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Special Effects, Black Cinema, and a Touch of Nostalgia

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Alex Chambers:  Back in 2019, Maya Cade was spending a lot of time at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. She was working on a film script, but she was falling in love with research.

Maya Cade:  And then comes 2020, and I'm at home and suddenly I'm watching a film a day and reading a book a day, and there were all these, like, disheartening conversations about what black cinema is online.

Alex Chambers:  Basically people were saying the black film was only about trauma. So Maya started the Twitter thread and when that blew up, she started a website. Black Film Archive dot com. It's an attempt to catalog every black film from 1898 to 1989 that's available to stream. It's kind of beautiful. This week I'll talk with Maya Cade about her love of black film. But first the conversation with film scholar, Julie Turnock, about what makes some movies special effects seem more real than others. Hint, it's not about quality, it's about style. That's coming up right after this.

Alex Chambers:  If you were paying any attention to pop culture at the end of the 20th century, you probably remember that first round of new Star Wars films, the prequel trilogy. The story of Anakin Skywalker, Luke's father. Sorry if that's news. Queen Amidala and so on. You might also remember that a lot of people hated it. They had plenty of reasons. The character Jar Jar Binks. The acting, the clumsy exposition. But there might be another reason too. It has to do with what comes across as real in a movie full of aliens, space ships and distant planets. See, when George Lucas was making the original Star Wars Trilogy, he created a company to do the special effects. Industrial light and magic very quickly came to dominate the special effects world, which meant its style came to seem normal in movies like Indiana Jones, Terminator two, Jurassic Park and more.

Alex Chambers:  There was a grittiness to the look, and a sense that the camera person was right in there with the action, and then came the Star Wars prequels. They were cleaner, more slick. It's not that the special effects were worse, but they were different from what audiences had come to expect and that made them seem well, bad. This at least is the sense I got from reading Julie Turnock's new book, Empire of Effects, Industrial Light and Magic and the Rendering of Realism which came out earlier this year. Julie Turnock is a Film Professor at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, and she's made a career of understanding the effects of effects, or how special effects styles shape what seems real. I talked with her recently about where the dominant style came from, what it consists of and what that means for how we watch movies.

Alex Chambers:  Julie Turnock, welcome to Inner States.

Julie Turnock:  Thank you very much for having me.

Alex Chambers:  So you started out as an art history major and then went into the aesthetics of special effects. In both your books you write about a number of directors who saw themselves in the tradition of the new Hollywood Auteur Style of film making, which means that they were trying to create, not so much the film the studio execs would have wanted but their own films with their own personal styles and sort of personal expression, and yet when we think of movies with special effects, we tend to think of big block busters which I would think of as movies more likely made by committee which is the opposite of the Auteur. But one of the things you seem to be saying in both your books is that the development of special effects in the 70s lined up really well with the idea of the auteur as this artist with a specific unique vision. So I wonder if you could explain how those things line up?

Julie Turnock:  Yes and that was a good resume of my argument. The part of what is always kind of argued by both popular critics and academics as well is that, when they talk about what is often called the new Hollywood or the Hollywood auteurs or the Hollywood Renaissance, some people call it a kind of movement that was very strongly influenced by European and at world new waves of the 60s and into the 70s. So the way that that's conceptualized in terms of historians and critics is that this is this great flowering of wonderful new adult, I put that word in quotes, adult film making that is influenced by Europe and European film making and its more complicated view of relationships and human ways of being, Thomas [PHONETIC: Ellcessor] influentially refers to the unmotivated hero, what we today might call the anti hero but the idea that there's this, usually a man, who is cast adrift and is looking for meaning in his life and so Five Easy Pieces is a good strong example of that.

Julie Turnock:  So the way the critics talk about that is, like, oh this is this great moment where American film making has finally matured. It's not big spectacles like Ben-Hur anymore, it is smaller films made by film makers who care about cinema and care about putting their own vision of the world out into their cinema, and then 1975 comes along which is when Jaws was released, and that all of that crumbles because Hollywood and the corporate overlords, who run Hollywood, who own the studios realize that they can make a lot of money from movies. So in the past you would get big blockbusters that would make huge amounts of money, your Gone With the Winds and Ben-Hur and things like that. But in the most part most movies were kind of modest money makers.

