March 20, 2011

Visual Effects are all in the mind

It occurred to me the other day that visual effects are not as simple as we think. In fact, they serve a remarkable and often overlooked purpose: they can make a person think differently.
What do I mean by this? Well, when you consider the recent Harry Potter movies, as well as certain Nicholas Cage cash grabs (e.g. The Sorcerer's Apprentice), you notice a lot of effects that fall into the realm of magic and "energy". These effects are very interesting to watch, but usually the nature of those effects fades after the viewer exits the theater. Why? Because regardless of how well the effects are executed, they are ultimately lacking in the departments of "ideas" and "context."

The ideas of energy fields surrounding the human body date back thousands of years, but as these fantasy films are safely set in another universe, the audience usually checks its mind at the door and watches the empty entertainment. They never see the potential for these energies to serve as a metaphor for anything else, like chakras or the human aura.

Similarly, the context in which these effects are shown is so removed that the audience never reflects on the relationship to their own reality. Fantasy is a "what if" scenario, but it is rarely grounded in human psychology and "real" human context. What makes a film or effect believable is always dependent ultimately on the actor and script. How well the character responds to their "fantastical" situation, is ultimately how well the audience "accepts" the idea as reality, or rather their view of reality.

The chances that the quality of writing from, say "The Social Network", would ever be infused with "Clash of the Titans" is almost slim to nil in Hollywood. This is because, whereas, The Social Network is confidently grounded in everyday reality, Clash is set in Ancient Greece and further removed because it is based on myth.

Yet what makes Clash so difficult to watch or take seriously, is the fact that the filmmakers have decided not to enrich the visuals with meaning, to overlay real drama and complexity on Perseus, or to use the potential for presenting Greek Gods in a way that is surreal, yet also strangely identifiable. I see these failures as a lack of "visual subtext", a lack of visual meaning that allows us to see the human condition more profoundly.

In conclusion, if visual effects are simply a tool, than they must be a tool used wisely. They have the potential to create great visual metaphors for concepts that are both ancient and cutting edge, that still fascinate us long after we leave the theater, and perhaps even change the way we perceive the world, if ever so slightly.

1 comment:

  1. You are spot on. Why do we have to watch films or television where everything outside our material experience (aliens, supernatural, mythic, esoteric) has to be goofed up with lame graphics and cheesy music? I can't think of a single film where mysticism was granted the respect it deserves through superb action story telling and the best special effects available. Most films of a spiritual nature are not made with the effort required to break new ground. Many new ideas about healing, energy, and imagination come from books, where these concepts are treated with much more craft than motion pictures. It's almost as if these new concepts are "dead ground" in a film. In sum, the audience is smarter than crude renderings of the mystical or the unexplained and it will come to a point where they will demand that filmmakers tackle new concepts with a measure of professionalism. It's about time filmmakers and artists start paying attention.