American Consequences - January 2018



monitor for his 1993 film, Jurassic Park , as the moment he knew movies had changed forever, precisely because you could make a dinosaur look as if it existed in real life. But the true visionary special-effects director was James Cameron, who had used CGI to make it appear as though a column of water had consciousness in his 1989 picture, The Abyss . Cameron saw how he could use these techniques to make non-existent settings seem real. As Prince writes of a later Cameron movie, “One of the more spectacular digital images in True Lies is a long shot of a chateau nestled beside a lake and surrounded by the Swiss Alps. The image is a digital composite, blending a mansion from Newport, Rhode Island, water shot in Nevada, and a digital matte painting of the Alps.” Cameron would take this magician’s trick to the limit with his recreation of the HMS Titanic in a 1997 movie that featured 500 different effects shots and became the box-office champion of all time. That is, until it was bested by Cameron’s own Avatar in 2009, which is largely set in a non-existent world called Pandora, and into which the faces and bodies of the actors were digitized and then inserted. Avatar made $2.8 billion. What Cameron did with Titanic suggested there might be a glorious future for digital filmmaking: a future in which the past could be resurrected in a way it had never been before, and in which moviemakers could work almost like novelists in the sense that they could simply incept any reality they chose and put it onto the screen. But things haven’t turned out that way, as Cameron’s later triumph with Avatar proved. The computer’s

There’s a scene set in an otherwise forgettable 1985 film called Young Sherlock Holmes during which a figure pops out of a stained- glass window and walks down a church aisle brandishing a sword. It lasts all of 30 seconds. As it turned out, they were the most revolutionary 30 seconds of cinema since Al Jolson spoke the words “you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” in The Jazz Singer back in 1927, and ushered in the age of the talking picture. The Stained-Glass Man was the first wholly digital human character ever created, by which I mean he was not photographed at all. Rather, he was designed on a computer, and that computer then directed a laser beam to etch the Stained-Glass Man’s image 24 times a second onto a piece of film. He moved and the camera moved with him, at one point circling him to show he was both flat and 3-dimensional. Those 30 seconds took a team of Oscar-winning special-effects wizards six months to complete. The Stained-Glass Man was the work of a new division of George Lucas’ company, Industrial Light & Magic. The division was called Pixar. In a decade’s time, Pixar would begin to make a string of wildly successful animated films in whose cinematic preparation or execution no pen ever touched paper. Jolson had made movies speak. The computer made movies visually limitless. But what was different about “computer-generated imagery” is that, in the words of the film historian Stephen Prince, it made possible the creation of “credible photographic images of things which cannot be photographed.” Steven Spielberg describes seeing the raw CGI footage of dinosaurs running across a


January 2018

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