Special Effects, Then and Now

I saw the new Avengers movie a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t my cup of tea. While I’ve seen a lot of comic book movies over the years, and in fact, did see the original Avengers movie a few years back, it’s been a while since I saw it, and haven’t seen any of the other Marvel universe movies in the meantime, so I had a devil of a time figuring out what was going on through the first part of the movie.

I also got very impatient with all the special effects. After you’ve seen a city trashed one or two times (or three or four) it gets very repetitive. I’m not a fan of visual action (which, come to think of it, is probably why I don’t care for spectator sports either). For me, the best parts of the Avengers movies are the jokes and the banter between the characters, not the action scenes.

Last Saturday, I caught the end of the original Star Trek episode “By Any Other Name”. In it, invaders from the Andromeda Galaxy take over the Enterprise for the trip home. At the end, Kirk convinces the alien commander to release control of the Enterprise and turn back. I was watching the remastered version, and there’s a longish shot of the Enterprise making a long swooping curve and turning around, and it felt vaguely wrong.

I was able to put my finger on what was bothering me yesterday. The original producers did not have a big budget for effects, so they had to exercise restraint. The original version features a stock shot, used in many episodes, of an aft view of the Enterprise. The camera is tight on the rear of the saucer section, positioned above the secondary hull and between the nacelles, which extend past the edge of the frame. We see the ship start to turn, and then dip down and out of the frame.

Is it a less ambitious shot than the remastered version? Yes. The shot was probably created very simply, by tilting the camera so the ship falls out of the frame.

Is the image quality pretty cruddy? Yes, especially since multiple generations of copies were needed to create it.

Did they overuse this particular shot? Unquestionably.

But, because the shot is tighter on the ship, the focus is much more on the ship, and not the surrounding galaxy. Because of the necessary restraint used in framing the shot, I feel the original sequence is actually stronger dramatically. I’d love to see a high quality remastered version of this shot, with maybe a little variation between episodes.

You can see a similar situation comparing the old Superman TV show with the Superman movies. The TV show was very cheaply made; to show Superman flying, they’d start off with George Reeves hitting an offscreen trampoline, bouncing into the air, then cut to a medium shot of him in air, in front of a motion blurred rear projection background. By the time the movies with Chris Reeve were made (I haven’t seen the more recent ones), the producers were able to place Superman in a scene with buildings and other scenery more or less convincingly.

Unfortunately, showing a long shot of a tiny Superman flying around a bunch of buildings reduces his importance in the shot. He’s just a part of the shot. While the series definitely suffered from the jump cut from Superman taking off to Superman in mid air – with no shots taking the viewer from the ground to the air, it was obvious that the series was cheating– the inability of the television budget to show Superman over the city meant that the producers had to tighten the focus onto Superman himself. And for most flying scenes, where the point is simply to get Superman from Point A to Point B, it’s probably a better dramatic choice.

I think current day movies could stand to exercise similar restraint. I think they would be improved by tightening the focus on the characters. It’s great that they can do so much photorealistically – but any photographer can tell you a big part of making a picture is deciding what to focus on, what to get close to, and what to leave out.