What Makes Special Effects Work?

Better Than Reality

What makes special effects work?


Ever since I read media scholar Julie Turnock’s The Empire of Effects: Industrial Light & Magic and the Rendering of Realism, I haven’t been able to watch a movie or TV show that contains special effects without focusing on the wrong things. Instead of dragons or landscapes from the past, I see particles everywhere: fog and dust and mist and dirt and shrapnel and rain. These digital details are meant to provide the texture of reality, but now I see them as a constant blanket of static coating the action. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, so if you enjoy admiring the realism of elven villages, don’t read this book.

The Empire of Effects is ostensibly about Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects company that George Lucas started in the 1970s to work on Star Wars and that ended up defining the look of big-budget movies. As a close study of ILM, the book is enlightening. But it’s also about far more: Turnock chronicles the rise of the contemporary effects industry in the 1970s and ’80s, the emergence of an oligopoly of studios based in California, and the way that mega-budget franchises like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter came to shape the effects industry of today. By grafting her account of ILM onto an incisive critique of popular image-making, Turnock also seeks to write a different kind of history, one that explains not only how ’70s-era special effects created a sense of reality in films, but how this particular historical sense ossified into something like reality itself.

What does it mean to say that the special effects in a movie or TV show—forgive me for including “streaming content” under these anachronistic but aesthetically preferable categories—are “bad” or “good”? The question isn’t about whether they’re cool to look at or not; instead, it hints at some objective standards to which practitioners aspire, a “real” realism. But Turnock historicizes our realism, contextualizing its origins in a way that allows for a deep critique of something we tend to take for granted. “There is no transhistorical ultimate realism that effects aesthetics or cinema more broadly are evolving toward,” she explains. “Instead, different industrial and cultural historical contexts mold standards of realism at a given time.”

George Lucas wasn’t trying to permanently define visual realism when he made Star Wars in the mid-1970s, any more than mid-century Christmas song authors were trying to rule the holidays forever; but he was in the right place at the right time, and he had the right look, too. At the time he turned to Star Wars, Lucas was still at the beginning of a more traditional directorial career: His first movie, THX 1138, was a dystopian science fiction film starring Robert Duvall. His second, American Graffiti, came out in 1973 and was a surprise nostalgic blockbuster—a portrait of a handful of young people on a single summer’s night in Modesto, Calif., in 1962. But for Star Wars, Lucas decided to do something a bit odd: He would make a retro film about the future. Harking back to a previous generation’s optimistic sci-fi futurism, Lucas wrapped his classic hero’s journey narrative in New Age spiritualism for a younger audience. The producers at 20th Century Fox had closed their in-house special effects studio, so Lucas had another opportunity too: He would be able to create a new effects style.

The production of Star Wars was inauspicious—over budget and behind schedule—and few expected it to become the cultural phenomenon it became. But whether it was the clichéd narrative, the fun robots, the Freudian subtext, or just Harrison Ford and Darth Vader, Star Wars pumped America’s pleasure centers full of proton torpedoes. Part of the appeal was found in its effects style—futuristic but retro and gritty. Developed by the ad hoc team that became Industrial Light & Magic, this new style of special effects took the film industry by storm. Lucas’s “effects team created a composite mise-en-scène,” Turnock writes, “that combined the New Hollywood cinematographic aesthetic with the flexibility of animation (often drawing from experimental animation) to create a historically determined style of photorealism that aligned with 1970s cinematographic styles.” This combination wasn’t just successful; it was the original sin of today’s special effects, with corporate culture and counterculture merging into one.

