The Visual Affect”

I can’t think of a single movie these days that does not require the touch of a VFX team; even the simplest of projects end up having a few visual effects shots. Examples include the many films shot on locations that need extraction of background elements – telephone wires, non-period cars, planes, etc. But even when making a modestly budgeted interior-based drama, VFX can be more involved than anticipated.

I first had that experience fifteen years ago on Donnie Darko. This award-winning independent film had a very low budget yet needed a key story effect (the time portal that became the end of the story) that writer/director Richard Kelly had always envisioned.

What do you do when there is no money for VFX yet VFX shots are absolutely required to complete the narrative? It can present a bigger challenge than coordinating a large movie with multiple vendors and a healthy VFX budget.

In 2001, the year Donnie Darko was released, digital VFX were still being developed and customized to work within small computer platforms. Prior to that it took a tremendous amount of digital horsepower to achieve any kind of VFX shot. On Donnie Darko, at the very dawn of the era we now enjoy, we had to shift into “garage band” mode; we had to use some very creative people to think well outside of the box. It was a seat-of-the-pants approach that was actually quite invigorating and creatively satisfying (if not without a great deal of stress!)

On many movies today, VFX shots are often sent overseas – Korea, India, Malaysia, or China, wherever there happens to be an office with a computer. Often the work can be sub-par and needs to be fixed by experienced domestic post houses, negating whatever savings were originally intended. My feeling is it’s better off to start and finish in the U.S., especially if it’s a project with a small number of VFX shots.

With the passing of Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, I was reminded of my time spent on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and seeing the mastery of Douglas Trumbull firsthand. The space ship, the landing strip, the mountaintop where people waited for the ship to come – these very large sets were all accommodated by tricky optical effects, which were state of the art at that time. The scene on the mountaintop was built as a full-scale set onstage, road and all; but the entire background had to be optically inserted. So Doug Trumbull developed the largest front-screen projection system ever conceived just for that shot.

Today, of course, it’s a fairly simple matter to rotoscope the skyline and comp in a computer generated effect. Movies like The Martian, shot by Darius Wolski, ASC, showcase the best of digital artistry on a scale equally as large and grand as Close Encounters, but in a much more simple and direct way. That doesn’t mean today’s digital wizardry is better or worse than what Trumbull accomplished. In fact, for me as a young DP, it was a privilege to learn how such VFX was conceived and accomplished on film, and may well have created a foundation of knowledge that allowed me to more easily transition into the digital VFX era, and help fulfill Richard Kelly’s vision for an indie feature like Donnie Darko, quickly, cheaply and effectively.

The education I received on Close Encounters, as well as on a film like Blade Runner, where I was fortunate enough to shoot VFX elements, is probably not available to young cinematographers today. Then again, the generation of DP’s (and beyond) who grew up with computers in their cribs, may well have a natural facility to embrace and expand upon VFX concepts and visions that we could only dream about in the film era.

What once was lost is found again, in a whole new way.

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600

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