The Visual Affects of Reality

What visual effects can tell us about realism, affect and Bazin.

Two days after wrapping on the $65 million dollar budget film Pete’s Dragon, David Lowery headed home to Texas to make a small film (literally, the aspect ratio is 1.37:1)  with a group of friends called A Ghost StoryThe budget? $100,000. In itself, the budget is a good marker of how different the films are. And yet in both films, Lowery uses visual effects in a very calculated and affecting way, two qualities that are often lacking in effects-heavy films nowadays. Indeed, many an article has been written about the CGI overkill in Hollywood franchises. In his article for Variety on The Age of Ultron, Brian Lowry argues that “the ability to mount enormous battles featuring multiple super-powered characters, however, has become its own trap. And while the results can be visually astounding, the movies regularly feel as lifeless and mechanized as the technology responsible for bringing those visions to fruition.” And writing in David Bordwell’s blog, Kristen Thompson does a side-by-side comparison of The LOTR Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy’s different uses of special effects. What all of these critiques and comparisons boil down to is that, when used gratuitously, special effects can feel vapid and homologous. Without a specific and characteristic humanity, we as viewers have nothing to cling to. The texture of humanity keeps us enthralled.

When films (especially big-budget ones) use special effects well they tend to do well both critically and commercially. Films such as Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road are notable cases in which the filmmakers used real locations, real stunt performers and – in the case of Ex Machina – a real actor, not a motion capture. Indeed, sci-fi, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic (etc) are all genres that are defined by their relationship to narrative realism. In order to show the extraordinary, you first have to establish what the world’s ordinary…

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