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University of Berklee College of Music

A Quick Glance into the Evolution of Special Effects: An Attempt to Distinguish Computer-Generated Imagery and Practical Effects

Paula Ann DiLullo 0652071 LENG-201-010 What’s So Funny? D. Kohn


Buster Keaton was a vaudevillian rooted ingenious silent movie actor, mechanic and engineer. Such attributes were apparent in his films such as The General, a silent-movie centered on a locomotive chase in the American Civil War and Steamboat Bill Jr., whose cyclone sequence would be venerated years later as pioneering new expectations in set design. However, after special effects began to develop throughout the twentieth century, from stopmotion animation as seen in King Kong (1933) to the advent of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) there arose a debate among consumers and producers alike, questioning the integrity of a film that relied too heavily upon non-practical effects and computer CGI. Some examples of ferociously debated movies in the blogosphere were the Star Wars movies, Indiana Jones and Avatar. Surely an engineer acrobat with a deadpan face (Keaton) who tells his cameramen to never stop shooting unless he says, “Cut!” or dies, surpasses the man who developed the fully digital Yoda? Needless to say, this does not mean that innovation of the modern filmmaker is dead. Joseph ‘Buster’ Keaton, born 1895, grew up amidst a traveling vaudeville show, the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company, where both of his parents had acts alongside Harry Houdini. (Sanders, Lieberfeld) From this experience he developed his acrobatic skills and improvisational talents. It was in fact Houdini who gave Keaton the nickname ‘Buster’ after seeing the boy fall down a flight of stairs, only to come out unscathed where he is quoted to have said ‘That was a real Buster!’ By the age of three, he was already performing acts with his father in which the latter would lecture the audience about raising a boy with a sound mind to only have his own play pranks and belittle him. The “punishment” for his misbehavior (though the quotes are debatable) would be to throw Keaton around the stage, against a wall or use him as a mop to sweep the floor. It is from this experience that Keaton learned how to take falls scrupulously (though it was second nature to him) and developed his famous ‘deadpan’ face. Keaton himself accredits this capacity to his father who for years during his childhood insisted upon his keeping a straight face because the less he smiled, the more the audience laughed. Eventually, this turned into second nature and Keaton simply couldn’t laugh when faced with an audience or camera. (Bishop) Keaton’s first break was moving to New York for a Broadway show he was working on at the time, where he ran into an old vaudevillian friend who introduced him to Roscoe ‘Fatty’


Arbuckle who was working for Joseph Schenck producing pictures at the Colony studio on 48th street. After trying out a couple scenes for a short called The Butcher with Arbuckle, Keaton developed a close working relationship that would last for years. It is during this initial meeting that Keaton’s genius for tactile mechanics was first acknowledged. Upon his first encounter with a camera, Keaton asked question after question about how the darn thing worked. He even brought it back to his hotel room and took it apart- to only put it all back together again for use the next day. (Bronlow, Gill) After getting tighter in with the closer circle, he was given his own studio in Hollywood where he began directing, acting and developing new, often dangerous, stunts frequently centered around human entanglement and fascination with machinery. (Bishop) In an interview in 1958 with Film Quarterly, Christopher Bishop said to Buster, “There is a consistent character in all of your films, who for instance, seems to be quite helpless with machinery” to which Buster responds “Well, as a rule…with me, I would be…scared of [machinery] but I would take it for granted that I ought to know what I was doing and to set out immediately to try and do it. And of course, I’d gum it up- that’s what would happen to me, because I don’t know what I’m doing but I’d make the attempt.” (Bishop) This is after juxtaposing himself to another famous slapstick comedian at the time, Harold Lloyd, whose character he believes would be too scared to touch anything unless someone forced him to. He found that his character allowed him to the necessary flexibility to enter into a number of roles. Christopher Bishop was not particularly astute to have made such an observation about the consistent role of machinery in Keaton’s films. One of his most acclaimed movies and in fact one of Keaton’s favorites (Bishop) was The General (1927) whose protagonist was a Southern Confederate railroad engineer- giving him the excuse to make a movie almost entirely set on a locomotive within the context of a true event as told by Lieut. William Pittenger's Daring and Suffering: A History of the Great Railway Adventure. (Kirks) The bullet point list of events would read something like: Two-dozen Union spies seize and raid a train called ‘The General’ located in Marietta, Georgia and ride it back to their territory destroying communications, tracks and bridges along the way – but never making it because of the Confederacy’s catching-up. Keaton’s movie, co-directed with Clyde Bruckman, brilliantly extracts from the story potential mechanistic mishaps involving water tanks, railway tracks, large timber pieces, a rolling artillery canon on wheels, burning bridges and more. Adding to the vivacity of the piece were the camera work and decision to shoot the film close to where the event actually occurred. In Cottage Grove,


