What visual effects can tell us about realism, affect and Bazin.
Two days after wrapping on the $65 million dollar budget film Pete’s Dragon, David Lowery headed home to Texas to make a small film (literally, the aspect ratio is 1.37:1) with a group of friends called A Ghost Story. The budget? $100,000. In itself, the budget is a good marker of how different the films are. And yet in both films, Lowery uses visual effects in a very calculated and affecting way, two qualities that are often lacking in effects-heavy films nowadays. Indeed, many an article has been written about the CGI overkill in Hollywood franchises. In his article for Variety on The Age of Ultron, Brian Lowry argues that “the ability to mount enormous battles featuring multiple super-powered characters, however, has become its own trap. And while the results can be visually astounding, the movies regularly feel as lifeless and mechanized as the technology responsible for bringing those visions to fruition.” And writing in David Bordwell’s blog, Kristen Thompson does a side-by-side comparison of The LOTR Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy’s different uses of special effects. What all of these critiques and comparisons boil down to is that, when used gratuitously, special effects can feel vapid and homologous. Without a specific and characteristic humanity, we as viewers have nothing to cling to. The texture of humanity keeps us enthralled.
When films (especially big-budget ones) use special effects well they tend to do well both critically and commercially. Films such as Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road are notable cases in which the filmmakers used real locations, real stunt performers and – in the case of Ex Machina – a real actor, not a motion capture. Indeed, sci-fi, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic (etc) are all genres that are defined by their relationship to narrative realism. In order to show the extraordinary, you first have to establish what the world’s ordinary is. To define what I mean by realism, I am going to turn to the French film theorist André Bazin. He was a sucker for long takes because they preserve the spatiotemporal continuity, thus transferring “the continuum of reality.” Given that Bazin was such a fan of Italian Neorealist cinema, people might not think of him when they think of who might enjoy an effects-heavy film like Wonder Woman, for example. And yet, developments in digital technology have improved filmmakers’ ability to shoot long takes and use deep focus. Because even if you wanted to shoot a 1-shot 90-minute film on 35mm you’d still have to yell cut in order to change the reel. And Bazin was aware of this. After all, that’s why he called it ‘the myth of total cinema.’ He probably wouldn’t have been a fan of the one-take montages that move through walls and bodies because they don’t preserve the indexicality of the image, thus undermining the reliability of the image. So what can visual effects tell us about reality and time?
To answer this question, I am going to look at A Ghost Story. The film unveils its thesis about time both through cosmic cuts and a whole lot of long-takes (I hope to God the pie scene was done in one take). Returning to this idea about the indexical image, in Bazin’s essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, he claims that “the image of things is likewise the image of their duration, change mummified as it were.” Lowery is tapping into the inherent morbidity of cinema. He accentuates this morbidity through the subtle visual effects.
In an interview with PopMatters, Lowery goes into detail about the ghosts and how the visual effects would work in tandem with the low-budget aesthetic:
“The initial idea was to do those scenes completely practically with a little bit of visual effects augmentation, but it didn’t work. We turned to WETA, the same artists who made our dragon for us, and they helped out in those sequences. They understood what the movie was—very handmade, very realistic, shot in real locations with a ghost that is not a special effect at all, just someone wearing a costume. These visual effects needed to function in concert with that. There was a high bar in terms of the degree of verisimilitude those visual effects needed to have.”
The fact that the ghost is ‘just someone wearing a costume’ amplifies the emotional resonance of the visual effects to a huge extent. Because in a very real sense the ghost is lifeless and faceless, almost as if rendered by CGI. Though performed by a human the ghost is not human. There’s a very specific moment which encapsulates the excellent merging of embodied realism and visual effects. After the house is bulldozered, the two ghosts stand (do ghosts stand?) in the rubbles, at a loss of what to do next. A subtitle for the ghost in the flowery bed sheet (played by Lowery) reads, “I don’t think they’re coming.” And with that acknowledgment, the ghost collapses and drops to the ground. The emotional complexity in this swift moment gives way to a number of questions: Should I be sad that the ghost has given up? Or happy that it is being set free? Is this purgatory or is it hell?
The deflation is so effective because it’s is an acknowledgment of the ghost’s bodiless nature. And because we know that a body is under there given the low budget of the film, when it deflates it’s like a magic trick. Except the trick isn’t about watching someone disappear. It’s seeing what they leave behind. A legacy in the form of a bedsheet.