The Evolution Of Cinematic Special Effects

James Cameron's film, Avatar, and its 3-D experience broke box office records through the holiday weekend. Richard Rickitt, author of Special Effects, and Tyruben Ellingson, who worked on Avatar, discuss the evolution of special effects in films.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

This past holiday weekend provided the best box office in Hollywood history and the biggest hit was James Cameron's sci-fi epic �Avatar,� which raked in 75 million all by itself. If you haven't seen it, the movie takes place in the year 2154, on a moon called Pandora, where we humans are the aliens. And it features breathtaking special effects, best seen in 3D. Some critics complain the storyline is both trite and derivative, the dialogue nothing special but there is unanimous praise for the true, out of this world 3D experience with vivid colors, texture and cinematography that combine to bring the wow factor back to the screen.

There are a lot of movies that claim to change the entire movie going experience and some actually did it. �The Jazz Singer�, �The Wizard of Oz�, �The Ten Commandments�, �Star Wars�, �The Matrix.� Which film, which scene, which special effect raised the bar for you? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, West African correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton will join us with a profile of the man charged with trying to blow up a trans-continental airliner on Christmas day.

But first, Richard Rickitt is with us. He is the author of a book called �Special Effects: The History and Technique.� He lectures on special effects at the British Film Institute and joins us on the phone from his home in England. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Mr. RICHARD RICKITT (Author, �Special Effect: The History and Technique�): Hi, thank you very much.

CONAN: And �Avatar� has certainly raised the bar this time around. And the use of 3D, there have been a rash of movies in 3D. This one seems to be surpassing them all.

Mr. RICKITT: Yes, it does. I think, well, it's something that James Cameron's had an interest in for a long time. I think he's decided that it was time to give it a go in one of his own movies. And it's, well, by all accounts, it's been very successful.

CONAN: And, of course, as you studied the history of special effects, well, moving pictures are themselves a special effect. I mean, going back to the days when you had the, you know, the flip pictures of horses running and that sort of thing.

Mr. RICKITT: Well, that's right. I mean, in the very earliest days of the moving pictures, the very fact that pictures could move was in itself a special effect. And in fact, way back in 1895, when the Lumiere brothers first showed a film of a railway engine coming into a station, people who were watching it jumped up and ran away because they thought this engine was actually about to smash through the screen and run them over.

CONAN: It should be pointed out, this was a silent picture.

Mr. RICKITT: Yes.

CONAN: And, of course, one of the biggest special effects revolutions of all time was sound, �The Jazz Singer.�

Mr. RICKITT: Yes, well, that was - sound in fact created a lot of problems for people creating visual effects because up until that point, films had been made oftentimes outside, in the great outdoors. And all of a sudden, because of sound recording, films had to be made indoors, in a sound stage. And so the problem was how to get the great outdoors indoors and that led to the creation of things like rear screen projection, you would probably be familiar with that, that often seen image of a Hollywood actor in a car or on a ship with a sometimes not very well projected scene behind them. And that was because filmmakers had to find a way of bringing the outside into the studio.

CONAN: And you could also get films that seemed, well, you know, raising the bar at the time. You think of a film like Alfred Hitchcock's �The Birds,� with those great images of all those birds flocking. And you see it today and, well, it's not so convincing.

Mr. RICKITT: Well, unfortunately no. We're all so sophisticated visually now that we often see things that were once considered incredibly realistic and they no longer look that way. But it's hardly surprising. I mean, when you think about �The Birds,� I mean, a lot of those images of �The Birds� were just in fact painted birds, they were matte paintings on a sheet of glass. And to make them look as if they were real birds, they scraped little bits of paint off the back of the painting and moved a light behind it. So, when they filmed it, it looked as if the birds were in fact moving.

CONAN: And indeed, though, you can go back to the earliest days of cinema to directors like D. W. Griffith and people like that and find these enormous sets that were constructed to represent places like Babylon and, of course, well, �The Ten Commandments,� I guess, is one of the great ones of all time, a little bit later, of course.

