I was browsing the front page of reddit on Saturday morning, as I am wont to do, and I saw a post about visual effects in silent films and how they were done. It was a great post, with digital presentations re-creating the shot (the irony is not lost on me)
So I decided to share the link of my Facebook feed for others to see and marvel at, as I did, and I couldn’t resist putting a little jab in at this digital era of cinema in which we now exist. My friend and Podcast partner saw the post and ever-so-subtly needled me that this was blog-worthy.
Sometimes I need other people to do my thinking for me.
The reddit post made me think a little about what cinema has become. My first thought was something like this:
Back in the early days of cinema, filmmakers had to use their heads to create “movie magic”, a term that was often thrown around over the first 80 years of the medium's existence. Well, what IS movie magic? It’s an illusion: something that tricks the viewer into seeing something that they are not actually seeing. Or, at least, seeing something in a different way than it was originally created. But today, there is no critical thinking about “how” to do something. Artists just create imagery with software and blend it with imagery shot with digital cameras on a big green stage. The “problem solving” is gone. Movie magic is gone.
Now, hang on a sec. I said this was my FIRST thought, so relax your sphincters.
We have recently recorded an episode of the podcast in which we reflect on two classics from different eras and genres. The first, in honor of Ms. Debbie Reynolds, is Singin’ in the Rain, MGM’s, and arguably cinema’s, greatest musical. The other is Roman Polanski’s opus Chinatown, a period noir mystery from the early 70s. Both are beautiful in their own distinct way. Both are inspired by actual events from the early days of Los Angeles. And both are on AFI’s top 100 (not that a list like this means anything, but as a general reference it’s handy.)
Had Singin’ been made today there would be 100% chance of digital compositing. There are some special effects scenes that require it. Logic would dictate computers do some of the work to create the effect because they were originally done in an optical printer, cinema’s precursor to “After Effects”.
But there are others scenes that were constructed by actual workers with real glass, paint, wood and steel and electricity on a massive sound stage. Today that would be digitized. There is a shot of Gene Kelly (and his stunt man) jumping onto the roof of a moving trolley car, running down the back of the trolley and jumping off of it into a convertible driven by Debbie Reynolds. In today's world that might be digital as well.
So where is today’s movie magic?
Well, to be frank, I think it’s gone. When was the last time you asked yourself while watching a movie “how did they DO that?”
Now we simply shrug it off and say “well, sure, that was done digitally”.
There are some stories that would not be possible to tell 40 years ago because they rely so heavily on computers. But just how many? And more importantly, how many really good films would be impossible 40 years ago? The list I can think of is rather short.