TED2012

Don Levy: A cinematic journey through visual effects

Filmed:

It's been 110 years since Georges Méliès sent a spaceship slamming into the eye of the man on the moon. So how far have visual effects come since then? Working closely with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Don Levy takes us on a visual journey through special effects, from the fakery of early technology to the seamless marvels of modern filmmaking.

- Film executive
Don Levy has served on the frontlines of the digital transformation of entertainment. For 17 years, he led the communications efforts for top visual effects and digital animation studio, Sony Pictures Imageworks. He is fascinated by the magic of movies. Full bio

The filmmaker Georges Méliès was first a magician.
00:16
Now movies proved to be the ultimate medium for magic.
00:22
With complete control of everything the audience can see,
00:28
moviemakers had developed an arsenal of techniques
00:34
to further their deceptions.
00:38
Motion pictures are themselves an illusion of life,
00:43
produced by the sequential projection of still frames,
00:47
and they astonished the Lumière brothers' early audiences.
00:51
Even today's sophisticated moviegoers
00:56
still lose themselves to the screen,
00:59
and filmmakers leverage this separation from reality
01:02
to great effect.
01:05
Now imaginative people have been having fun with this
01:08
for over 400 years.
01:12
Giambattista della Porta, a Neapolitan scholar
01:14
in the 16th century, examined and studied the natural world
01:18
and saw how it could be manipulated.
01:24
Playing with the world, and our perception of it,
01:27
really is the essence of visual effects.
01:31
So digging deeper into this
01:34
with the Science and Technology Council
01:36
of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
01:39
reveals some truth behind the trickery.
01:42
Visual effects are based on the principles of all illusions:
01:46
assumption, things are as we know them;
01:52
presumption, things will behave as we expect;
01:55
and context in reality,
01:59
our knowledge of the world as we know it,
02:02
such as scale.
02:04
Now a fourth factor really becomes an obsession,
02:06
which is, never betray the illusion.
02:10
And that last point has made visual effects
02:14
a constant quest for perfection.
02:17
So from the hand-cranked jump cut early days of cinema
02:21
to last Sunday's Oscar winner, what follows are some steps
02:25
and a few repeats in the evolution of visual effects.
02:31
I hope you will enjoy.
02:36
Isabelle: "The filmmaker Georges Méliès
02:39
was one of the first to realize that
02:44
films had the power
02:49
to capture dreams."
02:51
(Music) ["'A Trip to the Moon' (1902)"]
02:54
["2011 Restoration of the Original Hand-Tinted Color"]
02:57
["'2001: A Space Odyssey' (1968)"]
03:10
["Academy Award Winner for Visual Effects"]
03:14
["'Avatar' (2009)"] First doctor: How are you feeling, Jake?
03:25
Jake: Hey guys.
03:27
["Academy Award Winner for Visual Effects"]
03:28
Second doctor: Welcome to your new body, Jake.First doctor: Good.
03:29
Second doctor: We're gonna take this nice and easy, Jake.First doctor: Well, do you want to sit up? That's fine.
03:33
Second doctor: And good, just take it nice and slow, Jake.
03:36
Well, no truncal ataxia, that's good.First doctor: You feeling light-headed or dizzy at all?
03:38
Oh, you're wiggling your toes.
03:41
["'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' (1972)"]
03:43
Alice: What's happening to me?
03:46
["'Alice in Wonderland' (2010)"]
03:53
["Academy Award Nominee for Visual Effects"]
03:57
["'The Lost World' (1925)"]
04:03
["Stop Motion Animation"]
04:07
["'Jurassic Park' (1993)"] [Dinosaur roars]
04:09
["CG Animation"]
04:14
["Academy Award Winner for Visual Effects"]
04:17
["'The Smurfs' (2011)"]
04:29
["Autodesk Maya Software - Key Frame Animation"]
04:33
["'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' (2011)"]
04:38
Chimpanzee: No! ["Academy Award Nominee for Visual Effects"]
04:40
["'Metropolis' (1927)"]
04:43
(Music)
04:46
["'Blade Runner' (1982)"]
05:03
["Academy Award Nominee for Visual Effects"]
05:07
["'The Rains Came' (1939)"] Rama Safti: Well, it's all over.
05:15
Maharaja: Nothing to worry about, not a thing.
05:17
['Academy Award for Special Effects - (First Year of Category)"]
05:19
(Explosion)
05:22
["'2012' (2009)"]Governor: It seems to me that the worst is over.
05:31
["CG Destruction"]
05:37
["'Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' (2003)"]
05:47
["Massive Software - Crowd Generation"]
05:51
["Academy Award Winner for Visual Effects"]
05:54
["'Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ' (1925)"]
05:58
["Miniatures and Puppets Bring the Crowd to Life"]
06:01
["'Gladiator' (2000)"]
06:10
["CG Coliseum and Digital Crowds"]
06:13
["Academy Award Winner for Visual Effects"]
06:17
["'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2' (2011)"]
06:21
["Academy Award Nominee for Visual Effects"]
06:26
["Produced in conjunction with the Academy's Science and Technology Council."]
06:39
(Applause)
06:41
["'It is today possible to realize the most impossible and improbable things.' — Georges Méliès"]
06:42
Don Levy: Thank you.
06:46
Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Don Levy - Film executive
Don Levy has served on the frontlines of the digital transformation of entertainment. For 17 years, he led the communications efforts for top visual effects and digital animation studio, Sony Pictures Imageworks. He is fascinated by the magic of movies.

Why you should listen

Don Levy joined Sony Pictures Imageworks when it was “just 40 people and a dream” in 1995. Starting as an awards campaign consultant, he helped the studio grow in both size and reputation, beginning with its first Academy Award for the animated short “The ChubbChubbs” in 2003 and continuing with the 2005 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for “Spider-Man 2.” As the senior vice president of marketing and communications for Sony Pictures, he directed corporate communications, marketing and public relations for Sony Pictures Imageworks, Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment, as well as for Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Online Entertainment.

Levy left Sony Pictures in June of 2012 to develop a new family entertainment venture and found Smith Brook Farm, a media, entertainement and tech consultancy. At the same time, he is a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts' Entertainment Technology Center and is teaching entertainment marketing at Boston University's Los Angeles Internship Program.

Levy is also member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, on its feature animation nominating committee. The Academy helped tremendously in crafting the video montage in his talk, an exclusive for TED.

More profile about the speaker
Don Levy | Speaker | TED.com