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Creativity Tehanu's Third Note

Current Note
 The Return of the King
Past Notes
 Following Tolkien's Footsteps
 Tad Episode
 Scary Stuff
 Monstrous Regiment
 Kalevala and the Silmarillon
 Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Middle-earth
 Silmarillion, Creation, sins of the artist
 Rarefied Air
 Quests, Myths and Archetypes
 Arthur: Quests and Legends
 Yin and Yang Quests
 The Power of Myth
 His Dark Materials
 Are We Not Geeks?
 The Two Towers Film: Tricks And Treats
 Two Towers Review, Part 2
 The Return of the King
 Where To From Here?

K, this week Norse Mythology goes out the window, because I’ve just been to see ‘The Phantom Menace.’ The look of it was gorgeously imaginative and I wondered if we’ve reached a time when it’s possible to put on the screen anything that the mind can dream up, and have it look convincing. You experts out there might be able to tell the difference but to me every bit looked equally real: if a spaceship landed in my back yard I can’t see how it could look any realler than the ones I saw landing in some everyday forest on the screen, and I expect the CGI imaging on LOTR to be as convincing.

I talked somebody this week who’s about to start working at WETA, presumably on computer imaging. Don’t all fall out of your chairs with excitement. Here’s the interview in full:

"Can you tell me anything about what you have done in your life ever, are doing now, or will do with WETA?"

"I’ll ask WETA."



So instead I thought about his role working in what may come to be seen as one of the great arts workshops of the present time. If anyone in a few hundred years was asked ‘What did art look like at the turn of the millenium?’ they might answer, ‘Well, visual arts were going all over the place in no one particular direction, but there was this incredible flourishing of creativity in film animation and special effects…’

These CGI films might become one of the defining art forms of the age. There’s no doubt that special effects films inspire and compete with each other the way any healthy art form does, and it’s a worldwide thing. Though so far only Hollywood has the budget to make big SFX films, wildly inventive things are done everywhere with CGI even if only to make a 30-second commercial. And the big films sweep up odds and ends of our culture history and remix them into something wonderful and strange.

[Something like Naboo?]
[This could be somewhere on Naboo, and even more so Coruscant, but it’s actually the pavilions and statuary at the 1937 Paris Exhibition. The equestrian statue is called, "The Genius of Fascism," I kid you not. The monumental tower is by Albert Speer, leading architect of the Third Reich. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but George Lucas, what are you thinking?]

So far they are toys of the imagination, but sooner or later somebody’s going to use all this stuff to make a masterpiece. It won’t be an Old Masters masterpiece like something from the past, full of Crucifixions and Virgin Marys, but I bet it will still be something to do with good and evil, justice and mercy and redemption.

And to put things in perspective, before defending the relative ‘ seriousness’ of the Renaissance Madonnas compared to modern often-trashy films, it’s worth bearing in mind that the women who modelled the Virgin Mary for the painter were often the girlfriend of the cardinal or Pope who commissioned the painting. Now years later we see the Old Masters through such a patina of myth that they’ve become holy objects themselves. At the time they were may well have been hip the way opera was hip in 19th century Italy, so hip that cabbies who couldn’t read and write could still sing Rossini’s latest. Imagine what today’s films will look like seen in five hundred years’ time!

Those old Renaissance paintings were a reflection of their age (and seeing that marvellous Renaissance Italianate influence on much of Naboo it was clear how strongly some things endure through countless transmutations) – I reinvented my soon-to-be-working-for-WETA acquaintance to become one of the apprentices working in Raphael’s or Da Vinci’s workshop.

Those guys didn’t paint every centimetre of canvas or plaster attributed to them, and once they’d had some success they’d have a whole team in there grinding up pigments, making frames and binding up hogshair into brushes and, who knows, cracking a hundred eggs a day to get the egg-white or whatever for the tempera paints, surely a job worth avoiding. Correct me if I’m wrong…Then an apprentice could work up to filling in the corners of a painting or doing background draperies or specialise in painting hands….These days, that’s a bunch of people writing code and designing CGI software and making video magic under the directon of a few master artists.

[Raphael: School of Athens]

People back then in the fifteenth century were pretty hyped about the new visual-arts technology of the day (which was, I dunno, probably a protractor and a piece of string) that allowed them to paint truly three-dimensional perspectives. Seeing those new paintings the people must’ve said, "Oh wow, look at that, totally 3D! You feel like you could walk right into the canvas, down past the colonnades and into that landscape out there in the distance." Just like us today watching a good special-effects film. (Feel the speed in that pod race! It’s like being there!)

Tolkien thought about the way fantasy writing also has to find a way of letting the reader ‘be there’:

"….The story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside." I think good CGI does that for films to an extent that Tolkien would never have imagined was possible.

I just quoted from ‘Tree and Leaf’, which begins with Tolkien’s essay on fairy-tales and fantasy. Some of it is lyrical, some of it is heavy going, it’s written to convince both children and scholars. He defends fantasy from the accusation that it’s trivial: "Actually fairy stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting…It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

And: "The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth."

[Michelangelo Creation]
[Michelangelo: "The Creation of Man." I was surprised by the depth of Tolkien’s religious belief, given that he doesn’t state it obviously like C.S. Lewis does in the Narnia books. Tolkien hinted that Christianity was based on ‘a fairy story that’s true,’ and it’s a result of our being made in the image of God that we desire to create too, making our ‘secondary worlds’ of fiction.]

As a child, Tolkien was more interested to read about dinosaurs, botany, astronomy, history, words and languages than ‘fairy stories’, which supports my correspondent Dan Kaplan’s point that ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a convincing world because of the amount of detail it contains about many things. Tolkien himself said:

"Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted."

The thing about Tolkien was that he was such a voracious reader on so many subjects! He totally knew the stars and trees and hills of Middle-earth, because he knew our world in such detail.

[Durer: Grasses. Attention to detail like this turns the simplest things into art.]

Yeah, after reading ‘Tree and Leaf’ you can pretty much flatten anyone that tries to tell you that fantasy is escapist rubbish. I hope we’ll use the technology at our disposal to make some truly great fantasy films. We can make and remake myths the way people have always done, and if we do them strongly enough we can hope that they will grow into the future.

Oh well, Norse Mythology and Tad Williams are safe until next time. Tad’s good, don’t get me wrong.


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