Lord Puttnam Lecture: Animation

Animation and Effects

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I thought it would be interesting to move from, Local Hero, one of David Puttnam’s favourite films of his own, to Memphis Belle (Michael Caton-Jones, 1990) a film which he appears to regard as a complete failure. Lord Puttnam first made mention of Memphis Belle in his lecture on animation, which widened in scope as he went on and ended up focusing on the use of computer generated imagery in today’s films. He didn’t go into too much detail on the film’s failings but alluded to the fact that it came out during a period of technological innovation which meant that its traditional use of practical effects as well as its period setting made it look out of date and antiquated.

In his lecture, Lord Puttnam consistently reinforced the need for innovation in filmmaking. He used the example of Walt Disney films in the 70s and 80s to show how audiences can quickly become disenchanted when the films they are seeing no longer overawe or inspire them. I believe Memphis Belle was a victim of this same disenchantment as audiences had grown accustomed to the same old practical effects that had been in use since the 1970s. They recognised when something was taking place on a set, or when an actor would swap out for his stunt double. In short, the magic of the movies was fading.

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The shortcomings of the film are even more transparent today as we are well aware of the massive boom in computer generated imagery that was right around the corner. It is almost hard to believe when you are watching the jarringly apparent effects work in Memphis Belle that films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991) or Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) are only a year or two away. It is films like these which led to the resurgence of blockbuster filmmaking which fostered a competitive atmosphere in Hollywood with each film trying to outdo the previous one in terms of computer generated, lifelike effects. Lord Puttnam commented that the film would fare much better in today’s market as the effects work would be seamless, with digitally rendered imagery being used to create dazzlingly realistic dogfights in the sky.

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However, the film not only falls short on a technical level, but it rings surprisingly hollow when it comes to the human element. I’d suspect that a lot of the character work that is traditionally well served in most of Puttnam’s films was deemed second fiddle to the action set pieces at the heart of the picture. As a result, neither element works and they come together in an awkward, paper-thin excuse for a film. It really is a shame as Puttnam had proved so adept with bringing stories of human struggle and triumph to the screen in the past. Had they acknowledged that the technology simply was not there for the film they wanted to make, they could have narrowed their focus to the inner lives of these heroic pilots and explored what exactly it was they were going through.

Memphis Belle Trailer

T2 Special FX