Working at a time when “cool” meant “rough”—think handheld shaky cameras and natural lighting—the Star Wars team found an innovative approach to sci-fi. Their “motion-control” camera rigs allowed Lucas to digitally program shots for perfect repetition, which allowed him to compose sequences out of independently filmed elements with relative ease. This was a major advance over special effects teams just trying their best, but it also entailed a smoothness that was out of style. And so coupled with this new smoothness was a purposeful roughness: The aesthetic of Star Wars was not to replicate reality but to recognize the rough-and-ready way that films imitated it. The Star Wars synthesis meant mussing up the cutting-edge effects, lest an outer-space dogfight look too serenely artificial. Lucas and his team developed this into a renegade style that Turnock convincingly compares to that of the so-called New Hollywood classics Badlands and Easy Rider. One hazy, contemplative evening landscape shot of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine is almost identical to a shot from Badlands that Turnock reproduces, except that Tatooine has two suns.

The motion-control realism that Lucas and the ILM team innovated became the basis for the special effects films of the 1980s, transforming an experiment into a successful formula. This included handheld cameras (or the simulation thereof), backlighting, and lens flares, all signature elements of the decade’s filmmaking—from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan to Cocoon and Back to the Future.

Lucas also expanded his own empire. Working with his buddy Steven Spielberg, he improbably turned Harrison Ford into the swashbuckling professor Indiana Jones in 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Industrial Light & Magic, now firmly established, handled the flares and melting Nazis and continued to develop its own approach to special effects. Following in Lucas’s footsteps, Spielberg did too. As a director and producer, he helped make the ILM synthesis into a mainstream affair. Moderating New Hollywood’s experimental gestures and sanding down its thematic rough edges, Spielberg tapped ILM for its style in a set of films that were full of comparatively sanitized, sentimental, and family-friendly stories: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., The Goonies, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park. Just as these movies came to represent the medium in general, their specific ILM realism became cinematic realism tout court.

Perhaps the best example of this is the artificial lens flare. An anachronistic “mistake” now frequently edited into footage, the flare has become a common bugaboo for cinephiles, many of whom can rant for hours on the topic, but the discussion in The Empire of Effects is particularly good. “A lens flare cannot be considered a feature of perceptual realism,” Turnock writes, “because, generally speaking, one needs a camera lens to ‘see’ a lens flare.” But “realistic,” again, does not mean looking like reality; it means looking like a cool movie from 1970, when things were “real.” Thus, a jerky camera balances the too-smooth effects of a pod race scene in The Phantom Menace, a turn-of-the-21st-century Star Wars prequel. In the pod-racing computer game released with the movie, players even had the option to toggle lens flare effects on and off.

Toward the end of the 20th century, Hollywood had grown dependent on a diluted ILM aesthetic that offered gritty realism paired with family-friendly fun. This happened not just because directors unconsciously reproduced the qualities of movies they admired, but because the strategies that scrappy filmmakers had made use of to work around their low budgets also enabled studios to get away with shoddy effects work, even on their biggest projects. Dim lighting punctuated by bright spots reduces the level of detail required, whether the object is a latex E.T. puppet illuminated by flashlights or a glowing-eyed Iron Man riding a hovercraft in the dark. A monster kept off-screen except for glimpses is a good way to get the most out of a cumbersome animatronic shark… or a computer-generated one produced on a limited budget and within a short time frame. Environmental haze gives depth and texture to computer-generated elements while reducing the need for finer details. This common grammar allows cost-cutting film producers to contract out discrete tasks to a variety of effects studios based on their perceived importance, with the margin for jankiness extending as the visual cliches become fully entrenched. Similar to many things in the ’90s, movies tended to get bigger and worse.

At a certain point, however, the ILM approach went too far. The special effects industry began to combine the prevailing imitation-janky aesthetics with even newer computer-generated imagery. The results were impressive at first—think Terminator 2’s liquid-metal assassin—but just as American consumers came to reject the high-fructose corn syrup they swilled in the 1980s and ’90s, so too did they begin to reject “CGI,” a term that developed bad connotations.