Mr. RICKITT: Yes, indeed. In fact, at one point, you know, Hollywood, in fact particularly in the 1950s when television was taking over and causing quite a threat, filmmakers actually decided not to use special effects so much and to actually build these enormous sets. And they used that as part of their publicity to persuade people to come and see the films.

CONAN: And a cast of thousands.

Mr. RICKITT: Thousands and thousands of people, which, of course, now would all be computer-generated.

CONAN: Indeed, but parting the Red Sea, still pretty impressive.

Mr. RICKITT: Yes it is, two versions of that, of course. And people have their own favorite but it's still an impressive sight to see.

CONAN: As you look back, though, there have been notable failures of some technologies that were introduced. Well, 3D the first time around, a novelty act for a little while. We remember Vincent Price stabbing through the screen but other than that it didn't catch on.

Mr. RICKITT: No, but unfortunately the 3D was brought in first in the 1950s. The first film it use it was something called �Bwana Devil.� And filmmakers got rather carried away with the process and the effects rather than telling stories. And so after about 18 months that particular craze dried up because the films were generally so poor, they relied on having something leaping out of the screen at you rather than telling a story, which I think is a salutary note to the filmmakers of today.

CONAN: Whatever technology they may embrace, story is still the most important thing.

Mr. RICKITT: Absolutely.

CONAN: And let's see we get some callers in on this conversation. We're talking about the special effects that changed the cinematic experience for you, raised the bar for everything that followed - 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Marion(ph) is with us, calling from Rochester in New York.

MARION (Caller): Yes, I have been raised in the South. I am accustomed to seeing many, many birds and trying to catch them, setting various traps for them. You can never get close to them. And the mere fact that I saw tons and tons of birds running at people, knocking blood out of them, banging into windows and just wreaking a tornado like havoc into the community, I was just blown away. I was scooting down in my seat and if my older brother hadn't have held me, I would have jumped up and ran out of the movie.

CONAN: I thought that they were just trying to get Rod Taylor's suit to be a little bit less thin, it was so tight on him. But, anyway, yeah, �The Birds,� at the time, Richard Rickitt, was really impressive.

Mr. RICKITT: It was, it was a very impressive film. And, you know, people were very, very scared by it and, you know, had became averse to birds the rest of their lives, some people. Similar to the effect that �Jaws� had some years later.

CONAN: Just when you were ready to go back in the water, �Jaws 2�, of course, yes. Thanks very much for the call, Marion. We hope you've made your peace with the birds from now on.

MARION: I'll do my best. Thank you. God bless, and bye now.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And I do remember they had a great advertising campaign for that film. Big billboards saying �The Birds� is coming which, of course, is correct because it's a title of a movie but, of course, the seeming grammatical error made a lot of people jump right out of their skin. Let's go to Carl(ph). Carl calling us from Wichita.

CARL: Greetings, Neal. I got to say the movie that changed the cinematic experience for me originally was �Star Wars.� The scene where they flew down the Death Star canyon, absolutely, I walked out of that movie at the ripe old age of 12 with my jaw scraping the floor. They did that with models and matte paintings and whatnot. And then I just saw �Avatar� this weekend and I got to say that that really raised the bar for me.

CONAN: Yeah. They're talking about a 3D version now of �Star Wars.�

CARL: And that would be truly a sight to behold. This was actually the very first 3D movie I've ever seen. I'm 46 years old, I hate to admit this is the first 3D movie I ever saw. And one of the things that I think really impressed me about it, one of the things I think that so many of the new CGI films lack is a real depth and texture, that the �Star Wars� movie had since they did it with models. And the newer movies all seem to be kind of flatten and whatnot, but I did not get that feeling from �Avatar,� especially with the added, you know, the third dimension. And I could - the movie made me laugh, made me cry. It changed my world. It was just astounding.

CONAN: Great, Carl, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

CARL: Thank you.

CONAN: And �Star Wars� certainly did raise the bar.

Mr. RICKITT: Oh, �Star Wars� I think probably - if you ask anybody who's interested in visual effects, then - very often that's the film that did it for them. In fact, many people working in effects today, probably working on films like �Avatar,� are there because, simply because of �Star Wars.�

I remember clearly seeing it when I was five years old, and I can remember it as if it was yesterday, being absolutely blown away. Of course, I had no idea how it was created. I found out about that much later on, but what an amazing film.

