Tricks of the trade
Too often a good story is secondary to computer gimmickry, writes Eddie Cockrell
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