August 4, 2010
Don’t Use Special Effects Part 2

The title of this post and my previous post is an exaggeration of course. I want to over-emphasize my point, because I’m hoping that it might reel people in. Just like scope creep on programming teams, special effects will sneak in to your work or your team’s work if you’re not careful. This will surely muddy up the picture.

Pretty soon, you’re animating a bunch of special effects, eating up render time like nobody’s business, clogging up the farms and wasting unnecessary dollars hiring effects folks. I’m sure you’ll get some good explosions, airplanes might blow up, and look! There’s a black hole eating a mothership. But will the audience care about the people in that ship?

If you’ve seen the new Star Trek, you’ll know that in the first scene, James Kirk’s father sacrifices himself to save his son and his wife. The film makers took that time to get the audience emotionally invested in the film. That’s why towards the end you care that the Enterprise is being sucked into a black hole because you care about James Kirk and James Kirk is in that ship. Only then can you go ahead and animate the black hole scene. That’s a good use of special effects, but the special effect was set up by the story. Special effects never stand on their own.

2012 is a good example of a movie that doesn’t stand on its own because it relies on special effects to tell the story. But the special effects in 2012 were not story-driven. You might say, “but Jimmy, the story in 2012 is that the world is ending, so the effects were story motivated.” My response is: the world is ending is not a story. It’s a scenario. Towards the end you stop caring about the catastrophic events because you don’t care about the character.

The special effect has to be supported by the story. If the story doesn’t call for effects, then don’t use it.

August 2, 2010
Don’t Use Special Effects Part 1

A couple weeks ago I watched some old films like Vertigo, Jaws, and E.T. One of the lessons I got from watching these films is to use special effects sparingly.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love explosions, flying particles, rare creatures, and amazing graphics. I remember seeing Jurassic Park and Toy Story when I was little. These films are monumental for their technical breakthroughs. The Lord of the Rings films also had really good special effects. Avatar was visually amazing.

But special effects have an aging problem. A film with lots of special effects will show its age in twenty years’ time, and then it will look corny to a new generation of movie watchers. In Vertigo, Hitchcock tries to show the main character’s distressing nightmare by using a flashing red screen and the character’s head. He also pulls off several vertigo effect shots. They must have looked amazing back then, but it looks pretty bad now. I remember laughing really hard when I saw that, and it totally pulled me out of the story.

Special effects will tend to do that because technology will always advance as long as we have amazing special effects and graphics researchers out there. And believe me, we have amazing graphics researchers here my department, UW CSE. You can count on us to always figure out a better way to construct a model, or make a more effective render algorithm, or simulate effects that previously took too much computing power to pull off.

The effect of continued advancement in technology on movies is simply this: effects that wow the audience today becomes commonplace five years down the road. In other words, the movie 2012 won’t look so good by 2012 because it relies solely on special effects and not much more. Pretty much the same thing goes for Transformers. Don’t rely on special effects for your film, it will just look corny later on.

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