On how technology had almost ruined cinema and how the industry fought back
April 6, 2020: It has been 125 years since the first visual special effect — the stop action technique that helped replace an actor with a dummy seamlessly — was demonstrated on film. Ever since, technology has played a major role in evolving cinema, from black-and-white to colour and from silent movies to talkies... Unfortunately, it did not stop there.
During the initial years, movies had been more about people, their lives and their stories. When technology came into the picture, visual effects took a giant leap, with matte techniques that blended multiple shots to create an illusion. Special effects such as the Schüfftan process allowed miniature sets to be shown like Godzilla’s penthouse and made actors look the size of Gremlins in front of them. This removed the need for large sets, and consequently, scores of set designers, art directors and carpenters saw their careers being pulled down.
Rear and front projection ensured that big budget outdoor shots could be completed indoors by projecting the background on a screen. Chroma keying allowed the film to be shot with a blue screen or a green screen as a backdrop — the background could be added later, during post-production. Suddenly, locations were no longer so important. The Swiss Alps could be added at the director’s leisure to a Bollywood song — and with that, location scouts, location managers and coordinators lost their way in the industry.
3D computer-generated imagery (CGI) led to animated images vying with live actors for space in the movies. Soon, animated characters — dinosaurs, giant snakes, aliens and ghosts — began to star in movies, leaving actors to play mere supporting roles. Entire movies were set in simulated environments and virtual worlds. Motion capture made it easier to use humans, capture their movements and facial expressions, and then create animated characters that would represent them on screen. Since these characters were created using software, costumes and make-up became redundant — the careers of costume designers, costume supervisors, make-up artistes and tailors simply came apart at the seams.
Soon movies became more about technology and less about people. What began as a collective effort of hundreds of people was soon reduced to a bunch of tech geeks making a movie. The last straw was when filmmakers realised that actors were no longer needed — they could be replicated on screen using CGI. The casting director and the casting agent soon found themselves without a role to play in the business.
Shortly, even actors began finding it difficult to find work — their computer-generated counterparts filled in for them adequately. (Besides, producers were glad to do away with star tantrums, long breaks, big egos, bigger vanity vans, their burgeoning entourage and the huge monies they demanded.) But audiences the world over began to get restless. The magic was missing and soon they stopped going to the theatres. In the beginning, it was mistaken to be the onslaught of television. In the 1980s, it was attributed to home videos, and a decade later, piracy was made the fall guy. Finally, it took the utter failure of Avatar VII – The Titanic Goes To Mars, for the film fraternity to realise what had gone wrong. The audience was missing the human element.
To bring back actors on screen would be regressive. Technology was doing a great job of simulating them in the movies. How else could one get the audience to see real people on screen? “For at least five to 10 minutes, if not the entire duration,” theatre owners pleaded. Much thought went into it and finally, after intense research, the experts found the solution.
And that was how, starting April 1, 2020, the newsreel came back into our lives.