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Seeing VFX Is Believing, From Original ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Superman’ Franchises to Woody Allen’s ‘Zelig’

Seeing VFX Is Believing, From Original 'Star Wars' and 'Superman' Franchises to Woody Allen's 'Zelig'

“You’ll believe a man can fly.”

That was the promise made to potential ticket-buyers during
the fall and winter of 1978, when Richard Donner’s take on the Superman legend
was being readied to soar across Christmastime movie screens all over America.
We certainly never believed (nor were we asked to believe) that George Reeves,
the Superman known to viewers of the popular TV series which ran from 1952
until 1958, could really fly. And even our faith in all things wise and
wonderful wasn’t enough to convince us that Julie Andrews had really taken to
the air with her satchel and umbrella, to say nothing of the aeronautic
abilities of Sally Field.

But after “Star Wars” (1977) had premiered a barrage of
stylish visual effects, themselves doubling up on the groundbreaking realism of
Douglas Trumbull’s effects work for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” expectations had
been, shall we say, heightened. “Star Wars” was, of course, fanciful in its own
way, and certainly in a way that 2001 was not — no Jawas and Wookiees for
Stanley. Among the light-sabers and countless other visual marvels offered on
George Lucas’s menu, which illustrated a vision of interstellar life whose
influences seemed to indicate that its world existed concurrently in the past
and in the future, there was that heretofore-unseen height of technical
sophistication which seemed to plead for a greater allowance of suspended
disbelief on the part of the audience, all the while feeding them a dazzling
level of space-age trickery in order to ensure such leaps of faith might be
easier to make. “Superman” promised that we would believe a man (even one from
the planet Krypton) could actually fly, but after having already witnessed Luke
Skywalker zooming over the plains of Tatooine in his land speeder, seemingly
suspended on nothing but streams of air, in many ways we already did.

Of course no one really thought that Christopher Reeve was
up there zooming through the atmosphere without the help of movie magic, and if
we ever even incrementally believed that a man could fly — and a woman could
convincingly hitch a ride on his cape tails — it had a whole lot more to do with
the chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder, and the swooning romanticism
that propelled their nighttime cruise over Metropolis, than it did the degree
to which we were convinced by the wire work and blue-screen techniques employed
to get the scene on film. “Superman”’s effects were, taken as a whole and truth
be told, far more rudimentary and far less convincing than the ones that bowed
in Lucas’s film a year earlier. But the insistence of the movie’s advertising
that belief in what we would see was something we could expect, well, if it
wasn’t exactly new, then it at least carried a whole lot more weight (supplied
by a major movie studio’s marketing power) than the usual hucksters’ come-ons
of exploitation movies past.

The “Star Wars” and “Superman” franchises spent the early part
of the 1980s refining their approaches vis-à-vis their technical prowess, and
perhaps cannibalizing themselves to certain degree as well, all while the
market was becoming saturated by low-budget competitors soaked in the fantasy
syntax that the two series inspired. Incessant imitation of their visual
bravado introduced the inescapable sense of a Xerox copy being reconstituted
endlessly, each new generation a little dimmer than the last. And rather than
from the loins of George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, the apparent inspiration
for the next step in the movie audience’s increasing desire to believe would
come from a most unlikely place.

A long time ago, in a time far, far away, before the letters
C, G and I, spoken in that order, meant much of anything to moviegoers, Woody
Allen released a little film called “Zelig,” the ostensibly slight story of Leonard
Zelig, the Human Chameleon, a nobody so lacking his own character that in the
presence of stronger personalities he begins to co-opt their physical and
psychological attributes. Thematically, “Zelig,” a movie posited on the notion
that, no, everybody isn’t necessarily somebody, was a perfect fit within the
totality of Allen’s neurotically fueled canon. And the movie stood out, from
Allen’s own oeuvre as well as from every other comedy in release at the time,
because it was crafted in a mock-documentary style– “Zelig” was released in 1983,
a year before “This is Spinal Tap,” and many years before the mock-documentary
became an overcooked genre of its own. But even beyond the conceit of its
structure, technically it was a step outside the box for American cinema, and
certainly outside Allen’s own comfort zone as a director known more for his
visually natural, restrained palette. (Despite his constant nods toward
Fellini, the excesses and general phantasmagorical reach of Stardust Memories
was the exception, not the rule.)

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