CONAN: And it's interesting that Lucas has gone back several times to - as technology has improved - to make the film better and better and better.

Mr. RICKITT: That's right. He's kept on adding bits and pieces that he couldn't do originally as a struggling filmmaker...

CONAN: Jabba the Hut, for one.

Mr. RICKITT: Well, exactly. I mean, there are - you know, some people would perhaps rather he wasn't added back in, but it adds something to the story that originally had to be dropped.

CONAN: And indeed, they are talking about retrofitting movies like that as 3D. Are you familiar with that process?

Mr. RICKITT: Yes, yes, there are several processes now that are available that you can take a traditional movie and actually turn it into a stereoscopic experience.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in, and let's go to Christine(ph). Christine with us from East Jordan in Michigan.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Yes. The movie that I thought really made a difference was - I don't know if you remember, this is an old movie - was �The Abyss,� where they took the saltwater and they made it into a being, a face. And I think they used that same type of technology in the �Terminator� movies, where they were taking that silver liquid and making it into a form. And I thought at the time that that was - and those are old movies, and I don't think people talk about those as much, but I thought those were really phenomenal special effects.

CONAN: �The Abyss�...

CHRISTINE: And I also saw �Avatar� and thought - who cares about the storyline? Visually it was just such an orgasm. I'm telling you.

CONAN: �The Abyss,� as it happens, another James Cameron movie.

Mr. RICKITT: That's right. He's always been looking for stories that really push the limits of filmmaking. And in that case, it was the pseudopod, an amazing creature made out of water, yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Christine. There are, of course, people like Ray Harryhausen who made their techniques using stop-motion animation. And that's how we got �Sinbad the Sailor� and that sort of thing and, of course, �King Kong� as well.

Mr. RICKITT: Oh, Ray Harryhausen, I know him well. He lives here in London, and a marvelous man, true gentleman. But his skills are almost supernatural. It's incredible.

If you go and see a film today like �Avatar,� and you look at the credits list for visual effects, you know, there are probably one, possibly even two thousand people who worked on it. But you watch a film like �Jason and the Argonauts,� and the people that did the visual effects numbered one. It was him, Ray Harryhausen in a little studio, locked away for months on end. He was the only person working on those films.

And if you look at something like �Jason and the Argonauts,� there's a great scene where Jason is fighting seven skeletons, and the skill involved in making sure that the live-action actor's sword could clash with the sword of the skeletons that he was animating, it really makes the mind boggle.

CONAN: Coming up, more on special effects, plus we'll talk with the lead vehicle designer for James Cameron's �Avatar.� We'll take more of your calls, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. There was a time when sound was an impressive special effect. Now it's 3D cinematography in James Cameron's �Avatar� that's got people in movie theaters gasping.

In a minute, we'll talk with the lead vehicle designer on that film. We want to know: What was the movie that raised the special effects bar for you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Let's go through a couple of quick emails. FrogGirl(ph) send us a tweet: The perfection of Gollum's face in �Lord of the Rings� and the stark beauty of �Battlestar Galactica's� space-scapes, that of course on TV, and �300's� Roman battlefields - she of course meant Greek battlefields, but anyway, those were all breakthroughs.

And this another pay-in to �Star Wars� from Donna(ph) in St. Louis. I have a very clear memory as a �tween of the enormous spaceship flying into the frame from above in the first �Star Wars.� It just kept coming and coming as it got bigger and bigger, and the sound got huger and huger. The day marked a lifelong love of big movies that you have to see in the theater and not at home.

And Richard Rickitt, who's the author of �Special Effects: The History and Technique,� and I guess that's the point. They want you to plunk down your $12.50, I guess it now is, and go see the movie.

Mr. RICKITT: Well, that's right. That's been what's really kept visual effects going all these years. It's the need to make things bigger and better and more exciting.

