This “simple” technical adjustment made for bigger press than Zelig could have ever dreamed of, but it was also a sticking point for observers who pointed out that if photographic verisimilitude was the goal, then Zemeckis and Burgess had fallen far short of it—and maybe that was a good thing. At one point Gump, played by Tom Hanks, appears on a mocked-up 1963 TV broadcast during which he appears to shake hands with then-living-President John F. Kennedy, and nowhere else in the movie did the integration between the rock-still digitally-based Hanks with the relatively unstable 40-year-old filmed imagery look less convincing. In fact, the effects in Forrest Gump were often far more ambitious than they were photorealistic— that attempt to visualize physical contact between the living and the dead turned out to be a challenge these technical wizards weren’t entirely able to bring off. And in 2009 the results weren’t any more convincing-- the conjuring of 1982-vintage Jeff Bridges to interact with his naturally Lebowski-fied 21st-century version in Tron: Legacy was creepy and problematic for many of the same reasons.
Do you believe what you just saw?
But there’s another unexpected bit of fallout from incessant exposure to the state-of-the-art effects which seem so insistent as to suggest that only permanent alteration of our perceived actual reality will satisfy the ambitions behind them. It’s become clearer to me as I watch movies in 2013, both modern ones and ones that were made in the less technological promiscuous eras of the 50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and even ‘80s, that I crave the lost art of sparking the imagination of the viewer. This is not the same thing as creating a parade of visual effects and techniques intended to fool me into thinking what I’m seeing is actually happening. In fact, quite the opposite is true. As a viewer in 2013, the more plain the artifice, the more likely it is that I will respond—that I will want to respond—to the intended enhancements being made to the film’s basic storytelling devices. These days I find myself far more attracted to and definitely more receptive to those movies whose imagery is less polished, whose effects are clunkier, whose visual schemes are more obviously set-bound or otherwise inescapably artificial, whose artisans had to rely on traditional matte paintings and physical effects that made it necessary for audiences to dive deeper into their stories, to make more concerted efforts to lose themselves in these conjured worlds.
Trollhunter’s approach to its effects is not one of making you “believe” that trolls exist so much as to coax you into accepting that there is a place on the planet—the gorgeous, rainy climes of the Norwegian mountain countryside—where the fears and superstitions of a forgotten age have been spliced into a world where the presumption is that found-footage video doesn’t lie, even as we try to construct ever more elaborate techniques for fooling ourselves into accepting an alternate version of reality. One of the film’s major set pieces, an encounter on a lonely bridge at night between one of the titular creatures and the master trollhunter, decked out in a protective suit you suspect early on might not be up to the job, displays this sort of eerie fusion of fairy-tale and modern horror in spades.
Conversely, it’s entirely possible to appreciate a boat afloat on a soundstage studio tank solely on the basis of its very artificiality. Richard Harland Smith, writer for Turner Classic Movies’ Movie Morlocks site, admitted in a recent Facebook conversation a special affinity for this familiar practical effect, which has probably never once really fooled anyone into thinking it was anything but obvious trickery:
Scenes set at sea but filmed in a water tank on a patently obvious soundstage have always filled me with a wonderful sense of dread and wonder. I suppose Toho is to blame, as any shot at sea in one of their movies ultimately ends with some behemoth rising up out of the drink to snap a fishing trawler in half. But Hammer's The Lost Continent (1968) contributed to this latent fear as well, bless it. I miss the days of practical fakery in the movies. Stormy seas have never been the same… With the old Toho water tank gambit, you were always waiting for some guy in a monster suit to jump up, ooga-booga style, to scare you. It's really a primitive, childlike effect... that works a charm. Every. Time. It's too bad an establishing shot of a water tank sea these days will draw ‘knowing’ laughs from movie audiences, even ones who should be more charitable to old school special effects.
It’s because these orgies of destruction, these epic battles staged over the skylines of cities just waiting to be decimated, are almost literally the incarnation of a child’s most elaborate dream of toy sets come to life. There’s a sequence about halfway through King Kong vs. Godzilla in which the military digs a big hole in the ground to use as a sort of Burmese tiger pit in ensnaring one or both of the monsters, and I couldn’t help but be struck by all the shots of construction equipment digging around in the dirt, dump trucks moving loads of earth around, and noticing how the scene was exactly the sort of scenario boys play at all the time in their backyards, perhaps even staging battles between their favorite monsters in the same way. Seeing this scene played out on the big screen as a kid was thrilling, and despite our apparent hunger as a culture for ever-escalating levels of “realism” in our movies, those scenes still worked on me in the same way. I feel sure that the special effects wizards who recreated Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Pier, that rolling Ferris wheel and the lurking Japanese submarine captained in that giant studio tank by Toshiro Mifune in 1941 were after some of the same feeling of awe, of imagining that the biggest things in the world were really only our play toys. And look what we did with ‘em, Ma!
The most accurate and damning description I can think of, one which was echoed over and over again in a roundup of critical consideration of The Hobbit and its HFR experiment, is that it’s like watching a big, loud action epic on a badly calibrated HDTV set in the middle of a CostCo or some other big box store. Experiencing The Hobbit for myself, I not only came to realize that there is a point where image clarity as an end in itself is something less than desirable, but I also began to worry about what this blind pursuit of technological innovation for its own sake means for the way movies might be made in the future. If this sort of visual debacle, in which one of our most technologically minded directors really seems to believe that what he’s achieved is the wave of what’s to come, a new standard for digitally created imagery, then really what hope is there for retaining anything of magic, of what is consistent, even when digitally recreated, with the texture and quality of film?
As far as waves of the future go, I’m much more heartened by what Ang Lee and his battery of artists and technicians have achieved in adapting Yann Martel’s seemingly inadaptable Life of Pi into a satisfying, transcendent, breathtaking movie, one that uses all the digital tools of the trade to conjure life from a story that, technologically speaking, probably couldn’t have been told five or six years ago. It’s full of genuine awe and terror and supreme flights of cinematic imagination, with no capitulation to the pull of standard-issue Disney-style anthropomorphizing-- the tiger that hitches a ride with the title character after a horrifying shipwreck remains a mysterious and potentially deadly companion whose persistent threat compels Pi to find ways to survive. (That shipwreck, by the way, is far scarier and more frightfully beautiful than anything James Cameron has yet committed to film.) And the movie marks perhaps the best use of 3D I've ever seen in a narrative film to date-- it makes Hugo look like a cold piece of clockwork.
In a very real way, movies like Life of Pi, and King Kong vs. Godzilla and Jason and the Argonauts and Trollhunter and even Zelig ask us, yes, to “believe” in what we see, but they never allow us to forget to believe in ourselves too, as an integral part of the storytelling process. These movies, minor and major feats of imagination, don’t simply insist on paving imaginations over and supplanting the spark inside with yet another recycled series of images. Instead they assist in augmenting our own imaginations with grace notes of wonder and brash appeals to our inner believer, encouraging us to make connections and leaps of faith as we marvel and laugh and gasp at what they show us . Even as they take flight they leave us with a bit of the work left to do for ourselves, that their visions might stay buoyant, soaring through the air.