Saturday, November 19, 2005

Beyond Words - Story & Visual Effects

Which scenes first come to mind when you think of STAR WARS, STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE MATRIX, KING KONG (the 30's one), CITIZEN KANE, GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, TITANIC, METROPOLIS, JURASSIC PARK, HARRY POTTER, SHREK GLADIATOR, LORD OF THE RINGS?

Chances are pretty good what you remember is a scene which relied heavily on the art and science of visual effects.

There's also a visual effects approach/category called "invisible effects" which basically means those shots or sequences in which you are unaware of visual effects in the presentation.

There is another more complex (and usually more expensive) approach to visual effects which combines image capture expertise (cinematography), post-production work (washing out colors via a digital intermediate, for example) and visual effects to tell the story.

Many practitioners are now using a combination of practical and digital effects in an effort to keep the human visual system (developed over millions of years) concentrated on the emotions the image is trying to generate in the audience rather than on the technology used to achieve it (vfx geeks like myself find both pretty cool!).

The masters of the art know which expertise to bring to bear to create an image that -- until excruciatingly late in the process -- becomes the public's lasting vision of that shot or sequence and their representation of it in their mind's eye...

Yes, it can be done wrong. Yes, sometimes creative impulses collide instead of blend. Yes, sometimes even withing the same show some work can be great and other work can be mediocre.

But when it works, it is a remarkable almost alchemic transformation of human thought, human communication and technology into archival images of the way things are, were or might be.

Visual effects is about trade-offs, about getting the best image possible that will serve the story under the financial, schedule and political/team circumstances in which you find yourself.

Visual effects is fundamentally about the people you work with to solve problems, not the specific technology you employ to solve the problem. There are multiple solutions to any visual effects problem. The solution chosen has everything to do with the human and technical resources available at the time.

Visual effects practitioners most often work in teams using resources at hand. Though magical and effortless-appearing in the end, it's often a long, hard (but often very soul-rewarding) slog to get there.

The field has its “rock stars,” of course, but these personalities most often represent teams of other people who take on and relinquish many roles over the course of a visual effects project.

The way I see it, visual effects is akin to old time stage magic, trompe l'oeil painting, camouflage, scientific demonstration, theatre, architecture (especially the architecture of sacred places such as temples, cathedrals and so on, collage, sculpture...

Rather than looking at the evolution of visual effects as a linear progression of people technology and methods (the textbook approach), we will look at visual effects as a succession of solutions to various problems, many of which exist in motion picture production to this day.

Since the beginning of the era of recorded visual entertainment, practitioners have solved problems on many levels in demanding and chaotic project-based ad-hoc organizations.

On one level, visual effects deals with the problems of human perception – finding ways to take advantage of the strengths and weakness in the human visual system. Cues such as scale, perspective, depth, color, pattern, texture, intensity, shadow, parallax each of us instinctively use to place ourselves in the world. Visual effects take advantage of these cues

On another level, motion pictures are themselves illusions in that they depend on a visual circumstance called persiustence of vision which enables successive frames of still images to be perceived as continuous action.

On still another level are the technical problems related to the tools and materials used to develop a visual effects solution. But no matter what the eventual technical hurdles, visual effects starts with the written representation of the story -- the script -- and very quickly moves into iterative visual representations of the story.

The bottom line always is the story: depictions of real or imagined events with characters, objects and environments illustrating some aspect of the human experience.

Tis light makes color visible; at night
Red, green and russet vanish from thy sight.
So too the light by darkness is made known.
All hid things by their contraries are shown.
Mevlana C. Rumi (1207-1273)

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