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On Special Effects

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | April 28, 2010 |


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Dated special effects are the scourge of classic science fiction: great stories rendered unwatchable in time by cardboard cutouts and plastic props lifted from high school stage productions. Look at the original run of "Star Trek," in all its 60'glory. It takes a special mental switch at this point to get lost in the ideas and storytelling, flipping your mind into a mode more akin to that used to watch plays. Think about it honestly, on television and film your suspension of disbelief demands something approaching realism, but you don't complain that you can see the wires during Phantom of the Opera. Movies and by extension television promise something different as art, promise a window into another world, not a representation but an actual vision of a separate reality.

It's not simply a matter of thinking that anything from 30 years ago looks absurd, or that by extension kids 20 years from now will look back and find The Matrix unwatchable. Science fiction has gradually crossed a threshold from the world of play-acting into the visual equivalence of reality. The line for me seemed most stark between Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, with Empire inhabiting a little of both worlds. Have you gone back and watched the old worn VHS tapes of the original Star Wars? Not the special edition catastrophes stamped onto our DVDs but the original cut? Sweet Chewbacca are those effects bad. It just isn't quite there. It looks like an artist trying to make something look real. Ah, but in Empire, those fighters moved, they looked and felt tangibly like real objects, and they still do today. Show a 10-year-old Star Wars and he will be mostly baffled. Show him Return of the Jedi and it's no different than a 10-year-old in 1985. Sure, the prequels threw a hundreds times as many ships onto the screen 15 years later, but they weren't any more realistic. That distinct line had been crossed.

That's big budgets, you might say. The tech got good enough and now we blow billions never looking any better than some of those movies from the 80s. In reality, costs for competent effects have spiraled downwards. Oh sure, Michael Bay can still blow eleventy trillion dollars and produce monumental junk for 10 times the price of our old monumental junk, but consider District 9. Small budgets used to only work in science fiction when there was a catch, when they were not showing the creature, or telling a tale mostly set in the real world with only bits and pieces of science fiction elements.

The drop of that cost threshold is most visible on television, which has always had much lower budgets. Take a look at the two 90s geek staples of "Babylon 5" and "Deep Space Nine." They had similar structural premises: good dark science fiction, centered upon a space station representing a sort of diplomatic crossroads. Both were good science fiction, but "Babylon 5" was by most accounts a much deeper story. It was also unfortunately made on a shoestring compared to "Deep Space Nine," and on grabbing it from Netflix now there's a profound disappointment at not having been able to enjoy it back in the day, when disbelief might have been suspendable. Today? Hell, even the endless "Stargate" spinoffs blow those two shows away on sheer effects.

The point that this rambling is getting to is to postulate the impact that will be felt by truly low thresholds for special effects. We're already starting to feel it in the film industry with the capacity of genuinely low budgets to make pictures that weren't even possible 30 years ago. But the singularity point is when effects become so cheap that they no longer are a separate category of experience, when adding flying cars doesn't take any more effort than adding normal cars. Some already bemoan the overuse of special effects in films that otherwise would have had no need. New tools are always played with the most, and there is always a backlash against them. But that doesn't mean that new tools are a bad thing.

Rather, I see the perfection and cheapening of realistic effects as allowing a transition to a distinct stage of film, one in which there are no limitations on artistic vision. For the entirety of film's history there has been an unbreakable connection to finance. Every word jotted by a screenwriter is subject not just to artistic consideration, but to the financial scrutiny of what it would cost to put it onto screen. And the moment there is financial consideration, the company gets a say, the investor gets a veto. This is not the concern of a novelist or a painter, whose only limitations are their own imaginations. Paper, ink and paint are terrifically cheap tools.

I'm not suggesting that cheap special effects will in any way decrease the amount of Michael Bayesque abominations. There will always be some who use special effects as a cudgel and waste the tool on more finely detailed fireballs and plot-free explosion parades. But just as romance novels and Twilight are no reason to suggest that the cheapness of paper is a problem for literature, the prevalence of special effects in bad movies is no reason to conclude that special effects are destroying film. Ninety percent of everything is going to be crap anyway, but I look forward to the moment when the ten percent that isn't can be absolutely everything the artist dreamed of instead of being subject to the whims of the money holders.

The rich variety of literature derives from the simple fact that a writer can put any words he likes onto a page. "The heart of the sun," "a million spaceships," and "a young girl's smile" all cost the same amount to a writer. When the same is true for any filmmaker, that is when we will see some truly incredible visions.


Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.


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