(Originally posted on 27 July 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
In the age of CGI, special effects have lost a lot of their charm. They're cheaper and easier to produce than ever. But they don't feel so special anymore. By contrast, old-school practical effects were the result of a lot of brainstorming and painstaking work. If you wanted to accomplish something, you had to be creative.
One of my favorite effects scenes is in Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris. In the film, Kelvin (Donatis Banionis) travels to a distant space station to examine the crew, only to discover that the planet around which the station revolves is able to read their thoughts. What's more, it manifests the people they remember, including Kelvin's wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who killed herself ten years prior.
It's a short scene, but an indelible one. Kelvin and Hari sit alone in the station's library, holding each other. Gradually, a candlestick lifts off the table, and the chandelier begins to shake. Tarkovsky then cuts to a shot of Kelvin and Hari rising slowly from their chair, and the camera pulls back to show them floating. As Bach's "Chorale Prelude in F Minor" plays, a book floats in front of them. After a few seconds, Tarkovsky cuts to a shot of an evocative mural on the wall of the library, and then the scene is over.
For science fiction, Solaris uses surprisingly few effects, most of which are fairly rudimentary. The shot of Hari dead, having just killed herself by drinking liquid oxygen, is accomplished with cake makeup and a little fake blood, and some terrific acting when she suddenly springs back to life. Kelvin's journey from Earth takes place in exactly four shots: a shot of the night sky as light quickly passes toward the camera; a closeup of Banionis' face rotating clockwise; a shot in which the camera pushes in on a matte painting of the station; and some scaffolding, meant to represent the exterior of the station, passing in front of the camera. The planet appears to be shots of bubbling water, perhaps augmented by animation to appear otherworldly.
But I have no idea how Tarkovsky and his effects people made his stars defy gravity. Naturally, there was no CGI back then, and I doubt he could afford something like the "vomit comet" that was used for Apollo 13. The process that made the scene possible could have been difficult, but the solution itself might've been fairly simple — "simple, like all works of genius," as a crewmember says.
Frankly, I don't want to know how Tarkovsky pulled it off. Thanks to DVD and entertainment news, we know more about moviemaking than ever, but does that really make moviegoing more rewarding? Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and isn't the same true of movie magic? If I knew the mechanics behind the scene, much of its beauty and wonder would be lost, and it would just become another cool effect, instead of the transcendent one it is.