Oregon the crew found a half-mile stretch of narrow-gauge track on which they discovered two old wood burning steam locomotives-which they used. (Kirks) Most of the film is non-stop motion with shots taken from many different angles both on and off the train in motion-which was a riskier and perhaps more complicated business using equipment from the 1920s. Not only that but, as Dirks writes in his review, each shot manages to capture the ethos of a Matthew Brody photograph- which I would have to agree with. The ingenuity of the reverse plot,1 uses of non-stop motion photography, camera work, practical mechanical effects, utilization of found resources and of course, Keaton’s Stone Face acting in the face of dilemma mixed with acrobatic skill all contribute to the masterpiece of The General and showcase the most exalted values of Keaton’s style in film overall2, though he sits beside Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle- just to name a few. But alas, as time chugs along, new technologies develop and those styles that were once esteemed become obsolete and unfashionable. With the introduction of stop-motion animation objects were brought to life in new ways that had nothing to do with capturing the organic clash of man and machine but rather taking still-frame shots one by one then moving said objects in miniscule ways and then playing them in quick succession to give the illusion of motion. Although stop motion existed prior to Buster Keaton’s film making days, its prevalent use as a popular art form was not to be enjoyed by a mass audience until Willis O’Brien’s King Kong (1933). There are several reasons why this could be. First, and most controversial, King Kong could be thought of as exposing the underbelly of an American white man’s fear of a black uprising and feeling that it must be quelled, or in this case, “shot down.” Further evidence for this are other blaxploitation movies and minstrel shows that reigned as popular art forms during the same time where it was articulated in various ways that African Americans had an interest in raping ‘our white women’ and reaping havoc upon society. Second, and significantly less controversial, is that monsters for which the audience is supposed to feel sympathy are often popular in any medium. Consider Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose monster develops into quite a learned fellow, capable of expressing his loneliness, his hip-deep desire to find a                                                                                                                 1

Going north to Union territory on the train takes up about one half of the film and like a call and response song, the second half is mainly Keaton’s ride of revenge heading back towards Confederate territory, creating spin-offs of the obstacles the Union spies had initially brought onto him during the first half. 2 Reviews for The General were actually mediocre at the time of its release, though now it is considered a classic and ranks #18 on the American Film Institute’s 100-Top Ten Movies of all time. (Kirks and http://www.infoplease.com/ipea/A0760906.html)

Paula DiLullo 2/14/11 1:28 PM Comment: I  don’t  think  this  is  necessary.  


companion, and his traumas as a youngin’. Sound familiar? Creatures such as these are narrators, though slightly disassociated, whose function is to reflect upon the human experience. Elaborating on this point is Willis O’Brien’s referring to Kong as ‘Carl Denham’s Giant Monster.’ Despite this, the last scene of the movie is indubitably meant to evoke strong feelings from the viewer, in which it takes seven whole minutes to shoot down Kong from the top of the empire state building. The anthropomorphically designed eyes and human-like gesticulations emulated from the monster in the face of death are not dissimilar to a hero being shot down by his enemy. The way the monster delicately places his female love to safety and dabs two fingers to his gunshot wounds while clutching to the building is enough to break anyone’s heart. It is quite a remarkable feat on account of O’Brien for utilizing small-scale figurines and set design with stop motion animation technique to create arguably one of the greatest loves stories. (Westfahl) For the up close shots of his hands and head, over-sized models were used. (Miles) By selectively choosing which parts to build, both money and time was saved. This use of practical effects and set design, though a very different technique from Buster Keaton’s famous cyclone sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) in which large high powered fans are used to simulate a hurricane where life size houses come crashing down left and right, are both representative of an ethos of early film of which each exemplifies a close attention to detail at work with nature’s unpredictable forces within the context of capturing the human experience. Fast forwarding in time and viewers and directors alike have very different notions of practical and special effects along with heated arguments about their appropriate uses. Some of the most argued over movies include the tragic degradation of the George Lucas’ Star Wars films, most particular relating the first three to the last three made. Exemplary of the seriousness with which this debate is taken is David Brin and Matthew Stover’s Star Wars on Trial. Chapter 4 of this book is titled, Science Fiction Filmmaking Has Been Reduced by Star Wars to Poorly Written Special Effects Extravaganzas. Featured in this section is an argument mega phoning the elephant in the room: the devolution of plots and character development into a realm of stupidity for the sake of seizure inducing CGI sequences. The characters too became eye candy rather than functioning as necessary for the continuation of the plot. In addition, the actors for the most part aren’t interacting with one another. Using “state-of-the art digital filmmaking techniques, Lucas would do two takes, with the actors doing their parts separately. As Brin writes, “What’s missing is actual human interaction… Our minds, designed to process how people communicate,


