Special Effects: New Perspectives on Old Questions

Curator's Note

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.




The 'Dynamation' promotional film displayed here qualifies as an interesting 'artifact' in its own right, and reminds us both that special effects featurettes have historically been a significant part of the promotion of major motion pictures, and that the basic techniques and approaches described in this short film are, on the surface, a rather perfect parallel to contemporary digital creature creation, rendering, and insertion.  Since the adoption of digital technology, filmmakers and effects artists seemingly approach the implementation and layering of optical/visual effects in similar ways to their historical counterparts, by shooting live-action character blocking and movements on-set or on location, but utilizing digital programming and processes to compliment the already-existing 'space' with both imaginary or hybrid creatures and environmental extensions.  For me, where the study of effects work really gets interesting is in its often condensed (and thus, understudied and undervalued) moments of change, the moments surrounding broader technological "breakthroughs" as well as the increasing technological and industrial hybridity within which effects artists must operate, seemingly rendering themselves (pun intended) more complex, complicated and dissectable in approach, process, and application.  From optical effects such as the "Schufftan process" to contemporary digital "performance capture" in films like Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) [Andy Serkis is billed below all of the main actors, despite effectively being the film's "star"], special effects techniques and approaches are nuanced, numerous and varied -- like cinema, the overall art they help bring to life -- adopting and adapting to new technologies and modes of industry while simultaneously raising new questions about what constitutes aesthetic or theoretical meaning, and indeed, "creative contribution" itself.

I'm really looking forward to the essays this week, and I appreciate how you have framed the exploration of special effects in terms of the hybridity of "old" and "new." I'm also glad you brought our attention to this short "behind-the-scenes" film about Dynamation, which presages the "production diaries" and other promotional/how-to material available now online. I'm wondering, though, where this film would have been seen--in place of a trailer? As a short film before a feature? It also made me think about how the film has highlighted the term Dynamation, bringing attention to a technique, rather than an artist (Harryhausen, in this case). Dynamation then seems like a scientific or technical advance, rather than an artisanal technique associated with a particular practitioner. It thus seems to spring from nowhere, or rather from the ongoing progress of science. I imagine that Dynamation did involve new advances in special effects processing and manufacture, but it also seems like a way to advertise and create a brand-name for "older" techniques, namely stop-motion animation. This was reminiscent to me of how names of special effects have changed in order to appear "state-of-the-art," when their principles have not changed from the earlier version of the effect. The shift from the term "motion capture" to "performance capture" seems relevant to me here. Although the latter attempts to be more inclusive (tracking movements of the face, etc.), it seems more like a chance to re-brand and bring renewed attention to the technique. Are there other examples of this kind of renaming?

Michael, I really like your framing of the Dynamation short as an instance of match-moving avant la lettre. While there are certainly profound differences between digital and "analog" eras of effects manufacture, I continue to believe that the ontological gap has been overstated -- or rather, that ontology matters less than practices and techniques in distinguishing media present from media past.

Tanine, great questions! I would challenge your suggestion, though, that Dynamation "escaped" the auteurist aura cultivated by Ray Harryhausen; while the short may indeed portray Dynamation as authorless, the larger cult of Harryhausen very much fed off his proprietary methods, and vice versa. This is characteristic of special-effects fandom/stardom, IMO: think of Gerry Anderson and Supermarionation, Douglas Trumbull and Slitscan, John Dykstra and the, well, Dykstraflex. But you're right that contemporary effects work seems to operate under a different logic, one perhaps more affiliated with directors and franchises than effects artists; as I've argued elsewhere, bullet time was invented by many, but branded by the Wachowskis and The Matrix. (Not that this claim of ownership is undisputed ...)


Bob - I'm completely with you in regards to the overstatement of ontological issues at the expense of practices and techniques. As the wonderful Dynamation short shows, special effects continue to be deployed in much the same manner today, albeit with different technologies and practices. At a very basic level, effects are still achieved by placing a physical human body in a manufactured environment, whether that environment is built with analog or digital technologies. And even when physical bodies aren't visually present, the physical still lingers, whether in the motion-capture process or the human voice that supplements animation.

Tanine, thanks for your fine comment, and just a little addendum of my own on the issue of renaming or rebranding effects methods.  As the "Dynamation" clip shows, studios have always been playing a public relations game with this facet of the industry as well, and re-branding various special/visual effects methods are part of that, I think.  Initially, I reacted with a sort of raised eyebrow when I read about the switch from "motion capture" to "performance capture" (just as I did to the term "electronica," which was created as a mainstream/corporate method of applying a singular title to the vast network and styles of electronic music), but prominent individuals working in this part of the industry such as Andy Serkis and Doug Jones make compelling arguments for its further consideration as a discipline of acting onto its own.  Another one I like to refer to is "Color grading" -- it has, with digital processes, transformed into "Digital color timing" or "digital intermediate," and has been known by numerous other modified titles throughout the past decade -- this overall process, which can now be utilized to manipulate objects and tone in every frame of the image, first came to my attention when viewing a behind-the-scenes featurette focused specifically on this technology and its use in the production of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (and both subsequent films).  This was more of a 'wow' moment for me than anything in the more publicly promoted "spectacles" in The Matrix (which, as Bob and I have argued, was the culmination of an extended process of development, rather than its own "breakthrough") or Jurassic Park -- the idea that filmmakers would now begin to obsess not only over every production detail during principle photography, but increasingly every singular object or image detail during editing and post-production (and now more often than not, pre-production), was, for me, a defining moment in how much a kind of 'visual effect' could 'affect' the overall process of filmmaking.

Thanks for your response, Michael. I definitely think that the use of particular terms is part of this branding and re-branding on the part of the studios and producers. I'm also interested in how the fan culture of special effects (and their auteurs) intersects with conventional public relations and advertising for films. Access to behind-the-scenes materials seems more available than ever (with DVD extras and online info), so the knowledge about and fandom around both technologies and practitioners may be ever greater ( or at least more accessible) than before. In terms of what Bob was talking about, though, this seems like it could boost directors and franchises as much as actual special effects artists, depending on how it is packaged and sold. 

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