Bi-annual contributions from our members on any aspect of visual effects. These can be opinion pieces, short debates, video essays, practitioner interviews, industry contributions, and more.
Image, Difference, Vanishing: Some Thoughts on VFX and The Post-Screen
I wrote my latest book, The Post-Screen Through Virtual Reality, Holograms and Light Projections: Where Screen Boundaries Lie (Amsterdam University Press, 2021), on screens and screen boundaries. The book argues that contemporary screen media present increasingly imperceptible boundaries, whereby the image potentially becomes indistinguishable from the viewer’s actual surroundings. This, then, is the post-screen: a state of critical attention to the delimitations of screen media and the ensuing problematization of relations between image and object; an intensifying evolution of the virtual and its role in defining media consumers and their realities; and an era of screen media marked by the disappearances of differentiation between subject and object. It is also a point in media history – as in not the history of media, but history and media. Or the correlation between media invention and significant cultural, social and political change, where media become “a discursive object – an object to think with.” (Lister et al 1992, 110) As with the camera obscura in the eighteenth century with respect to perspective; photography in the nineteenth century on the role of automation; or cinema in the twentieth century on the meaning of documentation, the post-screen thus points to how the erosion of screen boundaries exposes a different epistemological space of life, death, actuality, virtuality, truth.
In being this new imagination for the virtual, the post-screen is also entirely about VFX. As screen demarcations shift and lie (in both senses), a new regime of relations emerges between not only viewers and screens, but also – as is the heart of VFX – images and reality, and images and viewers. In its discourse on between-ness, the post-screen is also of difference – that quality of limbo which relies on relation, existing not as a thing but as against something. VFX thus resonates with the post-screen as representation which pushes the realness of image against reality. It constructs a real external reality in image and sound, and in so doing eliminates boundaries of difference between the virtual and the actual. Therein lies the post-screen encapsulated as both special effect and discombobulation of the real.
The 2019 Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Far from Home, presents a neat epitome of this convergence. Its villain, Mysterio (or Quentin Beck, as he is also known; played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is not an antagonist with the usual superhuman powers. He is, of all things, a special effects whiz. His powers for evil lie in his ability to fool everyone, including Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland), with large-scale, realistic, multi-sensorial holographic illusions created from Augmented Reality (AR) projectors mounted on flying drones. These illusions surround and follow Spider-Man as he moves, not seemingly contained within any kind of screen or framing boundaries. The film’s twist is thus that simulation itself becomes an antagonist. The real threat is not the usual death and destruction wrought by the villain, but the bewilderment and disorientation in being unable to distinguish between the actual and the virtual. Spider-Man’s traditional vanquishing of the villain is thus untraditional – it is of the post-screen: to defeat Mysterio, Spidey has to first break his enemy’s illusions. Only by mastering the discernment between illusion and reality – only by breaking the post-screen – could Spider-Man triumph, slaying Mysterio and restoring order by re-asserting the diegesis’ “reality” against the special effects illusions.
Figure 1: Spider-Man triumphing by differentiating between the actual and virtual Mysterio
Difference thus drives the central stakes in both VFX and the post-screen as critical statements of today’s conditions of truth and reality. Media are – and have always been – the systems which push and interrogate how users sense and apprehend, and, in turn, establish the terms on which they receive information, truths and values. On the flip side, media also become the core of the corruption of those information, truths and values – the misinformation, disinformation, mistruths and untruths which colour contemporary times. In other words, our terms of information changed as media themselves changed and, qua the post-screen, changed in terms of how they set, establish, guard and police the boundaries of difference. In turn, this extinguishment of difference asserts a new kind of virtuality, one that is neither a second order of the actual nor even simulacra in terms of its distance from the originating referent. Rather, it is a virtuality that is internalized – that meshes with, dissolves or folds into the actual to create different kinds of ghosts. Media today are thus not of representations, but internalizations. There is no full circle of, for instance, Virtual Reality from the panorama in terms of the extinguishment of difference; what we now face (and are hit with) is an internalized mediascape against which, like the viral contagion of our present, there is no escape.
