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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

Consider, if you will, the common zap gun. A staple of science fiction since the beginning, it's small, lightweight, portable, powered by something that only runs out of juice when it's dramatically necessary, and shoots—what?

Lasers, masers, glasers, tasers? Nah, we know how those work and they don't produce the desired visual effect. Gasers, hasers, blasers, phasers? Now you're just slapping together phonemes. "Coherent packets of pure force?" (I found that one in a book by a beloved Grand Master and it about made my head spin. It's the sort of pseudoscientific gobbledygook I would have written when I was a teenager and just stringing together techno-nonsense in order to cover my ignorance.) Protons? Too 1940s, although I have to image getting hit by an energetic stream of hydrogen nuclei would not be pleasant. Electrons? They'd be hard to aim. (Think lightning.) Anti-protons? Too 1960s. "Charged particles?" What did you think protons, electrons, and anti-protons were?

I know. They shoot... Anti-gluons. That's it! They shoot a coherent stream of charged anti-gluons (may as well lard on the jargon) that flash out and, upon contact with the target, make it either vanish in a smoky POOF! or turn incandescent for a moment and then disappear.

Wow. That's amazing. They know exactly when to stop and spread out. They don't disintegrate their way through the target and then continue on their way to disintegrate whatever else they might run into for the next half-mile. (Very dangerous to use on-board a spaceship in a vacuum!) They disintegrate the victim completely and then stop: they don't leave a crater or even a scorch mark on the floor, or sometimes the smoking stumps of legs. (Although I do seem to remember that the zap guns used in Queen of Outer Space—the original "Planet of the Evil Lingerie Models"—had a tendency to make the victim vanish in a smoky poof and leave a pair of smoking high-heels on the floor.)

They disintegrate everything, regardless of respective density—clothing, skin, hair, muscle, organs, bones, teeth, whatever is in their pockets—equally, instantly, and completely. No one ever gets zapped and a moment later, the charred remains of their Rolex hits the floor with a clunk. Especially with the smoky poof kind: they incinerate the entire victim in a moment, turning a hundred-and-sixty or so pounds of hair, meat, and gristle and suet into hot gas, and yet no one ever seems to notice the smell. Just think about the last time someone left their popcorn in the microwave a few minutes too long and I think you'll get the idea.

And on a tangent: in the official Star Trek canon, it's an established fact that a malfunctioning phaser goes up with an explosive force equivalent to several kilos of C4, instantly destroying everything around it for a significant radius. So if a guy holding a phaser gets phasered—or even phasers himself, which has happened a couple of times—what stops the consequent catastrophic explosion?

The answer to all these questions, by now, should be obvious: dramatic necessity. It works that way because in stagecraft or filmcraft, that's the way it must work.

What's the easiest and cheapest way to make a person disappear onstage? Set off a flashpot, and while the audience is distracted by the flash and the POOF!, the actor dives behind a conveniently placed bit of set-dressing—say, a desk, a scenery flat, or a papier-mâché boulder—or if you've got gobs of money, through a trapdoor in the floor. Watch any sci-fi serial from the 1930s or later with a halfway observant eye, and nine times out of ten, when the Evil Emperor of the Sinister Moon Men uses his Terrible Death Ray, there is a substantial piece of set-dressing sitting right next to the vanishing victim.

Okay, so that explains the smoky poof technique, but what about the glow-and-vanish method?

Well, as Georges Méliès discovered a century ago, the cheapest and easiest way to make someone disappear on film is to stop the camera, have the person walk out of the field of view, and then resume filming. Later, when you watch the film: abracadabra, the man vanishes!

But simple stop-motion gets boring fast, so the race was on to up the ante. In The Day The Earth Stood Still, they matted-in a growing and glowing blob of light over every person and thing Gort zapped, to cover the stop-motion transition. In The War of the Worlds they matted-in a glowing blob and the briefly seen silhouette of a skeleton, which believe me, was an effect that was shocking to the audiences of the day. In Forbidden Planet, when Leslie Nielsen zaps the leaping tiger, its component molecules continue on their respective trajectories for a few seconds as it dissolves into a lovely swirling mass of incandescent gas. Oh, but doing that is expensive. It requires artists.

So by the time Star Trek debuted, the "phaser" visual effect was an established visual cliche. (We'll call it that even though it was already widely used on The Outer Limits, The Invaders, and a host of other, earlier, programs.) The shooter fires the weapon. On the soundstage, the victim disappears through the miracle of stopping the camera. Later, in post-production, suitable lights, beams, and glowing blobs are matted-in. If you're really cheap and have a steady hand, you can even do it by drawing directly on the film emulsion. Later, when you run the film... Well, you know what happens.

And that's today's lesson in practical dramatic violence. When you find yourself writing a scene involving a zap gun: stop. Think. Ask yourself: am I describing this scene in this way because it actually makes some sort of sense, or because I saw this effect once in a movie or TV show and thought it looked cool? And if the latter, then ask yourself another question: did they do it that way because it made sense, or because, in the days before CGI, they had no choice but to do it that way?

Here endeth the lesson.
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