Julie Turnock:  But in the 70s, it started to be recognized by the corporate America that had bought the studios in the late 60s and the 70s that oh wow, if Jaws can make that much money maybe if we try to crack the code that is Jaws, maybe more movies can make more money. And so this is the way that often times this 70s trajectory is characterized. You've got the early 70s with these kind of personal film makers and then the mid to late 70s where blockbusters take over and all of that gets swept away. But what I found in my research, especially for my first book, is that not only was the case that the film makers that we associate with the blockbusters like Spielberg and George Lucas and Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola, not only did they see themselves in the same kind of tradition of the European auteurs as your Hal Ashby's and your Sidney Lumets and Robert Altman, and people like that.

 So they saw themselves in the same kind of light but also, critics at the time, on the whole, received them that way too, and so a lot of these film makers were received by critics as fresh new voices who were enlivening the studio formulas. And so, for example, Star Wars was on the whole better reviewed that 2001 Space Odyssey by even higher end critics, not just what we might call the kind of critics are, like, go see it, don't go see it, the consumer guide critics we might say. But even the high end critics were saying things like, recognizing in Star Wars a fresh new version of the sci-fi serials, and so, I wanted to think about, what is a blockbuster aesthetic, and most film historians and film scholars tend to think of blockbusters as an anesthetic. Like they basically don't have an aesthetic or if they do it's not anything that's worth concerning oneself with. And for me it was really interesting to think about blockbusters as a kind of combination, both in the 70s and more recently, as a kind of combination between the desire for photo real effects or photo realism, we might say, looking as if aliens invaded our world, what would that look like and how would that look like when filmed, combined with this spectacular unbelievable elements and the balancing between the two.

Alex Chambers:  Part of what you're saying is that they want it to feel real. And so what do they do to make it feel real?

Julie Turnock:  In my most recent book, in the Empire of Effects, one of the things that I talk about is the effects company, Industrial Light and Magic which is the preeminent effects company since the 70s. They've done work on all of the major blockbusters that you can name of the last 40 or so years. So your Star Wars of course, Terminator two, Jurassic Park, the Harry Potter films, the Transformer films. Pretty much every blockbuster that you can name and the first Iron Man and into the Marvel cinematic universe as well. And so part of what I'm trying to frame is that ILM has had such an important influence on the rest of the industry when people try to do something that's a little more stylized for example.

Julie Turnock:  On the whole, audiences don't like it. But anyway so to go back to what this kind of contemporary style is that people accept as realism. In my book, I use the example from the Revenant, in the bear attack in the Revenant and so you've got a bear there that needs to look like a real bear. We know that Leonardo DiCaprio was no where near a bear and that there's no bear on the set.

Alex Chambers:  And we should say, just for people who haven't seen the Revenant, the bear is attacking Leonardo DiCaprio, he's in the woods, his character is in the woods, the bear comes up behind him, attacks him, starts to eat him.

Julie Turnock:  Yeah. Viciously attacks him.

Alex Chambers:  Viciously throws his body around.

Julie Turnock:  And as I say, in the book it has kind of the look of a sexual assault and to add to the intensity and the scariness of it, and so for that of course you need to have a bear that looks like a bear, it has the weight and movement of a bear that you would expect, and it needs to have fur that moves the way that you would expect bears' fur to look, and so those are the things you kind of expect. You're like okay well the bear needs to look like it's in the right scale in the frame and it needs to look like it's heavy like a bear. But that's just the starting point. That is just the kind of basic expectations that you would have. But what ILM has developed since its inception is thinking about the way that a camera would record such an event, and what the light would look like in the event, and so part of what I like to emphasize is that although, sure, it has some relationship to what the eye sees in real life, really what it's mostly modeled on is how the camera would record that.

Alex Chambers:  And just to emphasize that, that's what makes it seem real to us, is not so much that it looks like what the eye would see but that it looks like what the camera itself would see.

Julie Turnock:  And it's a stylized version of that, but that is more the reference point than human experience, and so that scene in the Revenant is shot as if a heartless nature camera person is recording Leonardo DiCaprio being filmed being attacked by a bear, and so the camera is trying to pick up like it's missing things.

