It was my recent privilege to attend a set visit for the latest Spielberg film The Terminal (Dream-works SKG, June 2004). Upon arriving at the location, a massive building tucked away an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, I discovered that the hangar-sized sound stage did not hold multiple blue-screened sets against which Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones acted their little hearts out, but a full-fledged, down-to-the-last-detail airport terminal.
Production designer Alex McDowell gave us a complete tour of the facility, which was a massive steel and iron affair, with granite floors and two and a half thousand 1000-Watt light bulbs illuminating every corner, crevice and crack of its enormous three floors. In addition, nearly three dozen retailers such as Borders Books, Dean & Deluca, and Hugo Boss (my personal favorite) reflected the commercial climate of today’s terminals, providing the background against which Hanks’ character holds down the proverbial fort for a period of eleven months. In the film Hanks plays an Eastern European expatriate who calls the terminal home after his visa is voided by the eruption of a coup in his homeland.
Impressive as the very construction of the terminal was, with only real planes lacking, it dawned on me just how cool it was to see a set that was constructed from real objects - physical, tangible objects - in an age when the bottom line usually is how much cheaper, quicker or easier a “set” can be created inside a computer.
Having also recently watched the superlative Indiana Jones DVD box set, which recounts the vagaries of its extensive location shooting and live production, I had to wonder: has Hollywood gone nuts for digital effects? It certainly seems to be the case. After all, how many films that we see now don’t possess some element of subtle addition (Stuck On You’s dexterous burger-flipping, for example), subtraction (such as erasing those pesky matte lines or mike drops), or madcap invention (say, the glowing beams of light that pour out of many a universe-destroying orb)?
George Lucas, of course, is the poet laureate/ mad scientist of digital trickery, having invented the modern age of special effects with Star Wars. His Phantom Menace and Attack Of the Clones pictures brought the art form to new heights, creating entirely digital sets and replacing many actors and extras with computer-generated algorithms - I mean, characters. While that remains the next wave of technological advancement (though God forbid it happen with Jar-Jar Binks), it posits an interesting scenario for future generations.
Have we become so accustomed to effects-laden films that we can’t differentiate between the reality of the on screen world and the one outside the camera? I’m sure if Lucas had his druthers, we’d all be interacting via video phones while instant-messaging, cell-phoning and sending transmissions via brainwaves, but what few seem to realize is how much this “all-access” technology is distancing us from one another.