consciously or subconsciously spot the problem. It makes the whole thing look phony, and makes good actors look bad.” (192) Similar critiques have been raised by bloggers, perhaps less dedicated to voicing their opinions over the course of three hundred pages, but who nonetheless share similar sentiments. Like examples of disdain have been against Terminator, XMEN, Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, Spiderman – the list could go on longer than this paper. Indicative of a growing disparagement against overuse of computer generated imagery was the huge sigh of relief felt by fans when Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s (which had had rumors of Jones’ whip being CGI- the horror!) press folks reported that only 30% of the movie had CGI use accompanied with quotes from Spielberg, “There really wasn’t much CGI. We built all the sets… We built all of the moving stone stair cases, converging stoner pillars…” (Billington) It certainly marks a milestone of sorts when directors are on the defensive and directly responding to their audiences’ concerns. I know Tim Burton has lost some of my loyalty with films like his remake, Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Corpse Bride (2005) compared to legend Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)- though no doubt he draws a great cast. The question for me then becomes- is there any sense of legitimacy behind these sentiments or is it just a bunch of nostalgic quibblers quintessential to any evolving art form? I got to thinking because as a music student at Berklee, you have to take Introduction to Music Technology. One of the first things you learn about is how MP3 files, compared to AAC or WAV, compress wave-forms A LOT- which means that your brain fills in (or assumes) a lot of the gaps that in reality are not in the file but that “completes” the listening experience. Inspired by Brin’s assessment of the brain knowing, consciously or not, that which is phony- I wondered if perhaps the same could hold true for CGI and practical effects. Was there something different going on in the processing centers of the brain that knew or felt, on some animalistic level, the difference between a CGI house falling and a real two ton house falling over Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr.? Benjamin Meade, an award winning filmmaker who conducts research primarily on audience reactions, responses and interpretations, published a report called Emotional Response to Computer Generated Special Effects: Realism Revisited. He had three hypotheses for the experiment that were 1) degree of realism perceived by a viewer will be greater with non-


computer generated special effects compared to computer generated effects 2) emotional responses to graphic violence would be greater with live footage than with computer generated effects and 3) there will be a positive correlation between the viewer’s perceived realism and the viewer’s experienced emotional intensity. Using 65 undergraduate students with a mean average of 23 years old and a device called The Perception Analyzer (computer linked wireless modules with a dial) that the viewer controlled while watching different scenes. Using 24 different clips, including scenes with computer-generated effects, staged practical effects and then documentary style un-staged practical effects- he found that all three of his hypotheses were correct- though there were some exceptions. (Meade) Though I would like for the study to have contained an interview section in which the viewers could reflect more acutely upon their experiences, it does seem that our brains are tuned in to events that are real vs. fake. I would have also liked to read results from a similar experiment that could view in real time fluctuations of brain activity. My hypothesis is that a similar finding to Meade’s would arise, but in a way that could quantify or even produce MRI like imagery. Meade’s findings also explain other phenomena. For example, why does it seem that movies are getting more and more violent in the hopes of shocking an audience? Why does it seem that traumatizing images, like those seen in Saw, have extraordinary popularity? Stephen King in a short piece called Keeping the Gators Fed: Why I Crave Horror Movies, postulates that in every one of us resides violent turbulent animalistic desires that in modern society must be suppressed, and that by seeing horror films we, so to speak “keep the gators fed.” This may be one explanation, but according to Meade’s experiment it could be that with computer-generated images it simply takes more hyperbole and graphic imagery to evoke heightened emotional responses, which can be the goal for some filmmakers. This is not to argue that there is no place for CGI. I have no interest in being a Sisyphus desperately trying to push against a prevailing trend- deadweight on the progress of filmmaking. I absolutely adored Avatar (2009), not just for the exhilarating experience of being thrust into a battle between indigenous peoples of Pandora (a fictional gas planet) and a militaristic colonist regime, but the visceral 3D experience was unlike any I’ve ever seen. The fluidity of the character’s movements and gesticulations were unprecedented. This is not surprising, seeing as James Cameron took many years off in order to develop the technologies necessary for the 3D