Alex Chambers:  It's shaky, the bear doesn't stay in the frame always, sometimes it's too close, sometimes it's out of the frame.

Julie Turnock:  Exactly and so it's filmed as if the camera person has tried to keep up with the unpredictable movements of the bear, and the other thing that I have to bring up first is the lighting as well. Lighting effects are super important as well in creating effects realism, a sense of effects realism, and in the case of the Revenant you have a kind of tree canopy that has the filtered light that gives a dappled look to the scene, and so it's already a little dark and that helps a lot in disguising the CGI-ness of the bear. So anytime you can darken the frame a little bit, sometimes a lot, sometimes people complain about, oh there's too many effect shots at night. Well there's a reason for that. And so you've got that kind of dappled look. But the other thing is it's framed as if the sun, albeit you can't see the sun, but the light source back lights a lot of the sequence as well and so again that gives a kind of camouflaging effect.

Alex Chambers:  Right because the bear, the side of the bear that you're seeing is then in shadow.

Julie Turnock:  Yes because you get the sense that you're seeing more of the bear than you actually are. You also have this kind of dust in the air, these particulates, atmospherics they call that in the effects business, that also give a kind of texture to the light, and you've got soft shafts of light that are in the background as well. I don't think this sequence has this, but, anytime you see a lens flare and you always hear about JJ Abrams overdoing his lens flares, but it is astonishing when you start looking for lens flares how frequently one sees them in effects work, the advantage to that is that, it is another camouflaging agent, once again because when the lens flare comes in, your eye is directed towards it, but it also gives the sense that once again, a camera person is recording it live with their camera.

Alex Chambers:  Can you say what a lens flare is.

Julie Turnock:  When the light hits the camera lens at a certain angle, you will see a ball of light in the middle that has a kind of flaring effect from that ball of light that is usually in one or the other corner of the frame, and as I say, it's so common that one doesn't even notice it anymore.

Alex Chambers:  Right, but the viewer can tell that what it emphasizes is that there's a lens between them and whatever is happening?

Julie Turnock:  But not just that, it's the illusion that a camera person was there filming the scene as it filmed. The lens flare and the other kind of "as if filmed" elements of it give you the sense that all of this happened right in front of the camera. It's like proving that it all happened in front of the camera because that's how you get a lens flare, it's like a kind of spontaneous moment where the light hits the lens, and even though we know that you can put those in in post production, this is all part of subconsciously giving the sense that all of this is happening in front of the camera for real.

Alex Chambers:  That style has a history. That style that we've come to see as confirmation that something is real is actually a historical style.

Julie Turnock:  In the 1960s, as part of this Hollywood new wave, one of the tenants of the new wave movement in general was this notion of cinema verite, and that's a documentary style that was popularized mostly by European film makers to shoot documentaries in a way that emphasized the you are there on the ground-ness of them. Easy Rider is a very good example of this, where you have a cinematic style that feels very on the fly and spontaneous even though there are very skillful cinematographers who are making this effect, and film makers, and so when Star Wars was being made, in the 70s, George Lucas wanted to do it kind of what, at the time, was a very new style of sci-fi that wasn't shiny and metallic and new looking. He wanted a used future is what is the term he kept using, and he wanted to bring this verite look to a sci-fi story and a out of space saga.

Julie Turnock:  He wanted it to look like medium cool. He wanted it to look like, yes, or Easy Rider and have that kind of contemporary. It was a very contemporary look for a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It's like, how to bring it to the mid to late 70s.

Alex Chambers:  And also, spontaneous but also dirty, messy.

Julie Turnock:  Yes, exactly and so not perfect. The studio era as very much associated with everything perfect, every hair in place, even ladies who woke up in the morning have a full face of make up and their hair is perfect, that sort of thing. And that was not the look at all that, generally speaking, in the 60s and 70s film makers were going for and that was very much true for Star Wars as well. So when they were making Star Wars, and maybe even more so when they're making Empire Strikes Back, which they had a bit more time and could spend more time thinking about crafting the effects and the kind of effect they wanted, they really wanted to have that kind of imperfect look. It's perfectly imperfect is what the emphasis that they're going for. And I think it's worth noting, as you're saying, it's a historic look.

