Entertainment often means trickery. Even on stage, various “effects” are used to simulate real-world or fantastic conditions that would be dangerous if reproduced in a theater space: cannon fire, for example, or the ghostly ship in the “The Flying Dutchman”. I’ve even read about spectacles in which building fires were simulated and fought on a large stage to celebrate the bravery of firemen. Early filmmakers learned that the camera allows for much more convincing and spectacular effects than are safe to perform with a live audience attending, and that it also has the potential for more impressive “magical” trickery. Thus, the category of visual effects in film has become a part of how we judge them. This award considers the best of those effects each year.
In 1917, many films were using simple effects as a matter of course, but the movies I’ve nominated each showed some more innovative, or more elaborate application of them. In “Fear,” a man is haunted by his visions of a “Buddha Priest” he’s wronged. Conrad Veidt is made to appear transparent, and impervious to bullets, in this early example of a horror movie. “The Dying Swan” has a similar ghostly effect, in which the female lead is threatened by disembodied hands that reach out to strangle her, and re-appear in the scene in which she is really strangled. “The Little American” is an ambitious action film, that re-creates the sinking of the Lusitania and also shows the war-ravaged streets of a French town in the First World War. The main effects seen in the “Judex” episode, “The Fantastic Dog Pack,” are changes in tinting of the film to simulate lighting changes, and the hard work of the animal trainers in getting the eponymous “pack” to do its work. We also get underground caverns and chase scenes, handled well.
The nominees for best visual effects of 1917 are:
And the winner is…”The Little American!”
There’s a tradition in Hollywood of giving the special effects award to a movie that was spectacular, but not a critical success, and I guess I’m following that tradition here. “The Little American” was big with audiences in its day, but is not especially fondly remembered now. It’s a pretty transparent propaganda piece that relies heavily on stereotypes and emotionalism. But, it does have some pretty extravagant effects. We see the sinking of the boat from inside of a ballroom that appears to turn on its side and fill with water. It genuinely appears as though the actors could have been in danger of drowning. The devastated countryside is also effective, even if the plot at the end becomes so heavy-handed as to be almost impossible to take seriously.