viewing experience he wanted to project upon a 21st century special-effects jaded audience. In addition he innovated stereoscopic filmmaking to work with cameras specially designed for the films production, along with having continuously worked on the characters in sketchbooks for twelve years. (Advoice) When confronted with such ingenuity, it is hard to say that CGI heavy directors are incapable of pushing the limits on film. (McLver) I think even Brins would be hard pressed to argue that the plot of Avatar was simplified down or that the characters were not developed in any meaningful way. There will always be those directors who perhaps ride out for too long a tired idea (cue all Rocky movies) or those who with a lesser budget attempt (poorly) to imitate a trend and those cranky viewers with picky tastes hoping to keep old school the new school. It is the job of the artist and audience alike to individually judge their experiences while throwing their hands up in the air, admitting that no one individual on their own dictates the future of film. We can simply nod our heads and tip our hats to those, like Keaton and O’Brien, who have come before us as having laid down the groundwork. The only sure fire telltale will be time and its corresponding new technologies that will reveal our future appetites for art consumption and its inevitable digestion.


Works Cited 1) Bishop,  Christopher,  and  Joseph  Keaton.  "An  Interview  With  Buster  Keaton."  An   Interview  With  Buster  Keaton  12.1  (1958).  Print.   2) Brin,  David,  and  Matthew  Woodring.  Stover.  "4."  Star  Wars  on  Trial:  Science  Fiction   and  Fantasy  Writers  Debate  the  Most  Popular  Science  Fiction  Films  of  All  Time.  Dallas,   TX:  BenBella,  2006.  Print. 3) Buster  Keaton:  A  Hard  Act  to  Follow.  Dir.  Kevin  Bronlow,  David  Gill.  Thames   Television,  1987.  Film. 4) Dirks,  Tim.  "The  General  (1927)."  Greatest  Films  -­  The  Best  Movies  in  Cinematic   History.  Web.  14  Feb.  2011.  <http://www.filmsite.org/gene.html>. 5) "Emotional  Response  to  Computer  Generated  Special  Effects:    Realism  Revisited."   Emotional  Response  to  Computer  Generated  Special  Effects:  Realism  Revisited.  Journal   of  Moving  Image  Studies,  2004.  Web.  14  Feb.  2011.   <http://www.avila.edu/journal/realism.htm>. 6) Mclver,  Brian.  "THE  SCOT  WHO  GAVE  AVATAR  ITS  MAGIC;  BRAINS  BEHIND  SCI-­‐FI   EPIC.  -­‐  Free  Online  Library."  Free  News,  Magazines,  Newspapers,  Journals,  Reference   Articles  and  Classic  Books  -­  Free  Online  Library.  Web.  14  Feb.  2011.   <http://www.thefreelibrary.com/THE  SCOT  WHO  GAVE  AVATAR  ITS  MAGIC;   BRAINS  BEHIND  SCI-­‐FI  EPIC.-­‐a0224841940>. 7) Miles,  Liz.  Movie  Special  Effects.  Chicago,  IL:  Raintree,  2010.  Print. 8) Sanders,  Judith,  and  Daniel  Lieberfeld.  "Dreaming  in  Pictures:  The  Childhood  Origins   of  Buster  Keaton's  Creativity."  Film  Quarterly  47.4  (1994):  14-­‐28.  Print.


Evolution of SFX