Julie Turnock:  Even though it is meant to be viewed as a naturalized view of the world, there's nothing natural about it. Neither how it's made nor really the aesthetic that it's creating. You know, you don't see lens flares in real life. You can only see a lens flare through a camera lens.

Alex Chambers:  It's time for a short break. We're talking with film scholar Julie Turnock about the recent history of special effects. When we come back, we'll talk more about how this style of special effects has a particular history, and what it means when some styles of film making seem more real than others. Stick around.

Alex Chambers:  I'm Alex Chambers and this is Inner States, welcome back. Julie Turnock's recent book, Empire of Effects is about how the special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic created the style that convinced us all that that was what looked most real when it came to spaceships, aliens and superheroes.

Julie Turnock:  Often times some scholars talk about the history of effects as going from less realistic to more realistic and I don't really see it that way. I think it depends on the style of film making that the producers are wanting to make at the time.

Alex Chambers:  In other words, the style Industrial Light and Magic created came out of a particular moment in film making. It's not just natural.

Julie Turnock:  It is a historical style our contemporary notion of effects realism derives from the 1970s, but it's also cultural, and what industrially is being emphasized and being prioritized, we might say, and some of that is just, oh well, Roman epics had been hitting and so we're going to keep making those until another movie is a big hit and then we're going to keep trying to make those kind of movies, but also culturally Kristen Whissel has a really great book about the kind of emphasize in the turn of the digital age towards the clash of civilizations. In movies like the Lord of the Rings, for example, that have that use effect sequences to stage these grand cultural conflicts and, you know, the first Spiderman came out shortly after 9/11. The first Sam Raimi one. And that superheroes are very attractive, largely because they are what can one person do in this terrible world, and superheroes give us a kind of proxy for that.

Alex Chambers:  So you teach also and you teach about this, about special effects and film aesthetics. What do you most want your students to realize in your courses and walk away from?

Julie Turnock:  That what we take as realism is a very narrowly defined set of perimeters, and so, when students say things like, oh the effects in that movie were bad, or the effects in that movie were good, and they have a very commonsensical notion of what that means, that they're actually responding to a dominant mode of image making, and then, when something goes against the dominant mode, that could be purposeful. And so part of what I was really interested in in the book was thinking about, where did this dominant expectation come from? I think I say in the introduction, I didn't expect to write a book about ILM, about Industrial Light Magic, but their fingers are in everything.

Julie Turnock:  Like, you start researching and they've been the dominant effects company since 1980, and they are the biggest effects company. They may not be anymore, but they have been for 40 years. There's no effects company as old as Industrial Light and Magic, and so, there are some that have been around since the 90s, but none are as long lasting. And so, what ILM does, the rest of the industry follows.

Julie Turnock:  So I found it super interesting and surprising. I mean I was actually surprised at how ILM's version of realism has dominated the last 40 years in a way that we don't even recognize, because we just think it's realism. Even if you recognize the cinematic realism, you don't recognize that it's coming from a particular set of people essentially.

Alex Chambers:  What we see as realistic is coming from a certain set of people. Would you say that these aesthetic decisions about special effects that shape what we see as real, is there a degree to which it also shapes our sense of reality itself?

Julie Turnock:  I think it does. I think it's hard to say with a lot of certainty exactly how that happens, but I think it is inevitable that when, you know, because it's not just Blockbuster movies, it's also commercials and anything with any kind of production value on the internet. And, I mean, I had a colleague who was presenting on the documenting of recent social movements. So, like the Black Lives Matter protests recently, and it was interesting, because she showed a video that clearly had received traction because it resembled a movie, like a blockbuster movie. It was like a one take but it was like sweeping across the crowd in a really dramatic way, and it picked up a person and it left that person and went to a different group of people, and it was a stunningly made video, but it was interesting the way the documentary realism, the verite of the 70s gets fed into the blockbuster aesthetic and then now that's what a real movie, a real film looks like.

Julie Turnock:  So it's on hand looks very spontaneous and, oh this is real, this is clearly a real video that was taken, but it rose in YouTube views, or whatever, in social media engagement because it looked like a movie. It looked like our notion of cinematic realism. And it was really stunning to me to see that. And I notice that a lot when I see viral videos. Sometimes it is because they go viral because just intrinsically they shoot something strange or weird or whatever, but frequently it's the ones that then go viral are because they have the right style and that right style is one that is congruent with blockbuster film making.

