Wednesday, October 10, 2007

What's So Special?

Where is the special effect?

I've been workig on a movie for about a year now. I wrote the original script in December of last year, and I've been pecking away at the thing ever since. In the last few months Jim and Scott have been helping me shoot it. The other day we finished a scene that takes place at a gas station. It's a montage of me pumping gas, and one of the shots shows the credit card reader as I swipe my Visa. The white outline of a visa insignia set against the black metal of the card reader is visible in the shot, and I got to thinking about what I would need to do if I had to remove the symbol. Technically, it wouldn't be that difficult; it would just take a lot of time (for me, at least. I know some kid half my age could probably do it in 15 minutes, but it would take me a few hours, as I would have to take each frame into Photoshop and paint the thing out).

If I did that, I feel confident you wouldn't be able to tell. It would be as if there never had been any insignia visible in the shot. So in this case, the special effect is not designed to draw attention to some detail, but to make the shot nondescript.

It got me thinking that the best special effects are those that don't draw attention to themselves. They're special not because they look special, but because they look real. They fool you into thinking that no sleight of hand has taken place.

An example: The two images shown above both contain special effects. In the photo at right from Matrix Reloaded, Neo fights a few Agent Smiths, and while it's some nice eye candy, we all know it's fake. Our suspension of disbelief (if it's still intact in this case) compels us to forget that it's fake. On the left we have a single frame from Citizen Kane. In this case, it looks as if nothing much is going on: no CG, no gliding through the air with keyed-out wires, but there is a special effect. In actuality, Orson Welles in the foreground is not even in the room at the same time as Joseph Cotten and Everett Sloane in the background. They had a scheduling conflict that prevented all three actors from being present at the same time, so in this case the special effect was used to make it look like they were all there together. And for me it worked. I would not have ever known that the three actors weren't together if I hadn't been the uber film nerd that listens to Roger Ebert's commentary on the film.

It may seem like a leap, but my next thought deals with God. I thought it was interesting that we always hear people demanding signs from God. We want to see something special that will prove He exists. We want miracles. It all of a sudden seemed a bit ironic that we demand flashy signs from God, when (if He is as creative and powerful as the Bible says He is) there should be no hint of unreality in His work. What's special about His creation and His work is not so much the miracles of healing or walking on water, but the miracle that the human body works in the first place or the incredible wonder of the laws of physics and hydrodynamics that make things like reflections in a lake or the grandeur of pitching barrels at Pipeline possible.

These "mundane" things-the chemical, physical and biological processes that make things work-are so special, so miraculous, because in spite of all their complexity and intricacy, we take them for granted as being normal.