Sunday, July 8, 2018

The delights of early digital

My older son and I are moving along in the Harry Potter series, both in terms of reading the books together and in terms of watching the corresponding movies. He got the fully illustrated, hardcover storybook of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for Christmas, but he had to take a break from it when he got a bit scared off by the disembodied voice telling Harry to "rip, tear, kill." That break lasted a good four months, but then we resumed and finished the book a few weeks ago. It wasn't long after that we picked up a used copy of the movie, and we watched it on Saturday.

The second Harry Potter was always a movie I didn't like very much. It didn't have the benefit of introducing us to this wizarding world on film, as the first one did, and so the lackluster contributions of Chris Columbus were more problematic this time out. Plus, the events of the story always struck me as kind of inessential.

Now that I've read the book, which I had not done previously, I have more fondness for the value of these particular plot points in the overall arc of Harry's story. This is, after all, the book that introduces us to Tom Riddle, something I think I'd forgotten about the movie. That shouldn't surprise me, given that it was more than 15 years ago that I saw it, and there had been six other movies since.

So I think I liked the movie better this time, both because I had the perspective of reading the book, and because I was seeing it through my son's eyes. It was also lovely that instead of cozying up with me on the couch, he was cozying up on a bean bag with his little brother, telling him not to worry during the scary parts. Awww.

One of the reasons I liked the movie more, though, was that it made me nostalgic for early digital.

Nowadays, we are so skeptical over the value of digital creations, any digital creations, that you'd think our recently adopted perspective would poison all previous instances of digital effects in film. But that's simply not the case. In fact, it seems that the more convincing digital effects have become, the less we like them. The older ones feel like they have a DIY quality that gives them a kinship with practical effects. Or maybe it's just nostalgia, I don't know.

But as I was watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the second time, I was overcome with delight over what they were capable of doing at that time, and how those capabilities made me feel.

It would be tempting to say that the digital effects looked really bad, but they don't. While 2002 seems like a long time ago, we must remember that was the same year we were introduced to Gollum, a digital creation who still looks great even 16 years later. It was five years before that that we got the still-awesome-looking creatures in Starship Troopers, and six years before that that we got the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. When you consider that history, 2002 is actual a moment of comparative sophistication in the evolution of CG.

But you can still see the seams sometimes, and that's what I found I really enjoyed.

Our first real introduction to CG in the movie is Dobby, the house elf who makes mischief for Harry for reasons we don't fully understand until later in the movie. I guess I was a bit surprised by how good I thought he looked, convinced for a moment by my own ill-conceived narrative, which was that 2002 represented the dark ages for digital effects. Dobby moved and looked quite accomplished, I thought, but I also noticed a slight -- shimmer? -- around him that set him off from his background.

It was actually this that I enjoyed. People complain that digital effects prevent us from believing that a creation is sharing the same space as the actors around it, but they're usually talking about the nearly immaculate effects we have today. When there is an actual limitation in the technology that creates the disconnect, it triggers a certain fondness in the viewer, reminding us of a time when they were still trying to work out all the kinks. It's kind of like when you see things set against obvious blue screens 20 years before Chamber of Secrets. There's a part of you that's repelled by the obvious falsity of it, but there's another part that appreciates the role that film played in the pioneering of new type of optical illusion and visual magic.

I didn't notice that "shimmer" around the cornish pixies, who may have been the thing that really planted the seed for writing this piece. Those are the little blue flying creatures that look sort of like gremlins, and they struck me as quite convincing, especially in terms of interacting with their environment. When they have a tug-o-war over a painting or carry Neville Longbottom up to the ceiling, it all looks quite feasible. You aren't cursing the limited abilities of the animators. You're feeling the joy you remember feeling when you first saw this, when you didn't take for granted that computers could make anything imaginable happen in a movie.

I think that's the nostalgia I was really feeling. Not for a movie that was part of my childhood, as I was 29 when I saw Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Rather, nostalgia for a feeling of awe over seeing things I had previously thought impossible to depict.

This movie is by no means the shining example of that, of course. It's just the movie I happened to be watching when these thoughts occurred to me. But I suspect the point is kind of that any digital effects in 2002 had the power to wow us, because they were not then so ubiquitous that we had grown weary of them. It cost money and involved real talent to do these things back then. Not to say neither of those things is still true today, but the sheer quantity of projects that are able to include effects like these have numbed us to their fundamental specialness.

The last effect in the movie I wanted to mention was the basilisk, which slithers out of the pipes in the climax of the movie. Some of it I could tell was done practically, especially in scenes where it was up close next to Harry. But the longer shots where you see its full body are obviously digital, and they still look good. My wife hadn't been watching with us, but she stopped in during this scene and said she'd been thinking the same thing.

As it turns out, 2002 was not the dark ages of special effects. It was the golden age. It was the time when we could still be amazed at what they could do, and they did it well enough that it still looks pretty good today.

The technical gains we've made in the intervening years are really quite small, when you think about it, in terms of improving how convinced we are that a thing is real. And you could argue they have not been worth it, when we simply no longer feel amazed.

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