VFX Master Warns Against the Overuse of Razzle-Dazzle Visual Effects

Jonathan Erland, this year's recipient of the Academy's Gordon E. Sawyer Award, to be handed out at Saturday's Sci-Tech Awards, warns that "the commodification of VFX" can detract from storytelling.
George Brich/AP Photo
Fresh off 'Star Wars' in 1977, Erland (center) and fellow model makers Paul Houston (left) and Lorne Peterson created spaceships for TV’s 'Space Academy.'

"Cinema is going through massive changes," acknowledges visual effects technologist Jonathan Erland, who will receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an Oscar statuette, at the Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards on Feb. 10 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. "But then, 100 years ago things were technically in a state of chaos, and it's interesting that 100 years later they are in a state of chaos."

The innovator himself personally has witnessed many of those changes. The U.K.-born Erland, 78, initially trained as an actor — he appeared in the 1965 pilot for TV's The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — but soon transferred into effects work. He was part of the team that created the Charles Eames-designed audio animatronic puppet theaters for the I.B.M. Pavilion at the 1964 New York World's Fair, and he also worked as a miniatures model-builder during production of 1977's Star Wars.

In addition to serving on the Academy's board of governors, he was a founding member of the Academy Science and Technology Council and has been honored with two previous Sci-Tech awards.

Erland welcomes the newest technologies, citing developing laser projectors that enable high-dynamic-range imagery as well as the potential for variable frame rates that give the cinematographer a broader range of creative tools. But he also issues a warning — today's movies use too many razzle-dazzle visual effects too indiscriminately.

"The VFX world, which is capable of some quite extraordinary accomplishments in terms of putting images on the screen, is suffering somewhat from what I would call the commodification of VFX," he says. "So you see films with a lot of VFX in which the VFX are not necessarily advancing the storytelling. That's a shame. It's more effective when a very powerful art form like VFX is being used to enhance the storytelling process."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.