Virtual Actors, Spectacle and Special Effects in the Matrix Trilogy


[Credit for this post must be shared with a group of my final-year students at the University of Exeter. The assignment was to re-edit a piece of writing for re-publication online. I hadn't tried this before, but wanted to experiment with collaborative work using Google docs. To begin with, I posted the first draft of an essay I wrote in 2003, the first book chapter I ever had published (the finished product had ended up in The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded, edited by Stacy Gillis and published by Wallflower Press in 2005). The task was to re-edit a 6000-word essay to about half that length, correcting errors, adding web-links and images, removing academic jargon and generally formatting it for an online readership (however they might interpret such a thing). There were 28 students on the module, and each had access to the document - the only rules were that other students' edits should be respected: if you wished to change something that had already been reworded, you should add a comment to say why. The integrity, argument, grammar, tone and style of the original text demanded no such respect, and was to be disregarded completely. Almost every sentence has been altered in some way. More than 3000 words have been excised, either by making my youthful, eagerly excessive prose more succinct, or by hacking out wholesale paragraphs that distracted from the central argument. I wouldn't want to have them treat another writer's work in this way, and the essay was mostly concerned with close reading, clarifying an argument, addressing a different audience and working collaboratively, so in future, I'll give this another go and divide students into smaller groups and let them work together to build a blog post from the ground up rather than just cleaning up my old messes. It was a very interesting process to watch, and I hope they also found it productive/instructive. The results are posted below.]
Film studies once saw special effects as extrinsic to narrative progression; more often than not, spectacle was seen as eye-candy for the benefit of viewers unable to concentrate without pyrotechnics. Whilst visual spectacle can be used as a fig leaf to hide the shame of substandard storytelling, critics such as Michele Pierson and Norman Klein  have seen  special effects as an integral component of commercial cinema, rather than as a side-effect of its perceived deterioration. In addition, Hollywood’s gleeful embrace of digital technologies for the production of photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) since the early 1990s has promoted a simulationist aesthetic that has caught the attention of postmodern audiences more than hubcap UFOs and rubber dinosaurs ever could. In the Matrix trilogy, we see not so much a striving to stultify and patronise the cinema audience with immersive sights, and more a special effects agenda which connects text with context, image with apparatus. The Wachowskis’ films deploy almost the entire panoply of available effects, including digital matte paintings, miniature models and prosthetic make-up.  We will here concentrate on one particular scene from The Matrix: Reloaded – the sequence which has come to be known as ‘The Burly Brawl’. This scene allows the viewer to observe the full mobilisation of virtual actors in computer-generated backgrounds, and places the human cast in conflict with digital doubles. Consistency is maintained across the Matrix trilogy through the integration of narrative and spectacle. It makes logical sense that the plot oscillates between two separate environments, the first (the Matrix) seductively illusory and the other (the ‘real’ world) inhospitably solid. Neo finds that he has been plugged into the reconfigured post-apocalyptic planet, and that what he thought of as his body was a digital avatar of his excorporeated mind. The view from inside the Matrix provides the spectator with all of the films’ comforting filmic pleasures (the spatio-temporal manipulations of bullet-time, fetish-fashion, indestructibility and choreographed violence) – what Jeffrey Sconce calls a “hipster playground of high-action and high-fashion” (204) – while the real world is a harsh and hungry wasteland. The virtual world of the Matrix asserts its authenticity by conforming to physical laws, resulting in an environment grounded in what Stephen Prince terms perceptual realism: that distinctive facet of CGI which aligns it with photorealism by virtue of its detailed textural resemblance to its referent, but which enables it to create impossible objects, locations and characters by virtue of its extreme malleability; CGI thus creates visual images which are “referentially fictional but perceptually realistic” (32). The photorealistic aesthetic of digital effects have led to a popular belief that digital imaging technologies are about to usher in a new age of absolute simulation where the filmed and generated are indistinguishable. It is assumed that complete immersion is the ultimate goal, however, digital special effects perform two functions; to create convincing illusory worlds and to make itself known, allowing the spectator to question its construction as well as its evolution from previous imaging techniques. But budgets are wasted if expensive special effects go unnoticed. Visual spectacle asks spectators to marvel at the comparison of it with the ‘real’. The discrepancy between them is the space in which visual effects can be understood by the spectator, and though it might be a gap narrowed by photorealism, extra-textual reference points help to preserve its integrity. Each component of the Matrix franchise is linked to the whole by a series of digressive pathways. At one level these can be narrative-based connections – in The Final Flight of the Osiris from The Animatrix, Jue posts a message from within the Matrix which arrives in the diegetic space of The Matrix: Reloaded, while the computer game Enter the Matrix features a narrative thread that intersects with that of Reloaded. At another level, the digressions point to the apparatus behind their production. More than most film cycles, The Matrix has fostered a network of discursive articles, behind-the-scenes footage, fan fiction, crew interviews and on-set photographs all clustered around the mainframe of an official website. Barbara Klinger describes spectators taking ‘digressive pathways’, raging from “generic or narrative intertexts that school the spectator in dramatic conventions, to a host of promotional forms … that arm the spectator with background information”(4). The digressive principle is demonstrated nowhere more explicitly than in the ‘Follow the White Rabbit’ feature on the Matrix and Matrix: Revolutions DVDs, which prompts the viewer to exit the film and watch behind-the-scenes footage of the production techniques used in the making of a particular sequence. The white rabbit motif, borrowed from the film itself, signifies the first step in Neo’s voyage of awakening to the true nature of the Matrix. Its use on the DVD creates a correlation between the story and the product that contains it.

