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By J.X. Williams | May 2, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following article was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Standard, a fashion and culture magazine in Paris. The untranslated English text follows…

Last week, I received a message from my personal assistant. A magazine in Paris wanted me to write an article on the use of special effects in cinema. I don’t know why they couldn’t find a famous French director for this assignment but, then again, I don’t recall the CGI looked too hot in Alphaville. Not that George Lucas makes me proud to be an American but let’s face it: we own SFX. That is, until the studios farmed out the work to slave labor camps in Southeast Asia. Imagine row after row of those 6-year old Burmese orphans shackled to their computer terminals as they crunch out code. Making movies just ain’t fun anymore.

Anyway, let me give you the lowdown on special effects. First of all, it didn’t begin with camera tricks by Melies. It began with those shysters in the Vatican back in the 17th Century. Case in point: Church of San Ignazio in Rome. The painted ceiling above the nave creates an immersive 3D environment that would make James Cameron fall to his knees in religious awe. In terms of story, the fresco depicts missionaries led by über-Jesuit Ignatius Loyola escaping from the earth and into the heavens. At the center of the painting, an infinite void sucks their floating bodies into the unknown, kind of like the whirlpool you see when flushing the toilet (but in a good way).

My first encounter with Andrea Pozzo’s “The Apotheose of St. Iganazio” left me giddy and nauseous. I almost puked on the marble floor of the cathedral. Partly, this discomfort may be attributed to an inherent sense of unease around anything Christian. Jesus stuff freaks me out. However, my urge to regurgitate my lunch from La Pergola had subtler geometric origins. By foreshortening the heights at the periphery of the image and then zooming at warp speed into the infinite void, those crafty Jesuits created an optical illusion of dizzying and unbearable enormity. As you walk toward the center, the perspectives shift, the space opens wider, transforming into the agoraphobe’s worst nightmare. And, then suddenly, the chaos stills. You enter the eye of the storm at the center of the room. You look down at the floor and find a marble disk below your feet to indicate the safety zone. Very cute.

The brilliance of this work is the way in which the Pozzo has created a spatial metaphor of Catholic doctrine. Outside of the safety zone, there is only baaaad juju. Don’t forget the German word for “uncanny” is unheimlich, whose adverbial form also translates as “enormous” or “an awful lot of,” a condition that leaves one exposed and unprotected. Heidegger uses the term to express existential angst but it also has spatial connotations. Unheimlich means you are in a horrible place not just spiritually but physically[1]. In other words, the fresco tells the viewer “Listen up, you heathen piece of s**t! You stand where we tell you to stand. Do what we say and no one gets hurt.”

But let’s not get sidetracked. I’ve been asked to talk about film. So fast forward through a few centuries of SFX – magic lanterns, panoramic paintings, stereostopic photos, pyrotechnics – and we reach the good ol’ days of SFX. From the 1930’s to 1950s, visionaries like Ray Harryhausen made the impossible possible through the use of stop motion animation techniques. No one can forget the herky-jerky movements of King Kong atop the Empire State Building or the onslaught of skeleton swordsmen in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Optical printers parted the Red Sea and created stunning imaginary universes through traveling mattes.

Back then, we made special effects by hand. You could see the line of fishing reel that guided the flying saucer across the screen. We bought bottles of Heinz 57 to use for the blood of victims. Mannequins got thrown out of windows. It looked crude. It looked fake. And audiences loved every frame. Making special effects took enormous creativity on the part of a B-movie director. The lack of a production budget forced you to invent and experiment. Every day brought a new problem and an inspired solution to create the illusion.

Tron f****d everything. The movies lost their soul with the advent of computer graphics. Before that, we created films organically. We made films with our hands just as Michelangelo sculpted David with his. Do you think Picasso would have designed “Guernica” in Photoshop? If so, stop reading this article and go jump into the Seine. Morons like you are wasting our planet’s limited oxygen supply.

Today, there are no more Ray Harryhausen’s, Douglas Trumbull’s, or Linwood G. Dunn’s. These men were artisans, if not artists. Hal 9000 has taken their place. When every visual effects supervisor uses the same computers with the same software in accordance with the same standards and practices dictated by the corporate studio, guess what? The special effects are slick, boring, and monotonous. There used to be an era when movies showed you things you never saw before. CGI is the pornography of special effects. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

I was particularly disgusted when George Lucas went back and started inserting his ugly digital effects into the original Star Wars trilogy. It is almost impossible to see prints of the original films today. There’s something very sad in watching a director screw up his picture retroactively.

And don’t even get me started on all the remakes. There’s hardly anything Hollywood hasn’t gone back to ruin besides The Three Stooges. The editor of this publication recently told me that MM Spielberg & Jackson are planning a 3D CGI version of Tintin. Even to my jaded worldview, I find the digital desecration of this beloved French icon to be a revolting gesture of American cultural imperialism.

I was glad to read of demonstrations in your country after the government raised the retirement age to 47. Given the apathy and general ignorance of U.S. citizens, it is refreshing to hear of people fighting against evil. Hopefully, readers of this magazine will take up the blasphemous depiction of Tintin as their next cause célèbre. I heartily encourage you to burn down the nearest Apple Store in protest.

1. Coincidentally, the Heimlich Maneuver is a technique in which a firm upward thrust to the area below the rib cage is used to dislodge a piece of food from the trachea of a choking person. In effect, it causes one to throw up which is exactly what I wanted to do while at the Church of San Ignazio.

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  1. Arnold Kunert says:

    I enjoyed your article very much. Because you are obviously a Ray Harryhausen admirer, I recommend that you purchase Mike Hankin’s magnificent three-volume Harryhausen tribute, “Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks.” It’s only available via the internet at Unlike other books devoted to Harryhausen during the past decade or so, Hankin’s trilogy is accurate, comprehensive and wonderfully interesting to read. And the layout by Ernie Farino is spectacular.

  2. Proman says:

    “The editor of this publication recently told me that MM Spielberg & Jackson are planning a 3D CGI version of Tintin. Even to my jaded worldview, I find the digital desecration of this beloved French icon to be a revolting gesture of American cultural imperialism.”

    One would think that someone so invested in Tintin would know that he is not a French but a Belgian icon. That aside, you are completely and utterly wrong about this project.

    Not only is the Tintin film an international production that has full blessings of the Herge estate (and, before that, Herge himself), the very reason why it was chosen to be done as as CGI annimation was to preserve as much as possible the clear line style of the original arrwork – style that was impossible to replicate in live action. Many talented people have worked on this project for many years and a lot of effort was put it to make sure it is done with care and respect. Just maybe you should wait till you see the finished product and marvel at the care taken to the preserve the spirit of the original before you go around throwing accusations of “imperialism”.

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