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

Thompson on Hollywood By Dennis Cozzalio | Thompson on Hollywood March 11, 2013 at 10:30AM

“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.
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Christopher Reeve as Superman
Christopher Reeve as Superman

“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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This article is related to: Features, Star Wars, Classics, VFX


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