All Cinema is a Special Effect: “Special Effect” Created in Two Spatiality

The Cinema Effect

In the prologue of the book The Cinema Effect, Sean Cubitt remarks that “effects” that cinema produces such as images, sound, dimensions, durations and sensations, all “share a quizzical and oblique relation to reality” and thus make cinema always face the “trouble with existing”. 1 Whereas, rather than stuck in the “distinction between the realism and illusion”, Cubitt then points out that his main research in this book is to study the “spectacle of filmmaking” through the “special effects of all cinema”.

To me, Cubitt’s studies of “special effect of all cinema” is an inclination to the studies of aesthetics and experience of what Manovich calls the “language of new media” rather than the truth-apt of the reality that cinema creates. In this article, I will survey and read the “special effect” creates by two spatial transformations in cinema: neo-baroque spatiality and digital spatiality by focusing on the montage and the qualities of movements created by technology in these two film texts The Untouchables (1987) and The Matrix (1999).

The Untouchables (1987)
The Untouchables (1987).

“Special effect” in cinematic spatiality is firstly achieved through montage, which is a very key technique that both celluloid cinema and digital cinema employs in creating cinematic “special effect” in spatiality. Manovich suggests that montage creates cinematic “special effect” by presenting viewers with reality that never exists, 2 and he discusses two montage techniques in the prologue of The Language of New Media: temporal montage employed in celluloid cinema which “separate realities from consecutive moments in time” and montage within a shot employed in digital cinema which “separate realities from contingent parts of a single frame”. 3 I would like to take a clip from the film The Untouchables as an example to discuss the “special effect” created by neo-baroque spatiality as well as argue the “neo-baroque spatiality” is an attempt to pursue the effect of Manovich’s “spatial montage” .

In the famous scene “The Chicago Way”, Eliot Ness and Jimmy Malone meet in a church and discuss to form a group of four to deal against the Chicago gangster lead Al Capone. In the first image, the camera shoots Ness and Malone in medium close-up with the grand and ornate Sistine Chapel Ceiling as the background. We experience the strange feeling that Ness’s figure appears to be much bigger than Malone although the horizontal church chair line suggests that the camera shoots Ness and Malone at the same distance. In the second image, the camera shoots from the right side of Ness and we experience there is a very clear blurring line which splits Ness and Malone’s faces. The blurring line suggests there is quite a distance between Ness and Malone, although we know they sit right next to each other from the previous shots.

The Matrix (1999).

In both of these two images, we encounter an unusual and stylised spatial composition which represents a “neo-baroque” film style. In Sean Cubitt’s analysis of neo-baroque film, he remarks that Hollywood neo-baroque remediates the spacio-temporality and the “spatializaiton takes over from narrative which is the job of managing the film’s dynamics”. 4 This suggests the significance of the spatial design and composition in neo-baroque cinema, spatial composition of both within a frame and between the frames. On one hand neo-baroque cinematic spatiality is malleable with reference to the relation of shots. In this “Chicago Way Scene”, the reverse shot deconstructs the classical decoupage of establishing shot, two-shot, shot-reverse-shot, as with the unconventional and swooping sequence shot the diegetic space is established according to the 180-degree rule. 5 For example in this clip the shot-reverse-shot appears to be more crude and flat than the classical editing which suggests the neo-baroque editing style is an inclination to the uncertainty and indeterminacy.

On the other hand, neo-baroque spatiality shows the unconventional spatial design with a frame. From the first image we encounter the flamboyantly packed mise-en-scene in this single frame: the unnatural composition of character figure Ness and Malone, the intense feeling from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling and the “deal” discussed under the holy religious spirits, all compose and employ the extravagant deep focus technique, suggesting a destabilising and diegetic space. Through Ndalianas’s studies of De Palma’s neo-baroque film style, she argues that it is the rejection of the traditional and classical “spatial continuity” and the creation and form of the new aesthetic film style, that conceptualize De Palma’s neo-baroque film style which displays a loss of entirety and shows a favour for instability within a boundary. 6

Brian De Palma, the director
Brian De Palma, the director.

