Making It Look Effortless

I still think this three-year-old post covers a lot of ground, but some recent events brought me back to the topic.

A friend recently held a small LAN party, and we got to talking about some game or movie that was reaching ahead of itself in terms of graphics. “They were good for the time.” No, they were awful for the time, once you got past “ooh, computer graphics” to “wow, those are really blatant computer graphics.” The technology was bleeding edge for the time, but its use was poor; if the acting or the special effects break your immersion such that you notice them as acting or special effects, they are probably bad acting or special effects. Good special effects look like they belong and are part of the world, not like they are special effects. If you want to see why Peter Dinklage won an Emmy this year, watch any episode of Game of Thrones and pick out which characters seem to know they are in a fantasy epic, versus the people who seem to be their characters.

I saw Vanessa Carlton perform this week. (You know her for this song. Can I comment on a world in which Britney Spears has sold 75 million albums while Vanessa Carlton is an opening act in small venues? Buy Heroes and Thieves. Digression over.) She mostly performed songs from her latest album, and it sounds much better live. She kept describing it as an “arts and crafts album” that was self-funded while she was living in The Shire. Performed as such, with just her, her piano, and her friend with a violin, it sounds great, personal and moving. The published album has obviously been worked over in the studio, and the “obviously” is a problem, particularly when the artist does not need it.

See also Powerpoint presentations using multiple animations per slide and/or an avalanche of clip art.

I link these to the hype and expectations post because they are all under the rubric of “obviously trying,” which usually means “failing.” Some people award points for effort, because they were obviously trying for something big. I say that jumping halfway across the Grand Canyon is not something that should be encouraged. If you have enough bricks for a one-story ranch house, do not build the first foot of a mansion, run out, then pat yourself on the back for daring to dream. Portal was a small game but a great game. Torchlight did little but did it very well. Alganon aimed for a modest success and embarrassingly failed at even being worth the time to download, which is a sad update to the original post.

Do dare to dream, but in the end your accomplishments weigh more than your aspirations.

: Zubon

While writing this, I discovered that Peter Dinklage and Summer Glau will be in Knights of Badassdom next year. I may already be sold.

6 thoughts on “Making It Look Effortless”

  1. Never wholly bought into the “if you notice it, it’s overdone” theory. Although I do love understatement and minimalism, it’s actually the very noticeable absence of something you’d expect to be getting that gives those approaches their power.

    I always hated that thing about de Niro where people would sell his films to you with the idea that they’d been watching the movie for an hour before they even realized which character he was playing. I had a lot of those conversations in the 1980s. Personally, if I pay to see a John Cusack movie, I want to spot John Cusack from the moment he walks into shot.

    I may have missed the point of your post…

  2. I’m exactly the opposite to bhagpuss. I watch a movie to experience a story.

    I want to take the “special effects” for granted. Or at least have them described as “the action scene was awesome”.
    I want to take the actors for granted. I want to get to the end of the movie and go “Hey, the actor who played the lead character, was that …?”. I don’t want to watch Tom Cruise / John Cusack / Malcolm McDowell does … .
    If someone needs to extol the special effects or the actors’ names to sell me a movie, I’m already sceptical.

    My biggest gripe with modern games is that special effects are often substituted for gameplay. The human imagination is the most powerful rendering engine going. Make the game good / playable / fun, and my brain can cover over primitive graphics. Wow me for an hour before I realise that the game isn’t actually fun, and you’re working against my imagination and not with it.

  3. Whether its music, or cinema, games or even design in the abstract, I’m a big proponent of transparency– the genius of the effort should be seamless with the work. Frankly you should say wow, catch your breath and then deconstruct to understand the genius of the effortless effort.

    I long ago grew weary of the Jack Nicholson-as-Jack-Nicholson movie. IMHO, the poor bastard hasn’t made a film that wasn’t about him since Cuckoo’s nest. My hardcore friends say not since Five Easy Pieces.

    The artist has failed if the audience is conscious of the frame. On the north side lies that most elusive of characteristics “authenticity” and millimeters to the south affected pandering to the pseudo-sophisticates. Indeed a fine line.

    When you see it, you know it though. Sit through a Richard Thompson, Allison Krause, Jay Farrar, Emmy Lou Harris, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Tom Waits or Leo Kottke show and you’ll know it when you see it. Its scary and it doesn’t break the frame. You can’t break the frame.

    With a jaundiced eye and ear, if you can convince me that I’m no longer in control of my frame of reference, you’ve achieved something.

  4. “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.”

    Luke 14:28-32

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