Forgotten Effects: Spectacle as a Visual Effect

Visual Effects without VFX

This concept was written about in depth by Jae Hyung Ryu in his work “Effects and Reality: a Cultural History of Visual Effects”. I have been interested in this idea for a while and was glad to find his work on the topic. This is my view on the topic, inspired by his work. I will leave the link to read his original work at the bottom of the article. You will find the appropriate section at page 52(page 62 of the PDF). 

In order to understand the concept of spectacle as a visual effect, you need to understand a slightly different definition of visual effects than the one you would find online or in a dictionary. Generally, VFX refers to the process of creating and manipulating imagery for films. This means green screens and motion capture suits. This is not an incorrect definition, but it is not the one we will be using in today’s study. 

To reach the definition that we will be working with we need to look at the two words: Visual and Effects. Visual means something we can see or something related to sight and seeing. If you were to look up what effects means you would find that the most common definition is something that happens as the result of an action. Again, not an incorrect definition but still not the one we are looking for. In the context of film, effects are anything used by the filmmakers to produce a desired impression which is an idea, feeling, or opinion. 

If you add the definition of these two words together, you get something like this. Visual Effects are anything used by filmmakers to produce a desired impression through the audience’s eyes and vision. This could be compared to sound effects which are used to achieve the same result, only through the audience’s ears. There are sounds that can provoke fear or anger, anticipation or delight.

With this new definition in hand, we can now start to look at how spectacle and things spectacular can be used as visual effects. Spectacle is something that is impressive or striking, something that fills you with wonder. This could be some outrageous feat or a massive storm. It could be as simple as a motorbike stunt or as complex as a tyrannosaurus rex. Cinema-goers love spectacular displays and Visual Effects artists work very hard to bring these things to life.

VFX is not, however, the only way that spectacle is brought to the audience. An epic stunt doesn’t require VFX but it is still spectacular. If placed and filmed correctly, stunts can produce a desired impression. By the definition we have then this is a visual effect. Hopefully you are starting to see what I mean about spectacle as a visual effect. Filmmakers can use spectacular elements of reality to get a reaction from the audience. 

Let’s find some more examples of spectacle in the world around us. Imagery from space was something spectacular before it became more commonplace. The first viewers of space imagery were probably greatly moved and excited. If wonder was the desired impression then it would be fair to say that it was produced. 

There is a reason that people watch documentaries about unique animals and remote places. It is the same reason that they watch movies full of visual effects, they want to see something that they can’t see if they just look out the window. They want something they have never seen before.

I hope I have approached this topic clearly. Let’s briefly recap everything we considered today. First we created a new definition of visual effects based on the word meanings. This was: anything used in film to produce a desired impression. We then discovered that while VFX is often used for this cause, it is not the only method. A practical stunt can produce a desired impression. It turns out that almost anything that is of visual interest or something spectacular can produce a desired impression. If spectacle is producing impressions then it is fair to say that it is a visual effect.

The point of this is not to discourage the use of Digital Effects or to shun CGI. The goal of today’s study was to address the fact that we are sometimes narrow minded when it comes to what a visual effect is. I also wanted to show you that you don’t always need monsters and explosions. If you have something spectacular, it should be enough to produce those desired emotions and feelings of wonder.

Link to “Reality and Effect: A Cultural History of Visual Effects” by Jae Hyung Ryu. 

https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=communication_diss

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One Comment

  1. Very interesting subject, appreciate it for posting.

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