In the late 1990s I remember coming across an article in a film magazine, I’ve forgotten which, about the special effects in Forrest Gump. The movie, as you will recall, is noteworthy for the realistic integration of special effect shots. The landmark Oscar-winning effects were perhaps most famous for the scenes which integrated Tom Hanks’s titular character into a kind of Baby Boomer cultural scrapbook, including archival footage of presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. Those scenes were not perfect, however, as the effects directors acknowledged, and lag behind the more clever effects of the film like erasing Lt. Dan’s legs. The tiny imperfections when the mismatching voiceovers don’t quite match the lips of JFK and LBJ draw attention to the effect itself as a gag. Back in 1994 we thought it was a flaw and gave effect a pass because this was, after all, both a gag and something novel.
But the truth, as the article explained, was much stranger. It reported that there was a conscious decision to not make those scenes too realistic. There was something of a ethical choice on the part of the film makers. They wanted to think of the scenes as a special effect, to draw attention to the forgery itself, and not in some way as altering the historical record. Was it Jean-Luc Goddard who said it was a moral dilemma deciding where to put the camera? It’s a remarkable statement and rare to hear about such ethical considerations from a special effects department, because the object of the dilemma is the concern about tinkering with reality itself. The deep irony, of course, is that motion pictures themselves are technologies of illusion, so what was the significance of their hesitation?