Alex Chambers:  One of the things that I thought was really interesting at the end of your new book was this reminder that this particular aesthetic, that shapes what seems real to us, comes from a particular perspective, and it was kind of invented by a particular set of people which is to say, mostly white, mostly straight, mostly male baby boomers. You make that point. Then you bring up the Mandalorian, which was Disney's first really successful streaming series that they managed to make, after they tried a few different things in the Star Wars Universe, and it's been hugely successful and you argue that part of why people like it so much is that its style is explicitly nostalgic for those early days of George Lucas creating this rough, dirty, verite kind of style.

Alex Chambers:  It seems like you have a lot of affection for those styles but maybe it's also complicated that it's so successful because of nostalgia. I wonder, does it feel maybe problematic also? Is there a make America great again thing happening with the Mandalorian?

Julie Turnock:  I ask myself a similar kind of question a lot and I don't know the answer to that, I really don't, I really don't know the answer, or I feel like it's too complicated to say. I think there is certainly that element in there and part of the way that popular media works is that it's all things to all people, and so if you want to watch the Mandalorian, with a make America great point of view, you can certainly find plenty of aspects, and one of the things that Star Wars, by the more toxic aspects of the Phantom, has been criticized for since Lucas Film was sold to Disney in 2012, and George Lucas is out of the scene, is the idea of woke Star Wars business where it's like, oh they're just having female and people of color to be more woke or something.

Alex Chambers:  Appease the woke mob.

Julie Turnock:  Yes, exactly. And what I think is interesting about the Mandalorian is the way that they have figured out how to straddle that line of providing, and this is what popular media does. I think it's part of my Frankfurt school training and grad school where it's popular entertainment tells us about our world, and it may tell us some bad things about our world. It may tell us some really interesting good things as well, but it is showing us our world in a kind of refracted form, and maybe by seeing that, we, as viewers, can process that in an interesting way, but mostly we don't. Mostly we kind of misrecognize it as either bourgeois realism or nostalgia.

Julie Turnock:  But the way that the Star Wars, especially the Mandalorian, has tried to appease all elements of its fandom, is to think about how the style of the 70s both stands for liberation, positive social change, stands for social movements associated with that, but then also is nostalgic for people's cozy childhood. I'm blanking on who I saw said this, but they described nostalgia as memory without pain, and I think that that's an apt way to think about how Disney wants to use nostalgia for that kind of purpose.

Alex Chambers:  Film Scholar, Julie Turnock. Her new book is Empire of Effects, Industrial Light and Magic and the Rendering of Realism. She'll be giving a talk on resistance to ILM's standard of effects realism at the Indiana University Cinema on Tuesday September 20th. You can find more information at It's time for a break. When we come back, public archivist, Maya Cade, on how nostalgia in the early days of the pandemic played into her creation of the Black Film Archive. Stay with us.

Alex Chambers:  Welcome back to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. In 2019, Maya Cade was working for the Criterian Collection as an audience development strategist. When she wasn't strategizing audience development, she was at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts researching black film, black TV, black actors. She was collaborating on a film script. Things were feeling right.

Maya Cade:  And then comes 2020, and I'm at home and suddenly I'm watching a film a day and I'm reading a book a day. That's how I spent my early pandemic when we were locked down, and there were all these disheartening conversations about what black cinema is online.

Alex Chambers:  Black films are traumatic, people were saying. They're all about slavery.

Maya Cade:  And there was just people who weren't engaging what films past or really even seeing films present, and I'm sitting here reading all of these film books and digesting all of this knowledge and I'm, you know, thinking back to what my grandmother told me as a child, which is that, your gifts are meant to be shared and you don't really know anything until you share it with another person. That's a long way of saying that's how Black Film Archive was born in the form of a Twitter thread, I just started threading.

Alex Chambers:  Remember, this was that first summer of the pandemic. It was the summer George Floyd was murdered. It was the summer people across the country were protesting racist police violence, documenting a lot of the uprisings on social media. Maya's thread entered that conversation. It went viral and it led her to start a website. Black Film Archive dot com. A living register of black films available to be streamed. It has stills from the films next to short descriptions that Maya has written, and she nows how to pull you in. Those little snippets made me want to watch every film I read about.

