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.
Why Have a Visual Effects Network?
Leon Gurevitch and Lisa Bode
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.