The original “Star Wars” was when special effects got “real,” at least for a certain generation of movie fans. They could believe they were there, “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” from the opening shot on. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” No. 7 in the series, opens Dec. 18, and film scholar Julie Turnock will be watching with an eye on those effects. Her 2015 book, “Plastic Reality,” devotes significant attention to the 1977 original and its innovations – as well as special effects developments before and since. A professor of media and cinema studies at Illinois, Turnock spoke with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain about what’s “real,” how effects now get produced, and the large, global, underpaid labor force doing the work.
What was key to the look of the original “Star Wars” and its effects? And how has that continued to influence special effects up to the present?
The original “Star Wars,” as it appeared in 1977, was much more of a hodgepodge than we recognize today. Because of the digitized “special edition” in 1997 that famously added CGI Jabba the Hutt, followed by subsequent home video versions that smoothed out the look of the film to director George Lucas’s specifications, we unfortunately cannot easily see how the original looked in 1977, unless you have a laserdisc or a VHS copy.
I credit the “Star Wars” look actually more to “The Empire Strikes Back,” the second film, where the Industrial Light and Magic look becomes solidified. In that film, we can see what is now the dominant look that created special effects realism, and continues to. It is a look based in 1970s cinematography styles: backlighting, lens flares, motion blur, rack focus (changing the focus during a shot) and virtual camera movements. We can see that aesthetic still in the “Iron Man” films, the “Transformer” films, all Marvel-based films, and we’ll certainly see them in the new “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Some movie fans can be quite judgmental about the look of certain effects, in movies or trailers, especially if they perceive them as pure computer-generated imagery. Do they have a case? Does it matter?
Despite fan criticism, most CGI effects are undetectable. For example, few people know that the vast majority of cars in the “Fast and Furious” franchise are completely CGI. Fans only notice effects when they see no other way the shots could have been generated, or if the production ran out of time and money to finish them properly. Even films like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” vaunted for their “practical” effects (done on the set in the camera), feature a huge amount of CGI.
This fan rhetoric assumes that recent effects-driven films look “too CGI” because greedy corporate “suits” pile on effects due to a misguided belief in quantity over quality. What this rhetoric neglects or clouds is the actual, nearly impossible situation of contemporary effects production.
For example, blockbusters make use of 20 or more effects houses, whose work has to be homogenized into a finished film under extremely shortened post-production deadlines – despite unwillingness to spend the needed money and pay the effects artists properly – with the whole project led by an inexperienced filmmaker who doesn’t have the clout to execute an aesthetic. Inevitably under those conditions, some films’ effects will suffer.
You note that the effects work on a given film is often spread around the world in multiple locations, and the companies involved often make little money. How is that?
Even in today’s conglomerate media domination, most effects companies are independently owned and operated. It is due to the crippling project bid model of contracting for work that makes profit margins so thin. Independent effects houses compete with each other for jobs, often underbidding to get them. Once the bid is accepted, the effects house is locked into that price and forced to eat the development costs if the project is changed or even cancelled.
Under this model, an effects company can easily go bankrupt if the project folds or goes significantly over budget. This is why the company that employed the artists who won the 2013 Oscar for visual effects for “The Life of Pi,” Rhythm and Hues, went bankrupt that same year.
The precarious financial condition of these effects houses over the last five years – a condition that the conglomerates helped create – has led the studios to change tactics. Previously, one or two houses would do the effects on a given blockbuster. Now, to spread around the risk of a house going under, huge effects productions now break up the effects teams as much as possible. In other words, conglomerates can hedge their bets by spreading work among the bigger houses and to the many small firms eager to get work for cut-rate prices.
And what does that mean for individual workers?
Most other movie professionals work on a specific project under a union- or guild-approved contract. Effects workers, however, are not collectivized – despite, or perhaps in large part because of, their vital contribution to the conglomerate tent-pole blockbuster structure Hollywood so famously relies upon. Therefore, unlike nearly every other worker on a movie set, they are not protected by work hour regulations, health insurance and safety regulations, and they’re not paid for overtime, which they are nearly always expected to do in the crunch time leading up to a picture’s release.
Also, effects workers must migrate around the world for work, from Vancouver to New Zealand to China, leading to instability in their personal lives. And as already noted, the consequences of these problems are also aesthetic: We often see bland, or at worst “crappy,” effects in the final film. This is of course despite the best efforts of the underpaid and overworked effects artists, who often take the blame.
In a previous interview, Turnock discussed the revolutionary nature of the special effects transition that began in the 1970s, as well as the widespread use of effects today in every kind of film.