How Michael Crichton’s “Westworld” Pioneered Modern Special Effects

David A Price chronicles how writer/director Michael Crichton’s 1973 Westworld pathed the way for modern special effects by using “Pixelation” and developed by none-other-than John Whitney Jr. the son of John Whitney who introduced computers into the design of Vertigo.

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Nearly every studio film at the multiplexes this summer will have been created, at least partly, by a computer. The digital origins of some effects will be easy enough to guess: starships and rocket-suited men in flight, giant fighting robots, ancient naval battles. Vastly more of them will be subtle enough to pass by the average moviegoer—casual, dialogue-driven scenes shot in front of green screens and placed into digital streetscapes, or wires and buildings digitally removed.

These bread-and-butter effects are everywhere. Even “Amour,” last year’s Palme d’Or-winning drama set within a Paris apartment, relied on green-screen work.

The rise of the pixel in cinema may feel like a recent development, but this year actually marks its fortieth anniversary. It began in 1973, with the release of a low-budget science-fiction film, Michael Crichton’s “Westworld.” The movie’s use of a digital effect for a total of two minutes—a now-routine process called pixelization, commonly deployed on Gordon Ramsay cooking shows to obscure a contestant’s cursing mouth—was the unlikely launching point of this revolution.

Crichton both wrote the script and directed the film. Inspired by the Disney theme parks, he imagined an adult vacation spot called Delos, made up of three resorts: Medieval World, which offered a fantasy version of life in thirteenth-century Europe; Roman World, which promised the “decadent” morality of the Roman Empire at its peak; and Westworld, which re-created the lawless frontier of 1880. For a thousand dollars a day, visitors lived their fantasies, interacting with characters of the period—in reality, robots programmed only to serve. As the film begins, two professional men in their mid-thirties, played by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin, are heading to Westworld for a bachelors’ adventure. A recorded female voice assures the new arrivals that the technology of Delos is “highly reliable.” Of course, it isn’t. Partway through the visit, the robots turn on the guests; the staff in the control room tries to halt the mayhem, but is rendered helpless by a power shutdown. A robot gunslinger, played by Yul Brynner, kills one of the men and coolly, relentlessly stalks the other to a final showdown. (If the plot sounds clichéd, it is only because its ideas were later excavated by the “Terminator” films and Crichton’s “Jurassic Park.”)

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