From the Director: Of avatars and inventors :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Beanie Illustration
About Us

« Back to "Online articles" menu


Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director, Lemelson Center

James Cameron's Avatar was the box-office smash to beat over the past holiday season. The director of the Terminator franchise and Titanic, Cameron has made CGI--computer-generated imagery--and other cutting-edge special effects his cinematic bread and butter. But despite his reputation as today's special effects master par excellence, I was not surprised to see this headline in a recent issue of Newsweek:  "It's The Story, Stupid: Directors James Cameron and Peter Jackson are the kings of new film technology. But they insist they aren't slaves to it."

Well, of course. What director would want to identify as a mere technician, however high-end, rather than an artist? Despite the obligatory bow to filmic art, I confess that the overdose of F/X these days, especially the raucous variety, has me running to Netflix in search of the European art films of youthful memory, shoestring productions blessedly free of most special effects (except for that magical opening scene in 8 1/2 where Marcello Mastroianni floats through the roof of his traffic-jammed car--it's a personal favorite). I sometimes find myself regretting altogether the arrival of the computer to the film scene.

At the same time, I tell myself to get real about the movies. Whatever our illusions about cinema, whether heavy on story line and character or suffused with CGI, it is important to recognize that all films are just that--an illusion, and a technological one at that. As my colleague Harry Rand reminded me, movies are frozen slices of reality, cinematically joined to trick our eye into the sensation of continuous movement. Make no mistake, movies are, and have always been, illusions born of technology. This came home to me recently when I saw a photo from a film shoot of a scene in To Catch a Thief. We witness Grace Kelly, in all her pristine beauty, sitting in a beach chair, presumably alone--except that she's not. In fact, as the camera draws back, we see that she's tightly encircled, virtually encaged, by a ring of cameras, klieg lights, reflectors, microphones, etc., not to mention the mob of technicians operating this jungle of apparatus.

Of course, there are levels of technology in filmmaking, today as in the past, with perhaps a quantum leap coming with computer graphics. But, in general, there is a technological continuum from the Lumière brothers, through Thomas Edison and George Lucas, that eventually leads to Cameron's Avatar. In fact, some of the cutting-edge effects of today are not all that revolutionary, at least in concept. For instance, much has been made of Avatar's use of performance capture, a computer-generated animation technique to re-create the organic motions of humans and animals. Seventy years ago, Disney studios used "rotoscoping" based on the same principle, but employing, instead of computer technicians, an army of animators who manually traced the filmed motions of live actors.

Over the years, the Lemelson Center has hosted many inventors and inventions from Hollywood. The late Stan Winston, Cameron's frequent collaborator, told us what got him excited about the computer effects business and what it was like to work with Schwarzenegger and Cameron on the Terminator series. Marty Kline, the CGI genius behind such productions as Stuart Little, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the late-1970s TV series Battlestar Galactica, brought with him some of the physical models that were the platforms for his digital magic. Movies, though, were only one genre of artistic invention coming out of the Los Angeles area; innovations in musical instruments like electric guitars and drumheads are two of the area's other surprising and innovative products. So, what is it about "Hollywoodland," as the original iconic sign read, that has made it such fertile ground for innovation?

Best regards till next month,
Arthur Molella
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

From Prototype, January 2010

:: Home :: About Us :: Centerpieces :: Events :: Resources :: Video & Audio ::
:: Press Room :: Blog :: Newsletter :: Site Map :: Facebook :: Flickr :: Twitter ::