Visual Effects are Not the Answer

From the time I saw Star Wars, almost all of my favorite movies have been full of visual effects. My love of film and of visual effects developed simultaneously. I ultimately worked at Industrial Light & Magic for four years, even putting in some time on Star Wars itself, for better or worse. After that, I co-owned a visual effects company for ten years.

Visual effects can contribute enormously to a film. Few of us will ever forget the AT-AT attack on the rebel stronghold in The Empire Strikes Back, or the T-rex stepping out from the paddock in Jurassic Park.

But while visual effects can lend support to a movie, they are incapable of holding up its full weight on their own. I bet you can think of a few recent films that effectively demonstrate this.

With very few exceptions, visual effects cannot contribute something to a movie that isn’t there already.

They must augment and support the fundamental building blocks of film: story, performance, kinetic mise-en-scène, and even old-fashioned visual trickery.

Here are some examples of visual effects failing to solve filmmaking problems:

  • There’s no bad wire-fu that can be saved by painting out the wires. The wires are not the problem.
  • There’s no morph that tells a story better than a simple cross-dissolve. If it doesn’t work as a cross-dissolve, it won’t work as a morph.
  • I watched a team of incredibly talented compositors work for weeks to “improve” on a hacky Avid speed-change effect in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Ultimately, all the CGI and compositing was shelved in favor of a frame-by-frame copy of the Avid frame-blend effect.
  • In Jaws, a malfunctioning effect forced Spielberg to replace many planned shark appearances with clever filmmaking, resulting in one of the greatest and most influential movies of all time.

And today's example:

  • Your talking animal movie will not be any funnier with computer-generated mouths.

We’re back to the trailer embedded at the top of this post. Maybe you think it’s funny, maybe you don’t. But what I love about it is that someone finally realized that this kind of movie would be not one tenth of a percent better with animated cat mouths.

MOX Open Source Movie Format Crowdfunding Campaign

If you've ever longed for an open source alternative to Quicktime, now you can hep make it happen. From the MOX Indiegogo page:

There are already movie formats aimed at professional users, but they each fall short in one way or another. Some are not cross-platform, making them difficult to hand off to colleagues. Others do not support key features like higher bit depths and lossless compression. Few have well-designed APIs so that applications can take full advantage of them. Most require developers to pay licensing fees.

The source of these failings is that the formats are not open. Controlled by video software companies, their inner workings are shrouded in mystery. If users need the format to add a new feature or support a different operating system, it is entirely at the company's discretion to do so.

Compare this to an open format like JPEG, which can be read by any program on any device. Or see how OpenEXR has evolved to add features for today's visual effects artists. There's no reason we can't have the same freedom with a movie format.

Imagine of ProRes wasn't controlled by Apple. Imagine a movie file that played back with the correct gamma on every computer. Imagine multi-channel, high-bit-depth movie files for VFX collaboration. Imagine a camera that shoots both a lightly-compressed, ungraded log digital negative and a compressed edit proxy with the on-set LUT baked in—both in the same file.

The film industry needs this.

MOX is the brainchild of Brendan Bolles, who co-created eLin with me at The Orphanage, and wrote the OpenEXR code that now ships with Adobe After Effects.

I love that the campaign is simple and clean, with no superfluous perks like t-shirts to distract Brendan from his coding tasks.

Please contribute. If you have questions or skepticisms, please let Brendan know, either on the campaign page or on Twitter. He's making this for you, so tell him what you need.