Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ignoring the Transcendent Moment with Visual Effects: An Example from Life of Brian (1979)

We have an important goal here at Global Wahrman which we hope to achieve by reviewing with you the history and process of visual effects through the years.   Previous to having this knowledge, you might see a film and become swept away into another world, a world of interesting characters, or a fascinating story, or an important idea.  But now you will be able to ignore these trivia of story, ideas and character and spend all your time analyzing the film, estimating the work required to execute the shot, the elements of the shot, and other important and engrossing nuances. No longer will you need to worry about what happens to the characters who are in jeopardy: now you can rise above it and just do shot breakdowns and back of the envelope budget estimates just like the bored and jaded professionals in the glamourous motion picture industry.  

I will demonstrate how this works by way of example: the final and uplifting sequence from an important film on the foundation of Western civlization and ethics: Life of Brian (1979)

In this sequence, Brian has been unjustly nailed to the cross, where he will be expected to die, horribly, with other criminals of the Roman empire in the province of Judea. But in an unexpected and heart-warming twist, the other crucifixion victims remind Brian to "always look on the bright side of life".

The sequence on Youtube is here.

You may be asking yourself, where are the visual effects in this sequence? A better question may be, where are the potential visual effects in this sequence? As you watch this inspirational transformation from despair to hope, just let the sequence run and note how the camera pulls slowly back, revealing the scene on the hilltop, the desolate countryside, then slowly turns to heaven as the final credits start to roll.

Instead of being carried away by the ecstatic moment as Brian is now happily whistling as he prepares to leave his mortal state and return to a loving God, you can now ask yourself whether or not this was a location that they found in the desert somewhere, without any signs of civilization, where they could do such an extensive pullback in simulation of the biblical Calvary (see note below).  That is possible. Or perhaps it is a cross dissolve to a matte painting? Or even a rephotographed process shot on a rear projection camera, remembering that this was in the days when visual effects was a skill and you actually had to think in order to do them.  How do you know?  Real or cross dissolve?

The fact is that I do not know for sure, but it doesn't matter. The point is that now instead of being in the moment and enjoying the film, you are free, free to constantly analyze and over-analyze how you would achieve the shot. I used to think that this was certainly a cross dissolve to a painting, but in the course of writing this post I have reviewed the scene many times, and I think what we have here is probably an interesting location that the filmmakers found.   But as I say, it doesn't matter, the moment is gone, and the movie is over.

So as you go forward, armed with the knowledge of the history, purpose and meaning of visual effects, it is our sincere hope that we have irretrievably destroyed any enjoyment or moral improvement you may have once gotten from the cinema, and we will feel we have achieved our goal.

I have transcribed the words of this inspirational song below.

Crucified Man:  Cheer up, Brian! You know what they say ... (starts to sing)

    Some things in life are bad
    They can really make you mad
    Other things just make you swear and curse.
    When you're chewing on life's gristle
    Don't grumble, give a whistle
    And this'll help things turn out for the best...

    And...always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the light side of life...
    If life seems jolly rotten
    There's something you've forgotten
    And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
    When you're feeling in the dumps
    Don't be silly chumps
    Just purse your lips and whistle - that's the thing.

    And...always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the light side of life...
    For life is quite absurd
    And death's the final word
    You must always face the curtain with a bow.
    Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
    Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.

    So always look on the bright side of death
    Just before you draw your terminal breath
    Life's a piece of shit
    When you look at it
    Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true.
    You'll see it's all a show
    Keep 'em laughing as you go
    Just remember that the last laugh is on you.

    And always look on the bright side of life...
    Always look on the right side of life... 
    (Words and music by Eric Idle, reprinted here without permission)

For more details on the setting of the crucifiction, here is the Wikipedia page on Calvary:

Life of Brian (1979) on IMDB

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