Spark is a cool CBC Radio show about technology and how it affects our lives.
Recently they called me with the following conundrum. Why do movie special effects get so dated so quickly? The original King Kong gripped viewers with its realism:
Why does it strike us today as quaint and dated (if artistically interesting)? What has happened in the meanwhile? It can't just be that we've seen better special effects in later movies. "After all," as Nora Young, the host of Spark, asked me, "We see the same thing, don't we?"
but if you force yourself to do it a dozen times, it'll come to seem quite blah. Similarly, people are said to have ducked when a bad guy in the movie, The Great Train Robbery, fired a gun facing them from the screen. But I guarantee you will have no such reaction if you watch it now.
Nora's question, however, did not have to do with behavioural cues such as the startle effect or galvanic skin response when standing over a sheer drop and looking down. Her question concerned a purely descriptive effect: Why did King Kong look realistic then, but not today? The descriptive content of perception does not change with long-term adaptation. So why?
Here is the best I could come up with.
First, remember Richard Wollheim's famous distinction between seeing and seeing-in. When you look at a picture or a movie, you see two things. You see the picture, which is a flat surface with marks on it. In the case of the movie it is the projection of the light on the screen. You also see in the picture. You don't just see a pattern of light on the screen (which is all that is actually present) but also what is depicted. For instance, you see a gorilla climbing the Empire State Building.
There is an analogous, but more subtle, duality that is relevant to the question that Nora asked me. When looking at King Kong, you can see parts of the picture as they were manipulated by the moviemaker. For instance, you can see the King Kong image in juxtaposition with the Empire State Building image. Or you can simply see the characters portrayed. Taken in this way, you just see King Kong climbing the Empire State Building. In the first way of looking at things, you looking at an image and its parts. In the second, you are looking at a scene and its parts. These don't necessarily coincide.
There is an intellectual difference concommitant upon looking at the movie in these two ways. If you are a movie-maker, you'll more or less always look at it in the image-construction way. And so you will be primed to notice minor discordances. For instance, you might notice that the King Kong image stays glued to the building, and wonder how on Earth the moviemaker achieved that, given that they were not filmed together. Or you might be clued in to the limitations of stop-motion animation, and notice how the motions of King Kong's arm are not appropriate to climbing (though they might be appropriate, bit by bit, with grasping) the building.
I imagine that just as in Wollheim's two ways of seeing, you can't attend to one (the flickers of light on the screen) while also attending to the other. If you are looking at the picture itself, with its canvassy granularity and slightly raised brush marks, you can't also attend to details of the scene that is depicted, and vice versa.
OK, so here is my take on why special effects so easily get dated.
Your normal attentive stance is with the characters. You care about the characters and what happens to them. When you are in this stance, you see King Kong climbing, Fay Wray's discomfiture and compassion, and the brutality of the airplane pilots who try to kill KK. But if you were a viewer back in 1933, the special effects might have astonished you, and you might have episodes of backing off to wondering how they achieved the effect, and episodes of getting even more involved in the story because of the unaccustomed realism of the cinematography. The immersive effect is involuntary and intense; the detached point of view is also irresistable because you are astonished by the realism of the effect.
Now, however—now eighty years later—what impresses you most about the film is how unrealistic it is. You are bothered by the graininess; you notice the inappropriateness of the arm motions, and so on. Here again, you alternate between the two points of view, but this time you are not drawn into the story as intimately, and you have a greater tendency to step back to view the effects that seem to you inadequate and clumsy.
Both then and now, the film has the effect of knocking you off your natural stance of attending to the story. But in 1933, you have a more deeply immersive experience, as well as an astonished distanced experience. In 2013, you have difficulty being affected by the story because you are distracted by the inadequacy of the special effects.
I feel relatively confident of one part of my story—the attention-shifts are different today because of what you have experienced elsewhere—and less about the other—that you are more distanced in 2013 from the narrative and characters. Still there is something about my answer to Nora Young's question that seems on the right track.
In case anybody is interested, the episode (which includes some very interesting history of special effects from Jesse Wente of the Toronto International Film Festival) starts at approximately 25:00 of the podcast here:
What I said on radio is not exactly the same as what I wrote above.