft faces are the way of the future, apparently. As such, everything needs to be practically perfect in every way in terms of compositing; one frame of sloppiness can kill the illusion. But when you look at some work where the point is to be messy and go outside the lines (like the title sequence for Se7en or works by Norman McClaren and Stan Brakhage), there’s a sense of child-like wonder. The imagination can run wild and free and neatness goes right out the window, like fingerpainting or doing any kind of art when you were a kid; anything is possible.

I feel, along with some others, that there will be a return of this kind of film within a few years. On a computer, things can be so precise at times that the spectacle loses its power and just becomes a perfunctory moving image. With doing things physically, chance comes into play through execution. No scratch, color splatter, or imperfections can be replicated; such is life. By physically doing things yourself, it becomes more personal because you had a hand (literally) in making the art. The initial result is that you have made something; whether or not it can reach an audience and produce a reaction is another thing. Watching it, we know that it has imperfections but that was intentional.

What do you think?

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