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VFX – A Visual Treat or Trick? Is VFX Killing Good Storytelling?

vfx filmmakers

Have visual effects and CGI taken over the movie industry? Are filmmakers relying more and more on VFX tech in movies to sell a story? Has storytelling taken a backseat? Is the over-reliance on VFX making filmmakers lazy?

Cinema has always been the most fascinating medium of telling stories since the onset of films. If we look at history of cinema, storytelling is primarily done through actor performances combined with aesthetically appropriate sets and art design, meaningful cinematography, precise yet aesthetic visual and sound editing and most importantly, a strong vision of the director.

The ultimate goal of making a film is to make it believable to its audiences and creating a sense of realism in the pictures and sounds that the audience sees and listens to. But, there have been instances when there were limitations in creating this ‘fake’ reality. Especially when the world of the story is imaginative and cannot exist in the reality.

For example, back in the early 20th century, Lumière Brothers amazed people with the first instances of moving images which were essentially successive recorded images of the actuality such as in The Arrival of a Train (1896) or Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). These were pure recordings and projections of the real world as it appears to the human eye. But then innovators such as Georges Melies thought otherwise and created an instance out of imagination such as a rocket landing on the lunar surface in his film A Trip to the Moon, thus giving birth to an ensemble of techniques to create an illusion of fantastic reality which were known as Visual Effects or simply VFX.

The prime motive of using visual effects has always been to capture such imagery which is impossible to either create due to practical difficulties of the film camera or due to budgetary constraints. In the early years, before digital technology took over, visual effects consisted of capturing imagery using trick photography with the aid of exposure techniques using lenses, shutters, speed of image capturing, perspectives, filters and masks. Imagery such as a giant gorilla climbing tall buildings in the film King Kong (1933) used miniature models and perspectives, double roles of the actors were shot using partial exposure of the celluloid film.

Schüfftan process facilitated to capture a shot of a couple driving and singing in a car without mounting the then available heavy cameras onto the car in songs like in ‘Choodi Nahin Ye mera Dil Hain’ from the film Gambler (1971). There were quite a lot of innovations that gave fascinating results of throwing one’s imagination on the reel. Yet, there were limitations in doing that as the audience would still ask for more ‘realistic’ images.

Digitalization began in early 70s with the invention of imaging sensor as well as advent of computers and thus emerged the era of computer generated imagery or CGI. Digital technology and computer software combined to create portions of the image which couldn’t be shot through the film camera. Early CG brought revolutionary pictures in the form of series of movies such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, the extravagant The Matrix Trilogy, The Terminator and the latest Guardians of the Galaxy.

Storytellers have been relied on to transport listeners to other worlds since time immemorial. Filmmakers are modern day storytellers who have the power to transport their audiences to lands far away from their usual lives and hold them mesmerised for a couple of hours. These lands have become more and more fantastical as VFX has progressed, weaving increasingly intricate myths.

Even in India, VFX in movies has evolved from the ‘in-camera’ era to modern-day digital CGI. Filmmakers have used VFX moderately to completely-carved-out-in-VFX in Bollywood movies. Dadasaheb Phalke used extensive in-camera visual effects in Kalia Mardhan back in 1919, while Krrish (2006) and Enthiran (2010) used it enormously to depict superhuman abilities. Telugu cinema has taken VFX to greater heights right from its earliest examples such as Pathal Bhairavi (1951) and Maya Bazaar (1957) to the recent magnum opus Baahubali 1 & 2 which has taken leaps ahead of anyone in the Indian VFX industry so far.

VFX has been a boon to filmmakers who can now create anything out of their imagination and put it on the screen. But at the same time, the question that arises is how much filmmakers are dependent on the ever-growing technology and whether it’s affecting their storytelling.

Peter Jackson’s Godzilla or The Lord of the Rings or Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes give an answer to this when the audience were treated with enormous capabilities of the digital technology to create the most terrifyingly stunning creatures and monsters that they have seen come alive on the big screen combined with realistic sound effects and background score.

The Jurassic Park series was instrumental in bringing alive the long-lost era of dinosaurs and Hollow Man gave an experience of complete and believable invisibility of a human. At one end, each example has explored the deepest human fantasies, but at the other, it has also impacted writing. Many writers have realised that scripts with massive suggestions for visual effects have bigger buyers than writing on subjects that are close to real life. Take the recent example of Baahubali 2 which has surpassed the previous all-time grosser PK (which had comparatively lesser VFX).

Cinema has now been expanded to give impetus on visual treatment and glorification of the film canvass, but has an equal risk of faltering if it loses a good storytelling. Baahubali 2 would have met with a disaster if it wouldn’t have great characters and storylines to hold the audiences.

VFX has made making sequels easier, especially for action movies. Directors and actors are already planning the sequels for movies that are still in production.  They often plan and market the sequels that promise bigger and better effects. This can often take away from the story, leaving most of the wonder of the movie going experience up to effects. For example, James Cameron’s Avatar has a few sequels planned. Whether the VFX in the sequels will instil the same wonder in the audience the second time around, remains to be seen. If not, it will require an immensely gripping storyline to keep audiences hooked. Films like Transformers started out well because it had both a good story and visual treatment but failed in its sequels to hold the audiences as it stressed too much over style rather than delivering substance.

It’s important to understand that throwing a whole bunch of visual effects into a movie does not make a movie good. Crafting a good story requires a lot more work than handing the footage over to a visual effects team to work their magic. VFX need not be detectable for them to be spectacular. Some of the best visual effects are when the audience doesn’t even know that they are watching VFX.

VFX was supposed to enhance storytelling and not destroy it. Good scripts have started to vanish, good directors have lost their vision, and cinematographers are deemed meaningless as everything they shoot is rendered in the post-production, thus killing the art of in-camera effects. Storytelling has blinded audiences with visual treats than pulling focus onto showing fantastic characters. Even for actors who perform live in front of the camera are now dubbing their CG counterparts in the post.

To sum it up, good cinematic storytelling involves good content going hand-in-hand with great visuals. Every innovation lasts for a stipulated time and then it has to evolve further as the demand for reaching greater heights surpasses the earlier work. In the end… content will always remain the king!

At Seamedu School of Pro-Expressionism, our comprehensive filmmaking courses in Pune, Bangalore and Mumbai focus heavily on helping young students realize the value of storytelling and the art of creating a motion picture, while our VFX programs deliver an in-depth understanding of visual effects and animation for film, TV and web.

Let us know what your thoughts are on this subject and how you perceive the problem stated in this article in the comments section below!

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