In his review of Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (2005), Roger Ebert wrote with his usual eloquence, “special effects should be judged not by their complexity but by the degree that they stimulate the imagination.” This lesson was neglected, discarded, or perhaps never learned by many of Hollywood’s big-budget filmmakers. This isn’t the case for S.S. Rajamouli, the biggest director in Telugu cinema and most recently the creative behind the hit RRR (2022). Rajamouli’s kinetic imagination makes for one of the most daring creative visionaries working in the digital format.
Special effects in Western blockbusters lean without compromise into verisimilitude– hence, the emphasis on “practical” effects. There’s bound to be a sizeable amount of discourse about how the effects are “real” after the release of every new Tom Cruise or Christopher Nolan movie. And outside of the chosen few that purport to be attached to old-school practicality, the reproduction of reality reigns supreme in the minds of directors and visual effects supervisors alike, especially in visualizing decidedly unrealistic effects.
A scene from season two of TheMandalorian showcases this default framework. Spaceships aren’t real. Frog-humanoids also aren’t real (that we know of…). But they feel like they could be. Mando’s ship interacts with the snowy environment in a way that viewers can physically reference. It recalls common experiences with car crashes, whether in real life or through news media. This isn’t to say the scene should have been done any other way; part of the magic of the original Star Wars was the gritty realness of its “used future look.” Yet, it’s a simple example of the mentality that has dominated Hollywood special effects for some time now.
The truck flip in The Dark Knight (2008) also demonstrates Hollywood’s addiction to realism. The flip itself is famously “real,” and people loved its textured realness. (While you’re at it, take a gander at the comments on the YouTube clip: tankmaster1018 says, “I like how they only used CGI to remove the piston that was lying on the street still and the camera cars. That’s is how you use CGI.”) The gold standard for Hollywood visual effects is just that: it looks real.
Rajamouli shows no such restrictions, even if he feels them. His 2012 movie Eega replaces the protagonist played by Naveen Babu Ghanta (better known as Nani) with a fly within the first third of the film, a remarkably bold move in Tollywood’s star-powered market, as R. Emmet Sweeney pointed out for Film Comment.
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