Alex Chambers:  So the site took off and it set Maya off on a new path. She's now a scholar in residence of the Library of Congress. She's received an outstanding achievement award from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists among other awards, and she quit her job to work full time on the Black Film Archive, and, for our purposes here in the Midwest, she's the fall 2022 programmer in residence at the Indiana University Cinema. When I talked with Maya last June, I asked her how she would introduce herself.

Maya Cade:  I am the creator and curator of Black Film Archive. Ever since I was a child I've had a deep obsession with cinema and I'm a very optimistic person. Those are the things that I think anyone should know about me.

Alex Chambers:  Excellent, okay. You just brought me to the first thing I wanted to hear about, which was just that, you said ever since you were young films been really important to you. So can you talk about what your childhood relationship to film was? Did your family talk about film a lot?

Maya Cade:  You know, I was very much a child who entertained themselves with books and film. There was like nothing else in my world. I would drag my mom to see the latest, whatever, you know, it could be anything from Parent Trap double feature, because it was playing the classic Parent Trap, and the newer one. When I figured out that a lot of the films that were coming out when I was younger, I'm 28, so a lot of the films that were coming out when I was younger were revival or remakes of classic Disney films. That became my entry way to classic film. My earliest one was watching the older films, trying to find the best I could. If the original Parent Trap was going somewhere, I was ready to go.

Maya Cade:  I was ready to drag my mom, and I think my earliest experience with a translating a film was if my mom fell asleep in the theater she would always ask, okay Maya, what happened, what did you think about it? Did you like it? And in that I was finding my earliest, oh my God, this language that you have to use to describe film, that's pretty cool. That's pretty awesome. Eventually I found TCM and I saw Carmen Jones for the first time and--

Alex Chambers:  Can you just say what TCM is for those listeners who aren't film people.

Maya Cade:  Turner Classic Movies. It is a television station that plays classic film. It could be Dorothy Dandridge, like, in Carmen Jones. It could have your Humphrey Bogarts, it could have a day dedicated to Bill [PHONETIC: Rozer] because today happens to be his birthday. So my entry way to black classic cinema was Carmen Jones, this Hollywood musical starring Dorothy Dandrige and I was just in awe of how she came out of the screen. Like, the songs were orchestrated around her, and I had seen My Fair Lady at that point and I had seen other classic, big Hollywood musicals. But that was just, oh my God, and so then I just wanted to see more films like it.

Alex Chambers:  Maya watched a lot of Turner Classic Movies, and every February she got excited to see the Dorothy Dandrige movies and other big stars of black cinema. That was exciting, but also generally limited to black history month. Luckily she had more access to another historical period in black film.

Maya Cade:  I was really into the 90s which, at that point, had just passed. But I was really into the films I missed but could gravitate towards. I saw Spike Lee's, She's Got To Have It pretty young. I saw Crooklyn pretty young. But those films were more accessible as you can imagine I think. When I was able to just go to a video store and buy, because at that point we were going to video stores and buying things. I couldn't necessary buy classic cinema, so what I was able to have then was the 90s films, the 90s independents, the second wave of black independent films that came after the earliest wave of the [UNSURE OF WORD] show.

Alex Chambers:  Maya carried her love for movies into college, Howard University, where she had plans to become a journalist.

Maya Cade:  That was just what I was going to do, you could not convince me otherwise.

Alex Chambers:  But her professors encouraged her love of film. She met important directors. Haile Gerima, who directed Sankofa, among many other films. Julie Dash, best known for Daughters of the Dust. By the time she graduated, she wanted to be a screenwriter. It was research for a script that brought her to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, where she discovered her love of research and found the path that led her to create the Black Film Archive. She writes the descriptions for all the films. That wasn't her original plan.

Maya Cade:  I was reading a description when I was researching the website and there was a description of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee's perhaps most famous film, and it was man throws trash can in window. That was the description, and it was reading that that I was like, you know what? I have to write every description on this site because at a certain point I was like, maybe I can credit the author somewhere else, and I just think, no. I think that that is quite important because these films have not been collected in one place before, so I was like, that's already a triumph right?