CONAN: Joining us now is TyRuben Ellingson. He's conceptual designer and has worked on films such as �Jurassic Park� and �Mimic,� �Hellboy.� He was the vehicle designer for �Avatar� and joins us today from member station KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. TYRUBEN ELLINGSON (Lead Vehicle Designer, �Avatar�): Very nice to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And I understand you worked specifically on the exoskeletal war machines.

Mr. ELLINGSON: Well, yes. I worked on all the vehicles that are man-driven vehicles in �Avatar,� but I think you're referencing the AMP suit, which is the big, giant robotic machine that the character Quaritch gets in. And it basically is a robot that amplifies the human operators, you know, physicality inside of a kind of a cockpit that's in the chest of the large robotic machine.

CONAN: And the large - those machines are - they have weight. They have gigantic feel. They have enormous power. Did James Cameron turn to you and say, well, I guess money's no object, make it good?

Mr. ELLINGSON: Actually, Jim's approach to it was to look at the existing technologies and try to extrapolate from that what, you know, what the military of the future might have without going into an area which would be too fantastic or too fantasy-life. He really talked about these things as an extension of a tank, for example, that had some of the technologies that are being developed by the military today.

You mentioned the exoskeleton, is a similar idea, that you wear a suit that's robotic and it actually increases your human capabilities, your strength and your speed. This was that kind of on steroids. It was really a kind of a small chamber that cocooned the operator in a safe zone, in this case in �Avatar� against the poisonous atmosphere. And then as he moved freely within that little compartment, the larger suit on the exterior, you know, was able to move in a very dynamic way and, as you mentioned, with a lot of extra weight and extra strength and extra size, which plays huge in the movie. The kind of equalizer between the height of the Na'vi and the human is this AMP suit, which brings, you know, man's presence up to a scale somewhat equivalent to the Na'vi.

CONAN: And the control system was fascinating. I guess it's an extension of the old Waldo(ph), the - you can stick your hand in a glove and manipulate a robotic glove.

Mr. ELLINGSON: Yes, that's it exactly. In fact, we did look closely at all kinds of Waldo technologies. The idea of having an interface that's mechanical, that is calibrated in such a way that it translates the human movements into some kind of, in most cases, a digital code that then is, you know, transmitted to a driver or a robotic joint, and then it's duplicated in some capacity. The early Waldos were cable-driven, and now we have digital versions of them.

CONAN: And Waldos, of course, they get the name originally from a device first imagined by a science fiction writer, Robert Heinlein.

Mr. ELLINGSON: Exactly.

CONAN: So it all comes around full-circle. And it's interesting that Jim Cameron, the director - you call him Jim, I'll call him James, I guess - but in any case, that he wanted these things to be not too fantastic.

Mr. ELLINGSON: Exactly. He always talked about them as being nimble. He cited linebackers and football players as though - in fact, Quaritch does it a little bit in the scene where we're first introduced to this kind of AMP suit technology. He gets inside. He straps himself into the Waldo interface, as you mentioned, and then he does a quick kind of couple of boxing moves, and you see the coordination between his punching and the larger suit's motion.

And Jim always intended that these would be nimble and quick and agile, but they would be very powerful and very strong and very much along the line of what you would like to have if you were going to battle against a really formidable enemy.

CONAN: And indeed, then they get into battles with all kinds of interesting creatures, including, of course, the Na'vi, but the hammerhead rhinoceros-type creatures and the cat-like creature, and then there's a great duel at the end. Well, I'm not going to give it away. But those must have been really, really difficult things to film.

Mr. ELLINGSON: Well, actually, there was a process of going through - Jim would work with a number of different technicians and they came up with what was called a pre-visualization methodology, where he could explain the actions. And at first, it was very simple, primitive kind of versions of the creatures that - it would look very much like a video game, and he could kind of plot those out and talk about in terms of, you know, setting up the staging. That would be like just, like, if you think about the way that you would approach doing a theater play, you kind of stage it, like the camera will be here, and then we'll have the creature come in there, and then the Na'vi will be here. Those drove the process along until they were able to bring in actors who had specialized suits on, which is another whole topic in itself. The motion-capture technology in this film is unprecedented.

