The Evolution of Visual Effects in Film

By Humans Invent on at

Visual effects have grown substantially since Georges Méliès sent a spaceship crashing into the moon over 100 years ago. From 7ft blue avatars, tigers in the ocean to hundreds of little yellow minions, it appears that anything is now possible in the world of filmmaking.

Don Levy, previous senior vice president of marketing and communications at Sony Pictures and founder of Smith Brook Farm, a media and entertainment consultancy, talks to Humans Invent about the development of visual effects over the years. We find out about the basic principles of illusion upon which visual effects are built, whether CGI has reached a point where it is photorealistic and whether these effects are taking precedence over quality story lines and characterisation in today's films.


Could You Start By Explaining the Principles of Illusion?

Magic, and the principle behind illusion, is based on three things: assumption, presumption and context in reality. For assumption, we assume certain things to be the case. For instance in a basic magic trick that I used to perform as a kid called the milk pitcher trick, you would show the audience a milk pitcher that the audience assumes is filled with milk. The presumption is that I take a canister that they cannot see is sealed, and appear to pour the milk into it. I take the canister and I shake it at the audience and now the context in reality is that the audience know that in real life, milk is a liquid and if I appear to be throwing the contents at them, they are now going to get wet.

However, the pitcher has a plastic liner and when I poured it, the milk went into the false container that is hidden from the audience. That is a very simplistic idea but in the context of a visual effect, it becomes exponentially greater. The basic ideas are assumption, things are as we know them, presumption, is that things will behave as we expect them to, and the context in reality is we bring our knowledge, our understanding of the natural world, into the environment. And that last one, context in reality, is where a lot of visual effects breakdown. Whether we are talking about a photo-realistic effect in a live action film or an animated movie that is set in an environment that we create. We want to make sure that what is created as a visual effect, is consistent with the world.


Are Visual Effects Good Enough Nowadays to Look Like Real Life?

In many respects I do believe that visual effects have got to the point where photorealism is not only possible but common. I think there are a tremendous number of shots in movies today where you don't realise that you are looking at a visual effect. The experience and ability of the artists has elevated. So for example, one thing you notice is that many of the very top cinematographers have some years of experience. If you look at a book like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, he suggests that while there are exceptional people who have had extraordinary success, one thing they all had in common was tremendous experience of at least ten thousand hours to really achieve mastery. I think it has really been a function of time and experience where a lot of CG artists have had the opportunity to perfect their craft.


Why Do the Visual Effects of Some Films Date Badly While Others Stand the Test of Time?

There are a number of factors that play into the timelessness of a visual effect. There are shots such as the dinosaur in Jurassic Park that stand up to this day but we know that we have progressed. With that shot, it changed what was possible with CG animation being integrated into live action. However primarily, the lighting, texture and shader tools were limited at that point, so we have progressed substantially in terms of how refined we can make the texture maps that are applied to the CG character. The reality of today's movie going audience is that they have become increasingly sophisticated and expect this degree of perfection. Consequently, if they do not see it on screen then they are disengaged from the reality that has been created because it looks fake.


Do Films Sometimes Use Visual Effects Unnecessarily?

The rule of thumb in visual effects is that when you can do it in live action and on camera, do that. When it is more practical from both a time and logistics standpoint, do it as a visual effect. For example, when trying to have close interaction with a tiger, as in Life of Pi, there are both safety and practical issues as it is still a wild animal and should be respected as such. When we are creating a digital animal, there's extensive reference made to the figure of live action which goes back to animators studying nature in order to effectively translate it into the animation through a computer code that enables digital artists to create photorealistic images.

The final reason to turn towards a visual effect as a live-action alternative is if it is impossible to do it for real, such as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. There's an old saying in movies that there are several things that you should never work with: animals, children and boats. This is mainly because there are so many variables to how they behave which need to be controlled so that productions operate more efficiently while keeping your costs manageable.


What Do You Think Has Been the Biggest Development in Filmmaking?

I suppose the biggest development in movie making today is that virtually anything is possible. We are at that point where the limitations really come down to time and money, not possibility. I think that unlocks imagination in ways that up until now, we have only been able to see in say novels or painting, where people can draw or write out what they imagine. There are more people and more stories that can be brought to life today and so I think that we're going to see a new generation of creative individualists that could have a transformative effect on movies and entertainment.


Does a Film With Amazing Visual Effects Need a Good, Moving Story Behind It Anymore?

The two most important and essential elements of any movie are story and character. There is no amount of spectacle that will compensate completely for the lack of good story or compelling characters. We've seen countless examples of movies that sometimes have too much spectacle, to the point where the story is either lost or confused. Audiences go to see movies not just to see the visual effects, they are ultimately interested in the characters and in connecting with those characters by living through their experiences. It is the visual effects that serve to create the environment in which the story and characters live, but if you don't care about those characters and the story doesn't make any sense, it doesn't matter what visual effects you use because you're missing those two other elements.

At the same time, bad visual effects will take an audience out of a potentially great story and if you're distracted by a character facing a supposedly serious challenge, with a comical looking visual effect, all of the emotion of the character is lost, so they need to function together. However, the least satisfying experiences at the movies tend to be the ones where attention is not paid with equal respect to those three elements.

 Humans Invent is an online space dedicated to celebrating innovation, craftsmanship and design fuelled by our most natural instinct – the pursuit of invention to help solve a human need. You can read their original article here.