When vision meets technology

With the release of 300 this week, I thought it was as good a time as any to take a look at the ways technology has changed Hollywood over the years.

300 is a film adaptation of a graphic novel by Frank Miller of Sin City fame, which retells the legendary Battle of Thermopylae in 191 B.C. It’s basically the Greek equivalent of the Alamo, where 300 Spartan warriors held back hundreds of thousands of Persians for three full days before finally being betrayed, becoming a rallying cry for their fellow Greeks to unite against the invaders.

I’ve only seen the previews at this point, and I can tell you that this movie looks good. Though it was filmed entirely in front of a green screen in Montreal, with animators and digital artists adding backgrounds, blood and coloration in the studio during editing, it provides another breathtaking example of how computer graphic technology can be used to capture a vision.

Technology is what allowed Peter Jackson to bring the Lord of the Rings to life, and will allow Michael Bay to bring The Transformers to life this summer.

But 300 also serves as a reminder that often the best animation is the subtle stuff that you won’t always notice. It was never the point of the story, just the means to tell it better — like the digitized fog effects in The Others , the bronzed skies in O Brother Where Art Thou , or the cloud shapes in Amélie .

There are too many movies where technology is abused, or wielded in a clumsy way. Take the first few Harry Potter movies, for example — it’s almost embarrassing when the characters gaze in wonderment at special effects that every person in the audience has seen too many times before, without ever presenting something we could call unique. Those Quidditch scenes are the worst.

Creating animated characters is even more difficult. The rubber puppet Yoda was far more believable and likable than the digitized version in the latter triology, and the animated Jar-Jar Binks was universally despised. George Lucas, who’s Industrial Light and Magic studio has helped revolutionize the special effects industry, also proved in the trilogy that special effects will never be more important than a good story, good script, good characters and good acting.

Peter Jackson did animated characters right with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings , but a lot of credit still has to go to the acting of Andy Serkis, over which the Gollum was superimposed. My own ability to enjoy Transformers will not just depend on how good the animation is, but whether I can get past the pixels and see the characters.

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