Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Part II: Special Effects

The story of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was written by F Scott Fitzgerald a long time ago. Many directors considered making the movie, but it wasn't until recently that the technology was available to produce the story convincingly. Extensive special effects were used, but they were virtually invisible because they were used in the service of the story and not just to announce that the FX guys had a big budget and the smarts to do it!

Did you wonder how they accomplished the remarkable aging effect of taking Brad Pitt from a shrunken old man to a robust 20-something hunk? Well, from a technical standpoint, the Benjamin Button character is a composite of a body actor and a computer-generated (CGI) face. First the body actor delivered temporary dialogue in the scene with other actors. Then, Brad Pitt recorded temporary dialogue that was used for pacing in the rough cut. Once the scenes were edited and were close to the final version, they shot scenes of Brad’s face performing. His performance was then mapped onto a CGI head which was then mapped onto the body actor’s torso.

The only mis-step in the film was in a scene in which Cate Blanchett was telling a fable which was given a movie-within-a-movie look. It was overdone and distracting to the point of interfering with the story. At times, we feel wedding videography filmed in super 8 mm suffers from the same malady. At its best, super 8 mm can convey a sweet, nostalgic timelessness. But too often super 8 mm just looks like shaky, out-of-focus, poorly exposed home movies.

Whether it's in a dramatic feature film or a personal wedding movie, special effects should be used to further the story and not just for their own sake.

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