Arrival, Gone Girl, & the Beauty of Invisible Visual Effects

The best visual effects are the ones we don't even consciously notice. Ryan praises the use of CGI in Sicario, Arrival, and beyond...

This article first appeared at Den of Geek UK.

Think of a computer-generated special effect, and you might come up with something big and eye-popping: a huge space battle in Guardians of the Galaxy, Superman and Zod demolishing much of downtown Metropolis in Man of Steel. For over three decades now, CGI has been used to create the impossible, from the pioneering stained glass knight in 1986’s Young Sherlock Holmes to K-2SO, the performance-capture droid in last year’s Star Wars: Rogue One.

Indeed, CGI has become such an indispensible part of modern filmmaking that even complicated effects shots no longer carry the impact they once did. Where the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park might have provoked gasps of awe in 1993, the sight of an extinct creature revived by technology had lost some of its dramatic weight by 2015’s Jurassic World – something wryly addressed in the movie itself. But while we may have become used to explosive visual effects, and perhaps even slightly numbed by them at times, there’s another branch of CG artistry that is both vital to movie-making and, necessarily, almost always invisible.

As a recent example, take a look at director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama, Arrival. This is a film that, among other things, imagines what might happen if alien ships were to descend on our planet, circa 2016. How would the media cover the story? How would the military react? Arrival‘s use of wide shots and mock news reports gives an otherwise intimate, interior drama a greater sense of scale, and the subtlety of the film’s visual effects is key to its air of realism. In the back of our minds, we know that the shots of smooth, oval craft floating above cities and mountains must be a special effect – either that, or Villeneuve went to the ludicrous expense of building full-size UFOs – but what’s remarkable about Arrival is just how cleverly it uses CGI elsewhere.

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This much becomes clear when you watch a visual effects reel recently uploaded by Oblique FX, one of the studios responsible for Arrivals post-production. It not only shows how some of the big set-pieces were produced – those alien ships, the wide shots of crowds gathered on gridlocked highways – but how other shots were graded, augmented, and tweaked by the studio’s team. Some of these tweaks were almost imperceptible in the finished film: we were so invested in the drama that we didn’t stop to consider that the helicopters on the military base might be CG, or that a tank rumbling past Amy Adams only existed inside a computer.

Some of the work produced by another effects studio, Rodeo, shows just how seamless modern CGI can be. A selection of before and after shots on the firm’s website reveal that the distinctive orange hazmat suits worn by Adams and several other castmembers  were, in fact, digitally rendered in a number of sequences. 

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine why Villeneuve and his crew might have done this: without the cumbersome suits, the actors are free to move around and emote more freely, and the cinematographer’s free to capture and light their facial expressions without having to worry about, say, the reflections on their face masks or the plastic fogging up from their breath (you only have to look back at a movie like Alien to see how quickly a fogged-up space helmet can obscure an actor’s face).

This is but one example of what I’d argue is the best kind of CG effect: it’s invisible, yet it helps a filmmaker tell their story in a manner that wouldn’t have been possible with any other technique. In Villeneuve’s previous film, 2015’s narco-thriller Sicario, the use of CGI was similarly invisible. Its extraordinarily intense highway sequence was given added scale by digitally extending the strip of tarmac and its crush of cars. One the film’s most disturbing images – the Goya-like shot of dismembered corpses hanging from a bridge in Juarez – was, incredibly, added in later by Oblique FX.

These techniques have their roots at Industrial Light & Magic in the mid-1980s, which was making pioneering use of computers alongside traditional filmmaking. Howard the Duck, for example, was the first movie to feature digital wire removal – something that would later be used to more famous effect in Back to the Future II and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Steven Spielberg’s Hook, released the same year as Terminator 2, was the first movie to feature a 3D digital matte painting, which you can see in this brief sequence:

These movies all laid the groundwork for the kinds of seamless background effects employed by Denis Villeneuve and too many other filmmakers to mention. David Fincher, who early in his career worked at ILM, is a director who knows better than most how to weave visual effects into the fabric of his filmmaking. His recent thrillers The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl may not seem like “effects movies” at first glance, but that’s because their use of CG is barely perceptible to the untrained eye:

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we can see how CGI can be used to create the kind of harsh weather effects that would once have relied on noisy, expensive snow machines or, even worse, waiting around for the right cold front to appear on your film location. Likewise, a makeup effect – like a trickle of blood running down the side of an actor’s face – can be added in later, allowing a shot to be set-up and captured more quickly.

One of Fincher’s common approaches is to use CGI to extend the view beyond his sets. In Gone Girl, the fancy house rented by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike’s characters is lit so well that it doesn’t even look as though it’s shot on a sound stage. Yet an effects breakdown reel shows that everything outside the house’s windows and doors was added in later by artists at Artemple Hollywood.

Now, you might be wondering why a filmmaker would bother to go to the time and effort of faking a house with a lush garden, rather than simply finding a real location and pointing a camera at it. Hasn’t the digital effects revolution just made filmmakers lazy? Far from it. First, shooting a movie on a soundstage comes with a huge number of advantages: you have more precise control over the lighting – something that is constantly changing in a location, whether it’s due to passing clouds or the movement of the sun. A set on a sound stage also gives the director and cinematographer greater flexibility. If they can’t get the precise framing they want, then they can simply take a wall out and move the camera back. A photographer can shoot above without having to worry about the ceiling or roof getting in the way. (Compare this with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which, because of its location shoot, required cutting a huge hole in an apartment block ceiling to get the late shot of  a bloodied Travis Bickle.) 

As Gone Girl proves, shooting on a sound stage can look just as believable as a real location if it’s shot and lit correctly, and most movie-goers would never even guess that Ben Affleck’s garden is actually a background element added in post-production. Of course, there are plenty of movies where the use of CGI backgrounds is distractingly obvious – the Star Wars prequels immediately spring to mind – but the movies cited thus far use them in ways that are closer to the way Alfred Hitchcock used physical matte paintings in his pictures.

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Indeed, digital set extension and CG matte work has revolutionized filmmaking to such an extent that it’s long since bled into the realm of television. The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s superb alternate-history World War II drama, imagines a Nazi-occupied America with a depth and realism that would’ve been extraordinarily expensive to create in a movie until recently, and unthinkable on the kind of budgets enjoyed by even the glossiest US TV shows.

Far from a substitute for great visual storytelling, CGI can, in the hands of an expert, be an indispensible filmmaking tool – as easily overlooked yet important as selecting the correct lens or getting the sound mix just right. Sicario, Gone Girl, Arrival in these kinds of movies, the best visual effects are the ones we don’t even notice.