So, it is the end of the semester, that mean research papers. And since my major is Media Arts, all of my papers are movie related. So, I'll probably be posting them on the blog. They're longer, ranging from 7 to 10 pages; so you don't have to read them. But they'll be here if you want.
This first one is a paper I co-wrote with a classmate about changes in film technology in regards to SFX. He wrote about the TRON franchise and I wrote about The Thing movies. We then put them together.
TRON and The Thing:
Changes in Film Technology from 1982 to 2011
The study of the history of cinema rests upon four pillars: aesthetics, sociology, economic and technology. Every work of cinema both influences and is influenced by each pillar, and the pillars intertwine to affect each other. For instance, technological advances create new and unique aesthetics and are informed by social demand and industry prices. A careful comparison of films divided by decades reveals the shifts in filmmaking technology that have occurred. An effective means of comparison involves appraising the differences and similarities between movies in the same franchises between which many years of technological advancement have elapsed. Comparison and contrast of special effects in the 1982 film TRON with its 2010 sequel TRON: Legacy and the The Thing (1982) with its 2011 prequel by the same name indicates the clear and drastic shifts in the technological pillar over the 28 years that divide the films.
TRON is about a computer programmer who is digitized and transferred inside the mainframe of his company’s computer. Once inside the computer, he must find a way to escape. The sequel follows the programmer’s son as he enters the computer in search of his father several years later. By taking place inside of a computer, TRON was an ideal film to explore the possibilities of computer generated effects.
The 1982 film TRON and its 2010 sequel TRON: Legacy are stylistically similar in their visual aesthetics by intentional design. However, the areas where the aesthetics differ between the two films indicate clear shifts in film technology, mainly in post-production computer graphics and compositing technology.
The 1982 film TRON remains a milestone in the history of computer-generated imaging, as it pushed the boundaries of the cutting edge of computer imaging and pioneered new technologies that became the foundation for modern practices. It was one of the first movies to rely extensively on CGI. The imaging computer used to create scenes such as the light cycle sequence was the size of a washing machine and used two MB of processing data on a drive with 330MB capacity – figures archaic and minimal by today’s standards, but state-of-the-art at the time of the TRON’s production. In reference to the limitation of their computer, scene programmer, Christ Wedge, recalls, “Our system couldn't hold enough data for us to resolve much stuff in the distance. We had a fog function that would track along, and at a certain distance, we would start mixing in black to fade things out. We called it ‘depth cueing.’ Richard Taylor used to say, ‘When it doubt, black it out!’” (“Tron Then and Now”). The predominantly black environment in which the heterotopic story-arc transpires became an identifying characteristic of the Tron franchise by technological necessity, but the look carried over into the 2010 sequel to maintain stylistic consistency.
The post-production procedure was a tedious and time-consuming process. Effects animator John Van Vliet recalls the hours of painstaking frame-by frame animation and compositing: “[TRON] was a curious hybrid of live action, CG, and hand animation. Every frame of live action had to be blown up to animation-sized cels, color tinted with mattes, have hand-drawn animation added, and then composited under a huge camera” (“Tron Then and Now”). Whereas the computer technology of 1982 required frame-by-frame matte painting and manual compositing, the 2011 picture utilized blue screen technology consistently to composite digital imaging with live action. Director Joseph Kosinski and his team knew they would be pushing the boundaries of what current effects technology can achieve to make Legacy in the spirit of TRON. The result is a complicated blend of techniques, from blue screen to 3D cameras, that Kosinski and his team melded together for the film.
TRON: Legacy’s post-production supervisor Eric Barba claims that the matte painting techniques would have made the overall look of the film, including its exhibition in 3D real-D, quite impossible to achieve. “The cityscape of The Grid traditionally would have been matte paintings, but in a 3D movie other 3D elements won't look right with a flat matte painting. You can't cheat like that. We had to project everything onto geometry with scenes built to the correct scale and depth’" (quoted in Bunish). The advances in filmmaking technology over the 30 years since the original minimized, if not eliminated, the limitations on scope inherent in the original.
Comparison of the costume design of the two films is indicative of the magnitude of the advances in technology over the three decades that divide them. In both films, the suits worn by programs within the TRON system exhibit glowing electronic circuitry, and the faces of the characters while in the program are colored and illuminated. The techniques used to accomplish this coloration differ between the two films due to advances in computer imaging and practical effects. According to Alex Santoso, one of 41 ink and paint artists employed on the crew of the 1982 original, “The glowing circuitry on the character's costumes… were hand-painted onto each frame” (Santoso). By contrast, in the 2010 sequel, the costume designers engineered cutting-edge suites that illuminated themselves with self-contained power and fluorescent light strips flexible enough for high levels of physical motion in thick foam suits. Christine Clark, the film’s associate costume designer, revealed in an interview with “Popular Mechanics” that “we used seven little tiny lithium-ion batteries, together about the size of a deck of cards, for each inverter. And this is all buried inside the hubs in the identity discs on the backs of the suits… and then we would lay the lights into little channels in the foam suits and secure them with Velcro” (Clark). This was accomplished practically due to the fact that the film was shot and screened in 3D, which would have made the frame-by-frame post-production painting very difficult in dual-optic visual effects.
Another film franchise that similarly demonstrates changes in film technology over the past three decades is John Carpenter’s The Thing, released in 1982, and its prequel of the same name, The Thing, which was released in 2011. Similar to TRON, about twenty-eight years passed between each installment, and because of this, the two movies use very different technologies to bring the title creature to life, with each technology adding to the overall aesthetic of the film.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World, which in turn was based on a novella by John W. Campbell, Jr., called “Who Goes There?” The basic story involves an alien ship crash landing Antarctica, where it is dug up by a team of scientists. Once uncovered, the alien turns out to be a shapeshifter and begins assimilated members in the group until it is finally defeated in the end. However, in Carpenter’s film, the alien is originally discovered by a Norwegian team prior to the start, then makes its way to the American camp.
