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Coming soon: Limitless on-screen awe

The icy Atlantic waters rolled through the Titanic. The ship that couldn't sink broke in half and plunged to its Atlantic grave.

And for a few minutes, you almost felt as though you were seeing those awful events.

Okay, it's just a movie. But what a movie! The acting and script were pedestrian, but not banal enough to take much away from the overall impact _ an overwhelming experience thanks largely to the brilliant special effects.

Technology's relentless progress is doing more than making special effects more special, creating scenes that were once impossible. It's making them routine, transforming movies. And the exciting times are just beginning.

Rapidly improving technology has brought more and more realism to the movies, but spectacular special effects still aren't cheap to create. It takes boatloads of money to produce a Titanic.

Soon enough, that will change. Moviemakers will be able to concoct ultra-realistic worlds where the only limitation is imagination. They'll bring what they dream to the screen, affordably.

Musicians already have found exciting benefits from this democratization of technology, as home studios rival the quality and sophistication of yesteryear's $150-per-hour recording studios. In both cases, technology is spreading the ability to create sophisticated art that previously would have been prohibitively expensive. This trend will change lives.

Special effects, as Titanic demonstrates, aren't solely the province of science fiction. They have an increasingly honored place in all kinds of films, enabling producers and directors to help create places that don't exist, or re-create ones that do.

The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park _ products of computer workstations _ opened people's eyes to the new age. But brilliant effects have been around for decades.

I'm still in awe of the collaboration of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur Clarke in 2001, which 30 years ago brought path-breaking realism to big-screen space travel. They goofed on some small predictions _ such as the Pan Am passenger spacecraft _ but the film's space station, ships and lunar colony were breathtaking in their detail and scientific accuracy.

Like other science-fiction fans, I enjoyed the Star Wars trilogy even though the movies, like most other recent science fiction on film, blithely violated laws of nature. Maybe I'm just a grump, but if a ship zips past you in outer space, you shouldn't be able to hear it: sound waves don't travel in a vacuum.

The expense of the best special effects may account for why they stand out so much in some movies. More than one film has visibly skimped on acting, screenwriting, editing and more in order to pay for the visual gee-gaws.

But as the cost of effects drops, something interesting is going to happen _ and not just the certainty that a desktop computer or small workstation will be able to generate the dinosaurs that made Jurassic Park such a visual treat.

Don't mistake technology for creativity. They aren't the same. Computers will never replace good direction, writing or acting. They won't replace those human qualities that, when absent or ineptly applied, turn fancy pictures into boring sludge.

We see some of the sludgiest results when filmmakers use special effects to make their violence more bloody. Spurting wounds and severed body parts are usually designed to attract a bigger audience. They don't make a movie better, just more stomach-turning and cynical. Effects are truly special when they serve the story.

The truly fascinating time will be when filmmakers at all levels _ not just the blockbuster-mongers who can command $100-million in big-studio money _ routinely incorporate top-quality special effects into their work, purely to serve their vision.

Science fiction fans will get some of the best service, I hope. Movies that are impossibly expensive today will be relatively cheap to produce. I can't wait to see what someone of Kubrick caliber would do with my favorite Clarke novel, the powerful Childhood's End, an alien-invasion tale that is to Independence Day what a Picasso etching is to a motel-room watercolor. Translating the book to film would be an enormous project from a special-effects perspective, but it won't be so difficult in a few years.

The latest Star Trek entries have suggested the next step past ultra-realistic motion-picture effects: 3-D, interactive "holodecks" where you're part of the action, not just watching it. Don't hold your breath; this won't happen any time soon. Even when it does, it's not clear to me that couch potatoes would prefer an interactive experience to the passive one.

In the meantime, watch out for those killer arachnids and runaway asteroids. And remember, it's only a movie.

_ Write Dan Gillmor at the San Jose Mercury News, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, CA 95190; e-mail:; phone (408) 920-5016; fax (408) 920-5917.