As such, today’s crisis is not just the contestation of the real against illusion or the unreal. Rather, it is the disappearance of difference without positive terms as a moment of media history, or a history of uncertain values in which we are still currently interned and internalizing. The post-screen thus engenders not only no more cinema, but also no more media: we may now think of everything as cinema, or as image, or as virtuality. That thinking is not in the sense of “no more cinema” as Bazin had meant it, whereby he flipped the illusion of reality to reality itself in cinema’s borderless zone of the unreal against the real. Rather, our conclusion today is that the terms of reality and illusion no longer have their old semantic values as they did when shot across the screen’s boundaries; they are no longer related in the ways they used to be related. In the VFX of the post-screen, reality and illusion are not counters or opposites of special effect to each other. Where difference without positive terms has disappeared in the internalization of the image is the emergence not of another reality, but another regime of truth values that has returned on the far side of media history. This is no return of, say, the prelapsarian, which only speaks of a nostalgic return; this is a return of another notion of history out of a profound internalization of the shit storms, the dis/misinformation and the post-truth of current politics – a return of the positive in the most scurrilous and outrageous of styles. VFX and the post-screen are thus also mental models for signalling this disappearance of difference, if a different kind of vanishing – a dis-appearance that is constructing, even as I write, this moment of media history.
The Post-Screen Through Virtual Reality, Holograms and Light Projections: Where Screen Boundaries Lie (Amsterdam University Press, 2021) is now available at https://www.aup.nl/en/book/9789463723541/the-post-screen-through-virtual-reality-holograms-and-light-projections.
SCMS 2021 - VFX Scholar Thoughts
The 2021 annual Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference took place on Zoom this year over several days in late March, with several of our members presenting and attending. Lisa Purse was brilliant and sent out a short questionnaire. Although the time-zones were ghastly for those of us in the Southern hemisphere so we missed much of the conference, a few members in the North sent back their responses.
What was your highlight of the conference and why? (paper or panel)
Lisa Purse: There were a number of fantastic panels on special and visual effects, histories of visual technologies, animation, computer histories, and machine learning and AI this year, so it felt like a really rich SCMS for our area. Two highlights for me: H19, the Digital Bodies and Visual Effects panel, in which Tanine Allison, Hye Jean Chung, Malinda Dietrich considered the connotations of and contexts for the production of digital bodies on screen. These were nuanced accounts in which the entanglement of the politics and aesthetics of representation with questions of technology and genre were insightfully illuminated. Politics, aesthetics and technology returned as entangled critical issues in Q3, To Hell and Back: Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), in the thoughtful and thought-provoking dialogue between four different analyses of Jackson’s film by Robert Burgoyne, John Trafton, Jonna Eagle and the late, great and much missed Eileen Rositzka.
Nick Jones: Panel H19: Digital Bodies and Visual Effects was the highlight of the conference for me. Tanine Allison's paper on the digital cloning of Will Smith in Gemini Man called attention to the racial dimensions of this and other synthespians; Hye Jean Chung's paper on the kaiju of the MonsterVerse extended her brilliant work in Media Heterotopias (2018) by thinking about the composite nature of digital creatures like Godzilla; and Malinda Dietrich asked intriguing questions around mocap, aesthetics, and humanity. All this work spoke to contemporary developments and urgent issues around visual effects in mainstream cinema.
Kartik Nair: A methodological highlight of the conference was the panel "African American Culture, Spectatorship and Hollywood, 1920 - 1940". It really opened out ways for me to think with archival gaps, the status of trade documents, and even scanning the backgrounds of images, which is useful in my own work on Bombay horror films of the 1980s.
Julie Turnock: I echo what Kartik wrote. I didn't get to attend as many panels as I would have liked, but the ones he talks about were certainly standouts. I would add the Disney panel that Misha Mihailova was on as a particularly generative one as well (especially in the chat, somehow, a surprisingly useful aspect of the online conference experience), and in the last session, the historical effects panel Katarina Loew chaired was also great. I didn't see the Romero panel at SCMS, but I had seen a webinar outside of SCMS and it is indeed an exciting new archive.
