Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Unsung Heroes: The Special Effects of Eternal Sunshine

Hey everybody. It's Michael C. here from Serious Film introducing my new series for The Film Experience: Unsung Heroes. Each week we will celebrate a previously unheralded contribution to film greatness.

This week it's the special effects work on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Special Effects: Mark Bero, Brent Ekstrand, Drew Jeritano, Thomas Viviano
Visual Effects: Wizards from Custom Film Effects and Buzz Image Group

No matter how advanced visual technology gets audiences still know fakery when they see it. Even if the work is flawless, CGI triggers something in our brains that registers the image as false. It's too bad because it seems like the vast majority of current special effects work exists solely to draw attention to itself. That is why it's so fantastic when a film like Michael Gondry's Eternal Sunshine comes along which uses special effects the way they should be used, integrating them invisibly into the fabric of the film and adding depth and texture to the film's emotions.

Gondry and his effects team forgo CGI in the movie whenever possible. Instead they opt for in-camera effects: film speeds, double exposures, forced perspective, body doubles. For the memorable shot of Clementine sliding backward into darkness across the floor of Grand Central Station crew members simply pulled Kate Winslet with some wires. These practical effects slip around our defenses; they are too tactile, too real. We accept them as reality, the way we would in a dream.

In addition to not distracting viewers with obvious digital trickery, low-tech effects allow the actors to maintain the emotion of the scene on set. The added benefit to Eternal Sunshine is palpable, especially in some of the duets between Joel and Clementine. Imagine the impact that would have been lost with Kate recreating that intensity months later in front of a blue screen, directing her lines at a tennis ball on a stick meant to represent her acting partner.


The few times the effects team resorts to CGI they smartly avoid the slick polish common to most films, instead going for a rough, unfinished look that is infinitely more unsettling and doesn't break with the raw, realistic look of the cinematography. At one point they manage to fit a car falling randomly from the sky seamlessly into a scene that looks like it was improvised on the fly. It's beautiful how much care the effects artist put into the craft knowing that the better they do their work the fewer people will notice. I can't tell you how many times I watched the scene above without spotting the faces in the crowd that begin to smudge as the argument wears on.

Most years it feels like you can predict the Oscar nominees in Visual Effects just by measuring the budgets of the contenders. The relatively low budget work of Eternal Sunshine never entered into the conversation in 2004. Wouldn't it be nice if the Oscars found room to honor the effects that best enhanced the artistic power of the material regardless of the price tag attached?

Is there a particular effect in Eternal Sunshine you love... or some other work you would like to suggest for this series?
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27 comments:

Andrew R. said...

FYC: Eternal Sunshine for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot".

NATHANIEL R said...

andrew -- not a bad idea at all. weirdly my DVD of it will not operate on my laptop so it will be hard to get a screenshot. But it's a good idea for a film. the special effects really are beautiful.

the scene noted, Kate slipping into darkness is one of the most indelible images of the entire decade i think. How lame it woulda been if they hadn't just yanked her with wires ;)

Robert said...

Great choice and I look forward to this new series.

Too often we (just like The Academy) confuse "best" with "most noticeable" when in fact it's almost always the other way around. In other words: what makes Eternal Sunshine's special effects great? You barely even notice they're there at all.

James T said...

Great post! I'm going to be a total bore and say that Kate is the best special effect in the movie. Her parents need an Oscar ;)

NATHANIEL R said...

James T -- that's a brilliant idea. I think maybe special Oscars should be given to the parents of movie stars who are too good to be true.

Mr. Movie Geek said...

Very well said! Eternal Sunshine is one of my all-time favorites, and I always thought that the visual effects, albeit understated, were very expertly handled in the film. My particular favorite effect is the double exposure fading of Clementine while she and Joel are in the bed after she has confessed her childhood story with her doll. The effect, accompanied with Joel's 'Let me keep this one memory, please' is brutally heartfelt.

I like the idea of this series, too - looking forward to what's to come!

Rose said...

My favorite effect has to be when the house is falling apart at the end. So beautiful. The whole "Meet me in Montauk" scene is my favorite of the decade by a sizable margin.

Volvagia said...

An unsung hero? Something not noticed in a movie, even though it wouldn't be the same without it? Dennis Price's lead role in Kind Hearts and Coronets (Most, even today, overevaluate Guiness as a lead).

Faith said...

I've been thinking I should revisit this movie for some time, and I think the article cements that I must do so post-haste. I went to school for production design and it makes me sad to see so much over-reliance on CGI. Computer effects have their place, but should be used sparingly. Nothing can replace something tangible.

cal roth said...

Very good idea! I'd like to suggest for your posts production design and costumes for contemporary movies. Or film editing in dialogue-driven movies like Allen's and Payne's (Election and About Schmidt have great editing, for example) and English period pieces - they never get noticed!

But, for now, I think you may go with the outstanding cinematography in Michael Mann's latest movies. Not a single nomination!

Michael C. said...

Robert - Thanks. I'm excited to write this series. Rewatching the film for this post I noticed all kinds of stuff I never had seen before. Did you spot that in the scene where the car falls from the sky Clem only has one leg? I sure hadn't.

