SFX: Helping or Hindering?


This weekend we went with some friends to London Zoo (where I remembered how cool armadillos are, and the raptor begged on bended knees for a pet serval), before settling down in front of both the 1993 and the 2012 versions of The Three Musketeers to hurl abuse at the acting, the story and the special effects (SFX).

Comparing the two films made the advance of SFX, and the approach to using them, very obvious and it got me thinking: do SFX help our imaginations or hinder them?


–          When we want to imagine what an exploding car or volcano lair or cthuloid monstrosity looks like, we now have something to base it off
–          Those with less active imaginations can enjoy a story as much as those with very active ones
–          It is a tool of the cinematic medium which helps to tell those stories, and doesn’t really have an impact on the use of imagination in other mediums
–          It can be used to teach us cool new ways of storytelling (e.g. The Matrix)


–          We now believe that when a car crashes it automatically becomes a fireball (in other words, SFX have misled our imaginations, which will impact the stories we tell ourselves)
–          We are getting lazy: if all the spectacular bits are done for us in the medium we are most exposed to, we will come to expect the same level of ‘show, not tell’ in other mediums and our imaginations will rust
–          They can seriously get in the way of telling a story (is there anyone who’s watched Jaws 3 or Mega Shark vs Crocosaurus without laughing?)
–          Automatically reverting to SFX is an easy way out: compare it to the way the horse was portrayed in the stage version of The War Horse, a very cool approach that really added something to the story which you won’t get in the film version

So, yeah, I’m torn. To a large extent I guess it comes down to the fact SFX is a cinematic technique only, and that it depends on the film in question. I do think it’s important, though, that people remember films don’t have to use SFX in order to tell a story well.

But, if I was an actor, I would lament the increased use of green screen as a filming technique. Or does that keep their imaginations working even harder?!


2 responses »

  1. Believing that the car explodes in a fireball as a generic issue isn’t just an SFX issue, it happens all the time in story telling and has done waaay before SFX became a thing. Remind me at some point to tell you about how TV cop shows have helped save the lives of police.

    I think a major point you miss out is how quickly CG (specifically bad CG but even reasonable stuff) becomes dated. Jurrasic park was exceptional for its time but the CG bits look pretty bad now because tech has improved; by contrast something like Aliens is still amazing because it was done with costume and model, camera trickery and took its limitations into it’s brief rather than saying “ah sure” about it.

    Watch the Star Wars prequels at some point if you want to see a huge example of actors not being able to do much in a scene because they can’t interact with the background.

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