Special-Effects Revolution Is Giving Reality a Bad Name


The French may have invented moving pictures, but the Americans mastered them. And whether the Europeans like it or not--and they don’t--Hollywood hogs the world’s movie market. “Titanic” director James Cameron wasn’t kidding when he pronounced himself “king of the world.” (Although Steven Spielberg, George Lucas or Michael Eisner might argue the point.)

With cinema little more than a century old--an enfant terrible among the arts--the industry has nevertheless undergone more changes than the Gerber baby’s diapers. The advent of talkies, living color, wide screens, Steadicams, cineplexes, corporate ownership, television and video rentals all have had their own mega-effects. But surely none of these will surpass computer animation’s ultimate impact on the silver screen.

The rapidly evolving technology has already made pigs talk (and fly if they choose) and kiddies’ toys battle heroically against overwhelming odds. It’s taken us to Jurassic Park to gawk at triceratops, velociraptors and T. rexes; formed fantastical landscapes as in “What Dreams May Come”; and even created massive crowds out of mere pixels, thereby eliminating the need for thousands of extras.

The leap in technology between “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2" alone is remarkable. While the human cast members still look a bit cartoonish, the toys themselves look almost three-dimensional. And the dachshund that joined the cast gives promise of more realistic doggies to come.


Even more impressive is the digitally generated talking mouse at the heart of “Stuart Little.” The wee star fits seamlessly into his environment. He even casts a reflection when standing on Mrs. Little’s freshly polished coffee table. His teensy trousers wrinkle, and his fur has a rodential sheen. Yet he exists only on a hard drive and was added to the live action footage long after it was shot.

In recent years, late, great actors have been digitally resurrected and inserted into commercials for vacuum cleaners and beer. Conversely, live actors have shown up in archival footage, most notably Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump”: The story’s hero turns up at pivotal moments in 20th-century history. On one of sundry visits to the White House, the Medal of Honor winner drops his britches to show Lyndon Johnson the war wound on his butt. Digital artists can just as easily subtract reality--many moviegoers were convinced that the two-legged Gary Sinise, who played Gump’s commanding officer, was truly a double amputee.


Movies have often told cautionary tales of totalitarian machines like the Terminator conquering our inefficient, eco-destructive, warlike race. Stanley Kubrick came up with one of the wittiest villains ever in the homicidal computer HAL 9000 of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” A statement about the dehumanizing effects of technology, the awe-inspiring 1968 film was engineered using what today seem like quaintly low-tech effects.


But with the advent of Lucas’ “Star Wars,” the papier-ma^che planets of the old “Star Trek” series and Ed Wood’s infamous pie-plate flying saucers were history. Now, you can’t tell an actual pie from a cyber tart.

In “The Matrix,” folks actually think they’re eating haute cuisine when they’re being fed intravenously by the all-seeing, all-knowing uber-computer. Like all but a handful of earthlings, the movie’s hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), imagines that he’s choosing his own destiny. But since the computer took over the world in some long-ago apocalypse, humans are living virtual lives in putrid pods umbilically linked to the Matrix. When they die, they become computer food. The only reason the computers have kept them around is because they need something to eat: chips for the chips.

But alas, the titans of Tinseltown have failed to heed their own ominous yarns. In the not-too-distant future, a talented storyteller with access to a computer and a Web site could well make and distribute his own motion pictures, never mind the studios. It’s already possible to create images via digital cameras and software that will allow you to edit what you’ve shot. The results, while still far from perfect, can be played on your computer or routed to your TV.

The television networks are even now broadcasting news clips and streaming video broadcasts over the Internet. The technology is expensive, but not compared with the budget of “Godzilla.” And in time, costs will come down. If you think “The Blair Witch Project"--heavily promoted on the Internet--was made on a shoestring budget, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Actors, too, need to beware. It’s still easier to create the plastic mug of “Toy Story’s” Buzz Lightyear than to animate a convincing human face, with its asymmetry and imperfections. The same ease applies to alien races, armies of them in “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace” and that underwater whatsis in “The Abyss.” Increasingly, live actors find themselves crossing light sabers with invisible villains who will be added onto the finished image. Maybe it’s only a matter of time till they, too, are replaced--or at the very least, paid much less.

Maybe it won’t be today or tomorrow, but someday soon, the following scenario will be possible:

A difficult but wildly popular star, Beulah Merman, pitches a fit on the set of “Jane Austen Powers: Shagging Sensibility.” Though she has contractually agreed to disrobe, Beulah suddenly refuses to do her nude scene. The director is running out of patience, the movie is $180 million over budget and is so far behind schedule that the studio is threatening to pull the plug. The producer is plotzing. And the screenwriter . . . well, who cares what he thinks?



So the director fires Beulah, calls the CG (Computer Graphics) Department, orders a digitalized replica of the dream girl and completes his film on time. Test audiences give the Virtual Beulah two really big thumbs up, but the scenes with the Real Beulah draw wet raspberries. The studio suits insist that Virtual Beulah be inserted into the live-action shots in place of the real actress. And while you’re at it, they say, “Give her implants, chiseled cheeks and lose that mole over her upper lip.”

Voila! The movie opens to great acclaim: “Oscar’s got a date for next spring,” the critics proclaim. “Beulah, oooh-la-la!” “Take me to Beulah land!”

The flesh-and-blood Beulah--harder to get along with and getting older every day--conveniently falls off the map.

The studios start digitalizing their stars, even the dead ones. When you’ve got Cary, who needs Hugh Grant? Cinematographers, makeup artists, wardrobe mistresses, key grips, lighting technicians, Teamsters and, best yet, agents--who needs them?

All you really do need is Spielberg and a tech weenie. “Blow that building up. . . . Not that one, the other one. . . . Uh, and stick some flamingos in the background.”

But then one day, the weenie wises up. He throws Spielberg out of his cubicle, sits down at his keyboard and types: “A Film by Me.” That’s when the brave new world begins.

Oh, and theaters? Who needs them when you can post your film on