“Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our ability to detect it.” So claimed Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), the Pygmalion film director beguiled by a virtual actress of his own creation in Andrew Niccol’s slightly disappointing S1m0ne. Yet the casting of a flesh-and-blood actress (Rachel Roberts) in the role of the eponymous “synthespian” serves only to highlight how far away the achievement of such imperceptible illusion was in 2002 and still remains today. What’s more, Dan North argues, the ultimate perfection of such a con job would somehow miss the whole point of the enterprise. After all, as N. M. Klein perspicaciously asks, “What good is sleight of hand if you cannot see the hand?”
Klein’s question is the starting point for North’s eloquent study of visual illusion in the cinema. The “synthespian,” or virtual actor, North writes, “personifies the popular myth that the aim of special effects is immaculate imitation.” A myth indeed: “Whatever other stories they may tell,” he contends, “these films are also about special effects and techniques of visualisation.” Take the example of King Kong (both the creaky but fabulous Cooper/Schoedsack version from 1933 and Peter Jackson’s souped-up CGI retelling of 2005). Both films set new standards for special effects in their time, but the sense of awe that each sought to instil in their respective audiences relied not only on the marvels of the tale they told but more significantly on the skills involved in constructing their most striking spectacles. Indeed, far from attempting to conceal the mechanics of their illusionism, the tricks employed were paraded with pride by the films’ marketeers. The enormous head-and-shoulders model of the first Kong was barely used in the film, North notes, and got most of its outings in publicity drives instead, such as its placement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre during the film’s initial run. Seventy years later, marketing discourses would focus on the process of creating a Kong from the facial movements of actor Andy Serkis, thus seeking to endow the ape with emotional resonance by restoring an “insinuation of human agency” into a genre where the wooden “performances” of such CGI films as Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had started to turn audiences off before ever really turning them on.
Reviewing previous scholarship in the field, North proposes that most studies fall more or less readily into one of three groups: appraisals of specific technical developments, “exposés” of so-called trade secrets, and historical overviews traced from Méliès through to the latest blockbuster. His own book rests quite neatly in the last of the three, with a big dose of the second in Chapter 1 at least. At the same time, he productively engages with theories of cinematic realism, film style and narration, paratextuality and spectatorship, thus adding a more thoughtful and thought-provoking dimension to his study than some of those that have gone before. Beginning with an account of the visual tricks employed in late-nineteenth-century theatre and cinema, he guides the reader through developments in stop-motion animation, computer-generated imagery, and the more recently emerging synthespian. In the process he moves seamlessly between discussions of technique and effect and the ideological burdens so often placed on new technologies by the very filmmakers that employ them. Jurassic Park, for instance, works, he says, “as a technological morality fable, allowing fear of the story’s rampaging technologies to be matched with marvel at the film’s own spectacular visualisations.” Elsewhere he expresses a deep mistrust of such digitally altered reissues as E.T. Twentieth Anniversary Edition, whose “unsettling desire to decontemporise film” insidiously devastates their potential to stand as a record of the cultural and political values of their moments of production.
North’s regular forays into the kinds of critical analysis that go beyond mere description of effects techniques add a rich dimension. There are times, to be sure, when topics are fleshed out with a quantity of material that is, strictly speaking, extraneous to the book’s purported focus, such as the lengthy discussion of artificial intelligence and technophobia in the latter part of Chapter 3. Yet interludes such as these invariably entail extremely interesting and readable commentary and — rather than sitting on their own like an assortment of side dishes — are brought back into regular contact with the main meat of the argument to which they add a welcome spice. Stripped of these, the main thesis might indeed be regarded as a trifle lean: the concept that filmmakers consistently encourage viewers to respond to the “dynamic friction between the special effect and the filmic space it infiltrates” is convincingly established before the book is more than a few pages old.
As the standard model of high-budget filmmaking moves ever closer to twenty-four lies per second, North’s articulate musings on our relationships with cinema and technology are both puissant and timely. His impeccably researched potted history of the most canonical titles of American special-effects cinema is in itself a job well done. Yet the author also has things of importance to say about contemporary culture beyond the bounds of the cinema frame, and it is this that elevates Performing Illusions from a simple history to a challenging and engaging inquiry. Developments in editing, double exposure, and the animation of plasticine may indeed hold their fascinations, yet these somehow fade into the background when one is invited to reflect on the extent to which synthespians embody “our own fear of replication and obsolescence, our replacement by digital constructs capable of outstripping our every ability and nuance.” Here indeed is some real food for thought.