The Mundane Fantastic
The most advanced special effects these days go out of their way to look a little imperfect.
In this summer’s most spectacular features — from CGI-driven live-action movies to 3-D animated fare — the real star has been the camera. It’s as lively, confident and versatile as any lead actor, taking any opportunity to get into character for a particular shot or sequence, doing whatever it needs to do to sell a moment. Much of the epic run time of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” is shot with a wobbly handheld camera, following its heroes through a series of burning, crumbling, exploding landscapes as giant robots scramble along in the background or duke it out like boxers; the action is framed and shot to suggest that we’re seeing a documentary event — a catastrophic or miraculous occurrence that just happened to be captured for posterity. Ditto “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.” When the cybernetically enhanced soldiers soar through the air, the camera shakes, and the backgrounds (and sometimes the combatants) blur out. In certain shots, the camera seems to be struggling to keep the participants in frame.
One can chalk this tendency up to the “Bourne”-era craze for jittery handheld camerawork, or merely to clever, purposeful filmmaking — to directors, cinematographers, editors and special effects technicians going the extra kilometer to add believability. But with cinema in the final stages of its digital evolution — the production process evolving from one that used to be entirely analog, with component pieces (film, tape) that one could literally hold in one’s hand, to a digital process wherein almost every stage is created electronically, and the bits don’t physically exist in quite the same way — it’s worth asking where this craving for “believability” comes from and how it’s being expressed via the camera. I think it has to do with the subliminal knowledge (on the part of filmmakers more so than the viewers) that reality is imperfect, and that to make a moment seem real, one must present it somewhat imprecisely, to counteract the meticulous, slightly inhuman slickness of CGI.
The alien apartheid parable “District 9″ has more than a touch of this approach, not just in its opening section (a “documentary” recap of the story thus far, complete with shaky helicopter shots of the alien ghetto), but in the action-packed third act. An assault on a corporate lab, the doomed flight of a prawn drop ship and a protracted showdown between human mercenaries and a robot-armor-suited adversary are less reminiscent of “Alien Nation” (the movie’s unacknowledged predecessor) than the D-Day sequence in “Saving Private Ryan.” The camera whipsaws between combatants, often arriving a split-second after a shanty crumbles or a head explodes. Even quiet, iconic moments are dirtied-up: when the persecuted hero stands on a ridge overlooking Johannesburg, desperately trying to make a cell phone call while the alien mothership looms in the sky behind him, the shot is handheld, the composition good enough for government work. Grubby equals real. [Click the images to see them larger.]
Another striking example of this aesthetic can be seen in an early shot from the big-screen reboot of “Star Trek”: an image of a gigantic Romulan ship passing over the camera, an homage to the famous, much-imitated opening shot of “Star Wars.” The camera is vibrating a bit, as if reacting to the sheer, mind-boggling immensity of the behemoth moving so close to it, and there’s a flare on the lens, further selling the idea that we’re seeing a photographic record of something that really happened. There are gratuitous lens flares throughout “Star Trek,” of course, but their presence in the outer space sequences seems more than an instance of visual consistency. The interior sequences, after all, involve actual performers, sets and lights positioned to shine right into the camera (and there was, in fact, a camera). The space scenes are purely digital creations. There are no miniature ships, and no light.
Then there’s the crowning touch in that shot of the Romulan ship: the flare reveals a patch of dirt in one corner of the lens. Because the entire image was created in a computer, the shot takes the word “gritty” to a surreal new level. The ensuing Romulan/Federation space battle is similarly down-and-dirty, taking its cues from SyFy’s “Battlestar Galactica,” the first TV space opera shot like a documentary. That series’ handheld images of human interaction are complemented by space battles that might as well be shot by panicked Colonial Signal Corps cameramen who refocus, pan and zoom from moment to moment, expending so much energy just keeping the damned ships in frame that they can’t afford to worry about whether the compositions are pretty.
Compare the current crop of special effects-driven spectacles to ones made in earlier eras, and the grubbing-up of entertainment becomes more apparent. Analog-era special effects were more visually sedate; they knew they were special and didn’t feel as much of a need to seem “real.” From the matte paintings of “Citizen Kane,” Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” and the original “Star Wars” trilogy to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures and monster-suited Toho performers romping through scale models of Tokyo, the images took their cues from painting and theater, prizing composition and texture over restless energy, occasionally adding a bit of movement for the sake of a visual punch but more often just sitting still and letting us have a good, long look at the splendors unfolding onscreen.
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