In the first image, we see Ness is presented much closer to the camera in the spatial frame although the straight line of the church seat suggests the camera shot Ness and Malone on a horizontal line; in the second image, we experience the distance between Ness and Malone from the strange composition and the blurring line separates brutally Ness and Malone’s faces as if they are in different realities, but we know that they sit next to each other from the previous shot. In these two images the unusual composition confronts spectators with multiple “separate realities within a single frame”, and thus prefigures Manovich’s “spatial montage” which achieves in the digital era. Through the splitting of the dioptre, De Palma presents the malleability of spatial fields which exceeds the neo-spatial spatiality and into a digital spatiality.

Therefore, “special effect” in this “Chicago Way” clip created by “temporal montage” of celluloid cinema reveals not only through the unconventional and idiosyncratic technique of reverse shot and establishing shots that the “temporal montage” creates, but also through the “spatial montage” from which we encounter separate realities in a single frame, and thus embraces and prefigures a “spatial montage” concept in the digital cinema, attempting to transgressing the boundaries of a single frame via montage.

Image 1: Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987).
Image 2: Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987).

The “Special effect” in cinematic spatiality on the other hand relies on the qualities of the movements which comes from the development of the new technologies. Cinematic spatiality is closely connected to the way the camera employed and used, and technology leads the way the cinematic spatiality contrives. Firstly, the introduction of Steadicam in the photographic filmmaking embraces creation of “special effect” to a larger degree comparing to the classical Hollywood era. Steadicam was introduced as a new technique to the cinematic videography in the 70s, which combines the fluidity of the tracking shot and flexibility of the hand-held camera work. In Sean Cubitt’s study of neo-baroque film, he discusses the development of technology in creating “special effect” in contemporary cinema in the process of spatialization, among which he highlights the employment of Steadicam in the navigation of the indeterminate space of neo-baroque cinema. 7

In the scene “You got nothing”, when Al Capone pushes and sneers at Ness (for he hasn’t got any of Capone’s evidence of crime) till Malone urges Ness to leave the hotel door, the Steadicam tracks smoothly Capone going down from the stairs to the entrance talking in superior pride and moves fluidly between these two group’s confrontation. This scene suggests the destabilization and indeterminacy of the neo-baroque spatiality creates by Steadicam, creating a more fluid effect which is hardly achieved in the classical Hollywood filmmaking. Secondly, information technology brings about the digital era, so in the context of digital cinema, the “special effect” developed throuhg the digital technology is more intense and confronting. According to Manovich’s studies of “indexicality” of film, he uses the example of Vertov’s Man with A Movie Camera to discuss the loss of indexical nature of cinema since the creation of montage; and in the digital era, the indexicality of film is threatened more deeply, and thus he argues that digital cinema is rather “a sub-genre of painting” than “an indexical media technology art”. 8 From this perspective, in the digital era, the computer-generated images are themselves “special effects”.

From the scene “You got nothing”.

Take Image 3 from The Matrix as an example, it is a computer-generated image, drawn and designed by the post-production team of the film. The virtual frame is never the real or actual frame, as the “nature” of digital image is not actual photographic image but discrete pixels, and thus the computer-generated virtual frame is ontologically different from the actual frame in the celluloid era. From this perspective, we can see that the digital spatiality is not based on the presence of the actual space, for there is not actual fire in the frame; and this constructs the concept of “special effect” in digital spatiality. In digital spatial composition, there is no mise-en-scene but only mise-en-shot, and the process of digital spatial compositing is using “a number of different digitalized elements whether captured, synthesized or applied as algorithmic filters, to assemble and combine ideally into a perpetually seamless artifact”. 9

