VFX and Storytelling

As a form of art, film has been used as a medium to tell stories. With the growth of technology and its implementation into the medium of film and production, stories have expanded to be told many different ways across various genres that could not be achieved during the early rise of movies. The technological improvements achieved over the many years have led to the rise of film leaving a stunning visual impact on the viewers.  With the influx of movies being made each year, there are a number of films that fall unfortunately into the realm of being overly dependent on visual effects work used to stun an audience while losing the grasp of the story.  Audiences first and foremost go to see movies for the story and thus visual effects ultimately should be implemented to further the plot instead of being a distraction.  Within the hoard of movies being released, there are often a handful of gems, films that were able to successfully integrate effect work not only to enrich the visual experience but also the story in creating immersive worlds and appealing characters. Many movies are misguided by the thought that extravagant effects work will entice the audience by itself. Unfortunately in such cases, the visual effects work becomes a crutch and the time dedicated to show off the grandiose explosions, chase scenes, or fight scenes are ill-used and takes away valuable time in plot development.  In extreme cases where certain scenes are extended for prolonged periods of time, the attention of the audience is lost.  One such case is apparent in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (2011), as the director opted to cut important deaths and invaluable assistance of Harry’s escape from Voldemort in order to highlight a flying motorcycle chase through tunnels with various shenanigans of dodging cars and careening upside-down.  While the effects works may have greatly improved, particularly in comparison to the previous films, with many poor choices the Harry Potter movies do not hold up well.  The movies consist of many gaping plot holes and apparent inconsistencies that were brushed away but poorly hidden.  George Lucas stated “the realm of storytelling is more important than that of the visual effects necessary to bring a scene to life”.  While a world of magic needs to have many visual effect shots, often times the visual effects are unfortunately misused and are only seen as temporary eye-candy.

Visual effects have solidified as an integral aspect to film making but the winner of the Oscar award for visual effects is now harder to predict as focuses have shifted.  Instead of watching extravagant effects and considering shot counts, the focus has shifted into the integration of visual effects to serve the art of storytelling as expressed by Dennis Muren.  Peter Jackson stated that “in the world of Digital Effects, anything imagined is possible... which in a way brings the emphasis back on storytelling”. With technological advancements, many stories that may have been impossible to create can now be done.  Hailed as one of the books with a story unable to be filmed, Ang Lee took on Life of Pi (2012) and does a remarkable job in creating an epic journey of a young boy stranded on a life boat with a tiger.  Not only were there physical limitations of putting a person in a boat with a tiger, but the story was also difficult to tell in its portrayal of the struggle against nature, the emotional and psychological difficulties, and wonderment of spirituality.  Used well, the visual effects in the film not only portrayed the extreme dangers of the sea, the lonely solitude of being lost at sea, but also the vast wonders of the world.  The visual effects created the world that allowed the audience to follow the arduous journey of Pi as he struggles with survival.  While the animals were largely digitally created throughout the movie, the animals were created well and do not break the illusion of the danger of being in a small boat with a fully grown tiger.  The audience can feel the suspense and fear as they become fully immersed in the story. While often overlooked and not even considered for an Oscar award in the visual effects category, animated films use a lot of visual effects in their storytelling.  A notable film of such that was released recently was Rise of the Guardians (2012).  Much like how the digitally created Iron Man suit from the Iron Man series is what creates the character of the protagonist, the particle dynamics of sand is a part of the character of the Sandman from Rise of the Guardians.  One of the twelve basic principles of animation is appeal; not only is the Sandman appealing in character design but by his actions that were highlighted with the streams of sand that are used to conjure various images and items.  The visual effects of the particles vastly contributed towards the Sandman’s character that he would not be the same without it.  Such is an excellent example of using effects to develop the integral component of a character that plays a core role in the conveyance of the story while the audience continues believing in magic and dreams.

Visual effects have come a long way since they were first developed but, first and foremost, visual effects should exist to assist the story in creating emotion, deepening characters, and furthering the plot.  As ideas and usage of visual effects have shifted it has become difficult to distinguish which movie will win an Oscar for visual effects.  Shot counts and blockbusting films are not criterion in which films are judged but rather the skillful usage and of the effect are what are sought after.  Film, as a form of art is a process used to tell stories and with the rise of visual effects, more possibilities have been opened that were not feasible prior, enabling a larger array of stories to be told.  With anything imaginable being possible, it is important to bring films back to the attribute of storytelling.