Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Special Effects of Eternal Sunshine

Hey everybody. It's Michael C. here from Serious Film introducing my new series for The Film Experience: Unsung Heroes. Each week we will celebrate a previously unheralded contribution to film greatness.

This week it's the special effects work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Special Effects: Mark Bero, Brent Ekstrand, Drew Jeritano, Thomas Viviano
Visual Effects: Wizards from Custom Film Effects and Buzz Image Group

No matter how advanced visual technology gets audiences still know fakery when they see it. Even if the work is flawless, CGI triggers something in our brains that registers the image as false. It's too bad because it seems like the vast majority of current special effects work exists solely to draw attention to itself. That is why it's so fantastic when a film like Michael Gondry's Eternal Sunshine comes along which uses special effects the way they should be used, integrating them invisibly into the fabric of the film and adding depth and texture to the film's emotions.

Gondry and his effects team forgo CGI in the movie whenever possible. Instead they opt for in-camera effects: film speeds, double exposures, forced perspective, body doubles. For the memorable shot of Clementine sliding backward into darkness across the floor of Grand Central Station crew members simply pulled Kate Winslet with some wires. These practical effects slip around our defenses; they are too tactile, too real. We accept them as reality, the way we would in a dream.

In addition to not distracting viewers with obvious digital trickery, low-tech effects allow the actors to maintain the emotion of the scene on set. The added benefit to Eternal Sunshine is palpable, especially in some of the duets between Joel and Clementine. Imagine the impact that would have been lost with Kate recreating that intensity months later in front of a blue screen, directing her lines at a tennis ball on a stick meant to represent her acting partner.

The few times the effects team resorts to CGI they smartly avoid the slick polish common to most films, instead going for a rough, unfinished look that is infinitely more unsettling and doesn't break with the raw, realistic look of the cinematography. At one point they manage to fit a car falling randomly from the sky seamlessly into a scene that looks like it was improvised on the fly. It's beautiful how much care the effects artist put into the craft knowing that the better they do their work the fewer people will notice. I can't tell you how many times I watched the scene above without spotting the faces in the crowd that begin to smudge as the argument wears on.

Most years it feels like you can predict the Oscar nominees in Visual Effects just by measuring the budgets of the contenders. The relatively low budget work of Eternal Sunshine never entered into the conversation in 2004. Wouldn't it be nice if the Oscars found room to honor the effects that best enhanced the artistic power of the material regardless of the price tag attached?

Is there a particular effect in Eternal Sunshine you love... or some other work you would like to suggest for this series?

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