“The History of Amazement”

We’ve reached a kind of “cracking point” in the field of visual effects. What do I mean by that? At this very moment we are on the verge of “cracking” the VFX ceiling via the many new technologies coming at us so quickly. Computational photography (which uses the pictorial and angular relationship between multiple images to computationally alter focus, resolution, and depth-of-field or to generate 3D point cloud reconstructions of the image) is one technology that is now in the early stages of commercial use. Driving its introduction is the fact that computing power is 82,000 times cheaper than when IBM introduced its ASCI White supercomputer in 2000. And something like computational photography (as I was assured by the president of a company who specializes in it) will need very competent camera assistants to contribute to the technical and artistic sides of image creation. Certainly such photographic techniques will be a wild and disruptive ride, but we are already taking steps to prepare Guild members for this type of transition.

For me, personally, this analog/digital journey has been a fascinating one to behold. I started my career working with photochemical and mechanical visual effects, which had enjoyed a very rapid and steep quality curve. The apex was reached (in my estimation) on two films that I was fortunate enough to work on: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner. Both projects encompassed some of the most incredible photochemical/optical VFX the industry had ever seen. And it was right after Blade Runner, in 1982, that the dawn of the digital VFX era really began.

That was a time when many people – scientists, engineers, and manufacturers – were beginning to have a serious discussion (and even some development) about using computers to help write code that could be transferred from one place to another, and easily decoded into a form of language [filmmakers] could understand. Of course, what we’re doing now was barely a twinkle in the eye of those folks. But when CGI did arrive, its speed of acceleration and use was mind-boggling, with changes now coming on a weekly basis.

The switch from optical to digital became yet another major transition for our industry, and one for which the realm of the impossible now appears to be right at our fingertips. But let us not forget that photochemical/mechanical effects artists, who later transitioned into the digital world, first imagined a lot of the compositing and layering techniques now done by software and digital artists. The ingenuity that was displayed to solve the simplest of problems, in what we once called “trick photography,” was innovative, exciting, and almost concurrent with the birth of motion pictures.

That leads to another important point in this discussion: not every visual effect needs to be done digitally. There remains a great tradition of accomplished physical (in-camera) effects. Yes, a digital artist with software and light pad can accomplish the same (although not always as cost effective). But to see a great physical effect pulled off, on set, in front of the lens, remains, for me, one of the magical moments in cinema. At a symposium last year, I heard a digital-effects person say: “Why would they ever want to do that live when it can be done in post?” And the answer is simply: you need to be on set when it occurs, knowing how much preparation and effort went into the shot, to truly appreciate it. [I’m currently involved with a group of scientists, doctors and educators who are testing forms of biological and physical shifts in the brain and the body relative to new image capture and delivery systems. The goal is to see what parts of the brain are “lit up” while screening these prepared tests, which all have different factors built in.]

In fact, one of my proudest moments working in the action/VFX genre was on a 1989 film called Next of Kin, directed by John Irvin. We had just pulled off a wonderful in-camera shot, and legendary Special Effects Coordinator Joe Lombardi came over, threw his arm around me, and said: “Kid, you are really good. You could shoot a war movie!”

That may sound a bit quaint now, thinking of franchise features and even TV series where thousands of soldiers, ships, and even battlefields are created by digital means. But necessity is the mother of all innovation, and once upon a time, before VFX lived inside a monitor, they were conceived, tested and executed all at once, in front of the lens.

And that’s still amazing to behold. 


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