One of the first signs was the chilly reception Star Wars fans gave the trilogy’s 20th-anniversary rerelease. With a bulked-up ILM approach and a couple decades’ worth of technological progress, Lucas returned to his movies to correct errors, align them with the forthcoming prequels, and complete effects he could only dream of in the ’70s. The rerelease of the original Star Wars trilogy was a controlled test for 20 years of the film industry’s Star Wars–ification, and the results weren’t great. Most notoriously, Lucas changed a scene to make Harrison Ford’s Han Solo shoot the alien bounty hunter Greedo in self-defense rather than in cold blood, sanding off one of the few rough edges left in his polished, family-friendly flick. But it was too much of a presumptively good thing, and this small change spawned the conspiratorial anti-revisionist credo “Han shot first.” It was a classic case of fans suing a creator on behalf of his creations, but Lucas had simply reapplied his sentimentalizing filter—except this time he was working from his own, diluted product, not Easy Rider, and the lens flare wasn’t hitting hard enough anymore.

Even so, the Star Wars prequels were a box office triumph and marked a strong advance in visual effects, though they were a mixed blessing for those who had long hoped for a new Star Wars trilogy. The prequels were formally an ILM affair, but one full of slick new toys: CGI is used nearly nonstop in the three movies. Even if kids enjoyed the bouncy, pseudo-Rasta CGI alien Jar Jar Binks, he didn’t win over many adults. The prequels also set up a number of pop-culture punch lines that didn’t really land. Bad dialogue and goofy albeit groundbreaking effects were key elements in the original movies, too, but the new ones lacked their charming upstart quality. As the kind of mass-market entertainment IP that invites a 10-figure acquisition offer from Disney—the conglomerate purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for more than $4 billion in a cash/stock split—the new Star Wars movies delivered. They no longer represented a renegade vision but rather the status quo.

Lucasfilm and ILM weren’t yet Disney properties when Jon Favreau made Iron Man in 2008, but the nerdy Favreau anticipated the IP turn. And rather than use the schlocky effects that defined 1990s and early-2000s CGI, he sought to restore the earlier era’s gritty realism, to revive the original ILM style he’d grown up with. This was to be ILM’s second bite at the apple.

Turnock cites a number of quotes from Favreau and his effects collaborators that make his agenda clear: Rather than feature flashy CGI kaiju battling to destroy simulated cities, Iron Man would hark back to the ILM-defined ’70s and ’80s. Favreau wanted his heroes to feel as much human as super and for the effects to follow suit, and the approach paid off: Iron Man and its sequel were critical and commercial hits—for adults, teens, kids, and, most of all, for the new owner of Marvel, Disney. Favreau was soon tasked with heading high-stakes photorealistic remakes of the animated Disney classics The Jungle Book and The Lion King, both of which he directed to box office success. ILM didn’t work on these films, but once you’ve read Turnock’s book, the company’s style is unmistakable in the new remakes. The next time you watch a “realistic” Disney movie that contains a bunch of effects, take note whenever a beam of light pierces the darkness of a cave or a ruin or something like that; it will drive you nuts.

Favreau had his heart set, though, on the ILM original: Star Wars. And like two in-laws who happen to have already met, he started working on Star Wars projects when they both joined the mouse family. While finishing work on Iron Man at ILM, Favreau met Dave Filoni, a Lucas deputy leading the work on Star Wars’s Clone Wars, and offered himself as a voice actor. After his success with The Lion King, Favreau pitched a Star Wars series to Filoni for Disney’s new streaming service. The bounty-hunter story The Mandalorian would do for this franchise what Favreau had done for Iron Man, taking it back to the “realistic” 20th century and the original gunslinging space westerns—a move, it’s worth noting, that Joss Whedon already accomplished with the series Firefly.

The Mandalorian was a huge success, led by the breakthrough character Baby Yoda. To bring Baby Yoda to life (though the character’s name is not actually Yoda, and the “baby” is supposed to be something like 50 years old), Favreau and the ILM team used a puppet, as in the original series. This contrasts with 2002’s Attack of the Clones, which featured a fully CGI Yoda battling Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) amid floating rocks and digital “force lightning.” Immune to gravity, the bouncing prequel Yoda and his whirling lightsaber drew jeers for their lack of realism, though the computer effects were cutting-edge.

