Visual Effects

I used simple color keying to put this Brownie Target Six-20 camera on the surface of Mars. A bit quick, but realistic from far away, no?

If you saw Tron: Legacy, you were probably blown away, or at least impressed, by the visual effects. If not, then you were probably not looking at the visual effects, but were instead hoping to see a movie with a good story, in which case you missed the point (see the old 1982 film and you’ll understand why it’s not about the story: it never was.) It’s not that the plot and dialog were bad, necessarily, but they weren’t the focus. I saw Tron: Legacy a few days ago… and then again a few days later. I loved it both times, but I find that it has a creepy ability, sort of like Avatar, to suck you into the world of your imagination. After seeing such a brilliant and exciting movie real life seems sort of dull, especially when you’re about to start classes after a two week long winter vacation. When I saw Tron: Legacy, referred to as Tron hereafter because it’s annoying to keep typing Tron: Legacy, I was in the process of watching the original Star Trek series on DVD. Again, one could argue that the point of the original series of Star Trek is not the plot or dialog, but that’s another blog post for another time. What I find interesting in this comparison is the visual effects and our perception of them. Namely: how does our perception of visual effects change as they improve?

If you’ve ever seen the original Star Trek episodes, you know how horribly the effects were. At times you can see the fishing line used to manipulate the plastic model ship, the aliens don’t look at all realistic, and the most futuristic idea of a computer that they could come up with at the time was a box with LED’s and toggle switches that looks about as primitive as the Heathkit EC-1. But at the time, the show stimulated the imaginations of all sorts of people, and inspired at least five subsequent TV series and a number of motion pictures that had significantly larger budgets and better special effects than the original series, the most recent of which was the Star Trek movie that even attracted non-Trekkies (I’m proud to say that I was a Trekkie before it was popular, he says, thumbing his nose.) We’ve come a long way in visual effects since then, and we can now make all sorts of things happen on a movie screen that could never happen in real life. But what will those effects look like in another fifty years? Will my kids see Tron: Legacy and say to me, “Woah, look! You can see the compositing!”

I doubt it, because you really can’t see the compositing! In the scene where Sam Flynn is standing on the Encom tower, it actually looks like he’s standing on the Encom tower and, unlike in the original Tron, you can’t see the edges of the mask or the difference in lighting with an untrained eye (I doubt that you can see the edges of the mask even with a trained eye.) So have we reached a plateau? Have our visual effects become so realistic that film will have to take on another frontier to captivate our imaginations? I think that might be the case.

So what is the next frontier of film? Is it 3D? Is it holography? The purpose of this post is less to suggest where the film industry is going, and more to ask the question. It seems to me that the visual effects we have are already about as realistic as they can get, and the only progress to be made is making them easier to use (e.g. more simple color keying, etc) and more visually appealing (i.e. better color correction.) Maybe there is another sort of visual effect that is much harder to do, but even if there is, won’t we eventually have to explore a new field of visual enhancement?

I’d love to hear what you think about the subject in the comments.

The above image contains an image from NASA, which was found using a Google Image Search for images with a Reuse with Modification License. It was found here:


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