Tricks of the trade

Too of­ten a good story is sec­ondary to com­puter gim­mickry, writes Ed­die Cock­rell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

HOL­LY­WOOD folk­lore has it that dis­tressed stu­dio ex­ec­u­tives with­held the money for the tra­di­tional cast and crew wrap party for the 1994 hit For­rest Gump. The story goes that they un­der­stood the dig­i­tal trick­ery in­volved in cre­at­ing the Zelig - like doc­u­men­tary se­quences that placed the star, Tom Hanks, in the Kennedy White House and other key his­tor­i­cal lo­ca­tions, but ap­par­ently couldn’t see where the re­main­der of the size­able spe­cial ef­fects bud­get had been spent.

Why did the sym­bolic feather that drifts lazily through the film and the ping- pong balls thwacked so skil­fully cost so much? Weren’t they just a feather and some ping- pong balls?

No, ex­plained di­rec­tor Robert Ze­meckis, those and other less ob­vi­ous ef­fects were added later, us­ing com­put­ers.

Fast- for­ward 13 years to di­rec­tor David Fincher’s Zo­diac . As re­vealed in the bonus fea­tures of a spe­cial edi­tion DVD, not ev­ery­thing on screen is what it seems. Key se­quences filmed with state- of- the- art dig­i­tal cam­eras on what ap­pear to be the streets of a noc­tur­nal late- 1960s San Fran­cisco were shot en­tirely in the stu­dio. Blue- screen back­drops sur­round­ing the ac­tors — who, at least, were real — were later dig­i­tally painted with de­tails of the build­ings, traf­fic lights and sky. Armed with this knowl­edge, it im­me­di­ately be­comes un­der­stand­able how this de­cep­tively quiet po­lice pro­ce­dural builds such a tan­gi­ble sense of fu­til­ity and dread: its pro­tag­o­nists in­ves­ti­gate the se­rial killings in a city that, while gripped with ter­ror, ex­ists in an al­most hy­per- real dream state. The tech­nol­ogy is there, but the story is key.

Nei­ther For­rest Gump nor Zo­diac re­lies on mon­sters, or the full- scale de­struc­tion of a me­trop­o­lis, or the ar­rival of aliens from outer space, to tell its ab­sorb­ing story. Yet each in its own sub­ver­sive way em­ploys cut­ting- edge, com­puter- gen­er­ated spe­cial ef­fects in more sub­ver­sive ser­vice to their res­o­nant sto­ries.

It isn’t news to say that Hol­ly­wood has be­come ob­sessed with out­sized fan­tasy films that grow in­creas­ingly big­ger, louder and, some say, dumber. In 2007 alone, from 300 and Trans­form­ers to Be­owulf ( also di­rected by Ze­meckis) and I am Leg­end , large- scale event movies are look­ing less like con­ven­tional film­go­ing ex­peri- ences and more like big- screen video game ex­trav­a­gan­zas welded to re­cy­cled plots. Even the up­com­ing Sweeney Todd: The De­mon Bar­ber of Fleet Street , mav­er­ick di­rec­tor Tim Bur­ton’s faith­fully rev­er­ent and rev­e­la­tory vi­su­al­i­sa­tion of Stephen Sond­heim’s Tony award- win­ning 1979 mu­si­cal, is ar­guably over- re­liant on flat- look­ing dig­i­tal back­drops and con­tem­po­rary vis­ual tricks to cre­ate its sin­is­ter, Vic­to­rian- era Lon­don.

There’s even an early scene in which our an­ti­hero Todd ( Johnny Depp) has just re­turned from off- screen ex­ile in ( gasp!) Aus­tralia, where the cam­era darts through dank streets and al­ley­ways in a se­quence com­pletely un­like any­thing else in the film. Is this a movie or level three of a video game?

In the old days — well, 28 years ago — if you wanted to drop a car off a tall build­ing in Chicago, as di­rec­tor John Lan­dis did dur­ing the course of the screw­ball may­hem of Blues Brothers , well, you hired a crew to lug a car to the top of a tall build­ing and push it off. Then you crossed your fin­gers.

