Have a look at this:
Pretty insightful, eh? "Special effects are just a tool -- a means of telling a story. People tend to confuse them as an end to themselves. A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing," Lucas says. I mean, wow, you really can't argue with that, right? Well, 14 years after this interview, the special edition of A New Hope was released, and at the exact point when Greedo inexplicably shoots first, one can see where filmmakers began to think to themselves, "Hmm. Maybe a special effect without a story isn't a boring thing at all. In fact, it might be totally awesome!"
I recently procured myself the original unaltered Star Wars trilogy. I hadn't seen the original films for quite some time, and was anxious to see how they held up to the later "improved" editions. I was not at all surprised to find that even in their unpolished form, they portrayed the story much more effectively. Yes, my personal nostalgia may be heavily informing my opinion here, but objectively speaking, "Yub Nub" is still a better end song for Return Of the Jedi than that stupid shopping mall food court pan flute nonsense Lucas added to the special edition.
Why does the unaltered trilogy do a better job at conveying the story? The answer is simple: less information on screen equals less distraction. Many directors these days seem to be under the impression that more information on the screen equals better storytelling, or in Lucas' (and to a lesser extend, Spielberg's) case, that adding information to an already established story will make it better. To me, adding new information to an older film is kind of like trying to take a cake that has already been baked, and bake more cake onto it. Sure, there may be more cake, but the original will be ruined.
As far as filming a movie with as much information as possible is concerned, it's easy to see why filmmakers fool themselves into thinking that doing so will serve to advance their storytelling. The word "immersive" gets thrown around a lot in conversations aimed at justifying the use of certain technologies in film. The 3D revival of the past few years is a perfect example of this. In theory, 3D should make a film more immersive, but in reality, the addition of another dimension is just a distraction- - a tool to mask a deficit of story and/or script writing. Don't believe me? Well ask yourself this: what movie is more likely to stand the test of time, Avatar, or Dances With Wolves? Both movies are pretty much the same in terms of story and themes, but if you take away the "ooh and ah" factors from Avatar, it's clear that Dances With Wolves is the superior film. Even though from a purely technical standpoint, Avatar should be more immersive, Dances With Wolves ends up being more immersive both visually and emotionally without even a hint of digital wizardry.
Naturally, digital effects are not always the harbinger of bad filmmaking. Terminator 2, Forrest Gump, Jurassic Park (some of you may be surprised to know that only about 10 minutes of actual screen time was dedicated to purely digital dinosaurs), Minority Report, Gladiator, District 9 and The Lord of the Rings series are all examples of films that blend digital effects tastefully and seamlessly with real characters and settings to further their respective stories. Terminator 2, for instance, is not about how cool morphing is. It's about human nature, seeing the humanity in things that are not even human, the perils of unchecked technological progress, and being in control of our own fates (themes which Terminator 3 effectively wrecked, by the way). District 9 really isn't about aliens, mech suits, and body-exploding lightning guns. It's about racial prejudice and overcoming that prejudice by experiencing the world (in this case, literally) through the eyes of others. The Lord of the Rings is not about cave trolls, nazguls, or herds of oliphonts. It's about the corruptive nature of absolute power, friendship, and fighting on the side of good no matter the odds. In the end, a special effect is not a theme or a plot point (I'm looking in your direction, Michael Bay).
Speaking of The Lord of the Rings, I had a chance to see the 3D 48 fps version of The Hobbit the other day. The film itself exceeded my expectations (which was not difficult as they were low to begin with), but it was certainly no thanks to the new "revolutionary" format. I guess the best way to describe the experience is to imagine watching an HD episode of the documentary Planet Earth while playing Skyrim at the same time. The effect was bizarre, to say the least, and I was constantly aware of the fact that I was watching a movie, and a fake-looking one at that. I was filled with an unshakable nausea during the entire film- - not a gut-wrenching nausea, but one that sat just below the threshold of palpable discomfort. Peter Jackson's Rube Goldberg-esque directorial technique of sequencing one improbable event after another on a grand scale (e.g. the goblin fight scene) obviously didn't help to alleviate this sensation. If this is going to be the future of filmmaking, I suspect theaters are going to have to start providing airplane-style puke bags along with the 3D glasses.
A good filmmaker always desires to push boundaries, but it's takes a great filmmaker to know which boundaries to push, and in what direction. Film is a visual and aural medium, so it's only natural for filmmakers to strive to create a grand spectacle for the eyes and ears, but it takes a grand spectacle of emotion and story to create a true sense of wonder. That's where the magic of film lies.
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