Review: Bob Rehak, More Than Meets the Eye: Special Effects and the Fantastic Transmedia Franchise (2018)
The history, theory and reception of visual and special effects occupies a significant place in recent film and media scholarship (Pierson 2002; Turnock 2015). This interest in CGI animation is not surprising given the reliance within the production practices over the past forty years of Hollywood filmmaking. Picking up where previous debates have left off, Bob Rehak’s More Than Meets the Eye: Special Effects and the Fantastic Transmedia Franchise (New York: New York University Press, 2018) seeks to make an important contribution to our understanding of the impact digital CGI effects have had on both the way films are made, and the way they are received by audiences. Rehak analyses the function of CGI effects in a series of successful transmedia story universes throughout the age of the blockbuster. Studying the franchises of Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, More Than Meets The Eye provides a number of fascinating case studies that examine the way CGI animation and effects culture more broadly not only presents itself in the output, but feeds into the production practices and fan cultures that drive the franchise forward. In this way, his book suggests that digital animation is not simply a tool used by filmmaking, but a structuring factor in the franchises themselves. It turns out Marshall McLuhan was right all along; the medium really is the message (1964).
Rehak’s essential thesis is that the current ubiquity of the fantastic transmedia franchise is not simply a product of a successful corporate strategy based around the principles of horizontal integration of different commercial outlets, but emerges at least partially out of the transmedial nature of CGI as a cinematic instrument. For Rehak, special effects are not simply an instrument of an industrial environment; they help to construct that environment. They create the transmedia working spaces and creative practices in which they operate, creating the need for length pre-and-post production processes that give rise to new production methods that collapse the once distinct gap between filmmaking, television production and new media design. Analysing the ways in which innovations within the field of CGI have influenced understandings of authorship, genre and performance, Rehak suggests that the necessity for a pre-viz culture in which the image is susceptible to constant revision and improvement creates a culture of continued reboots and remakes. CGI effect require both filmmakers and film audiences to migrate into alternative media forms. Directors and producers must work within a production process that has more in common with the manufacture of new media technologies such as apps or video games as they do traditional filmmaking process, enabling filmmakers like The Wachowskis to move seamlessly between directing films and video games to enact a transmedia migrate on of their franchises. Similarly, the effects themselves are easily able to migrate to these alternative media spaces, whether through the official work of franchises like The Lord of The Rings in utilising similar effects and sequences within transmedia work or as part of fan efforts to pay tribute to the story worlds they admire through what Rehak suggests to be a particular design culture that surrounds successful media franchises (64-70).
Rehak’s book points suggests towards some exciting further avenues of consideration if we apply a fantasy/animation approach to his argument. Through the application of new media and animation theory, his book nicely interrogates the transmedia nature of what calls ‘the fantastic transmedia franchise’ (20), adding further dimension to previous debates focused largely on narrative theory or corporate strategy (Jenkins 2006; Wolf 2012). Yet, there is perhaps scope to also interrogate the fantastic nature of these franchises as well. The way Rehak uses the term fantastic throughout his book suggests that he means the term in accordance with its usage in common everyday parlance, i.e. as a word to describe content that is beyond the everyday. However, within theories of fantasy and the fantastic, the word takes on a much more anxious and contentious set of connotations. It can mean an inherent hesitation within the narrative system of audience reaction between the everyday and the extraordinary (Todorov 1974), a broader impulse towards a rupture with the conventions of narrative realism (Attebery 1992) or a term referring to the broader, hallucinogenic potential of the cinematic image (Donald 1989). Considering Rehak’s work in dialogue with these theories might offer some additional perspective on the contemporary transmedia worlds that would complement, extend or challenge some of his assertions.
Rehak’s book contains numerations on ideas related to these areas of intersection between fantasy and animation theory. In his discussion of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), for example, he briefly considers the impact of Joseph Campbell upon Lucas’s filmmaking, but offers little about the wider significance of Campbell’s theory of the folk tale as a storytelling form whose value comes in its ‘twice-told’ nature (Clute 1999). Yet, future scholarship could interrogate some of these tentative ideas further to consider why the transmedia franchise is so often fantastic, and whether it is not simply the technology that has a transmedia quality (as Rehak argues) but the nature of the story form itself? If fantasy is itself transmedia in form, then it is not the case that CGI wills the transmedia fantastic into being. Rather, it becomes a complex push-and-pull between story choice and technology that lies embedded with the worlds that travel across out multiple screens. The fantastic franchise becomes a riddle as dense and complex as the worlds it creates.
Attebery, Brian. Strategies of Fantasy (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992).
Clute, John. “Twice-Told”. In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (London: Orbit, 1999).
Donald, James. “The Fantastic, the Sublime and the Popular: Or, What’s at Stake in Vampire Films?” in Fantasy and the Cinema (London: BFI Publishing, 1989), 233-251.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGrawhill, 1964)
Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975).
Turnock, Julie. Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
Wolf, Mark J.P. Building Imaginary Worlds: A History and Theory of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).