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The End of VFX


It’s the end of the year, so it’s the time for the retrospectives on the state of the film business—such as it is. Here’s a good one from Kim Masters in The Hollywood Reporter. And from Richard Brody at The New Yorker (behind a paywall).


Long story short: studios gutted their own theatrical business by trying to boost their streaming services—they couldn’t afford to be left behind by Netflix, Amazon, et al. They willingly devalued their own product by giving it away for free. (During a once-in-a-century pandemic, it was maybe justified as a temporary measure.)


But we consumers learned: Hey, this is great! If you’re going to call “movies” just more “television,” we’ll gladly watch it at home and treat it as such.


And now the bottom has completely fallen out of the adult prestige picture theatrically. They’re all bombing—many (like The Fabelmans) supposed to be really great.


Now, leave it to James Cameron to rescue theatrical.

Never bet against the GOAT!


I titled this column “The End of VFX” not because I think VFX will be going away—on the contrary, they are here to stay, better, cheaper and more pervasive than ever.


What’s ending is the thrill audiences get from seeing things depicted for the first time. It is the very definition of the law of diminishing returns.


I don’t know if young people will ever understand what it was like the first time we saw this...

Or this...

Or this...

It was like OH MY GOD IT’S DINOSAURS!!! HOLY MOLY THAT’S AWESOME!!!


Forget even where you were in the movie’s story—it was such a primal, transformative, experiential moment, it was like going into space. You remembered it FOREVER!


So of course you told your friends, went to see again, and eagerly awaited the sequel. (The sequel typically disappointed, but that’s another story.)


The entire superhero genre has gone from a laughingstock to the dominant box office player because of VFX that can execute real-ish looking superpowers.


So what’s happened? Well, the hacks took over. People make these movies having no idea how to use VFX!


Marvel, today, is particularly egregious for incoherent, fake-looking effects that make their movies a jumbled-up eyesore:

Like everything else, VFX are a tool. The great filmmakers, like Cameron, are meticulous and maniacal about every little detail looking and feeling real.


That’s how we get Pandora—and with Avatar 2, we’re once again having a taste of what it’s like to have something that you’ve literally never seen before.


And yeah, you gotta see it in a theater.

Why can’t there be more films this dazzling? Mostly because there are very few people with Cameron’s abilities—not to mention his track record in order to receive the corporation-busting budgets and schedules to chase perfection.


Also, he’s a master storyteller. As much as people groan about the Avatar movies being simplistic, he knows how to entertain.


I think—no, I know—that we took for granted just how much the film business was boosted by the novelty of VFX advancements.


Going forward, it’s going to be harder and harder to have these Cameron-like moments and cultural events. So, I guess, enjoy them while you can!

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