DISCLAIMER: I may be a little bias because I believe that Christopher Nolan is not only pure genius, but also one of the best directors of the 21st century.
Christopher Nolan is a director who refers to himself as a director devoted to realism. In his 2010 hit film, Inception, realism is the furthest thing that happens in the film, but it is brought to the front of the mind. The whole film is based on the idea of unreality; it makes the viewer walk the fine line between reality and the so-called dream world that is created in the film.
Quick throw your totem…realize what I’m about to share is NOT a dream! This is reality….or am I planting thoughts in your mind…is it Inception?
Because this film is jam packed with special effects, I think it is best to address the appeals in reference to the special effects as a whole…besides choosing one or two effects from this film would be like having to choose from your children…they are all special and successful in the film in their own way.
The ethos arguments made by the effects in this film come from two things: 1) Nolan’s directing style, and 2) the fact that the actors perform a lot of their own stunts. Both of these elements give the film more credibility and make it more believable. In an article I read while doing research for this blog, the visual effects supervisor, Paul Franklin, discussed the approach Nolan used to make the CGI (computer generated imagery) elements more believable. He said that whenever there was to be any part of the set that would be computer generated, which in this case was there was rarely a completely green screen set, the actors would be on the physical part of the set that was built out, with a green screen filling in the space where the CGI would go. Franklin said that Nolan would have the art department come up with the basic design for the CGI part of the set, and have it available before going to film the scene it was to be a part of. When it came time to shoot the scene, Nolan would walk around holding a MacBook, directing the actors around what he saw on his computer screen together with the set that was built out with the actors in it. To me, this technique is true dedication to making the film look realistic. This makes the film so much more credible because the effects look real. As far as the acting, it makes the film more credible because the actors perform a lot of the visual effects (instead of them being created on the computer). The best example of this is when Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fighting another guy in the hallway of a hotel. While many people may think that this is completely computer generated, it actually does not involve the computer at all. CRAZY, huh? The production team actually built a 1,000 foot zero gravity tunnel, and decorated it to look like the hotel hallway. Then, Nolan attached the camera to the tunnel, so it would rotate as the tunnel rotated. The actors then simply had to step inside and play off of each other, rather than pretend to fight in front of a green screen. In his text, Understanding Movies, Giannetti says, “Some critics complain that such acting [that in front of a green screen] is cold and mechanical, with none of the human subtleties that can be found in human interacting” (Giannetti 34). This is very true of this scene in this film. If it had been in front of a green screen, or even shot with the actors on wires, the same credibility would not be granted by the audience member that is with the way it appears in the film now. Both of these elements make the film more credible in the viewers’ eyes, thus making it more believable.
As far as pathos goes, it is obvious that the film pulls at our emotions as far as begging the question, are we in the dream world, or are we in reality? However, for this section, I would like to focus in on more detailed aspects rather than that idea as a whole. The first pathos argument that comes up is Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s (Cobb) internal battle with his wife. This is part of the special effects because she is not an actual character because she is dead. She is a special effect because she appears in an unnatural way in the scenes that she is in; she is not organic to the scenes. At the very beginning, we see a woman come in and ruin the deal Cobb and his partner are trying to close with a Japanese businessman, Saito. We soon learn that the woman is Cobb’s deceased wife. This pulls at our emotions, because we learn that her projection is beginning to interrupt much of Cobb’s work life. Later in the film, in an emotional moment, Cobb shares that his wife thought she was perpetually in a dream world, which caused her to commit suicide in the waking world. The audience learns that this is much of the reason that Cobb has a chip on his shoulder, and sometimes gets out of hand during extraction missions. The second element to this internal struggle is Cobb’s totem. His totem is his wife’s old totem, which ends up causing problems for him. She constantly thought she was in the dream world, so her totem was always spinning, therefore it was always spinning with Cobb. It also is a problem because we learn that a totem is only for the individual because they know what about the totem deciphers the dream world form reality. At the end of the film, Cobb is finally reunited with his family, and spins the totem. The film cuts to black before we can see if the totem stops spinning. This leaves the audience wondering whether or not Cobb was reunited with his family in reality or if they were all in the dream world. This is a major emotional appeal because the audience wants the character to get his family back, and to have his life back together. Because the film cuts at the end before we know if the totem quits spinning, we are left in emotional limbo. In his book, Everything’s An Argument, Lunsford says “emotional appeals are powerful tools for influencing what people think and believe. We all make decisions based on our feelings,” (Lunsford 38). Lunsford is on the same wave link as the filmmakers. While Lunsford makes a generic statement about pathos appeals, the filmmakers want the audience to take in all they know about Cobb and his family, and make their own decision about whether the totem stops spinning at the end of the film. The emotional appeal becomes very important to the end of the film, and ultimately what viewers take away from the film.
I have included the final scene to further emphasize the emotional question we are left with when we see the film cut to black!
The logos appeal in the special effects comes from their believability. I guarantee every single person that watches this film will wonder, at some point, how much of the film is real and how much is computer generated. The real mind-blowing fact is that a lot of the elements that seem like they would have to be computer generated are NOT!! Inception actually only contains 500 visual effects shots, which is very minimal compared to most effects driven films, which come in around 1,500 to 2,000 shots. Like the example I mentioned before, the fight scene in the hallway was all done on set, no computer needed. Another example of this is the train that comes through the city. The production crew actually shut down the street, and brought in a real locomotive to film this scene. Lastly, the water that comes pouring through the windows of the Japanese dream castle was actually large water cannons that shot water onto the set from behind the walls. (I’ve included a picture below.) All of these examples show that the filmmakers created a lot of these effects on the set in order to make them more believable. Because they did this, the effects look more believable to the audience when they view the film. If these types of things were computer generated, it would be very evident to the audience, and would most likely come off as cheesy. Because these extra actions were taken to make more on set effects, the film becomes more believable.
All together, the special effects in this film have a purpose. The purpose is to illustrate the main idea of the film, which is to create a world that exposes the fine line between the dream world and reality. The special effects enhance the film because they make it more believable, while also walking the line between dream and reality themselves. The special effects are partially on the computer and partially on set visual effects, but the audience cannot decipher between the two when viewing the film. Without special effects, the film would not be able to exist because inception itself is a special effect the mind performs. “We create and perceive our own world simultaneously” (Inception Film). This quote from the film sums it up perfectly. The special effects blur the line between what is computer generated (dream) and what was actually filmed by the camera (reality). The audience member takes both in simultaneously, perceiving them as one image, although they were created separately; thus leaving the viewer unable to decipher what is what when viewing the film. That is the pure genius of the special effects! This film definitely deserves three tickets in the special effects category!!