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Bombs, Bullets, and 'Bots: How Reliant Is the Cinema of Michael Bay on Special/Visual Effects?

Andrea is a film scholar who obtained his Masters in Research of Film (Mres) at Edge Hill University by analysing the music biopic genre.

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Embellishing a reality of a deathly world of explosions and bullet fire is a major parameter of the success of Hollywood blockbuster action films. Mainstream Hollywood action cinema of the 1980s and 90s was particularly saturated with special effects such as pyrotechnics, bullet wounds, and stunt doubles to produce the dangerous reality of the action genre diegesis. However, as time has progressed, technological advances have allowed the action genre to create this diegesis outside of the camera with visual effects (VFX), as well as conventionally through the camera with live action special effects (SFX) (Mitchel, 2013: 66). Due to this advance in technology, it appears that cinema is favouring the use of post-production visual effects in the creation of action scenes that would stimulate box office success for the film. This article will be utilising content analysis to analyse the frequency of special and visual effects in 10 economically successful action films directed by Michael Bay. The outcome of this article will be to analyse why a reliance of a extensively frequent use of special effects directly impact the financial gain of Michael Bay's films.

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This S**t Just Got Real

Firstly, utilising content analysis as a research method for this project proved useful for gathering data that would eventually be analysed within this article. The method enabled a process of extensively viewing the 10 focus films to observe frequencies within the dominant use of effects. Each instance of special and visual effects was tallied whilst viewing the films to produce data that would show the exact amount of shots that were manipulated by special/visual effects to create spectacle within the mise-en-scène. For the purpose of the research project, the content analysis focused on the film’s action sequences as these scenes generally require an expense of the films budget due to the use.

Ideas? Special Effects? What's the difference?

Secondly, as the textual focus the cinema of Michael Bay is one of an interesting nature as there is an apparent divide within the response to his position as a successful director. His films have predominantly received negative reviews in the works of popular film critics. For example, Roger Ebert summarises his filmography as, ‘[o]ne special effect happens, and then another special effect happens, and we are expected to be grateful that we have seen two special effects.’ (2012: 338). Bay’s cinema has also been on the receiving end of comical sketches in popular culture, most noticeably in the popular animated series South Park. In one episode the show depicts a caricature of Bay confessing to not “understand the difference” between an idea and examples of special effects (Howie, 2011: 217). Therefore making a mockery of Bay’s highly stylised mode of film production. Despite a negative critical acclaim, and countless parodies at his expense, Bay has become one of Hollywood’s most successful and consistent directors to achieve global box office success. Eric Lichtenfield ( 2007: 224) argues that, ‘Bay attacks his attackers by claiming that he makes movies for audiences, not critics. Statements such as “failure is when no one shows up, when people- not critics – absolutely hate your movie” typify this stance.’ Graph A explains this further, as his 10 most economically successful films have gained a profit margin that exceeds eight-hundred-million dollars through cinematic showcasing alone (Box Office Mojo. 2016). Due to his consistent economic success, Bay is highly regarded as a ‘superstar director’ (Lichtenfield, 2007: 5) among the ranks of other successful blockbuster directors such as Steven Spielberg and James Cameron.

Graph A

Graph A

Bay's Blockbuster Success

In terms of Michael Bay’s cinematic production, it is apparent that both special effects and visual effects are valued over narrative. In regards to film production, any form of special effect requires an expensive chunk of a Hollywood budget. According to Daniel Franklin (2006:99) ‘[s]pecial effects…cost so much money that they can’t be cut from the film… A million dollar investment is just too valuable to sacrifice for a mere story line.’ This is the reason why blockbuster action genre films tend to shoot the use of special effects, especially pyrotechnics, through several camera positions and angles to then edit and portray a repetition of the same event for the final film product. This is also why the budget of Bay’s films tends to exceed hundreds of million dollars (see graph A), due to such a pervading use of special effects. However, Geoff King (2002: 56) argues that, ‘[q]uicker returns are sought in the more fragmented production system of New Hollywood, especially as blockbuster budgets escalate.’ This is mostly true in regards to Bay’s blockbuster success, as graph A shows a tendency of bigger budget films earning back the costs of production and eventually higher cinematic revenue.

