Special Effects, then and now


When Forbidden Planet came back out way back in 1956, it was on the cutting edge of animation, and lots of people were talking about how it showed things on film which hadn’t been seen before.

ForbiddenplanetposterIt’s the story of how explorers find a man shipwrecked on his planet with his daughter for years.  Leslie Nielsen got star billing as the extremely serious starship captain, but for me the star of the movie was Robbie the Robot.

Recognize him?  He’s been used in many other movies along the years and has shown up at more then a few conventions.  In a sense, he introduced a generation to the idea of a friendly robot.

However, Robbie the Robot was one of the few bits of mechanized special effects around.  In order to achieve its look, Forbidden Planet relied on cartoonists to draw huge paintings of how they thought things should look, including the alien landscapes of the planet.

It was a time-intensive process which is demonstrated here.

Just go to a tablet of paper and draw a picture of a man, then draw a picture of him half a second later on the next piece of paper.  Then hold up the pad of paper after you’ve done a few hundred of them and hold back one piece of the paper with your thumb, letting the pages reveal themselves one at a time quickly, and the viewer will see an image of a man running.

Not only is that how cartoons were created decades ago, it’s actually still how they are being made now.  The difference is that a computer is rendering images into frames instead of printing them to a piece of paper.  Instead of hand drawn images, a person is designing a mesh and then giving instructions to the computer how to move it.

If I wanted to, I could go into the directory where the computer is storing those images it is creating, and I could alter any of them (or all of them) with my media pad, adding specific changes to how they look which are entirely human generated, and those changes would be reflected in any later movie created from them.

I study computer animation at Full Sail University, and even before I started there I was already using open source software called Blender to work on animations.  In the end, it’s all a series of images.  They vary from about 20-24 frames a second on the low end, to 48 frames a second in the case of The Hobbit.

The CGI special effects these days are incredibly impressive, and they frequently mean that movies can be made that otherwise wouldn’t have been.  Unfortunately, because we have only had this dazzling technology available to us for a short time in the scheme of things, something rather unfortunate is occurring.  We are overusing the technology, or perhaps using it in the wrong way.

Alfred Hitchock once advised people on how to build suspense.  “Four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like.  Five minutes of it.  Very dull.  Suddenly, a bomb goes off.  Blows the people to smithereens.  What does the audience have?  Ten seconds of shock.  Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table, and it will go off in five minutes.  The whole emotion of the audience is totally different because you’ve given them that information.  In five minutes that bomb will go off.  Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital.  Because they’re saying to you, “don’t be ridiculous.  Stop talking about baseball.  There’s a bomb under there’.”

Hitchcock’s films wouldn’t be made the same way today.  Somebody would feel that the conversation about baseball would have to be edited out or replaced with something visually dramatic.

norman_batesMany of the best movies that have been made were good movies specifically because the villain wasn’t revealed immediately.  In Psycho, the image of Norman Bates dressed in a wig, brandishing a knife as he throws open the shower curtain to murder Janet Leigh is an image that an entire generation can recognize instantly.  His face was obscured by shadow.  Hitchcock didn’t leave “her” face hidden because he couldn’t get enough light bulbs on the set.  He shot it that way because the story demanded that we didn’t know who the killer was yet.  He chose not to show us something, and that made the difference.

The advent of modern CGI effects has resulted in a stream of movies in which nothing is hidden, and everything is revealed.  It doesn’t really have to be like that.  Good special effects can be used to reinforce a powerful story.  I’m hoping that someday soon these sort of effects can be used to aid the storytelling of the next Hitchcock, rather than being used to punch up a weak script.

I’m not naming names or anything.


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