Visual effects: Are we losing or expanding creativity?

Why are you going to the cinema this weekend? Are you watching the latest Marvel production, a comedy, or an action-packed movie? Films are not limited to these big categories, but it wouldn't be difficult to group many of the current productions in with any of them.

One of the most recent exceptions would be Dunkirk. Although historical movies can't do without post-production and, now more than ever, without an increasingly present process: visual effects.

Looking through key films in Cinematic history, it appears that the more technology is involved, the further humans have gone. Following the striking Arrival of a Train at a Station from the Lumière brothers, George Melies took the audience to the Moon, with his imaginary La Voyage dans la Lune, more than 60 years before the Apollo 11.

A couple of decades later, Fritz Lang captivated curiosity with the dystopian world of Metropolis, a groundbreaking sci-fi movie which featured pioneering visual effects. In 1977, we are thrust into the middle of a galactic war with the first film of the Star Wars saga, A New Hope. This production deployed, for the first time ever, a motion-controlled camera and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. 

Over the course of the twentieth century, digital manipulation becomes seamless and the department for post-production processes starts growing, gaining more specialists, and comprising more digital areas.

Computer graphics enter the screen in 1993 with Jurassic Park. The digitally stunning Matrix, where slow-motion sequences are incorporated in battle scenes, as well as flips and physically impossible bending, marks the end of the century. 3D seems to be the latest and still unbeatable step, since its bluish hit Avatar, less than a decade ago.

The painting of individual frames may have been surpassed a while ago, as have the miniature models of the Metropolis set but, returning to Dunkirk, or any film currently listed at the cinema today, it is clear there is hardly a single movie that escapes a long incubation in post-production, whether it contains “simple” fire, attacks, or monsters emerging from the lake. 

After exploring the moon, and other galaxies, writers are playing ever more with realities where super powers and shoot-outs on the streets are the norm

The tours at the Warner Bros studios in London display the craft and skill of the props department in Harry Potter. However, the “behind the scenes” videos reveal how frequently the green screens were in use and how many scenes were shot in the most neutral of sets, with actors that looked vastly different to how they would eventually appear onscreen. The visual effects department added its magic touch afterwards.

Italian Race (original title: Veloce come il Vento), written and directed by Matteo Rovere, is an Italian sports action film focusing on a promising rally driver and the car race of a lifetime. The movie was awarded the 2017 David di Donatello for Best Digital Effects, a prestigious film award presented each year by The Academy of Italian Cinema.

Andrea Marotti, Executive Visual Effects Producer and Supervisor, told me most of those racing scenes actually contain digital cars. “You can almost never tell which cars are real and which are done in 3D.” Also, much of the crowd in the stands of the racetracks have been digitally added.

Scrolling through Marotti’s credits, it cannot be missed that his work appears in the biopic film, Jobs and the thriller, Nightcrawler. Visual Effects are not limited to horror or fantasy genres anymore, but even seemingly documentary style films – whether about a car race or simply including ordinary crowded places – cannot go without digital retouching. “Visual Effects have become part of the creative process in almost every single film” Marotti agrees. 

Once the production starts, the Visual Effect Producer’s job is to translate the director’s vision into actionable solutions. At times, that can be an alternative way to film the shot, maybe resorting to special effects on set. But it may easily end up in post-production work on the sequences after the filming.

This latest solution appears more and more frequently, not least because of the high quality and easy access to visual effects today. “This process gives greater flexibility and creative freedom to the director and saves money on set for the producers,” Marotti explains. “So, it’s no surprise that every single film has some level of visual effect intervention.” 

Looking at the Box Office revenues ranking in the last few years, there is always a Marvel production or a fantasy film at the top. Are these successes in some ways linked to the increased use of visual effect in the film industry?

“There has been a growing trend to write long action /battle/chase sequences," Mariotti comments, "because that is what goes into the trailers. But even a fan of sci-fi and visual effects movies like me gets utterly bored during these long digital sequences.”

The producer, Italian of origin and currently working in the States, says the box office hits are due to the scripts coming from Hollywood. The Marvel Universe is a stand-alone phenomenon based mostly on the success of the comic books. Greatly written and greatly produced. The visual effects are there, but they are not the reason for the superheroes’ top rankings.

The more fights, the more action scenes, the more glued the audience is to their seats. Digitalized movements and computer-generated landscapes may contribute to these successes, but they are not the key ingredients.

What the fantasy movies and the faraway galaxies featured in the Oscar and BAFTA winners of the last decade reveal, though, is the fantastic creative tools visual effects are. The director’s mind can move freely in the writing, without constraints, knowing the wonders computers can do to make the unreal touchable and audible, in addition to making the existent reality sharper.

“It is an empowering tool, possibly the greatest creative tool after writing itself,” says Mariotti. “The fact that the Majors are using visual effects as a fast and easy way to attract and entertain crowds with thoughtless battle sequences is a completely unrelated matter.”

James Cameron's Avatar, in 2009, mesmerized the public with the perfect 3D world of the blue creatures, despite the rather predictable plot of the good and pure battling against the bad and destroying conquerors. From that year on, the audience had the possibility to wear special headsets in the cinemas, entering the movie, with characters that have dimensions just like in real life.

Virtual Reality headsets have revolutionised the game industry. However, this is, potentially, a step that we aren't going to see in the film industry because at this point the movie is in danger of becoming the video game. But the extreme perfection of similar unreal worlds, albeit with stories that keep on repeating themselves, attracts the audience in the same way. 

After exploring the moon, and other galaxies, writers are playing ever more with realities where super powers and shoot-outs on the streets are the norm. Action-packed scenes are a delight for both young people and adults. But this means the time spent in post-production often takes away from the time spent developing more complex characters, storylines that go beyond continuous violent battles, or plots with deeper layers of complexity. 

The reason behind this trend, though, is not strictly related to the overwhelming use of technology. And Marotti confirms it all lies in that adrenaline factor. “Movies have increasingly become a way to escape or to distract ourselves from the reality we live in, rather than a medium to investigate or understand it.” 

Visual effects contribute to making these distractions more – even excessively – realistic, expanding the possibilities of what a motion picture can reproduce and can be an easy solution to creating spectacular scenes. Whether these actions packed sequences will then form the pillars of an overused formulaic plot, it is linked to the desire and expectations of the audience, rather to the availability of the digital tools. 

In a world of double think and post-truths where a lot of incredible matters become daily news, what else can a movie be other than a temporary escape?


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