James T - Thanks!

Movie Geek - That's the scene I was alluding to when I mentioned double exposures. The hardest part about writing this post was narrowing down the effects I wanted to mention. I could do a post about every scene.

Volvagia - Great choice, but I'm going to try to avoid discussing acting in the series, at least for a while. There's too many other facets of filmmaking that never get mentioned.

Cal Roth - I was thinking the same way about editing and costumes.

Michael said...

It wouldn't be nice, it would be fantastic if "the Oscars found room to honor the effects that best enhanced the artistic power of the material regardless of the price tag attached." But then they wouldn't be the Oscars, would they?

MD said...

Great post! I love Eternal Sunshine. I'll have to watch it again sometime soon, I think.

And I have no idea if you the movie or not, but I'm a big fan of Punch-Drunk Love's costuming. Actually, I'd classify the entire film as an unsung hero. It's kinda overshadowed by the rest of PTA's films.

Michael C. said...

I have yet to meet the PT Anderson film I don't love. Punch Drunk Love also has some very original sound design that might fit this series well.

Glenn said...

Agreed. Similarly, Frida in 2002.

I hope that now the visual effects category has been expanded to five that there may be room for something like or or even something as fucked up as Enter the Void or left-of-centre like a horror movie.

Derreck said...

Mandy Walker for her cinematography for 'Australia'. So many great shots. Especially when the bombs explode all around King George and the wonderful landscapes of Australia.

and for an out there choice,
some sort of recognition for Ian McDiarmid for Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. He was delightfully over the top and an absolute joy to watch in an otherwise overblown movie. Who would'nt join the Sith if he's the leader?

Fernando Moss said...

Exactly... Eternal Sunshine, Frida, Children of Men and The Fountain all have ABSOLUTELY AMAZING special effects that CONTRIBUTE to make the story and the films even bigger and better intead of just being WOW! FLASHY!

Love this entry and have a feeling that I'm going to love the series...

Mirko said...

Congrats to the Visual Effects Society Awards and to the Golden Satellite that were so brillant to nominate the special effects of the movie, even if at last Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind lost to The Aviator and House Of Flying Daggers

Yavor said...

a really good decision for a post ;)

even though I cannot really recall my favorite special effect in the movie I love the ones you've addressed.

A case in which the special/visual effects in a big budget movie were absolutely amazing -> The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Volvagia said...

Another less than noted hero: Costume design in Heathers. Sumptous, yet modern and also emphasising the comedy of the story. And why wasn't it nominated? Driving Miss Daisy? No one changed costume. Harlem Nights? Monotonous suits. Either one of those would have been fine to drop.

Castor said...

Great pick. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one of my favorite romantic movie. The special effect definitely were underrated given how much they contributed to the "fractured" feeling of the movie and went hand in hand with the story instead of overshadowing it like in some many movies.

Fred said...

My favorite special effects in Eternal Sunshine is during the library scene near the end, when she looked at him and says "Remember me, try your best" and it took me several viewings to see that the titles on the books' cover actually fade out during the whole scene, the same way the faces do during the scene you mention in your article.
There are plenty of titles at the beginning and at the end all the covers are blank. White blank.
Delicate, subtle special effects.

vanessa said...

i agree that the rawness of the special effects is what gives them that unsettling realism. it's like when you're dreaming and the faces around you start to blur, places change so fast, things appear and disappear, etc. that scene with kate winslet sliding through the dark is almost reminiscent of the feeling you get when you've woken up from a dream, and as you try to remember what you were dreaming, it just fades quickly, like sand slipping through your fingers, and all of a sudden you can't remember at all, even if you've just woken up.
i think live special effects reflect reality better because they're, well, real. whereas computer effects might get a bit carried away in accomplishing a polished look and not focus enough on how real it seems, just how cool it comes out.

Kelly said...

Thank you. This is, hands down, my favorite movie and one of the reasons is the special effects. I remember wanting to re-watch it immediately after I was finished the first time.
One of my favorite scenes that I love is the forced pespective scene when Joel was a little kid again and hiding under the kitchen table. So genius. I love that they took the time to create all the amazing over-sized props, instead of just resorting to easy CGI.
I think, as expensive and elaborate as CGI can get, it feels like an easy way out. The time and dedication it took to make Clem and Joel look like adult and child was breathtaking and made it look real.

Dan said...

Great write up. One effective effect that stuck out to me the 1st time I saw it- they're arguing in the bookstore and all the books have been turned spine inward. So many great details like that.

Yavor- funny you mention Benjamin Button. This article got me thinking about David Fincher's Zodiac. If you asked the average viewer to point out the special effects in the film, most people would be stumped, but complicated, seamlessly integrated CGI work is sprinkled throughout the film.

D Bowes said...

Sir, singling out the special effects in Eternal Sunshine takes insight and taste. They work for the movie, rather than showing off the size of the budget or the FX supervisor's genitals.

Excellent post, I look forward to reading more entries in this series.

The Former 786 said...

I love watching the books all slowly turn white in the bookstore scene. It's so subtle, that people don't even notice it until they're all blank.