It’s a depressing fact, but the movie world is getting smaller and smaller. With the growth of DVD and Blu-ray, Video On-Demand, and online streaming, audiences have started trading in the movie theater experience for the comfort of their own living rooms. But films aren’t meant to be seen on the small screen – that’s for television. They are meant to be seen on the largest screen imaginable so that you can look up and just, “Wow.”
This week marks the re-release of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. While the entire film is still a beautiful piece of art with a great story, there is one moment in particular that we can’t wait to see again on the big screen: the ballroom scene. It’s one of the earliest uses of computer animation in an animated film and we all remember seeing the movie for the first time in theaters, watching the camera dance through the space, and being in awe. It’s a truly magical moment that can really only be seen in theaters to fully grasp. But it’s not the only movie with scenes like that.
The brain trust here at Cinema Blend has once again gotten together to reflect on particular moments in the history of filmmaking that aren’t really seen until they are seen on the big screen. These are moments of technological advancement through the years and genius direction. These are the kind of scenes that movies are all about. These are moments that we watched on the silver screen and couldn’t help but marvel at. They make us say, “Wow.”
It might not be the first magical thing to ever happen in cinema, but it's certainly the most famous. A team of astronomers climb inside a metal spaceship and are shot out of a cannon; after minutes of watching people wander about real life sets, the audience suddenly sees a white shape emerge in the far distance… a white shape with a face. It's the Man in the Moon, and as the iconic, lasting image from Georges Melies's 1902 short "A Trip to the Moon," it's maybe the earliest example of how the simplest of technical effects-- makeup and a deft edit-- can create the impossible. From there the movie goes on to make great use of Melies's signature "disappearing" tricks, basically accomplished with a cut and a still camera, but it's the Man in the Moon who shows up first, and who looms largest in the imagination. There's a reason the image has lingered everywhere from a Smashing Pumpkins music video to Martin Scorsese's Hugo-- the Man in the Moon as created by Melies is as simple as a child's drawing but evocative of the kind of wizardry that the movies were just figuring out how to create.
With everything that Pixar has contributed to film over the years, it’s almost easy to forget the impact Toy Story made when the movie released back in 1995. Not only was it a beautiful demonstration of the use of CGI in an animated movie, but the attention to detail, coupled with a thought-out story that was charming, adventurous, funny, and also appealing to children as well as any adult with a sense of nostalgia for their childhood toys, allows the film to hold up more than a decade later.The entire movie is a demonstration on the brilliance of Pixar’s abilities to revolutionize animation for film, however a small but fantastic example of this can be seen in the scene where Buzz Lightyear arrives in Andy’s room. Everything from the way the blanket on the bed moves when Buzz jumps on it, to the crinkling sound of the plastic on his ship gives us the sense that what we’re looking at is real. For added emphasis, we’re given a glimpse of Buzz’s perspective from inside his helmet, which includes the slight reflection of his face off the plastic dome. This kind of subtle and brilliant attention to detail is what makes the movie stand out beyond being “just” a great story.
The first unbroken shot in Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men takes place on a highway. Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and their fellow freedom fighters are attacked, and the savagery of the sequence (and that damn ping-pong ball trick) distracts us from the fact that it’s one continuous shot. That’s only an appetizer, though, for the real jaw-dropper: A masterfully choreographed sprint through a war zone that finds Owen’s character dodging soldiers and tanks to rescue the world’s most important baby. Tracking shots aren’t new. Orson Welles pulled off perhaps the most famous example of an unbroken shot in Touch of Evil. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is a string of 10 unbroken shots carefully edited into one feature-length shot. And today, Atonement and Hanna director Joe Wright tries them all the time. But the breathtaking, eight-minute shot in Children of Men reminds us of what a filmmaker can accomplish with a little imagination and tons of determination. And it automatically prompts you to want to return to the theater to see it, again and again, to see exactly how Cuaron and his creative team managed to pull it off.
The Wizard of Oz was far from the first film to use color, even in 1939, and given what came after it's hard to argue it used color the best, even with those bright red ruby slippers. But the moment it switches from sepia tones to vivid Technicolor, when Dorothy survives the cyclone and opens the door into Oz, remains dazzling, a prime example of how a movie can set you up to expect one thing, then blow your mind by giving you something else. Even if you know The Wizard of Oz is shot in color, the sepia-colored opening lasts just long enough that you feel how Dorothy does in her gray, dull world. That blast of brightness in Munchkinland, the yellow brick road and the huge green hills, feels like a shock to the system, and when-- in seemingly one take-- Dorothy walks out in her now blue and white dress, you've watched a complete transformation take place in seconds. Oz is a place where countless magical things happen, but that first time we see it combines a new-ish technology with a simple hidden cut to create genuine cinematic wonder.
Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey is not only an enigmatic exploration of our origins, our end and our possible rebirth but it's also an absolutely stunning example of the technical advancements in cinema. As amazing as the 'wormhole' sequence is to watch on the big-screen, the film's effects that truly astoud are mostly practical. In order to accomplish the still jaw-dropping visual feats, Kubrick and the production team built a giant 'hamster wheel' working model of the 'centrifuge' to create the appearance of gravity defied. There are a few great examples in the film - the stewardess walking up a wall until completely upside down or the astronaut keeps in shape by doing gravity defying laps - however, the most stunning occurs a few scenes later. One of our spacemen is eating his lunch below (seemingly floating upside down, when in reality he's strapped to the chair) when another enters in the foreground, descending a ladder that completely shatters our sense of gravity and space punctuated as he makes his way around the centrifuge to join his companion. Perhaps it seems too simple once the trick is revealed but isn't that the case will all great magic tricks? And 2001: A Space Odyssey's technological marvels still wow on the big screen, just think of the hallway in Christopher Nolan's Inception.
It was going to be James Cameron’s folly. A long, expensive restaging of Titanic’s first (and final) voyage that took the visionary filmmaker years to complete. People forget that Titanic once was predicted to be a failure, as stories of a disastrous shoot plagued the production at virtually every turn. Then we saw what Cameron had accomplished. And we saw it again. And again. And all of a sudden, his torturous process seemed necessary. Vital. There are a number of memorable scenes in Titanic, from DiCaprio’s “king of the world” bellow to the various captures of the massive boat in sinking distress. But the one that made me sit up in my seat and stare (with my mouth hanging wide open), was the massive oceanliner’s final dive into the sea. The boat breaks in half, and DiCaprio and Kate Winslet wisely get to the back as it rises. They look straight down into the icy water, watching bodies tumble like rag dolls to their death. They wait for the inevitable. And as they take a deep breath, we realize that we’ve stopped breathing, as well. The special effects have given way to real human concern. Man, I can’t wait to see it in 3D this spring.
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane is easily one of the greatest films of all time. Every ounce of it is legendary, from the fact that it’s the debut film from one of the greatest directors of all time, to its commentary on one of the most influential people of the 20th century, William Randolph Hurst. But in addition to being a marvel mix of storytelling and performances, it also popularized one of the most vital advances in cinematography: deep focus. While we take it for granted these days, it used to be that filmmakers could only focus on objects either in the foreground or background, with everything else appearing blurry. Welles revolutionized the use of deep focus, which allowed audiences to clearly see everything in the frame, and part of the result was one of the greatest big screen moments of all time. As Charles Foster Kane delivers his campaign speech for governor, the camera sweeps in from a low angle, both showing Kane at his most bombastic and also highlighting the giant banner of his face that is draped in the background. As commonplace as deep focus may be nowadays, every time it’s shown at a theater you feel like you’ve been transported back to 1941.