In filmmaking, special effects play as big a part (if not bigger) as the actors. This is especially apparent in films where dramatic and eye-catching visuals, which cannot easily be replicated with props and set design, take centre stage. From sea monsters ravaging a small town to spaceships exploring new frontiers, the possibilities of special effects (SFX), visual effects (VFX) and computer-generated imagery (CGI) have opened doors for filmmakers to push the limits of their imagination.
MIND GAMES WITH FAST FRAMES
In recent years, the usage of special effects has taken a more sophisticated turn: by incorporating them into scenes where viewers least expect them. The Invisible Man cleverly utilised stuntmen in green suits to achieve the very realistic effect of invisibility, while horror favourite Insidious leaned heavily into VFX to scare the audience out of their seats. In Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a de-aging technology was applied to the actors’ faces without the use of motion capture. This way, the shooting process would have as few distractions as possible, but still be able to realistically capture a timeline that spanned 50 years without changing actors.
Bringing hyperreality to the silver screen is director Ang Lee, whose penchant for using high frame rates in his filmmaking has garnered both praise and criticism. Lee shot his previous two movies, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Gemini Man, at 120 frames per second (fps) instead of the conventional 24 fps. As an advocate of high frame rate filmmaking, Lee says: “I think we can go even more abstract because it’s digital; we can do all kinds of things once we know how to use it. It has a sharper look, and it seems more realistic, like what your eyes see in real life.” And he’s not wrong – studies have shown that when processing higher frame rates, our brains start losing the ability to tell what’s real and what’s not, therefore “recognising” what we see on-screen as real.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
To keep up with the advancement of filmmaking, movie theatres are continuously upgrading both their hardware and software facilities – from 3D glasses to 4DX motion seats, 270-degree surround images to the unobstructed full-screen IMAX viewing experience. We are now spoilt for choice, but of course, there’s much more unexplored territory. If we were able to smell the zesty freshness of someone biting into a slice of orange, or feel the blistering heat of our surroundings when an antagonist descends into hell, would this immersive technology be something worth looking forward to in the not-so-distant future? Or what if, as viewers, we were able to take matters into our own hands, and decide what happens in the film we’re watching?
Black Mirror, the British sci-fi anthology known for its thought-provoking (and often, mind-bending) themes, released feature-length film Bandersnatch on online streaming platform Netflix in 2018. What sets Bandersnatch apart from other films is that it is interactive: the viewer could choose what Stefan, the protagonist, could do next, and the built-in algorithm would lead them on to reach one of five main endings. However, given the millions of permutations within the film, not every viewer would reach the same ending, and not everyone could unlock all five endings.
In the same vein, 2020 film Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs The Reverend utilises a similar interactive approach to engage with its audience through a special “last hurrah” episode, which received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for its unique concept.
DELIGHTING FANS WITH FANTASIES
The new-and-improved kaiju genre has long since progressed from its humble beginnings. From men in monster suits stomping on miniature cityscapes, our favourite larger-than-life creatures have been given a new lease of life due to the advent of CGI and cutting-edge software. Thanks to the magic of moviemaking, die-hard fans can see their greatest fantasies come to life.
Keeping in line with our kaiju obsession is the much-anticipated Godzilla vs Kong, bringing together two of film lore’s most iconic monsters. Ever since his “debut” in 1954, the prolific Godzilla has since appeared in more than 30 movies, boasting an increasingly realistic aesthetic with the progression of SFX and VFX. The great King Kong isn’t too far behind, either: in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island, he stands 100 feet fall, with a coat of 19 million digital hairs, caked with mud and blood, with insects buzzing around his head. As the two behemoths get ready for their showdown later on this year, here’s to hoping that moviegoers get the chance to see their best performances in theatres instead of on TV screens.
Slated for a 2022 release, Jurassic World: Dominion is set to bring back the OG cast of Sam Neill (as Alan Grant), Jeff Goldblum (as Ian Malcolm) and Laura Dern (as Dr. Ellie Sattler) reprising their roles alongside Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard. Director Colin Trevorrow teased “a new world order where humans and dinosaurs coexist”, and the third Jurassic World sequel will pick up where it left off from the bonus short film, Battle At Big Rock, released just months ago. A step up from its predecessors, Dominion will feature heavier use of animatronics together with stunning visual effects. Trevorrow has been teasing a few of these lifelike puppets on his Twitter, and they are nothing short of amazing. “We finally reached a point where it’s possible to match digital extensions and animatronics, with the level of fidelity on film. You didn’t use to be able to really mix them; you could see the seams,” he said.
EXPANDING THE CINEMATIC MULTIVERSE
Overflowing with stunts and superpowers, more superhero franchises await in 2021. Despite having started off on the wrong foot, the second Suicide Squad instalment looks much more promising with James Gunn (of Guardians of the Galaxy fame) at the helm. With a star-studded lineup from the likes of Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena and Sly Stallone, the world’s most mismatched team of anti-heroes will be wreaking havoc in late summer. In Gunn’s other movies, bluescreen and painted rocks were common sights, but for Suicide Squad, they built a wealth of practical effects – giant sets with cars being crushed and explosions aplenty, which then come together with visual effects by the team at Scanline VFX – best known for their renderings of natural phenomena like fire, smoke and water.
When Venom came out in 2018, we were equal parts fascinated and disgusted by how Eddie Brock morphed into the titular character. In an interview with The Credits, VFX supervisor Paul Franklin explained: “We spent a lot of time tracking Tom’s (Hardy) physical shape, right down to the folds of cloth in his costume. The FX team controlled the flow of the goo and created the sense of it soaking through Eddie’s clothes, before coalescing into the beginnings of what will become Venom’s body. The legs and arms unbreaking were created with a detailed digital double of Tom. The tricky part was making sure it looked realistic, so we individually animated the teeth as they move into place.” Hopefully with more dark humour and an interesting villain (played by Woody Harrelson), the sequel, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, will premiere in June.
In Gotham, a new Batman gets ready to save his city though this time, Robert Pattinson assumes his role amidst some casting criticism. In recent years, DC’s multiple renditions of Batman and Joker have come across as inconsistent, with remake after remake across different timelines and premises. While the older versions of kitschy-looking Batmans (courtesy of Tim Burton and then Joel Shumacher) featured corny punchlines and over-the-top special effects, Christopher Nolan paid attention to creating a dark, gritty aesthetic starring an unwilling superhero tormented by his past. After Ben Affleck’s short-lived stint as Bruce Wayne, all eyes are now on ex-vampire Pattinson, whose The Batman (2022) film gets the same real-time visual effects tech pioneered by the team behind The Mandalorian. Not much is currently known, but apparently a huge LED wall for practical sets is involved.
And finally, after over a decade of waiting, Avatar 2 is set for a December 2022 release. When it came out in 2009, the first Avatar film was touted as a breakthrough in cinematic technology, featuring extensive use of motion capture, 3D and even 4D. For a film relying so heavily on CGI, a lot of work went into ensuring the effects looked as seamless as possible, an incredible feat considering majority of the film was shot on green screen and motion capture.
According to director James Cameron, the new sequel is ten times more complicated than the original. “Flight was our big challenge on the first film. Now we’re working underwater, and we’ve set the bar higher and higher. I don’t do it because it’s hard. We’re doing it because things that haven’t been done before are the most fresh.” Producer Jon Landeau recently shared a concept illustration of the new Pandora universe, adding a sense of real excitement that we will be seeing our favourite Avatar characters again very soon.
This article was originally published in Chinese on Sound of Life on 11 January 2021.
Cover Credit: Joel Muniz / Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.