The law of diminishing returns on special effects

Every time a special effect becomes 50% easier to create, it becomes twice as hard to impress the audience. 


Yesterday my family witnessed the marketing event that is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a film so overwrought with special effects that its director, Peter Jackson, was able to magically transform a single novel into nearly 9 hours of media tie-ins.

My family was looking forward to the film because, for the most part, we’d enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Yes, the first Hobbit film was overlong and slow at times, but it was still a decent visual escape.

But that said, there was one scene in the first movie which bored me to cliched tears. This happened when Bilbo’s companions were fleeing from the goblins, killing one after another in swordplay and violence which felt more cartoony than true special effects. During this one extremely long scene I kept waiting for the mind-numbing crush of special effects to pass so we could return to the film’s actual story.

So imagine my irritation when I discovered that this FX bordom was not only repeated in The Desolation of Smaug, it happened in even more scenes.

Specifically, I was bored out of my mind by two scenes in The Desolation of Smaug—the scene where Bilbo and his companions escape in barrels down the river while fighting orcs, and the one where they fight against Smaug in the ruins of the Lonely Mountain. In fact, this last scene gives moviegoers one of the most boringly majestic special effects I’ve witnessed in years (spoiler alert) when the dwarves reactivate the forges and create a Statue of Liberty size golden statue, which immediately bursts apart in rivers of gold.

Instead of excitement and awe at this FX spectacle, I checked my phone to see how much longer the film would run.

Now don’t misunderstand me—I love science fiction and fantasy special effects, which can show us worlds and visions we’ll never experience in this lovely little thing we call reality. And there are some amazingly effective special effects in The Desolation of Smaug, such as when the dragon first appears and plays with Bilbo as he stumbles over countless mounds of treasure. But these effects are effective when they tie in with and support the film’s larger drama. When Bilbo is face to face with a dragon, knowing that his words—and the dragon’s attempt to learn more about him—are all that keep him alive. In such scenes, wow, the special effects work exactly as they should.

But special effects quickly grow extremely boring when they are supported by neither drama nor tension nor storytelling.

Part of the problem is that special effects have become so relatively cheap and easy to create that they are being used to fill storytelling holes in films. But when special effects are used in this manner they actually undercut what they’re meant to accomplish.

To explain how this happens, I’d like to propose a law of diminishing FX returns: Every time a special effect becomes 50% easier to create, it becomes twice as hard to impress the audience.

This means the first time a specific special effect is shown to audiences, they will be amazed. However, from then on that particular special effect is the new normal, meaning a film which employs it will have to work twice as hard, or use the effect twice as much, to dazzle audiences. But the trap is that once you use the effect twice as much in a film, that becomes the even newer norm, meaning the next time the effect is used it must again be presented twice as much to create the same sense of awe.

At that doubling rate of diminishing returns, a particular special effect quickly becomes nothing but boring background and a waste of the audience’s time.

So what does this mean for the future of filmmaking? If Hollywood remembers that special effects are meant to support storytelling and drama, then they’ll have no problem. But if directors and producers believe that special effects can be used to cover-up and obscure a weak story, then they’ll soon discover that they have to keep shovelling in massively more and more FX BS to dazzle an audience. And that’s a special effects arms race Hollywood is destined to eventually lose.


Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.