April 05, 2007


Digital Storytelling: The Narrative Power of Visual Effects in Film. By Shilo T. McClean. MIT Press. $39.95.

      A book of rare power and considerable intelligence, Digital Storytelling will be revelatory not only for those who watch films but also, to a great extent, for those who make them – even filmmakers who already make use of a significant number of digital video effects. Shilo T. McClean, a consultant in the digital-video-effects field, has clearly thought through not only how effects are created and what they can be made to do, but also why they work so well in some cases and so poorly in others – even though their technological prowess may be equal in both the successful and unsuccessful uses.

      McClean gives the creators of these effects a chance to explain what they do, and to defend their work as an integral part of movie storytelling rather than a cheap add-on (although these effects are rarely cheap and are, in fact, add-ons in many lesser films). Then McClean builds an argument that these effects are helping create an entirely new way for filmmakers to tell stories – that, far from being distractions from the scripts, they are integral to them and often crucial for their success. She cites, among many other examples, the films of Steven Spielberg to make her points – she devotes an entire chapter to Spielberg. But she often makes powerful arguments without detailed reference to specific films, stating, for example, that computer-generated effects are as important for increasing storytelling power in our day as such technological wonders as color film and sound were in theirs.

      McClean’s arguments hold together so well because she bases them all on “Story and Storycraft,” part of her title for an early chapter. McClean looks at the way filmmakers tell stories, at the way they did so in the past, and then at the ways in which digital effects make more-potent storytelling possible now. Acknowledging that these effects are frequently blamed for bad movies, especially bad Hollywood-generated ones, and with some justification, McClean nevertheless argues that the effects are far more positive than negative. Part of her argument leans on the simple reality that there is much greater use of these effects than modern moviegoers realize – it is the effects that call attention to themselves, without necessarily furthering the story, of which people are most aware and most critical; but the ones that are most neatly integrated into the screenplay are precisely the ones that filmgoers are least likely to see. And that is all to the good. In such films – and, McClean says, to an increasing extent in all films – digital special effects are part of the production process, not post-production. The distinction may be unimportant or unclear to everyday filmgoers, but it is crucial to serious students of the medium. Saying that the effects are part of production means that scripts are written and rewritten to make the effects fit more seamlessly into the story, and scenes are shot and reshot to make sure the effects advance the narrative instead of interfering with it.

      Special effects are improving with astonishing rapidity: for example, despite “the impact that 2001 has had on the iconography of science fiction…these once awe-inspiring images have become the simple standard by which even low-budget films are measured.” Furthermore, McClean argues, “the intention [of a filmmaker] can be not only to create a visual wonder for the audience, but also to have the visual wonder of the experience for the characters be implicit within the action of the story.”

      The discussions here will not always be easy for non-students of film to follow, but they are worth the effort of absorption, since McClean does such a fine job of showing how modern movies affect the audience and how the latest special effects help them do so. And the book’s illustrations – there are not many, but they are telling – clearly show the importance of digital special effects and the difficulty of knowing for sure when they are being used. If movie critics have created a framework for understanding the negatives of digital special effects, McClean has countered them by establishing a framework for the positives – and showing, convincingly, that the upside is significantly more important than the downside.

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