Friday, June 21, 2013

On the appeal of pre-historic special effects

(Continuing thoughts from the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde transformation scenes mentioned in the last post)

The discussion about whether movies are “better” or “worse” today vis-a-vis an earlier time is a pointless and irresolvable one, subject to shifting benchmarks, individual tastes and hard-line biases that run both ways, from the Golden Ageist syndrome (the past was always a better place than the present / old songs were so melodious, today it’s all noise) to contemporary chauvinism (old movies are awkward and creaky / black-and-white is boring). But one area where something resembling consensus is possible is when assessing technological improvements. Though I haven’t seen the new Superman film yet, I have no trouble accepting that it is probably much more visually fluid – and a grander aesthetic experience – than the 1978 Superman; and this despite the fact that I have irrationally defensive feelings about the latter, having grown up with it.

However, agreeing that technology is objectively superior today – and that more things are now possible in movie-making, things that would have been regarded as magic a hundred years ago – is not the same as saying that modern CGI is always more effective than techniques used in the distant past. As I have written before about films like Fritz Lang’s Siegfried or the original King Kong, the use of a papier-mâché dragon or stop-motion animation can give a fantasy or horror film a primal, viscerally stirring quality, because it feels otherworldly and removed from our regular experience – whereas modern computer effects by their very nature make everything crystal-clear and even commonplace, so that the image of a giant monkey fighting a giant dinosaur, or a Balrog battling Gandalf on a narrow bridge, becomes as credible as a weekend outing to the local mall (assuming of course that you think of malls and their zombie patrons as real-world things).

Personally I feel a thrill every time I see “special effects” in a very old film because one gets a firsthand sense of human minds working with a young medium, trying to supersede the limitedness of available resources. Almost since its inception, cinema has adapted literary works that contain supernatural elements – see this 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland – and some of the early filmmakers seem like masochists setting themselves impossible tasks rather than simply using the motion-picture camera to record everyday things (which would have been a worthy enough
pursuit, given how new the technology was). Today, with an adequate scale of production, it is possible to create a convincing visual representation of just about any story, no matter how outlandish the setting. But 110 years ago, just figuring out how to show the disembodied head of the Cheshire Cat in such a way that it looked like a halfway-alive thing (as opposed to a cardboard cut-out pasted on the set) would have required intense brainstorming.

In 1910, Thomas Edison’s studio made a 12-minute-long version of Frankenstein, which is extant today and can be found on YouTube. The film is as jerky and theatrical to modern eyes as you might expect, but there is genuine inventiveness in a couple of scenes, including one with a large mirror in which the Monster eventually disappears (raising the question of whether he was a figment of his creator’s imagination or perhaps an alter ego). For the difficult scene in which Frankenstein’s unworldly creation comes alive, the filmmakers put a life-size wax replica of a skeleton in a big vat and set fire to it so that it slowly dissolved and crumpled (meanwhile someone out of sight moved its arms around a bit). They then played the film backwards, so that one gets the impression of something hideous being forged out of fire until it sits upright, a ghastly mockery of the human form.

Much of the pleasure of watching this scene comes not from its visual appeal (though if you’re in the right mood, it does have a creepy appeal) but from imagining the problem-solving process: the discussions that these pioneers of film must have engaged in decades before the advent of computer technology (or anything else that we would think of as “special effects” today), the other things they might have tried and failed miserably at, the possibility that they needed to build multiple wax figures and experiment with the intensity of the fire because the first few attempts didn’t work. How random and slapdash it seems to us today, yet how vital it was to the writing of movie grammar, and to the creative growth of a medium that was often dismissed at the time as having no artistic future because it was simply a bland reproduction of reality.

[Did a version of this for my Business Standard film column]


  1. Few films shaped my tastes as much as Richard Donner's work on Superman but I wouldn't credit the resulting nostalgia with my enjoying his aesthetic approach FAR more than I enjoyed Snyder's. Snyder's Superman uses special effects as a blunt instrument to the skull.

    Somewhat tangentially, have you seen Berberian Sound Studio (I wrote about it for my upcoming SG column)? Among other things, it's such a beautiful love letter to the foley artist and the dying art of analogue sound effects and mixing. Great movie. Though it'll only appeal to very patient cinephiles and hardcore horror fans, I think.

  2. It's almost unsurprising that the pioneer of special effects cinema was a magician - Georges Melies, no? It seemed to require the same kind of brain - illusions, a certain sleight of hand... Cinema was, I think, in that time, some kind of magic.

  3. Abhimanyu: no, haven't seen it - my movie-viewing and reading have been even more erratic than usual. Will keep it in mind. Must also go and look at your last few columns (I have been doing almost no newspaper reading in recent weeks).

    aandthirtyeights: I had wanted to mention Melies in this piece, but I had a limited word-length for the column and didn't have the energy to write extra for the blog. I like the story about his camera jamming while shooting a routine street scene, with the consequence that vehicles and people in the projected film "magically" disappeared or changed into other things.

  4. However, agreeing that technology is objectively superior today – and that more things are now possible in movie-making, things that would have been regarded as magic a hundred years ago – is not the same as saying that modern CGI is always more effective than techniques used in the distant past

    I am not sure if one can even argue whether CGI is objectively better. What is indisputable is that CGI is cheaper and good for the movie business obviating the need for extremely elaborate set construction, travel to godforsaken places, employment of thousands of extras, horses, buffalos etc.

    In terms of the quality of effects I doubt if CGI really yields a better experience in most/all cases. Can one imagine an improvement over the sets constructed by Alfred Junge in A Matter of Life and Death. Or the effects in Keaton's films - be it Our Hospitality, The General or even Seven Chances

  5. old movies are awkward and creaky / black-and-white is boring

    This is something one often hears. I find it amusing because I typically find movies of an earlier vintage to be more fast-paced than a lot of "modern" movies.

    For instance a "modern" romance like When Harry met Sally is insufferable. It's slow, cheesy, sentimental - everything that "old movies" are often unjustly accused of being!

    I think this characterization of "awkwardness" and "creakiness" arises because movie goers can't relate to the culture of a bygone era. It's got more to do with cultural and moral incompatibility than with "creaky" movie making. For eg: An American brought up in a society where a third of children are born out of wedlock may not relate to Mankiewicz' People will Talk or Liesen's To Each his Own - very fine films in their own right.

  6. Thank you so much for this post. The timing is so perfect for me, as I have recently discovered Georges Melies after watching Hugo on TV. As aandthirtyeights points out, it is unsurprising that he was a magician. In fact, the flashbacks in Hugo which show a young Melies performing on stage also remind me of the early scenes in Harishchandrachi Factory, where Phalke too is seen performing magic tricks on stage. I think it's also no mere coincidence that the pioneer of Indian cinema, who also started using special effects pretty early (see Kalia Mardan, 1919) was something of an illusionist too.

    I really enjoyed watching this early version of Frankenstein. I think the film is actually quite a polished product. Notice how the mirror, which plays an important part in the story, is set up early on when you see the heroine for the first time as a reflection. This use of mirrors as a way to frame a scene must also have been very innovative back then.