He could then have the human actors do their lines and make their gestures, and those - their movement would be captured by specialized cameras, and then it would be presented on a monitor as though they were the Na'vi. And then he could ask them to move left or move right, and he could make adjustments and capture these things in a kind of piecemeal manner that allowed him to kind of collage them together. And eventually, in post-production, he could manipulate them further, and they grew in their detail and their complexity. It was a very organic, technological process.

CONAN: Richard Rickitt - we're going to get back to calls in just a minute, but I wonder if - you know a lot more about this than I do - if you have any questions for Tyruben Ellingson?

Mr. RICKITT: No, no, I'm actually just enjoying listening to his tales of working with James Cameron. What an amazing experience for him.

CONAN: Tyruben Ellingson is with us from KJZZ in Tempe. Richard Rickitt is with us from his home near London. Let's get some more callers on the line, and let's go next to Steve(ph). Steve with us from Erie in Colorado.

STEVE (Caller): Yeah, I'd like to put my vote in for one of the all-time classics - it's ancient - is �Forbidden Planet� with Walter Pidgeon and Anne Francis, one of the initial advents of any kind of special effects used in the films.

CONAN: Robby the Robot was later revived to star in �Lost in Space.� But of course, the monsters from the Id were the big creatures in that. Tyruben Ellingson, do you go back that far? Do you go back to pictures like �Forbidden Planet�?

Mr. ELLINGSON: You know, actually, I watch �Forbidden Planet� on Thanksgiving every year. It is a very - it's a classic picture. It has - you can see all the source materials for many things that were brought through the - you know, brought along as cinema developed - R2-D2, C3PO, these notions of a fantastic other world. You know, they're all kind of - you can see their kind of base coding, their genetic coding in that film very clearly. And I just get a real kick out of it every year.

CONAN: Why Thanksgiving?

Mr. ELLINGSON: I don't know. It just started somewhere along the line, and now I can't separate turkey from, you know, the feast leads straight into Robby making alcohol, you know, for the cook, exactly.

CONAN: Exactly. And Richard Rickitt, your point about story earlier, along with special effects, they stole a pretty good script.

Mr. RICKITT: Well, exactly, yes, of course. You can't go wrong when you begin with �The Tempest.�

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steve. Let's see if we can go next to Nathan(ph). Nathan with us from Iowa City.

NATHAN (Caller): Yes, hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NATHAN: Well, it's funny you mentioned a moment ago the height of the war machine and the Na'vi and that being important to Mr. Cameron because the special effects that impressed me is not computer graphics or big sets, it's the apple box. The movie I'm thinking of is �Minority Report,� and in that, there was a scene towards the end where Tom Cruise and Max von Sydow have a glare-off, eye to eye. And as I was watching it, I was thinking, well, Tom Cruise is about five-one or two, and Max von Sydow is six-six, six-seven. That's amazing special effects right there, that they are standing nose to nose to one another.

CONAN: They borrowed the box that Alan Ladd used to stand on, maybe.

NATHAN: Exactly.

CONAN: Nathan, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to James(ph). James with us from Portland, Oregon.

JAMES (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JAMES: I'm calling about a movie that sort of fell by the wayside, at the time was a brand-new concept, grade vehicles, and at the time, groundbreaking computer graphics, which is �Tron.�

CONAN: Richard Rickitt, �Tron� actually debut a lot of the technologies that have come to greater fruition in "Avatar."

Mr. RICKITT: Well, that's right. "Tron," 1982, made the first use of a lot of computer graphics techniques. Unfortunately, it wasn't a great success at the box office. And so, many people, in fact, believe that's what held up the use computers in filmmaking for a long time and the studios just didn't see that it was going to be a way of making money.

CONAN: So, a better story, they might have all had this years and years ago.

Mr. RICKITT: Same old story, that's right.

CONAN: Same old story. "Tron" is - is "Tron" one of your predecessors, TyRuben?

Mr. ELLINGSON: Well, I'm a huge fan of "Tron." And actually, the designer, Syd Mead, who was the person who came in and did a lot of the cool futuristic vehicles in that, is somebody that I've - I had a long, long respect and admiration for. They are, right now, doing a redo of "Tron" that's in production and should be coming out, I believe, next year. So, it should be interesting to see how the transitions from its first incarnation to - use with, you know, in a newer version with the newest technologies.

