What’s In a Name?

by Graham Edwards

Visual Effects Supervisor“Visual effects”… isn’t it a rather ordinary name for a discipline built on limitless imagination, artistic endeavour and technical excellence? As names go, isn’t it a bit … dull?

It wasn’t always called visual effects. Back in the early days, the techniques used by film pioneer Georges Méliès to create his cinematic fantasies were so closely tied to their theatrical roots that they were inevitably referred to as “tricks” or “illusions”. When audiences saw them, they gasped. These weren’t visual effects. They were magic.

According the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the term “special effects” first appeared in 1926, in the credits of What Price Glory? Mind you, it took a while to catch on: in 1933, Willis O’Brien’s screen credit on King Kong was the rather prosaic “Chief Technician”.

Once the term became generally accepted, the Academy started dishing out Oscars for Special Effects to the top practitioners in the field. But here’s a thing: the original award was a portmanteau affair for both visual and sound effects. Winners of this included Mighty Joe Young in 1949, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 and Ben-Hur in 1959.

This state of affairs lasted all the way up to 1962, at which point sound and vision finally parted company. For the next ten years, worthy artists received golden statuettes in a whole new category: “Special Visual Effects”. Meanwhile, on the shop floor, there was a growing distinction between visual effects (generally created in post-production) and special effects (practical gags that happen in front of the camera).

Confused? Hang in there.

In 1972, with the big studios shutting down their in-house effects shops, the Academy’s Special Visual Effects category was scrapped. For five years, the discipline was paid lip service via catch-all Special Achievement Awards. Then, in 1977, Star Wars exploded on to our screens, rebooting the whole industry and winning the very first Oscar for what had finally become plain old “Visual Effects”.

For better or worse, the term “visual effects” is the one that’s stuck to this day. But is it any good? Are there any visual effects supervisors out there who would rather have fewer syllables in their job title? Granted you can shorten the descriptor to VFX, but acronyms are for multinational corporations, not dedicated creative innovators.

So what’s the alternative? If modern effects  are all about creating physically plausible models of the real world, why not call the whole business “simulation” instead? Hmm, then all the people working in the business would be simulators. Sounds like something you’d ride at the fair.

I have a soft spot for an expression I stumbled over (where else?) in an old issue of Cinefex. In 1916, German film pioneer Paul Wegener envisioned “a new pictorial fantasy world” made possible by advanced imaging techniques. The term he coined for this vision was “optical lyric”.

Will the Academy ever give out an Award for Optical Lyrics? Probably not. But at least it’s a name that evokes the sense of wonder of those early days. It makes you think of Méliès. Just by saying it aloud, you could dust a movie set with magic.

In an industry that’s experienced more than its share of sea changes in recent years, maybe it’s time to open the debate about what label it carries. Is there anything in a name? I think so.

What should visual effects really be called?

2 thoughts on “What’s In a Name?

  1. The issue perhaps is that VFX is ready for yet another split…animation and manipulation. Digital actors, CG landscapes, and simulated catastrophes are overlapping the more stylized work of character animators, who happen to get their own Academy Award category. Why not include portions of what is now called VFX in the animation category, and judge them not as the best “animated” movies, but as the best use of animation within a movie? Maybe a few decades into the future, this will even be merged with “Best Actor/Actress”! You could apply this mentality to other categories too, like Costumes, Cinematography, and Production Design. After all, what is the difference to the audience whether a set was create by carpenters, miniature modelmakers, or Maya modelers?

    Now we just need to figure out how to fit 50 layout/lighting artists on the stage when they win for best Cinematography…

    So if that happens, you may be left with the “manipulation” part of VFX: the trickery, invention, and melding of elements to create something impossible or never before seen. I think George Lucas and company got it mostly right with “Light and Magic”. But perhaps we can take a term right out of the Academy’s Rule #22, defining the criteria for judging visual effects on “the artistry, skill and fidelity with which the visual illusions are achieved.”

    “Visual illusions” even sounds like a nice tribute to Méliès.

    • It’s interesting to consider the split you describe, Ben. In last week’s post, I talked about visual effects being incorporated in real-time during the production shoot. In the future, the director of photography will be able to move ANY light on the set, real or virtual. Digital scenery and props will be as adaptable as their physical counterparts – probably more so. As VFX integrates more fully with the production process, do special effects become less “special”? And, as you suggest, does the Academy Award get reserved for the real whizz-bang moments of true visual innovation and artistry?

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