The Mandalorian’s puppet choice was acclaimed in the press, though the effects team confessed that there were shots where they wanted more than the puppet would offer. In those cases, they used CGI with the puppet as an imagined set of restraints. Describing a scene in which Baby Yoda uses “the Force,” animation supervisor Hal Hickel told Variety, “We were trying to make sure we didn’t do more than the puppet could do, and that we didn’t break what’s awesome and charming and perfect about the puppet.” As Turnock notes, the goal is no longer to find out what technology can accomplish at its bleeding edge, the way the effects makers did in 2003, but rather to see just how well it can ape an aesthetic that is now almost five decades old.

The Empire of Effects shows how today’s return to pre-CGI effects is part of a longer history—one defined by a realism that never wanted to appear truly real. Against the floaty Yoda of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, the new ILM aesthetic is gravity-bound, even if the characters do spend a lot of time flying around. Picking up on Favreau’s rhetoric, Turnock calls this formula “grounded” realism, both because the elements are expected to conform to gravity and because the digital effects are grounded in their practical predecessors. The approach, “modeled on ILM’s 1980s style of highlighting the effect of the human camera operator’s mistakes,” Turnock writes, “is designed to provide that analog feeling to a largely CGI production.” The unconscious nostalgic gestures of the ’80s and ’90s were combined with the conscious nostalgic commercial program of the 2010s to produce a field of Disney content that openly aspires to visual and emotional regression rather than experimentation, adventure, or progress.

And yet there’s always a gap between the expectations of grounded realism and the threadbare corporate products; a devil-may-care visual attitude can camouflage only so much cost-cutting carelessness. Since Turnock wrote The Empire of Effects, the tensions she explores have become a subject of media discussion. During a video feature for Vanity Fair, Taika Waititi, the director of Thor: Love and Thunder, and star Tessa Thompson talk over a scene from the movie. “Does that look real?” Waititi smirks about a bluish-gray CGI rock man named Korg. “In that particular shot? No, actually,” Thompson answers, as both of them laugh. “It doesn’t really, right? When you look close?” Putting aside what it would mean for Korg to appear “real” to adult viewers when they “look close,” the flippant distance with which the Hollywood A-listers addressed the effects kicked up a dust storm in the VFX community, which escalated from Reddit threads to the mainstream press.

“To get work, the houses bid on a project; they are all trying to come in right under one another’s bids,” one effects worker explained to Vulture. “With Marvel, the bids will typically come in quite a bit under, and Marvel is happy with that relationship, because it saves it money. But what ends up happening is that all Marvel projects tend to be understaffed.” That, combined with decentralized production, inflexible deadlines, and micromanaging so severe that industry professionals call it “pixel-fucking,” makes Disney’s aesthetic an investment in divestment, a bet against labor at film’s most atomic level. The bigger the production, the more leverage Disney has over its contractors; the more the company can get away with, the less care and holistic attention can be seen in the ultimate product. This “less” is a growth industry, and it shows.

By tracing the history of special effects since the 1970s, Turnock shows readers how the tools that shaped the counterculture’s alternative visions lent themselves to a new set of labor relations in which a stronger, more concentrated corporate bloc took more and allowed less. Technical and aesthetic innovation blended seamlessly into workplace innovation: regional arbitrage, deunionization, and the general empowerment of capital vis-à-vis labor. On second thought, perhaps “seamlessly” is too strong a word: If you look closely, the seams are often painfully visible. As in the Waititi example, even the ostensible creators can’t always bear to look at their own work frame by frame. But in a Disney world, where the narratives and visuals are both clichéd, we are relieved of even the most minimal expectations of critical viewership. Thank God—we have to get back to work anyway.

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