Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Introducing the Female Lead with Visual Effects: Three Case Studies

Even though we acknowledge the central importance of conflict between giant robots, the choreography of spaceship battles, and the sheer awe inspiring triumph of the hordes of zombies at the end of humanity, it does not diminish these vitally important tasks to suggest that there are other, perhaps peripheral, roles for visual effects which nevertheless can contribute to the film.  

To that end, we will present three examples here of visual effects used to introduce the female lead.

I can just see my reader's lips curl in disgust. The female lead? A girl? In a movie with giant robots or zombie hordes?    Yes, in spite of Hollywood's best efforts to diminish the role of women in film, they do linger on, if for no other reason than to provide a cheesy lust object for the adolescent male audience, as well as other, minor dramatic roles from time to time.  Thus it is reasonable to consider how special photographic effects might be used to help facilitate such story points as introduction of the character, death of the character, and so forth.

Just as in a musical, where a song must contribute to the story, in a visual effects film we would hope that there might be a way to use the same ideas that are featured in the dramatic sections of the film to introduce major or minor characters of the narrative.    If we have a film about giant robots, then perhaps the lead female can be born from the forehead of a giant robot, perhaps Optimus Prime, as Minerva was born from the forehead of Zeus. Or in a sensitive drama about zombies, we might first meet our female lead eating brains at lunch and worried about keeping her girlish figure.

Here are three examples where the female lead is introduced to the audience in a way that is (a) spectacular, (b) tells us something about the character, and (c) communicates something to us that will be useful in developing the story, or in the third example, to the (somewhat) surprising climax of the story.

The three case studies are from Roger Rabbit (1988), The Matrix (1999) and Shaolin Soccer (2001).

In Roger Rabbit (1998), our protagonist, a private detective, Eddie Valiant, is hired to see if Jessica Rabbit is involved with another rabbit, or person, as the rumors suggest. As part of his investigation, Valiant goes to see Ms. Rabbit perform at a fancy nightclub where he learns she is not a cartoon rabbit, but a cartoon femme fatale. This is a famous scene so I am sure you know all about the tone mattes and optical compositing done at ILM.  One could not ask for a better introduction of this character. The song also advances the story, helping to establish Jessica as a sex goddess who breaks the hearts of both men and rabbits.

Why does Valiant keep his overcoat on in this scene?   It feels inappropriate to me.

In our second example, we have everyone's favorite polyethelyne poster child, Carrie Anne Moss, known as Trinity in her landmark film The Matrix because she perfectly expresses the three values of sex, violence and shiny catsuits in women. We meet this woman typing happily on her laptop in a decrepit room of some sort, when suddenly she is the target of a police raid. There are several interesting things in this scene beyond the first use of so-called "bullet time", which is an extension of the Brigham morphing technology of years ago. First, we learn that she can take on two "units" of policemen without too much trouble (a unit is probably either 3 or 4 policemen). Second, we learn, when this is all done, that this incredible woman is terrified to hear that there are "agents" in the area, thus telling us something about the world we are in. Third, we learn that properly applying traditional analog techniques of lighting can bring out the best of Ms. Moss in a tight jumpsuit. Notice the subtle use of lighting below, which carefully accents her formidable attributes as perceived by many adolescents.

A careful use of key lights can add specular highlights to shiny contours

In our final scene, we have a film that is well known in the far east, but got very little distribution in North America to the best of my knowledge, Shaolin Soccer (2001). In this intellectual drama, good is pitted against evil in the form of a soccer contest, and good is enhanced through the power of the secret techniques from the Shaolin monastery of China. This movie makes extensive use of the rather obvious in retrospect idea that some of the most important things in sports can be made trivial through using CG to create the soccer balls (or whatever the sport in question uses, ping pongs, basketballs, etc) and just having the actors / players mime performing the sport. But in this scene, our hero spies his future love, the poor and acne challenged Mui making bread. If you havent seen this scene before you should watch it, it is pretty great.

So there you have it, three movies, three female leads, all introduced with visual effects and better for it. Not giant robots, I admit, but valuable nevertheless.

Roger Rabbit on imdb

Shaolin Soccer on imdb

The Matrix on imdb

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