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Writing about The Psychedelic Effect in Films

March 12, 2019

Writing about The Psychedelic Effect in Films

As Visual Effects (VFX) have evolved over the decades, movie lovers have a chance to witness big blue aliens, giant monsters, and Carrie Fisher on the big screen. Yes, all of that is possible thanks to the last ten years of visual effects, but they have also helped us depict more conceptual ideas, one in particular – the psychedelic effect.
The urban dictionary definition of psychedelic visual effects is things that seem inspired by or seem to replicate the experience of psychotropic drugs. Psychedelic film effect is easy to identify by distortion of images and sounds, experimentation in the plot, and sometimes drug-inspired hallucinations. Like the psychoactive medications which produce heightened perceptions of anything that happens with you, psychedelic movies give the audience a dream-like view of reality. If your only dream is to forget about the pile of assignments and you can’t stop googling “do my essay for college”, there is a way out.
In this article, we are not just talking about the vague concept of drugs and film. What we are looking at is the unique techniques employed by specific filmmakers to convey the psychedelic experience. And obviously, these are in no particular order and only a little bit biased.

The Psychedelic Experience Movie: The Start of Visual Effect

As weird as it sounds, we want to start not with the psychedelic film but the psychedelicanimation – Dumbo (1941).
In the context of the story, it is not a hallucinogenic view of reality but an alcoholic one.“Dumbo” is the first good example we could think of. “The pink elephants on parade” scene has been referenced a lot of times, and that is because this episode introduced decades of kids to a certain kind of feeling. The inverted look created by swapping the usual black outline of the characters with white and blackening the canvas to allow for more vibrant colors creates a pretty effective surreal experience. The elephants are dancing around the frame of the canvas and breaking the fourth wall which is pretty cool.
Some things we want to point out are the rubbery movements of the animated elephants combined with the music which seems to be dyed gothic sound generates a climate of the psychedelic movie. Plus, the animator’s use of trippy colors and patterns later in the scene seem to be there are literally just to trip out the audience.

Psychedelic Effect: The Evolution

Moving on from animation to the best psychedelic movies, the next example is classics. Are you trying to trip out your audience? Do you want the guaranteed results? Use the multi-colored tunnel pattern moving towards an infinite horizon. The kaleidoscopic effect has its very own evolution in the film because of how many times it has been used. From exploitation film “The Trip” (1967) to “Annihilation” (2018) and everything in between, this effect has remained a strong representation of psychedelia. We would say the effect is based on the classic cognitive optical illusion of the warping tunnel. It seems to also be based on the theory of multiple reflecting surfaces which inspired the creation of kaleidoscope and the house of mirrors.
This all culminated in the creation of, you guessed it, “The Stargate sequence” (2001). Unfortunately, for VFX artist Douglas Trumbull, computer-generated imagery in 1966 was lacking. So, he got creative with practical psychedelic effects. Using the Slit-scan effect and shooting at a low shutter speed through a slit and moving back lit artwork horizontally behind the slit, Trumbull and Kubrick created neon patterns which moved as though originating from a distant plane. It is all about the right use of geometric forms. But if you can’t handle your math assignment, there is a great service with “do my algebra homework” option and dozens of professional who will take care of it.
The visual effects of 2001 would, of course, inspired Gasper Noah and his drug trip of the psychedelic movie “Enter the void”. Luckily these effects are now achievable in the comfort of his own home. We could not find much on the making of the “DMT Sequence” but playing around with the fractal noise effect in 3Ds pace could create something similar.

Psychedelic Film Effect: “Mandy”

As you have probably guessed, the next example of a unique representation of psychedelia and one of the best trippy movies is “Mandy” by Panos Cosmatos. There are a lot of movies like “Enter the Void” and “Mandy” is one of them. The whole film really plays as a surreal experience, debatably a metaphor for LSD. What is this psychedelic movie about?
Mandy is forced to induce some hallucinogenic substance and watches Jeremiah Sand, the mysterious leader of a cult, as he hovers over her monologuing. While Costamos could have really amped up the visual effects in the scene and made drug drip super surreal, instead he settles on subtle techniques. And thank God for that because the scene is ten minutes long. A frame ghosting effect trails after the movements of every character which would normally be anything but subtle. However, the camera remains locked off for the majority of the scene, and if it moves, it does so very slowly.
This results in a lingering reality effect which is reminiscent of something experienced by users of hallucinogens. The not so color tint over the whole scene reinforces the surreal state of the characters and contrasts the blue ghost frames. Also, if you listen to the underlying audio beneath each dialogue, you can hear what sounds like a chorus effect. Each line seems to be duplicated in post-production, dropped and pitched slightly. Something like that often used by sound designers to create a demonic voice. Moreover, the reverb effect also lingers after each slice of audio despite the room being pretty tiny.
When Jeremiah approaches the camera and breaks the fourth wall, a freeze-frame of Mandy’s face slowly fades over the top of his during the monologue. Because of the strong tint and the fact that her face is tracked to his, this effect takes ages to sink in.

The Psychedelic Effect: To Be Continued

Taking a look at these examples, it just goes to show what evolution of post-production tools allows us to achieve. The effects can still be used to experiment with ideas unique to each and every filmmaker, and psychedelia is just one of these. Of course, visual effects have a long way to go before we can even think about remaking the true psychedelic masterpiece – “The lawnmower man”.

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