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Tehanu's Third Note
K, this week Norse Mythology goes out
the window, because Ive just been to see The Phantom Menace. The look of it was
gorgeously imaginative and I wondered if weve reached a time when its 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 cant 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 whos about to start working at WETA, presumably
on computer imaging. Dont all fall out of your chairs with excitement. Heres 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?"
"Ill 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.
Theres no doubt that special effects films inspire and compete with each other the way
any healthy art form does, and its 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.
[This could be somewhere on Naboo, and even more so Coruscant, but its
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. Dont 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 somebodys
going to use all this stuff to make a masterpiece. It wont 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, its
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 theyve 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 couldnt read and write could still sing Rossinis latest. Imagine
what todays 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 Raphaels or Da Vincis workshop.
Those guys didnt paint every centimetre of canvas or plaster attributed to them,
and once theyd had some success theyd 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 Im
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, thats a bunch of people
writing code and designing CGI software and making video magic under the directon of a few master
[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 mustve 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! Its 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 Tolkiens essay
on fairy-tales and fantasy. Some of it is lyrical, some of it is heavy going, its written to convince
both children and scholars. He defends fantasy from the accusation that its 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: "The Creation of Man." I was surprised by the depth of
Tolkiens religious belief, given that he doesnt state it obviously like C.S. Lewis does
in the Narnia books. Tolkien hinted that Christianity was based on a fairy story thats
true, and its 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 Kaplans
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
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 well 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. Tads good,
dont get me wrong.
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