Maya Cade:  But I started reading descriptions elsewhere and I was like, you know, I think it would almost be a disservice to do so.

Alex Chambers:  Can you just say a little more about how you feel like writing the descriptions for a black audience changes them?

Maya Cade:  Yes. I would say that I don't think it changes them but I think it, for instance, if I use the do the right thing, example, I would never say that is what the film is about, right? I think to me it's a community that comes together and they're banding together to protect their community. And they're doing that at any cost necessary. I think it's with the cultural understanding that you have, like moving with culture competence, I think it's essential to get black people to watch older films, and even if we use the conversation that was happening in June 2020.

Maya Cade:  There was a lot of discussion about, set the scene, June 2020, that George Floyd was just murdered, and there were all of these protests that came in the wake of that, and suddenly black people are asking themselves, how does this thing I interact with represent me? How does this television show, how does this collection on the streaming service, how does this work place situation I'm in, how does it represent me? How does it benefit me? How does it protect black lives? How is it invested in black lives. So the moment that Black Film Archives, the very first iteration on that, the Twitter that came to be, is this moment where we're seeing that culture competence is essential to getting people over that hurdle, because, I think what was happening is that if we take the description of the do the right thing that I originally said, the trauma, if you will, was the central [UNSURE OF WORD] of it.

Maya Cade:  But in the description I gave, it's saying that there's more there. It's not just this or that and it's not appealing to some CEO thing that I think sometimes descriptions, or anything that goes on the internet. That's the training right? But what if the whole foundation was just, I want you to watch this and here is the best I can do, the best description I can give you.

Alex Chambers:  Maya wants you to watch black film, and now other places are asking Maya to get people watching black film too. One of those places is just down the hill from the radio station. When IU Cinema invited Maya to curate a series of films, she decided to explore the idea of home in black cinema.

Maya Cade:  Home has become a place of intellectual [UNSURE OF WORD], you know, it has replaced office buildings for some people. It has replaced school buildings for some people. Some of us our home has been a place that we now see as a place of isolation.

Alex Chambers:  She's put together programs that use the lens of home to explore family, ancestry, queerness, the body and transition.

Maya Cade:  The body is home is perhaps the most challenging one. I think the way that black values have been digested in the public media, the way that coming of age for black women, or black girls, is a very fraught experience or can be, the ways that, if you think of everything from sterilization of black women in history to street harassment, to the fact that black women have the highest rates of breast cancer. I think thinking about the ways that, at the end of all of the things that you experience, there is a home within yourself and how that is reflected on screen in a way that can translate [UNSURE OF WORD] was an interesting challenge I put upon myself.

Maya Cade:  Because, you know what, no one was like you need your sub-themes, you know. But I really wanted to do something that was a true explanation of home.

Alex Chambers:  I just want to end by talking a little bit more about joy, because you've talked about how joy is a part of what has brought you to this, and if you want to talk about it in relation to The Wiz that would be cool, because I love The Wiz and the music was so important to me. I don't remember watching the movie repeatedly but I listened to the music a ton growing up.

Maya Cade:  Oh my gosh, The Wiz. This is embarrassing to say, very embarrassing, but, early in the pandemic the thing that was getting me through was watching The Wiz, over and over. I mean I wasn't able to wrap my mind around the fact that my relationship to home had to shift, not just home as an invisible place, but everything I knew about my community, everything I knew about how I could see my family, and when, and everything was changing, and this film, that I had loved since I was a child, that I had gotten a DVD of before I went to college, I had in my home, and I was playing it over and over, and it's a film that really thinks through what home means to this person, who was longing to go back, with some of the best music put to film.

Maya Cade:  Motown did the sound track. It's so good. Diana Ross who was panned when the film came out, you know, people said that she was too old to play this character. I mean the film was a commercial failure. It was a mild critical success.

Alex Chambers:  And that is part of how you periodized your archive right?

Maya Cade:  That's right. So after The Wiz premiered, and this is a film, if you can imagine, it has the players of the day. It has Michael Jackson, there's Diana Ross. You know Motown is providing the sounds to this, everyone is all in. Hollywood is like, okay if this is a success, we know how to market to black consumers for them to buy into black film, and when it isn't a commercial hit, Hollywood is like, okay, the black exploitation period is over, and these are films that saved the Hollywood system. Black exploitation films were cheaply made.

