Friday, August 19, 2011

"So that's how it was done..."

This picture was posted recently on a photoblog that usually posts pictures of strange and unusual things:

And the caption was "So that's how it was done"...

20 or more years ago, this kind of picture might not have seemed so strange to youngsters interested in visual effects for film. This picture is actually from 1979, during the post-production phase of "The Empire Strikes Back", showing the filming of the famous prologue scroll.

Some people in this day and age seem amazed that at one time, visual effects were done with real things, on a stage, with cameras, rather done entirely in the computer. I use a computer on a daily basis for media production, and I always am in awe at how they accomplished such magical imagery using rear and front projection, matte paintings, traveling mattes and optical printers for compositing multiple elements into a scene.

At the time this picture was taken, at Industrial Light and Magic, they were the best visual effects shop around. The effects might seem dull and slow compared to the dizzying computer-generated effects in current productions, but it seems there was more of an effort to make good visual effects prior to the use of modern CG effects. Many films coming out to today seem so over-produced than I can barely stand to watch more than a few minutes at a time. It's so easy now to composite CG elements into a scene to the point of visual saturation that it's virtually effortless to produce these films.

Of course, I won't completely disparage CG effects and animation, a lot of it is very good (like in "Lord of the Rings" and the Pixar films), and there's no question that some of the independent short films are just spectacular. In this day and age, even when doing traditional hand-drawn animation and stop-motion, the added flexibility and power of personal computers has made these traditional forms of animation much more accessible to the independent filmmaker.

I admit I am jealous of youngsters getting into filmmaking now... when I was 13 in the late 70s, I first started experimenting with Super 8 cameras, stop-motion, rotoscoping, and visual effects. I had to do everything in-camera because the idea of getting an optical printer to make super-8 films was beyond any possibility (they existed but were several thousand dollars). The same goes for producing audio for films, we were very limited in what we could do for music, sound effects, etc. Now, you can do everything "in the box" -- compositing, audio mixing, even creation of full symphonic scores. It's very cool.

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