Unless I’m in the mood for a truly down-to-earth story, I watch movies in order to be transported to places I’ll never go and live moments I never could in real life. In a word, I want escapism. And I get annoyed when I try to escape into an ostensibly escapist movie, only to be jolted out of it because the creators fucked up when it came to immersion. Although aspects such as the story and the characters are undeniably the most important, immersion is also very crucial. Many elements combine to form a truly immersive experience: score, sound design, acting, lighting, camerawork, and, of course, effects.
What do I mean by ‘effect’? Well, there are special effects (those applied physically on set during a shoot) and there are visual effects (those applied virtually, in post-production). Both are techniques employed in order to hoodwink the audience into believing that something is there that, in actuality, isn’t. A truly successful effect, therefore, is a perfect illusion. The best possible effect is one you never even knew was fooling you—not one that’s big and flashy and in your face. That’s an important distinction which is unfortunately often lost on directors, DPs, and visual artists alike. It really doesn’t particularly matter how high the resolution is on a certain texture, or how complexly the light diffracts off a certain mesh, or how many hundreds of hours it took to compose, process, and composite. If, when looking at the end result, I can tell that what I’m looking at isn’t really there alongside the set pieces and actors, it’s all for naught. It’s a bad effect.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean that it’s essential that something not actually there looks absolutely real. What matters instead is that I believe that a given effect tangibly coexists with the reality around it. That’s why I can be very easily enveloped by fully-animated movies—every visual element exists on the same ‘plane’ so to speak. However, in a live action movie, even a tiny mistake can shatter the illusion and take me out of the experience. This is because bad effects don’t merely fail to impress, they pull our gaze and actively distract us. It’s hard not to notice that the monsters in old B-horror movies were really just some dudes in costumes, and that obviousness can kill any tension or wonderment a scene might have otherwise had. It’s difficult to focus your attention on a character if what they’re supposed to be interacting with on screen feels intuitively out of place and wrong.
This is why SFX will forever be superior to VFX. Even the cheapest and most poorly done examples of SFX are, at least, physically there on set. Actors benefit greatly from having something in front of them which they can interact with directly. It’s difficult to act in a vacuum. With VFX, not only does it feel like the actors are looking at nothing and talking to nothing, it’s often literally true. (Just watch some behind-the-scenes footage from the Star Wars prequels or Avatar or The Hobbit.) Basically, this is not some ‘analog vs. digital’ dichotomy I’m pushing out of stubborn nostalgia. It’s simply that VFX has an inherent weakness that SFX doesn’t.
No matter how advanced digital VFX becomes, there can never be true integration of on screen elements. However, an interesting exception to the rule of VFX feeling ‘off’ is David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Jeremy Irons plays identical twins who are on screen together throughout the movie, thanks to moving matte optical tricks. His performance is fully captivating, despite the fact that he was essentially talking to himself the entire time.
Effects don’t have to be expensive or grand or even meticulously crafted to work. Half of the success of a good effect comes from manipulating the psychology of the audience. Reducing the information that makes it to the audience’s eyes by obfuscating the image in some way can work wonders for an effect’s impact. No recent movie illustrates this principle better than Frank Darabont’s The Mist. One of my favorite effects shots ever is near the end, when the survivors stop to observe the enormous, tentacled, cosmic horror. The eponymous mist obscures the details, and the light source comes from behind it, darkening the side we see. It’s a simple, awesome shot that floored me when I saw it in the theater, and it’s a shame other scenes in the film did not handle what we saw of the monster nearly as well.
Love ’em or hate ’em as movies, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises contain some of the best effects design in recent memory. Nolan may be a ham-fisted storyteller, but his restrained approach to action is to be admired. All those crazy vehicles Batman uses are real. His flying contraption in TDKR was actually there on set. There are a couple moments when CG takes over (such as when it barrel rolls to avoid the missiles) but for the most part, it was hoisted and moved with cranes and helicopters. When it’s flying backwards and firing at the desert camo Batmobiles, that’s all really there, happening as you see it, and you can tell. The physicality on display in that shot alone, as short as it is, effortlessly puts the Transformers and Avatars and Hobbits and Battleships and Expendables of the world to shame.
Another great example of the power of practical effects is Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race. Those armored cars are all really there, really driving around, and really shooting at each other, albeit with blanks. And when the Dreadnought (the spiky, plated, turret-covered semi-trailer truck) flips tail over head, what you see, for the most part, actually happened. And it all looks fuckin’ awesome. Never mind the fact that Anderson is a hack filmmaker—Death Race is truly one of the purest and best action flicks of the decade.
In Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring, I feel like I’m right there in The Shire with Bilbo and company, and it’s glorious. The simple silhouettes of the ring wraiths riding in the darkness is a more effective piece of visual narrative than anything Jackson did in The Hobbit, a movie stuffed with so much shit to look at at any given time that it’s a wonder anybody gets through it without developing a migraine. Even when there isn’t even anything bombastic going on, the excess is palpable. The shots of characters against the scenery of Rivendale are way overdone and look unbearably artificial. I wanted to feel like I was there, but instead I felt like I was staring at a price tag. I could go on and on about the wanton abuses of cinematographic principles that permeate The Hobbit (don’t get me started on the fucking giant rock battle) but I’ll restrain myself, and simply say that the movie looks like garbage. It never feels like anything—it merely looks expensive. At its worst moments, it recalls the head-slappingly awful visual cacophonies George Lucas has deservingly been lambasted over for the past fifteen years.
Just to avoid giving the impression that I’m just picking on big budget stuff, I’ll point out that plenty of low budget movies pull the same shit. One of the most hyped indie action movies of last year was Chronicle, a thoroughly mediocre found-footage Akira homage/ripoff that features some embarrassingly bad visuals. The effects in it often look like the sort of thing you’d see if you searched for amateur After Effects demos on YouTube.
Moviemakers need to take a step back and ask themselves “what’s it all for?” The purpose of effects technology is to support imaginative storytelling. Flatly obvious effects do not enhance the story, plain and simple. My hunch is that on some level, most moviemakers do know this—they just don’t have the willpower or the authority to pull the plug on bad effects work. I imagine there’s an enormous pressure from studios and production execs to always ‘push the boundaries’. And visual artists may feel constantly obligated to one-up themselves and their peers, perhaps because they value job security over artistic integrity. Hollywood is an environment not at all conducive to good effects work, and it likely never will be. And no matter how much money they throw around, the concept of ‘less is more’ will never not be true.