Given the proliferation of paratextual materials that frame special effects practice for the cultures of connoisseurship explored by Michele Pierson (2002) and Barbara Klinger (2006) or the active consumers of transmedia entertainment profiled by Henry Jenkins (2006) and Jonathan Gray (2010), one might infer that contemporary audiences are far more knowing about special effects than the spectators of early cinema, often portrayed as spellbound by the new medium’s unprecedented capabilities for manipulation and transformation. But as Dan North’s essay will discuss later this week, early audiences were just as informed by making-of materials that provided an industrial, artisanal “back stage” to special effects, suggesting that our pride in our sophistication may be somewhat misplaced. Contemporary audiences may in fact operate under their own form of mystification: a shared sense of wonder at the way in which “the digital” has supplanted a prior, “analog” era of laughably archaic screen illusion. Counterpointing our awe is the cynical belief that everything we see in the cinematic medium has become digital, rather than a complex weave of “practical” approaches and new techniques.
In the face of these contradictions -- new swapping places with old, knowing appreciation interchangeable with fascinated incomprehension -- fresh ways of probing and problematizing special effects promise to widen a conversation too often limited to a simple opposition between their realism -- how closely they mimic external referents or blend into their surroundings -- and their spectacular noticeability as industrial machinations. Our upcoming co-edited collection, Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts, reads special effects both as texts and technologies: semiotic and material artifacts whose meanings derive from their specific historical contexts but also from their continued circulation and resignification in media culture. We encourage nuanced critical engagement with, and readings of, special effects practices as meaningful contributions to filmic language. For example, CGI, with its connections to contemporary theories of simulation and posthumanism, has captured scholarly attention in recent years, but at the expense of the broader historical backdrop that demonstrates how earlier forms of cinematic illusionism and technological display can inform our understanding of special effects today.
The essays featured this week offer new perspectives on old questions (and new questions about old perspectives), exploring unexpected corners of special-effects history and practice while making a larger argument about the need to refresh our understanding of this ubiquitously familiar, yet persistently uncanny, media practice.