Ernest Mathijs: I will add to the already excellent observations one more: the panel on 'flops'. Panel T4 (I remember this because in Canada T4 is a tax slip :-)) Eliot Bessette gave a presentation on The Wolf Man that focused on special effects, which I really liked because it made the argument that The Wolf Man (2010?) struggled with shifts from tactile horror FX to digital FX. Hence its failure, the paper claimed (it made other claims too, but this one seems relevant to us).
What were the key trends in visual effects scholarship that SCMS threw a spotlight on for you this year?
Lisa Purse: I think we are seeing visual effects scholars really engage with how creative decision-making is situated culturally, institutionally, economically but also crucially in terms of the politics of representation. It feels like an important and necessary emphasis for our work.
Kartik Nair: A welcome trend I noted was the continued effort to deepen and texture our historicization of visual effects genres, practices, and aesthetics. In this regard, a particular highlight of the conference was the roundtable "Building a Horror Studies Archive: Opening the George A. Romero Collection", which I know some other folks on here also attended. It felt unprecedented that such an archive was being opened, and will house archival papers and documents from Romero's collection, including (hopefully) on production and prosthetic special effects ---I also felt the same way regarding the panel Global Special Effects 1925-1935
Nick Jones: While the conference took place during teaching, and therefore I was unable to attend as much as I would have liked, I did see an array of panels about VFX and associated issues. These discussed subjects as diverse of the place of digital effects in the mind-game film, action cinema, VR, 3D, cinema history, and others. However, overall I did not myself note any major trends, with visual effects scholarship and theory instead being a reference point for a wealth of other issues.
What upcoming publications from speakers are you looking out for?
Lisa Purse: Tanine Allison’s Capturing Motion: Digital Performance in Contemporary Film, Television, Animation, and Video Games (forthcoming) looks really exciting.
Nick Jones: I'm looking forward to the publication of the edited collection Action Cinema Since 2000, edited by Lisa Purse, Chris Holmlund and Yvonne Tasker, and due for release in 2022. Collecting together papers from the Action Cinema Now conference in Reading in 2019, the focus here may not be VFX, but issues of digital animation are sure to feature prominently given their significance to the contemporary action film.
What are you currently working on?
Lisa Purse: I’m finishing a chapter on the use of digital technologies in the depiction of the female action hero for a forthcoming anthology co-edited by myself, Chris Holmlund and Yvonne Tasker called Action Cinema Since 2000 (Bloomsbury, forthcoming), and researching a project on volume stages and mixed reality studios.
Kartik Nair: I am currently working on the manuscript of my first book, and feel lucky to say I go on a sabbatical this year to do so! As a 'break' however, I am spending time in May putting together an article on VFX and presence in new the version of The Invisible Man.
Nick Jones: I'm currently working on a project exploring the connections between the graphic user interface and other media. A video essay related to this work, and which explores VFX breakdowns and labour, is available on youtube.
Why Have a Visual Effects Network?
Visual Effects have infiltrated the engine room of contemporary visuality. At their most spectacular they power our blockbuster movies, TV, and video games, constructing fantastical story-worlds, creatures, events, and character bodies, shaping style and viewer address. At their least visible they erase distracting elements of sets, costume and performance, change colour schemes and lighting, extend backgrounds and amplify crowd sizes. At their most quotidian they live in our pockets, allowing us to augment our smartphone selfies with rabbit ears or zombie masks, smooth our laugh lines and erase our pores, or insert our faces into music video clips. At their most troubling they are used to create deceptive illusions, challenging us to question what is “real” versus what is “fake” in our visual mediation of the world and each other. Although often framed as yet another manifestation of the digital turn, visual effects have long, deep, and multiple historical entanglements with older visual forms, technologies, entertainments, science, and industries.
From a scholarly point of view, visual effects and their long history have often been positioned as matters that lie outside, or perhaps more accurately, across many media. Note, for instance, how few foundational textbooks in Film Studies have allocated space to the discussion of visual effects. Many such books continue to define cinematography, mise-en-scène, editing, and sound as the core building blocks of film making and meaning, with visual effects as a sort of optional augmentation. This is even as, industrially and aesthetically, mise-en-scène, cinematography, and editing have been historically bound up with visual effects practices such as prosthetic makeup, miniatures, rear projection, travelling mattes, superimposition. The digital turn, alongside the coincident rise of media archaeology, has brought these historical entanglements into clearer view, sparking a renewed interest in mapping connections and tracing origins.
