A few weeks ago Drew McWeeny over at HitFix wrote a treatise on the current age of filmmaking and its overrealiance on CGI (partly inspired by the illuminating VFX reel for “Only God Forgives”), dubbing our era the “age of casual magic.” He wondered whether modern-day audiences still had the capacity for awe in the face of ever-increasing spectacle. While we can’t pretend to know the answer to that question—we’ll see how the general movie-going public responds to Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” which appears to be aiming for the awe of yesteryear—what we can do is turn the clock back and see what images and effects mesmerized audiences thirty years ago.
In 1984, the iconic PBS series “Nova” set its sights on the world of special effects as they were when practical effects ruled the cinematic landscape. The special first takes viewers behind the scenes of “Return of the Jedi” at ILM’s offices, where George Lucas makes an appearance, before moving on to “Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom” (read our 30th anniversary reappreciation), 1985’s Joe Dante-directed and Ethan Hawke-starring “Explorers,” and the Peter Hyams-helmed “2010: The Year We Make Contact.”
With no disrespect to the animators and programmers and artists working on CGI today, there is something almost magical about watching the creation of physical objects taking up physical space and recognizing that these inherently imperfect creations crafted by hand—can CG extensions of sets ever match the innate craftsmanship of matte paintings?—are what gave us some of the most striking and awe-inspring images ever seen on screen.
Watch the NOVA special, “The Magic Of Special Effects,” below.