Say “visual effects” to the average person in the street, and what will they think about? Enormous monsters? Even more enormous spaceships? Superheroes performing enormously impossible stunts?
Sounds about right to me.
Say “visual effects” to a visual effects artist, and they’re just as likely to think about wire removal, background replacement and the tedious restoration of some tiny detail that should have been photographed in production, but wasn’t.
It’s tempting to imagine that, given the pixel-perfect possibilities of digital manipulation, fixing things in post is a relatively new thing. Not so. To prove it, I’ve unearthed an article from the September 1939 edition of International Photographer magazine, discussing the role of Paul Lerpae, who at the time was Paramount’s first cameraman in charge of optical printing and montages.
I fell in love with this article right out of the gate. Here’s how it begins:
All camera wizardry is figurative. The special effects branch of motion picture photography includes a number of able gentlemen who combine science and ingenuity in a form of magic as baffling as any trickery concocted by Merlin for visiting Connecticut Yankees.
The notion that visual effects artists are “able gentlemen” might be considered sexist today, but in context it’s utterly charming. As for what these gentlemen did, well, some of it was as mundane as it gets:
It was discovered one day that in an important scene, an American flag had been photographed with the stars on the right instead of on the left, as they should be. To retake the scene with the flag hung correctly would have cost from $5000 upwards. The optical printer was called into service and the flag was “doubled in.” The job was photographically satisfactory and the saving was obvious.
And there you have it: fixing it in post, circa 1939. Here’s how the article sums up the revolutionary process of applying a photochemical Band-Aid:
The most spectacular aspect of the work of the optical printing cameraman is this sensational and wizard-like ability to save scenes, to solve problems and, in short, to play the role of “safety man” for the rest of the production team.
So, was being “safety man” the only thing a visual effects artist had to look forward to in those pioneering days? Not at all:
Under modern production conditions … the special effects and montage work is an integral part of the story preparation from the early stages of scripting. Method varies on different lots, but the general procedure calls for advance planning for unusual and dramatically effective photographic twists and stunts, rather than using special effects and optical printing merely as time and money saving mediums.
The way this is shaping up, I reckon the day-to-day toil of a 1930s VFX artist was similar to that of his modern counterpart. Could the same be said of his working conditions? Well …
Each studio organization likes to train its own men to its particular method of operation. Familiarity with the particular studio’s individual technical gags and devices, trade secrets and pet ways of accomplishing results, is absolutely essential. Consequently, there is less shifting from one lot to another than in any other branch of motion picture photography.
Hmm. In a week when Sony Imageworks announced it’s moving its head office from Culver City to Vancouver, I guess we can hardly assert the 21st century VFX industry enjoys “less shifting from one lot to another”.
Given all this emphasis on the technicalities of the profession, and the training of staff in the “studio way”, was there any place for artistry in those early days? Were visual effects artists just grunts obeying orders, or were they actually furthering the art of cinema? Here’s what the article has to say:
Special effects workers view their jobs as integral parts of the complete task of creating dramatically effective screen entertainment. They can’t see why special effects can not be regarded as equally legitimate phase of artistic contribution to screen entertainment with the dramatic tricks of a skilled playwright or the artistic license taken by poets and painters. In other words, special effects tricks and stunts are just another aspect of industry progress toward placing a richer and more effective type of entertainment upon the screen.
Finally, Lerpae has his own views on where visual effects might take filmmaking in the future. While he doesn’t cite an actual year, it’ s tempting to imagine he might have been looking a nice round 75 years ahead … say to the unimaginably futuristic year of 2014.
Future of special effects progress holds great possibilities for the industry, Lerpae believes, dependent entirely upon the enthusiasm generated among production creators for more and trickier special effects work, plus ability of special effects technicians to satisfy this enthusiasm with practical results.
Enthusiasm. Ability. Great possibilities. Is there anyone working in the industry today who can’t get behind those three things? And is there anyone who wants to contradict the simple truth demonstrated by this article?
The truth that, for the most part, nothing changes so much as it stays the same.