Film historians have pointed out the pre-cinematic origins of visual effects from theatrical backdrops to magic lanterns, stage illusionism, and optical toys, and from painterly traditions of Trompe-l'œil to spectacular representations of machines in motion found in great exhibitions and world fairs throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such scholarship, around the origins of film in an exhibitionist “Cinema of Attractions,” has revised our understanding of the cinematic moving image as a special effect in and of itself. Meanwhile, folk in animation studies have long pointed to the relationship between the moving image and the visual effect, seeing the essence of cinema as always having been animation: the illusion of life and liveliness, rather than centrally defined by the photographic record.
For any scholars entering a modern-day visual effects production facility it is hard not to draw simplistic and clichéd parallels between descriptions of Renaissance painting guilds and/or indeed Hollywood's early studio system. The digital effects pipeline is nothing if not fundamentally industrial in scale and scope. Likewise analyses of digital effects always bring one back nostalgically to a media archaeology of the analogue forms of glass painting that ran from the stained glass of church windows to magic lanterns and on into the Lumière and Méliès early films and eventually Industrial Light and Magic's magnificent Star Wars scenes. Meanwhile questions of how performance capture might be reconfiguring our conceptions of acting and animation and the divisions of labour, tend to pull us into discussions of puppetry, automata, prosthetic makeup, animatronics, and stop motion animation. And this doesn't even scratch the surface of the visual effects industries deployed in television industries across the world from the 1950s onwards. The study of early digital effects is nothing if not a Pandora's box of early television adverts, show reels, making of documentaries, techno-futurist magazine articles, and other ancillary texts that say much about what was to come, what was developed when, and why.
It is perhaps because visual effects have been such a long-running and ever-present cross-media cultural form, that the study of this area has always been oddly fragmented and disparate. In the humanities visual effects are studied in art history, in film studies, in media studies, in photography theory. Likewise, however, the subject is also found in practice-based disciplines from art and design to animation. Step into a computer science programme on any given day and one will find scholars and students discussing Catmull splines and/or the latest research papers from Pixar, Weta Digital and many other studios submitting R&D material to SIGGRAPH. This is not to mention the increasing rapidity with which game engines are both producing, and being developed to produce, ever more complex and widely available real-time visual effects platforms.
What we have then is an area of production and of study that is surprisingly large in scope, but frequently ill-defined or undefined in scholarship. However, unlike many emergent scholarly networks, we have no intention of using this opportunity as a means to call for a recognised and unified subject of study. On the contrary, it is precisely because visual effects research and production (the margins of which frequently overlap) are so broad-based and ever-changing, and because visual effects themselves encompass a wide range of practices and are so pervasive, that we argue this area is so vibrant and fascinating. Given that that is the case, attempting to define an all-encompassing set of parameters for the discipline would almost certainly be self-defeating.
Instead, this network was set up to recognise and celebrate visual effects research as a powerful but often confusingly dispersed interaction of practice and theory, industry and scholarship, media form and discipline. We seek to encourage points of connection and enlightenment across the fragmentation. After so often working at the margins of other disciplines, and being so geographically scattered, we want to build a sense of scholarly community, drawn together by our shared fascinations even as our approaches to visual effects are very different. We hope to be more visible to each other, but also to provide a jumping off point for anyone interested in the ways people are thinking and writing about visual effects, and the ever developing relationship between industry and academia, research and development.
In this network we have many well-recognised international scholars. Some are from traditional academic backgrounds. Others hail from the emergent relationship between traditional academia and practice-based research and teaching. Many increasingly operate across both domains as the previously rigid barriers between academic study and visual effects production continue to diminish in the face of collapsing cost of production.
On this website we hope to offer news and updates of research publications, conferences and industry developments as and when they emerge. But we also hope to publish essays regarding the industry in both textual and visual formats. As video essays continue to emerge as a new accessible format in the field of film and media studies, visual effects videos, video essays, visual essays and real-time effects engine output will only continue to grow. To that end we welcome any requests to submit material relevant to this area as we start to make the visual effects research network and vibrant hub for research, ideas, and production in the area.