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Plastic Reality

Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Plastic Reality
    Book Description:

    Julie A. Turnock tracks the use and evolution of special effects in 1970s filmmaking, a development as revolutionary to film as the form's transition to sound in the 1920s. Beginning with the classical studio era's early approaches to special effects, she follows the industry's slow build toward the significant advances of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which set the stage for the groundbreaking achievements of 1977.

    Turnock analyzes the far-reaching impact of the convincing, absorbing, and seemingly unlimited fantasy environments of that year's iconic films, dedicating a major section of her book to the unparalleled innovations of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She then traces these films' technological, cultural, and aesthetic influence into the 1980s in the deployment of optical special effects as well as the "not-too-realistic" and hyper-realistic techniques of traditional stop motion and Showscan. She concludes with a critique of special effects practices in the 2000s and their implications for the future of filmmaking and the production and experience of other visual media.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53527-4
    Subjects: Film Studies, Art & Art History, Technology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    The quotations above represent a sampling of statements by many of the most prominent participants in the special effects boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Why such a resistance to science fiction and special effects, even by those most closely associated with it? One might expect the notion of highly manipulated imagery masquerading as seamless realism was anathema to many 1960s and 1970s filmmakers steeped in filmmaking polemics favoring a stripped-down “authenticity.” Certainly many proponents of the so-called “New Hollywood” of the 1960s and 1970s share these misgivings, for whom films such asStar Wars(1977) andClose...

  6. PART I Before 1977

    • 1 Optical Animation: Special Effects Compositing Up to 1977
      (pp. 21-62)

      These opening quotes by Linwood Dunn, a master of studio-era special effects, and George Lucas, arguably the architect of 1970s special effects, can serve as mottos for two different historical approaches to special effects. In the studio era, especially by the 1960s, the (somewhat disingenuous) cliché of effects work had been that the best results were those that the audience would never notice. Broadly speaking, special effects from the 1930s to the 1960s had mostly been concerned with supporting the more naturalistic “classical” style. The studio’s aesthetic ideal was unobtrusiveness: all elements appeared in proper perspective in the frame and...

    • 2 Before Industrial Light and Magic: The Independent Hollywood Special Effects Business, 1968–1975
      (pp. 63-102)

      The enshrined story of special effects in the late sixties and through the seventies, repeated in reverential accounts of the founding of Lucasfilm’s special effects wing Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), and in later accounts of the rise of computer-generated imagery (CGI), has become hardened into received fact: the slow breakdown of the studio system following the Paramount Decrees (1938–1948) meant the eventual shuttering of animation and effects departments, and the forced retirement of the old studio effects hands, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Thus, when George Lucas went looking to hire experienced effects experts for...

  7. PART II Circa 1977:: Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind

    • 3 The Expanded Blockbuster: The Auteurist Aesthetics of 1970s Special Effects–Driven Filmmaking
      (pp. 105-128)

      It is easy to think we understand what George Lucas is claiming when he says he is a “visual filmmaker,” not interested in “stories,” and furthermore, to quickly dismiss the rest of his statement about “pure cinema.” Both Lucas and Steven Spielberg have their contemporary champions. However, for their many doubters, it is just as tempting to view them primarily as CEOs of profit-making entertainment machines. Regardless of how one feels about them as filmmakers now, in the context of 1977 both directors’ public images and professional reputations were quite different from what they became in the ensuing decades. The...

    • 4 “The Buck Stops at Opticals”: Special Effects Technology on Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind
      (pp. 129-145)

      For the filmmaking teams onStar WarsandClose Encounters of the Third Kind, the fantastic design of both films, whether aiming for “documentary fantasy” or “down on earth illusions,” nevertheless insisted on being grounded (a term both used) in the filmmakers’ notion of photorealistic effects. That meant that Lucas’s and Spielberg’s previsualization ideas and concepts had to be combined not only with narrative motivation but also the harsh contemporary reality of the state of special effects technology. As Lucas put it, “the buck stops at opticals,” meaning the role of traditional techniques in creating photoreal special effects was considered...

    • 5 A More Plastic Reality: The Design and Conception of Star Wars and West Coast Experimental Filmmaking
      (pp. 146-178)

      In the 1970s, the ILM aesthetic may well have existed in ideal form in George Lucas’s mind’s eye. Nevertheless, however dominant ILM’s special effects aesthetic model would later become, Lucas and his team were still in the process of developing this aesthetic onStar Wars, within the bounds of what would be technically and economically possible.² As already discussed, ILM, overseen by Lucas, designed its 1970s photorealistic special effects to match the 1970s live-action aesthetic of cinematic realism: cinema verité location shooting; a muted color palette; flaring lenses; handheld cameras; flatly lit, unmade up faces; and the look of available...

    • 6 “More Philosophical Grey Matter”: The Production and Aesthetic of Close Encounters of the Third Kind
      (pp. 179-200)

      Star Warswas produced, promoted, and exhibited (initially, at least) as a low-budget independent genre film.Close Encounters, on the other hand, was conceived and produced as a mainstream studio project. Its starting budget was twice that ofStar Wars’ and had greater expectations as the new film from the director ofJaws. When asked to compareClose EncounterstoJaws, Spielberg responds:

      CLOSE ENCOUNTERS has been more of a personal movie-making experience than JAWS. JAWS was a great physical challenge, but in a way it was a lot easier. A film like JAWS comes more naturally to my movie...

  8. PART III The 1980s and Beyond

    • 7 Optical Special Effects into the 1980s: A Well-Oiled Machine
      (pp. 203-238)

      Through the 1980s, cinema audiences attended the special effects Hollywood blockbusters in droves. Nevertheless, despite filmmakers’ stated intentions, lagging exhibition practices seemed determined to undermine any sense of the “expanded” ideal of the communal audience experience. Mall-based multiplexes led to undersized screens in small auditoriums. It became common for directors like Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, and others to complain about the theaters’ scratched prints, dim projector lamps, and poor sound systems.² Although more people seemed to be going more often to technologically sophisticated and expensive movies, theaters in the local multiplex were hardly showing these films to their best advantage....

    • 8 “Not-too-Realistic” and Intensified Realistic Approaches in the 1980s: Traditional Stop Motion and Showscan
      (pp. 239-262)

      The projected era of the special effects star never really came into being, due largely to Lucas’s streamlining approach at ILM and Lucasfilm and his reinstating the producer system, which downplayed the role of all others who answered to him. Feature productions hiring the new independent effects houses were not interested in reordering the production hierarchy to give more prominence to effects “stars.” To win bids, ambitious effects supervisors had to tame their rhetoric. So, paradoxically, as special effects became more and more essential to big-budget features, producers like Lucas and his counterparts at studios and production houses insured that...

  9. Conclusion: World-Building and the Legacy of 1970s Special Effects in Contemporary Cinema
    (pp. 263-274)

    The ethos of 1970s filmmakers of many stripes is that films show us our world, a faith that was believed to carry real-world consequences. More elaborate special effects technology meant that filmmakers could also provide us with alternate world possibilities. The expanded blockbuster took different forms but were united under the idealistic ethos that by presenting us with different worlds, the films could spur change by prompting moviegoers to think about our world’s own transformation or alteration. This attitude is of course an important connection the later 1970s special effects films had to the earlier wave of socially conscious films...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 275-328)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 329-344)
  12. Index
    (pp. 345-362)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 363-366)