 They didn't necessarily have stars, there were made in the black exploitation market or the black exploitation pictures, and they always made double, triple its budget, and they sustained the Hollywood studio system in the early 70s. So after this big budget musical, and it has everyone in it, and that isn't a success? Hollywood is suddenly like, we don't understand black consumers nor are we interested in understanding them. So if you notice in the 80s, there was a wave of black independent cinema, and that really is because black directors aren't able to get financing for their stories and Hollywood is re-interested in black cinema in the 90s.

Maya Cade:  New Line Cinema is behind some of the black films of the 90s that we all know and love. But Spike Lee's independent film pioneer, sort of out of necessity right? Like, he isn't able to get the funding for his film so he has to finance the money himself. So The Wiz is the marker of the end of Black Film Archive.

Alex Chambers:  Just say a little bit of how the archive is really about joy for you.

Maya Cade:  The archive is about joy because I think it negates the idea that all black films are traumatic, and it gets the idea that the black experience is a singular one, and the process of not just putting that together but having others come to that realization, it was a really joyful one.

Alex Chambers:  Maya Cade wants to share black cinema with you. If you're in Bloomington you can do that at the IU Cinema throughout September. She'll be there in person for the last program in the series on Friday, September 30th.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. If you have a story for us or if you got some sound we should hear, let us know as always at or find me on Twitter at Inner States Pod. Speaking of found sound, we've got your quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Payton Whaley and Kate Young. Our Executive Producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Julie Turnock, Maya Cade and Alicia Kozma for putting us all in touch. Her theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production music. Alright, time to go somewhere and listen to something.

Alex Chambers:  You've been listening to A Close Up of Water on Rocks, Lake Monroe, Southern Indiana. Until next week I'm Alex Chambers, thanks for listening.

Julie Turnock and Maya Cade

Julie Turnock and Maya Cade will both be at the IU Cinema in the month of September (Gioncarlo Valentine/Samantha Gee)

Julie Turnock and the Realism of Special Effects

If you were paying any attention to pop culture at the end of the 20th century, you probably remember that first round of new Star Wars films. The prequel trilogy. The story of Anakin Skywalker – Luke’s father, sorry if that’s news – Queen Amidala, and so on. You might also remember that a lot of people hated it. They had plenty of reasons: The acting. The clumsy exposition. The character Jar Jar Binks.

But there might be another reason, too. About what comes across as real, in a movie full of aliens, spaceships, and distant planets. See, when George Lucas was making the original Star Wars trilogy, he created a company to do the special effects. Industrial Light & Magic very quickly dominated the special effects world. Which meant its style came to seem normal, in movies like Indiana Jones, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and more. There was a grittiness to the look, and a sense that the camera person was right in there with the action. And then came the Star Wars prequels. They were cleaner. More slick. It’s not that the special effects were worse, but they were different from what audiences had come to expect, and that made them seem, well, bad.

This, at least, is the sense I got from reading Julie Turnock’s new book, Empire of Effects: Industrial Light and Magic and the Rendering of Realism, which came out earlier this year. Julie Turnock is a film professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and she’s made a career of understanding the effects of effects, or how special effects styles shape what seems real. We talked about where the dominant style came from, what it consists of, and what that means for how we watch movies.

Julie Turnock will be giving a talk on resistance to ILM’s standard of effects realism at the Indiana University Cinema on Tuesday, September 20. You can find more information at the Indiana University Cinema.

Maya Cade’s Black Film Archive

Back in 2019, Maya Cade was spending a lot of time at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. She was working on a film script, but she was falling in love with research. Then the pandemic hit. Maya doubled down on her research, watching a film every day, and reading a book a day. And she noticed the discussion of Black film online tended to assume it was all about trauma.

Maya knew that it wasn’t, and she wanted to share what she knew. She started a Twitter thread. And when that got more attention than she expected, she started the Black Film Archive, a website devoted to cataloguing every Black film from 1898 to 1989 that's available to stream. It’s kind of beautiful. Maya and I talked about watching Black film when she was young, about discovering her love of research, how The Wiz helped her ease on through the pandemic, and how the Black Film Archive is about joy.


Our theme song is from Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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