Sunday, March 1, 2015

Do you like movie special effects?

I must confess that I am a movie buff. Almost every Friday evening finds me sitting in a dark theater enjoying a short escape from the daily routine. Although I enjoy movies I am not a big fan of the movies that usually wind up as Oscar Nominees. I did not see “Birdman”, “The Theory of Everything”, “Still Alice” or even “The Grand Budapest Hotel” although I think these are great movies and deserve the awards they received. They are just not my cup of tea.

I think it was the Saturday Matinee movies that I saw as a kid at the Lake Shore Theater that shaped my taste in movies. Yup, Hopalong Cassidy as portrayed by William Boyd, Clayton Moore’s “The Lone Ranger” and Roy Rogers set my movie palate. So my choices of movies tend towards the action/adventure genre. Now having grown up in the city that was part of the background for “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” the monster movie comes in a close second. As a kid I was a voracious reader of the dime store science fiction paperbacks and that formed the third leg of my movie tripod. Speaking of tripods, can you ever forget those Martian driven war machines in H. G. Wells’ “The War Of The Worlds”. Of the two movie adaptations, I liked Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version over the one that George Pal produced in 1953 even though I preferred Gene Barry over Tom Cruise as the protagonist.

Why, the dichotomy, you ask? The answer is simple; special effects. It was almost impossible in the 50s to create a believable image given the limitations of movie making technology back then. The imagery was better for the smaller stories than it was for the more epic tales. That is why the stories from “The Twilight Zone,” “Star Trek,” and “The Outer Limits” tended to be intimate tellings of part of the larger story.

1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was a major turning point towards real looking special effects in science fiction flicks. In this movie advances in special effects brought to the big screen the screenplay written by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke. But this movie as awe inspiring as the imagery of the Jovian moons was lacked the detail of the personal stories that were contained within. Dr. Heywood R. Floyd’s story was a main part of the book yet William Sylvester’s portrayal was flat, wooden and nearly as artificial as HAL the computer. In fact, HAL was almost the most human character in the movie. It was sad to watch Dr. David Bowman (Keir Dullea) shut HAL down by slowly pulling circuit boards out of the computer mainframe one at a time. The whole ending where Bowman becomes the star child was vaguely unsatisfying.

Finally, on May 25, 1977 it all came together with the release of George Lucas’ Star Wars. Here the big epic tale and the small personal stories of the individual characters come to a rather nerdy balance. I will never forget the opening sequence of the small rebel ship being pursued by the Empire’s Battle Cruiser. It was a brilliant use of perspective. The rebel ship appears gigantic as it enters the movie frame as the camera tilts up from the planet Tatooine. Just as I thought, this thing is huge, the perspective changes to a rearward facing shot from in front of the rebel cruiser and I got my first sight of the Battle Cruiser that was pursuing it. I had to rescale my description of huge. For indeed the rebel ship was so small it could easily be tucked into the hold of the Cruiser.

Right then and there, we are presented with the small story of Princess Leia and the droids. Even with the corny dialog, I could tell that this movie was going to change things. Not to diminish George Lucas’ talent at storytelling, it was plain that advances in special effects were going to enable filmmakers to greatly expand their ability to spin a yarn. This was the first large scale film to use Computer-generated imagery (CGI) to create worlds that existed only in the imagination. All of a sudden, the landscapes I built in my mind while reading those paperbacks was right there on the screen.

Today, CGI is used in more films than it is not. Not just science fiction, fantasy, action but also in romance and drama. For example; just imagine “Polar Express” without CGI. It would not be the same movie. Perhaps the epitome of the skillful use of CGI is the movie “Avatar” where the characters played by Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver are played both live onscreen and in the artificial world of Pandora. Speaking of Pandora, its lush world of trees and leaves was created by a company formed by fellow graduates of my alma mater, the College of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina. Michael Sechrest, Chris King and Greg Croft formed their company SpeedTree Cinema as a school supported incubator project at the school after graduating. Oh MY!

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