Dodgy cut and paste work on prop photographs can be incredibly distracting.
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4 Jun 2009 - 4:33 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2012 - 8:30 PM

Apparently we're living in the Golden Age of special effects. Thanks to the massed efforts of Hollywood's digital effects companies and the processing power of their hard drives the movies have been drawing ever closer to the goal of photo realistic digital effects. The Velociraptors of Jurassic Park were followed by the upturned hull of Titanic before the brawling robots of Transformers received the baton. Next James Cameron intends to blow our collective minds in December when he releases his 3-D sci-fi epic Avatar.

But if that's the case, why can't anyone manage to doctor a decent photo involving a film's characters any more? Kevin Macdonald's recent Washington D.C. adaptation of the British mini-series State of Play is a capable thriller, if overly self-important, but on multiple occasions my enjoyment of it was completely thrown by insert shots of snapshots and newspaper clippings supposedly showing younger versions of the main characters.

To put it bluntly: they looked like a production assistant had used scissors, glue and a photocopier to manufacture them.

In one prominent clipping, meant to show a Ben Affleck's character as a young Gulf War combatant, his head literally looked too big for the torso it had been Photoshopped onto. Every time Macdonald cut to it I thought the film's true conspiracy would involve claims about Affleck's oversized noggin. Another prop, a happy snap meant to depict the characters of Affleck, Russell Crowe and Robin Wright Penn as carefree students, was almost laughably poor.

These fake pictures are often crucial to a plot, or at least how we visualise the protagonist's past, but they're getting worse. By way of comparison check Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire, a first rate Secret Service thriller from 1993. Early on in proceedings Clint Eastwood's veteran agent is looking at the clippings and rantings collected by a potential Presidential assassin. One story is a newspaper picture from 1963 of Eastwood's character present in Dallas on the day John F. Kennedy was shot dead. The image isn't perfect, but it manages to be convincing for the required few seconds.

As mainstream movies grow ever more complicated, ever more expensive, some of the simplest skills are being lost, be that neatly sketched supporting characters or a putting together a fake image. If filmmakers can create entire worlds within computers, surely someone can make sure that Ben Affleck's youthful head is the right size.