The discrete alteration and manipulation of numbers of digital images till the fulfilment of the spatial composition, becomes the core of the digital spatiality and this is what David Rodowick calls the “the digital event”. Take Image 4 as another example, Neo’s virtual spatiality is an extension from the image of The Untouchables, as the digital simulation of this image displays “an untamed, and apparently endless, unwinding of techniques, or, to use contemporary language, ‘effects’, as cinema’s new way of speaking”. 10

In Neo’s virtual world, Agent Smith and his two retinues seems to stop in still which enables Neo to swiftly analyse and prepare himself for the counterattack. This image shows that “special effect” in the digital spatiality is a way to create a stronger and greater sense of control over the enemy and the battle, which is an effect or need of the digital consumers. Moreover, in this Image 4, since there are only virtual men seen or imagined by Neo within the frame, what we encounter or experience in this frame is not a physical reality but an illusion of physical reality. This is what William Brown suggests that digital spatiality is a simulation which mentally constructs our identity of seeing and controlling, not physically; and the separation of body and mind which generates from the development of information technology leads cinema to post-cinema. 11 Therefore, the information technology enables digital spatiality to create “special effect” and enhance our feeling of control and perception of reality, and The Matrix is a great example in showing “special effect” created through the digital spatiality. So, the Steadicam employed in The Untouchables, and the information technology employed in The Matrix, both enhances and improves the qualities of movements which enhance the “special effect” in both celluloid and digital cinematic spatiality.

Image 3: Virtual Frame in The Matrix (1999). Dir: Wachowski Bro.
Image 4: Neo’s virtual world in The Matrix (1999). Dir: Wachowski Bro.

In this article, I focused on two spatiality to discuss and argue the “special effect” created in both celluloid and digital cinema, by drawing analysis of The Untouchables and The Matrix which embrace and enhance the neo-baroque spatiality and the digital spatiality. By taking montage and qualities of movements developed technology these two aspects, I read the special effect in both celluloid and digital spatiality. From celluloid to digital, what we see and what we experience from the cinematic space change from the physical spatiality to the virtual spatiality. As Manovich suggests that this great cinematic transformation display an “effect”, which is that digital spatiality is an extension of the celluloid spatiality. Manovich suggests that spatiality remains a basic property of the image in both celluloid and digital cinema, which in a way refers to our experience and feeling of the space and reality, and we should read digital spatiality not a break from the celluloid spatiality but an extension of it, and this is what Sean Cubitt means by “All cinema is a special effect”.

Works Cited

  1. Sean Cubitt, “Entrée: The Object of Film and the Film Object” in The Cinema Effect (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004): 1-3
  2. Lev Manovich, “Prologue: Vertov’s Dataset” in The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass; London: MIT Press, 2001): 4
  3. Lev Manovich, “Prologue: Vertov’s Dataset” in The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass; London: MIT Press, 2001): 4.
  4. Sean Cubitt, “Neo-baroque film,” in The Cinematic Effect (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004): 224.
  5. Ibid, P224.
  6. Andrea Ndalianas, “Introduction: the baroque and neo-baroque” in Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004): 19.
  7. Sean Cubitt, “Neo-baroque film” in The Cinema Effect (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2004): 226.
  8. Lev Manovich, “What is Cinema?” in The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001): 293-5.
  9. David Rodowick, “The Digital Event,” in The Virtual Life of Film (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007): 167.
  10. Lev Manovich, “What is Cinema?” in The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2001): 300.
  11. William Brown, “Man without A Movie Camera—Movies without Men: towards a post-humanist cinema?” in Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Movies, ed. Warren Buckland (New York: Routledge, 2009): 68-9.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
PhD candidate in Film Studies

Want to write about Film or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. The invention of a world run by machines and the visualization of the effects is amazing!

    • I failed to see any message or discernible plot here. Visually impressive but nothing else whatsoever.

  2. The only thing i could say as a 22 year old experiencing the matrix as a film student and aspiring filmmaker in 2021 is how i wish i were in m early 20s in 1999 (the year i was born) to see how impactful this film was in the industry back then and to experience its release and reception.