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Moreover, the films that have required the largest budget within Bay’s filmography belong to the Transformers franchise. Interestingly, there is a clear correlation between a tendency of a higher usage of visual effects over special effects and box office revenue. Especially in regards to the first three films of the film franchise, these highly stylised films comprised with an abundance of computer generated imagery have obtained a tremendous economic success. As well as being blockbuster action films, this particular film franchise also belongs to the genre of science fiction. Therefore the use of C.G.I is also necessary for the representation of the film’s alien/robotic protagonists and antagonists. This contributes highly to the large tendency of visual effects (see graph B). Tom Pollard (2015: 169) argues that, ‘[t]he recent proliferation of fantasy-based movies… corresponds to a rise of computer imaging techniques, resulting in a proliferation of computer-generated imagery.’ Although there is still a high amount of conventional special effects in these films, it does seem that contemporary cinema audiences have favoured the spectacle of visual effects, which is becoming the more conventional mode in Bay’s blockbuster action cinema (see graph A).

Graph B

Graph B

FX, Cut, More FX

Furthermore, the films that have required a lower budget have consequently obtained the least amount of revenue. Once again there is a clear correlation within the content analysis in terms of the favoured effect and the films box office success. Pain and Gain ironically gained the lowest amount of revenue. The analysis shows that this lack of success is due to the film’s miniscule frequency of special/visual effects. Although the film does contain many of the visual conventions associated within Bay’s oeuvre, the film is presented in a less stylised manner compared to likes of the Transformers films. For example, visual effects are limited to the use of slow motion, very much like in his earlier productions Bad Boys and The Rock. Also, there does not appear to be discernible use of C.G.I. More conventional special effects are favoured within the production of Pain and Gain, but are restricted to explosive spectacles of a less destructive nature than those depicted in larger scale productions such as Bad Boys 2. For example, only one vehicle is disintegrated rather than there being a large scale demolition of several buildings. Although Pain and Gain and Bad Boys 2 are different in terms of production, they in fact represent the same flaw in terms of box office success. Both favour a more conventional style of special effects, especially Bad Boys 2. The film required an extremely substantial budget (see graph A) as it is filled with a high calibre scale of pyrotechnics as well as other conventional special effects (see graph B). Although the spectacle of these special effects are foregrounded within the production, the film made a much smaller profit in comparison to films with a similar budget, Armageddon for example, that favoured visual effects.

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In conclusion, the content analysis shows that audiences prefer the spectacle of the more contemporary mode of visual effects dominating screen time in the action blockbuster movies they “show up” (Litchenfield, 2007:224) to watch. However, in terms of the progression of this particular area of cinema, the idea that more visual effects develop more profit does not appear to stable. Bay’s most contemporary successful feature produced more visual effects than any film in his entire oeuvre (see chart B). Although Age of Extinction required the highest budget, and produced the highest frequency in visual effects, the film’s financial success is exceeding less than any of its predecessors within the Transformers franchise. This may be partly due to various changes in casts and narrative setting. However it is also arguably due to the mass audiences of Bay’s films beginning to take similar views of the critics and popular culture by responding to his work as cliché. William Wolff (2002: 109) critiques that ‘[e]very Michael Bay movie is in every detail indistinguishable from every other Michael Bay movie. Plagiarizing from yourself takes flattery, hero worship and self-love to dizzying new heights.’ Although this is referring to his earlier work, his contemporary work is no exception. In a similar manner of how audiences grew tired of seeing special effect after special effect with the end of Bad Boys 2, it appears that visual effects have become the latest outgrown cliché in the Hollywood blockbuster action genre.

© 2021 Andrea Sciambarella

Comments

Andrea Sciambarella (author) from Manchester, UK on November 25, 2020:

This article is mainly a bit of fun away from my usual topic of film music. I recently re-listened to Mark Kermode's review of Pain & Gain and remembered that I conducted a pain staking study for a paper that forced me to tally every use of special effects in Michael Bay movies.