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Welcome to Basementwood: Computer Generated Special Effects and Wired Magazine

From: Postmodern Culture
Volume 8, Number 3, May 1998
10.1353/pmc.1998.0025

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


The November 1997 issue of Wired magazine featured a special report on the future of Hollywood filmmaking ("Hollywood 2.0 Special Report: The People Who Are Reinventing Entertainment"). In the Hollywood of the future there will be no film. Theatres will not be theatres. And feature films will be created on desktop computers for less than $1,000. The cinema of the future promises at once to deliver filmmaking into the hands of home-computer users and to make actually going to the movies an entertainment experience more akin to a trip to a theme park. Hollywood 2.0 is do-it-yourself cinema and Holodeck Enterprises all rolled into one. The report does not suggest that making movies for CD-ROM, DVD, or on-line delivery is the same thing as having one's digital creations projected in one of Gerard Howland's 360-degree, 3-D full-motion theaters. That's not how things work in the future. Hollywood 2.0 still only offers would-be "creatives" the choice between producing low-resolution "art" films for the small screen, and trying to get a piece of the big-screen action elsewhere. And despite the closing of a number of high-profile special effects houses in 1996-97 (Buena Vista Visual Effects, Warner Digital Studios, and Boss Film Studios), the special effects industry is still the best representative of this fantasy-elsewhere that Hollywood 2.0 has to offer.

The "Hollywired Index" that accompanies this special report plots the emergence of Hollywood 2.0 in terms of the history of computer generated imagery (or CGI) in Hollywood cinema. A check-list of "firsts" for CGI in feature films lists the first completely computer generated sequence in a feature film ("Genesis effect" in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan); the first completely computer generated character ("Stained-glass knight" in Young Sherlock Holmes); the first morph (Willow); and the first computer generated main character ("T-1000" in Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Similar lists have been a recurring feature in a magazine that imagines a readership intensely fascinated by the production of computer generated imagery. The very first issue featured an article on the special effects company Pacific Data Images (Quinn, "Beyond The Valley of The Morphs"). Subsequent issues have featured articles on effects house Digital Domain (Rothman, "Digital Deal"); Digital Domain's co-founder, James Cameron (Parisi, "Cameron Angle"); and ILM's George Lucas (Kelly and Parisi, "Beyond Star Wars"). Special effects were also the cover story for the December 1995 issue -- which featured an article on the history of the Hollywood special effects industry (Parisi, "The New Silicon Stars"), and another on the making of Toy Story (Snider, "The Toy Story Story").

The regular features on the Hollywood special effects industry, mini-profiles of computer animators, and reviews of entertainment applications for computer graphics-based programs are only the most obvious sites where special effects figure in the magazine as content. In "Fetish" (a regular section that reviews the latest electronic gizmos for self-proclaimed and would-be hardware fetishists), readers are regularly addressed as producers of special effects. This is a trope that also frequently appears in advertising copy for multimedia and special effects hardware and software.

Wired is not the only magazine that features articles, advertising, and artwork that displays computer-enhanced and computer generated images in this way. Mondo 2000 may have seen its heyday, but it was once the lifestyle magazine of choice for the wired-at-heart. And along with the crash courses in "DIY TV" and interviews with the Hollywood digerati, it too has fed readers' home-production fantasies with sumptuous, digitally enhanced photo-montages and glossy, full-color computer generated images. It is Wired, however, with its saturation level advertising, high-res, digital-art-effects, and extensive coverage of the entertainment and consumer electronics industries, that provides the best site for examining some of the economic, technological, and popular-cultural rationalities that have molded and shaped the look of computer generated imagery (or CGI) in recent years.

This essay looks at some of the ways Wired visualizes, discusses, and alludes to computer generated imagery, focusing in particular on how frequently visual and discursive...


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