    • This movie was ahead of its time. I remember watching this for the first time and was blown away on how fantastic it was.

  3. The Untouchables is essentially a movie that contains clichés from the genre but uses them to it’s own intentional advantage and if this film were in black-and- white I would of believed that it truly was a movie brilliantly created around the 40’s.

  4. Mathias

    “The Untouchables” is an outstanding piece of movie making. And so is The “Matrix”.

  5. The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is glorious! What a legend.

  6. Olivia-Grace

    When I watched The Untouchables again yesterday I couldn’t realised how good it was. The actors make an incredible work full of great dialogues and epic moments.

    • Zimmerman

      It is probably one of the best policy thrillers ever made and the best Brian de Palma’s film.

  7. I think Matrix is still so good and effects like bullet time are outstanding, still after 22 years.

    • I watched this for the first time last night. It was a fun sci-fi action film, but definitely not what i expected.

    • Hammond

      Excellent movie, a great philosophical concept developed during the film.

  8. I saw Untouchables when I was around 1996 at Christmas time. I came in half way through and was mesmerised. The next day I bought and have been in love with it ever since, now owning it on DVD.

  9. I don’t know if Al Capone was like he was in the film or Elliot Ness was such a 100% good and dutiful man. I don’t care because for me it’s not a documentation film. But it could have been this way and I enjoy the idea. A movie (a good one) shouldn’t be too close and slavish to historical reality. So it can create it’s own little world and we can wallow in it.

  10. Last time I watched The Untouchables was back in 2017, I have wanted to re-watch it for a while now and this was the right opportunity because this article got me interested in it again!

  11. The mafia and all the crime drama and violence has never been an interest of mine, but The Untouchables was different and it was a big part of history.

  12. Zephaniah

    ‘The Matrix’ may not be one of the very greatest examples of its genre (like ‘2001’, ‘Metropolis’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Star Wars Original Trilogy’, ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’), but that it is revolutionary in how its visuals and use of sound broke boundaries like had never been done before cannot be denied.

  13. The Matrix is one of those movies that “everyone” has seen, except me.

    • Me. Frost

      You are not the only one. I tried to watch it with some friends about fifteen years ago, but they had two kids under five years old and I was only able to ingest it in five minute increments.

  14. engrish

    I had heard good things about the matrix but never got round to watching it.

  15. Even nowadays, the story and visuals of The Matrix is still as brilliant and futuristic as it has always been.

    • Over twenty years later, this film still never ceases to amaze me. It’s brilliance lies in presenting a complex idea in a way that is lucid and thought provoking, all the while packed with action and suspense.

    • The movie is more than 20 years old but was way ahead of its time. It was amazing from a special effects perspective and has an excellent plot. Today it has aged incredibly well, the action and effects and even the plot appear fresh and modern.

  16. The Matrix got you. The Matrix forever. Just WOW!

  17. Kephalos

    What made The Matrix special was the ground breaking visual effects such as ‘Bullet Time’ that have been often imitated in other films and video games. The Wachowski’s simply knocked it out of the park.

    • The film is cool, it is hip but I felt slightly too long and little bit to po faced.

  18. The Real life story of Eliot Ness reads like a adventure novel that ends on a tragic note.

    • My only hope is that next time they decide to do one closer to the truth. but until then I’ll enjoy this one.

  19. What is THE MATRIX? Well, let me tell you: it’s a crowd-pleasing science fiction adventure. lol

  20. The *only* thing wrong with The Matrix is that it had to end. Truly incredible – even 20+ years later.

  21. The Matrix is an extremely deep and revealing movie that I image either makes one more aware of their reality or skips right over their heads.

  22. The Matrix plays an important role in making me a Movie Maniac.

  23. “Neo-Baroque” as used in the digital context implies that a scene involves a lot of action and events occurring.

  24. A great read!

Leave a Reply