We could even look back to the 1951 production to see an even wider change in technology. The alien portrayed in the earliest version is merely an actor in a suit; the filmmakers did not have the technology to depict the alien actually changing its form. However, with advances in technology, John Carpenter was able to show one thirty years later. Rob Bottin, head of the special effects team, used animatronics and puppetry to bring the creature to life. Robert Zak, a freelance writer, wrote that The Thing “represents the pinnacle of prosthetic and animatronic-based special effects in horror films” (Zak).
There are several scenes where the alien, disguised as a human or a dog, begins to change and ruptures to reveal the monstrous alien. Once such scene occurs when one of the characters, Norris, goes into cardiac arrest. The doctor attempts to use a defibrillator on him, only to have Norris’s chest burst open like a mouth and bite the doctor’s arms off. A second head then emerges from the chest, rising up into the air. The first head detaches itself from the body, sprouts legs and tries to escape. Luckily, the protagonist is able to kill it with a flamethrower.
There were several techniques used to accomplish this horrendous scene. The first thing that had to be done was to replicate the actor. A reproduction of the head was sculpted into clay, a mold was taken and filled with latex, finalizing with a fake head controlled by a puppeteer. Another puppeteer pushed on a rod, that ran hidden through the fake body, that forced the head away and off of the torso. Other workers controlled the chest/mouth mechanism. A double amputee was used as a body double for the doctor. Fake arms were attached to the actor’s stumps, which were then ripped off by the mouth mechanism. To accomplish the detached head trying to escape, a fake head was attached to a remote control car, that, when drove, moved the legs.
Because all of the effects were mechanical, they had a specific aesthetic to them. All of the effects were very limited in movement. When the second head grows from the chest, the audience sees the body shaking, then it cuts to a reaction shot of one of the researchers, and when it cuts back, the new appendage has fully sprouted. The audience never actually sees the head emerge. There are multiple scenes where the film cuts away and then back to reveal a person farther along in a mutation. Also, the movements of the alien themselves are distinguished. Zak also wrote, “The jerky, twitchy movements do look mechanical, but then the human body essentially is mechanical” (Zak). Because of the limitations and physics of the puppets, the creature has a distinct feel to it.
Twenty nine years later, the prequel was released, which primarily used computer-generated imaging. However, in between the two films, Jurassic Park came out, which relied heavily on the combination of practical effects and complex computer-generated imagery and ushered in a new wave of special effects. From that point forward, CGI has become a norm for movie special effects.
2011’s The Thing is a prequel to John Carpenter's version, depicting what happened at the Norwegian camp. The alien shown here was done with computer effects. To accomplish these, a team of animators would use computer software to design the look of the creature, decide how it was going to move and change, and adjust textures, layers and lighting, and finally composite it into the final sequence. There were two groups of animators, one working on things like blood and slime and the other animated the transformations themselves. And similar to Carpenter’s version, the creature here splits open, changes and sprouts new limbs. The animators were also able to put actual footage of an actor’s head onto the alien’s CG body, instead of having to “sculpt” a head like Bottin’s team did. They even had a CG alien merge its face into the head of an actor, combining them into one creature, which would have been impossible using puppetry. However, because these were all done inside the computer, they were not limited in the ways that Bottin’s practical effects were. The alien was free to move and change as it wanted to. And because the alien was no longer restrained in what it could do, it had a different feel to it than the previous version.
While the Thing in the 1982 film only showed part or simple transformations, the prequel was able to show everything. Instead of cutting between reaction shots and progressively more mutated animatronics, the prequel depicted the complete change in shape. A human character would suddenly grow monstrous legs out of its torso and begin to walk around. And while the practical version was limited in movement, the CG version was free to do whatever the animators could think of. There are several scenes in which the creature chases people around the compound, even jumping through a window to get them. All of these movements would have been extremely hard to achieve with practical effects. Zak described the effects as “fast” and “fluid” and that the alien can sprout any number of limbs “with ease” (Zak).
These two films demonstrate a major shift in film technology. John Carpenter’s version relied on practical effects. Because of this, they were limited in the creature’s movements and the amount of mutations actually shown. On the other hand, the prequel primarily used computer-generated imagery. And because of this, the creature was free to move, run, change, and sprout all it wanted to. These two different technologies also lend themselves to the overall aesthetic of their respective films.
The dramatic advances in filmmaking technology over the past three decades as indicated by the TRON and The Thing franchises illustrate the awe-inspiring rapidity of technological development. One must only observe the trajectory at which the technological world is evolving to extrapolate the future sophistication of the visual effects industry, which excites practitioners and audience members alike. The technology with which filmmakers accomplish ‘movie magic’ will continue to develop and progress as the medium moves into the brightness of the future.
"The Incredible Effects of The Thing." Cinefantastique n.d.: n. pag. Outpost31.com. Outpost 31. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
Bunish, Christine. "Digital Domain Creates a 21st-Century Tron: Legacy."Markeemagazine.com. Markee 2.0, 5 Dec. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Clark, Christine. "Creating Tron: Legacy's Lightsuits." Interview by Erin McCarthy.Popularmechanics.com. Popular Mechanics, 9 Dec. 2010. Web. 9 Apr. 2013.
Santoso, Alex. "10 Neat Facts About Tron." Neatorama.com. Neatorama, 28 June 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Zak, Robert. "Modern Horror: Lay off the CGI and Bring Back Prosthetics."Blogs.independent.co.uk. The Independent Blogs, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2013.