Mr. RICKITT: Well, interestingly, they've kept one of the original Syd Mead designs.

Mr. ELLINGSON: Exactly.

CONAN: Interesting. Here's an email from Tom(ph) in Cincinnati. He - another vote for "The Abyss." This movie sported the water creator visual effect, the same technique used in �Terminator II� for the metal form shaping Terminator. Rats, I forget the model number. Both were groundbreaking in my book and both were James Cameron movies, as we pointed out earlier.

And this from Ray(ph) in San Francisco. Hi. For me, there were several. The one that hit an emotional chord, as well as visual, was "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The crescendo of the UFO special effects starting with these small little teasers, ending up with the surprise arrival of the mother ship still sends thrilling shivers of wonder down my spine.

And I particularly like the scene where they're playing the, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta, ta. And it finally answers. And we figured out that we can't communicate with another species.

Of course, one of the great special effects was the mountain sculpted in mash potatoes. I always thought that's pretty good too. That's a wonderful movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

We're talking with TyRuben Ellingson, the conceptual designer. He's worked on films such "Jurassic Park," "Mimic," "Hellboy," "Blade II" and "Blade Trinity." He was the vehicle designer on "Avatar." Also with us, Richard Rickitt, who lectures on special effects at the British Film Institute, and his book is "Special Effects: The History and Technique."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

Let's go next to Eric(ph). Eric's with us from St. Louis.

ERIC (Caller): Well, good afternoon. I was remembering the first time I saw Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." And since you were mentioning the service of special effects in telling stories, if you're going to tell a story, if you go, sort of, to the nature of humanity and what our purpose is in the universe, that's a pretty good story to try to get at with special effects. I thought you really felt like you were in space for that film.

CONAN: There was the great scene of it. It was Keir Dullea, running around the course and seeming weightlessness as he tried to get his exercise, and that was utterly convincing. And "2001," a great story, Richard Rickitt, and it made a pile of money.

Mr. RICKITT: It made a lot of money, and the studios couldn't work out why. (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICKITT: It confused the heck out of them. They didn't know whether it was the special effects, or they didn't know quite why. A lot of people thought it was something to do with the illegal substances that some people consumed in the cinema while watching the famous star gate sequence at the end there.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

ERIC: Could I mention one other thing? When I saw "Avatar" - I'm partially colorblind, and "Avatar" is the first 3D movie that I could actually see 3D in.

CONAN: Wow. That's interesting. Okay.

Mr. RICKITT: Yeah, that's because normal - the traditional 3D process involved using the (unintelligible) process, the blue and the red spectacles, which, of course, some "Avatar" doesn't rely on.

CONAN: Let's go next to Charles in Macomb, Illinois.

CHARLES (Caller): Hi. I wanted to mention "The Wizard of Oz." It's just so old. The effects, you know, weren't as great as they are nowadays. But for the time, I would think that I had a lot of impact on the audience.

CONAN: Well, just going from the black and white of Kansas to the color of Oz was pretty spectacular. And the - I'm assuming a lot of people got pretty scared in the tornado sequence. So, Charles, I think you've nailed that one. That's a huge movie that really did shift everybody's expectations of what was possible and, of course, was a tremendous hit. Thanks very much for the call.

Our couple of emails, Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," nominates Buck(ph) in Portland, Oregon, best special effects, use of deep-focus lens. And TyRuben Ellingson, we sometimes forget that lens work like that - well, is it a special effect?

Mr. ELLINGSON: Well, yeah. I mean, I think you can take almost any facet of filmmaking process, and if you try to take it and use it in a very stylistic way for a specific kind of storytelling point, it becomes a special effect. I mean, you know, you can make things that would be - like for example, in "Citizen Kane," they use large foreground objects that are in focus with background performances.

So it's like your - you can't escape the symbolism that the director is implying. So, yeah, I think it could easily be considered a form of special effect when it's pushed and utilized in that manner.

