Story: The Great Unseen Equalizer in VFX
There is an art to using VFX as an unseen tool. So much consideration goes into the curating of what you, the viewer, see at any given moment, that it is easy to forget about what you don’t see in a shot. But more often than not, what you don’t see is where the best and most impactful story moments lie.
In VFX, just because we can do anything and everything doesn’t always mean we should. So often audiences and media focus on what we can see and what is shown on screen in VFX. When The Avengers and Game of Thrones are the baseline for visual excellence, the bar is pretty high. Freeze frame any moment from those shows and the still image is a renaissance painting. (Unless there is Starbucks cup.)
But ultimately consideration for VFX emerges from a directorial, editorial story perspective. A visual should not exist simply for the sake of existing.
Curious about what are some of the ways to use VFX with restraint or purpose in more subtle and useful ways?
Back to the Basics and Classics
A sense of film history is the best tool you can use when figuring out your shot. Think back to a world of Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling; a world of storytelling where it is not so much what you show, but what you don’t and how that restraint can serve the better purpose of your story.
The Twilight Zone was created during the infancy of television, an episode conceived in 1960, almost 60 years ago. In Eye of the Beholder, the filmmakers obfuscate, misdirect, and use light and contrast as an unspoken character. The claustrophobic visual language creates a foreboding slow build, leading to a masterful, gasp worthy reveal.
Yet, you would think that since it’s almost 100 years old, it should be primitive in its filmmaking, with all that limitation of technology. Rather the opposite, Eye of the Beholder manages to pack a gut-punch allegory on Nazism and conformity, against the backdrop of a totalitarian state, using mostly shadows, concerted camera movement and actors backs to camera. Even with such heady topics, nothing in the production feels cheapened, nothing feels lost to age, it holds up remarkably well as a gem of perfection.
With just light and camera direction The Twilight Zone achieves masterful commentary about the perceived value of homogeny in beauty. What we, the viewer, don’t see informs the story just as much as what we are allowed to see. This gives so much weight to the double-blind reveal. What does her face look like? Is she a monster?! What do the doctors look like? Eye of the Beholder remains riveting and engaging television by any modern measure. If they can do that with so little, there’s nothing you can’t do.
Technically Difficult and Time Consuming? Yes, if it serves story.
Way back in 1948, Alfred Hitchcock audaciously sought to create a seemingly single take film. Rope was an amazing and difficult orchestration, with entire magazines of film taking up the length of each take. Hitchcock’s use of “the television technique” was unheard of and novel and considered by many “daring” for a mainstream director at the time.
This single take (“one shot”) approach popularized by Hitchcock has been adapted, paid homage to over and over since then, which only stands to show how clever the concept was in its infancy. From The X-Files to Birdman to Mr Robot, each new attempt at this concept acknowledges its roots and predecessors then ups the ante and reliance on VFX to create the seamless intended story effect. The most recent entry in this category may be to the 59 minute 3D shot in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Don’t be discouraged if something technically difficult requires testing, rehearsal, pre-vis and blocking. A deliberate approach harkens back to my thoughts on Mise en Place for production. When you are able to plan for VFX during production process versus an afterthought, you’re putting they story front and center.
Mr. Robot is unique and well known for capturing accurate technical details about computing and hacking, so it’s no surprise that an immense amount of technical preparation went into creation of the episode with a special focus on the shots and camera movement.
This breakdown video shows everything from general environment clean up, stitching, tracking and compositing of multiple takes. All this is required to create a seamless and invisible shot. Read more from the director of Mr. Robot’s eps3.4_runtime-err0r.r00.
Imagine if Alfred Hitchcock had the same kind of VFX capability. In Rope, Hitchcock wound up re-shooting the ending segments, because he was dissatisfied with the color of the sunset. Today, perhaps he would ask his team environment painters (Digital Matte Painters) to paint and adjust the background accordingly.
Use Constraints to Elevate Story
Figuring out how to “make it work” in filmmaking is a feature not a bug. Famously there is a story about a director that wanted to shut down an entire freeway for a large multi-car crash scene. With a logistical nightmare of permits, stunt men and traffic the Producer griped “Can’t we just make it a reverse shot in a telephone booth?”
Never has there been a more honest and funny acknowledgement of such constraints than in a movie sequel like the Phil Lord & Chris Miller‘s 22 Jump Street – in which, if you didn’t know, is an entire movie is based on the construct of what a sequel is, and what happens in sequels. It’s fun.
Police Captain Dickerson, played by Ice Cube, makes it crystal clear in this movie, there is no budget for a big police chase like last time. As a reminder, Jonah Hill’s character yells to turn the car “whichever way is cheaper!”
This is called “making it work.” With a wink and a nod, 22 Jump Street opts to make all the action happen off screen.
It’s a funny moment with loud off screen banging and crashing. If this were a large tent-pole movie perhaps there would be hundreds of interior shots of CG robots and equipment being destroyed in real time. As the cars exit the other side of the building, Channing Tatum’s character quips: “Wow, there was a lot of expensive stuff in there.” We’re all in on the joke now.
The next time you feel you have to “show it all” think about these examples of unseen story in VFX, remember your filmmaking roots, commit to the vision, see it through and make something awesome.
Check out this fantastic video showing off some great hidden VFX. Remember, Visual Effects are a tool, just like any other. Don’t be limited in how you utilize them.
David Fincher utilizes Visual Effects to achieve what he cannot in a real-life scenario.