Now, I imag­ine, the shot would be ac­com­plished not by that sweaty crew and the adrenalised risk of a one- take stunt, but by an over­caf­feinated techie at a work­sta­tion some­where in the San Fer­nando Val­ley.

And in an added twist of irony, who in this big­ger, faster, louder day and age cares about one car fall­ing off one build­ing? Couldn’t we see all of Chicago de­stroyed in­stead by some re­ally cool- look­ing mon­sters?

Yet the idea per­sists that old- school film­mak­ing is not as ob­so­lete as the type­writ­ers that once pro­duced scripts. No less a ris­ing star than J. J. Abrams, cre­ator of the television show Lost , di­rec­tor of Mis­sion: Im­pos­si­ble III and pro­ducer of the up­com­ing ram­pag­ing beast movie Clover­field , spoke at a con­fer­ence last year of his de­ter­mi­na­tion to match brawny, newly democra- tised, state- of- the- art soft­ware with sto­ries of emo­tional sub­stance that could with­stand a blan­ket of spe­cial ef­fects. What are you go­ing to write,’’ he imag­ined his Ap­ple lap­top ask­ing him, wor­thy of me?’’ Abrams’s fun­da­men­tal in­sight is that while mys­tery is the cat­a­lyst for imag­i­na­tion, it isn’t the most ground­break­ing idea, and maybe there are times when mys­tery is more im­por­tant than knowl­edge’’. This makes sense: the 1998 re­make of Godzilla suf­fers from show­ing the mon­ster in mo­not­o­nous de­tail, while the elu­sive­ness of the shark in young up­start Steven Spiel­berg’s 1976 block­buster break­through Jaws — the me­chan­i­cal fish kept break­ing down, so they wrote around it — in­ten­si­fied the sus­pense.

Au­di­ences un­der­stand this in­stinc­tively, whether they know it or not. It is pre­cisely this vis­ual lit­er­acy that has led to the suc­cess of such tech­no­log­i­cally savvy film­mak­ers as Ze­meckis and Fincher. The for­mer — who counts among his box of­fice suc­cesses the Back to the Fu­ture tril­ogy, Who Framed Roger Rab­bit? and The Po­lar Ex­press , all of them spe­cial ef­fects break­throughs — is per­haps the mas­ter when it comes to sus­pend­ing an au­di­ence’s dis­be­lief.

Rent or buy the DVD of the Tom Hanks 2000 tour de force Cast Away and dis­cover in the bonus ma­te­ri­als that the reef on which his char­ac­ter is ma­rooned through much of the film was pieced to­gether from dig­i­tal frag­ments of other is­lands. The moun­tain he climbs to sur­vey the atoll was built in a stu­dio park­ing lot.

What of the fu­ture? Big- bud­get Hol­ly­wood films will con­tinue to cre­ate new and ex­trav­a­gant uni­verses on in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful com­puter equip­ment. But, in an in­ter­est­ing wrin­kle, the now griz­zled vet­eran Spiel­berg, no stranger to ex­otic spe­cial ef­fects that run the gamut from that short- cir­cuit­ing shark to the de­struc­tion of the planet in War of the Worlds , is vow­ing to keep his next movie old- school.

In­sid­ers are whis­per­ing that the spe­cial ef­fects on In­di­ana Jones and the King­dom of the Crys­tal Skull ( which co- stars Cate Blanchett as a 50s Soviet spy and is due for re­lease in May), will be old school in keep­ing with the pulpy Satur­day mati­nee se­rial ori­gins of the fran­chise.

In an age of com­puter- gen­er­ated mon­sters and doomed mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, that strat­egy prom­ises to be very spe­cial in­deed.

Step this way: By show­ing the mon­ster in mo­not­o­nous de­tail, the 1998 re­make of Godzilla strips away the el­e­ment of mys­tery

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