CONAN: In that manner and, indeed, I think editing was a special effect, Richard Rickitt, or in the early days, in extreme editing or fast editing -still a very common technique.

Mr. RICKITT: Yes, there are a lot of very interesting techniques used in editing to shock audiences, to surprise them, and so forth. I mean, just getting back to "Citizen Kane," and I don't think people realize often how many visual effects there were in that film. And it's a very interesting example of a film which uses visual effects almost in an invisible fashion.

It's full of matte paintings, there's animation, all kinds of interesting techniques which don't leap out at you as being special effects but they help tell a story.

CONAN: On this tweet from A Wilson and talking about "Avatar" and Cameron. We're avoiding the, obvious, "Titanic" that used effects that are unobtrusive and still hold up all the way back what, nine years ago? Still holds up. TyRuben Ellingson, they're talking about a 3D version of that one, too.

Mr. ELLINGSON: Yes. I mean, I'm not super knowledgeable as to how they're going to approach taking a lot of these two-dimensional films and making them three-dimensional. There's several techniques where they kind of slit-scan out components and move certain things in the view frame forward, so I'm not really in a position to discuss it. But, of course, now that we have this venue available and we have multiple theaters in most major cities, and people actually have become more interested and hungry for it, I'm sure we'll see a lot of really exciting things coming down the pipe in the years ahead.

CONAN: Well, TyRuben Ellingson, congratulations on your work and the great success of "Avatar."

Mr. ELLINGSON: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure to be here, Neal.

CONAN: TyRuben Ellingson, conceptual designer. He designed the vehicles for "Avatar," with us today from KJZZ, our member station in Tempe, Arizona. Richard Rickitt, thank you for your time today as well.

Mr. RICKITT: Thank you very much. It's been a great pleasure.

CONAN: Richard Rickitt's book is "Special Effects: The History and Techniques." He also lectures on special effects at the British Film Institute and joined us from his home outside of London.

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'Avatar': Big-Picture Visions, Stirringly Realized

W2: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana  in 'Avatar'

hide captionBehind Enemy Lines: With Earth in trouble, humans are off to Pandora — and the native Na'vi are ready to fight for their home. Genetically hybridized and assigned to infiltrate them, combat veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, left) goes native himself when he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

WETA/20th Century Fox

Avatar

  • Director: James Cameron
  • Genre: Science Fiction/Adventure
  • Running Time: 160 minutes

Rated PG-13

With: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez

(Recommended)

You've never experienced anything like Avatar, and neither has anyone else. Its shock-and-awe tactics restore a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for far too long.

The year is 2154, and Planet Earth is in big trouble — big enough that people are going all the way to Pandora, six light-years away. The Na'vi — blue-skinned, 10-foot (computer-generated) creatures who live on the exotic moon — are not happy about that, which is why the speech the head of human security gives to his forces sounds less like a warning than a death sentence.

Listening to that speech is partially paralyzed combat veteran Jake Sully. He's come to Pandora to become the human mind inside an avatar — a genetically engineered hybrid between humans and the Na'vi. But once hothead Jake crosses the security barrier from the heavily protected base to enter Pandora proper, he can't help but be wowed by the vividness of the fantastical creatures there — flying dragons, anvil-headed rhinos and such.

You'll be wowed too: The creative intensity on display in Avatar is so potent, we're barely troubled by the same weakness for flat dialogue and characterization that put such a dent in Titanic. Those qualities are here, no mistake about that, but because of the nature of the story, they don't matter as much.

That's because to see Avatar is to feel like you understand filmmaking in three dimensions for the first time. In Cameron's hands, 3-D is no forced gimmick. It's a way to create an alternate reality and insert us so seamlessly into it that we feel like we've actually been there.

Avatar may be the most expensive and accomplished Saturday matinee movie ever made. But if spectacle and adventure are reasons you go to the movies, Avatar is something you won't want to miss. (Recommended)

Books Featured In This Story

Special Effects
Special Effects

The History and Technique

by Richard Rickitt and Ray Harryhausen

Hardcover, 384 pages | purchase

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  • The History and Technique
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