The proliferation of behind-the-scenes material and revelation of the technologies behind the effects offsets any conviction in the illusion suggested by photorealistic CGI. At the most cynical level, this is in the service of selling DVDs with the promise of privileged secrets, or of attracting hits to members-only sections of websites, but it also keeps the spectator engaged with the diegetic technologies as reflections or extrapolations of extra-filmic developments in digital imaging. Consequently, by finding new ways to engage with the profilmic aspects of the Matrix trilogy, the spectator becomes an active participant in the process of reinforcing the illusion of virtual reality offered by the trilogy’s diegesis. The spectator’s desire to enter the virtual world encountered onscreen is made possible through the paratextual features found on the DVD release, which situate the film as merely one medium by which the Matrix may be explored; indeed, as Chuck Tryon has noted, ‘the film itself serves primarily as a means of stimulating interest in the wider media franchise, one that extends well beyond the DVD itself into other ancillary materials’ (29). The digressive aspects of the film serve to preserve the function of special effects to draw attention to themselves without necessitating compromises in technical clarity and perceptual realism.

The Burly Brawl

The Burly Brawl’ refers to a scene midway through Reloaded in which Neo fights an ever-expanding army of Smiths, the rogue agent who has acquired the ability to clone himself. Initiated by a scuffle with a few agent replicas, the scene employs special effects to primarily remove wires and to digitally graft Agent Smith’s visage on to the faces of each stunt performer. As Neo is called upon to parry the attacks of increasing number Smiths, so the visual effects are required to replace more of the combatants with computer-generated doubles. This challenges the spectator to discern the points at which the switches occur, urging the viewer to contemplate the discrepancy between real and rendered.
The scene also serves self-consciously as a showcase for ‘Virtual Cinematography,’ the conglomeration of digitally-rendered bodies and backgrounds offering a theoretically unlimited number of shooting angles within that virtual space. Before ‘Virtual Cinematography’ became the technical buzzword surrounding the films, The Matrix offered its viewers the signature visual trope of ‘bullet-time,’ an effect of camera movement within ultra-slow motion which, despite occupying no more than twenty seconds of screen time in the first film, was instrumental in establishing the film as technically innovative. In bullet-time effects, the human subject is first recorded against a green screen by the rig of up to 120 cameras set to shoot in rapid sequence, providing a series of still images of the action (see Figure 1) Such a novel, seemingly unique effect might be seen as working against the intertextual digressions we have suggested are prompted by the appearance of a technical illusion – how does the spectator find an intertext for something that has never been witnessed before?
Bolter and Grusin have argued that new media forms exist only in relation to earlier configurations of techniques and technologies (50). The innovative bullet-time sequences used in the Matrix trilogy are a recent illustration of existing technologies narrativised and branded as a novel visual spectacle. Another example is The Campanile Movie (1997), Paul Debevec’s 150-second fly-by of the Berkeley campus (see video above), where textures of the buildings captured from still photographs were mapped onto three dimensional representations of their actual geometry thereby allowing the creation of virtual backdrops into which the human subjects could be composited.Similarly, Dayton Taylor’s ‘Timetrack’ camera rig, which had been patented in 1997 and tested on several television commercials, sired the means of capturing the ultra-slow motion foreground action; we could even trace such multi-camera experiments as far back as the motion studies conducted in California in the 1870s by Eadweard Muybridge (right),“the man who split the second,” as Rebecca Solnit would have it (7). Even though the vast majority of viewers would not have had prior knowledge of these experiments in the history of remediation, it is unlikely that they had never experienced the kinds of hyperbolic spatio-temporal manipulations they inspired. If the Matrix films give the impression of novelty, it is only an illusion created by the prolific remediation of a wide variety of pop cultural reference points; they have appropriated certain qualities of kung fu films, comic book visuals, anime compositions and anti-corporate nu-metal posturing, technologised as if to proclude their imposition upon the new texts. The early version of bullet-time was not fully virtualised because it required detailed pre-planning from conceptual drawings by comic book illustrators Steve Skroce and Geof Darrow (Lamm 8) to computer-generated pre-visualisations of shots, followed by strict adherence to those plans at the shooting stage. The virtual camera was constrained, its very virtuality a cunning illusion. In one piece of explication/publicity, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta promises that the sequels’ virtual cinematography was more advanced, allowing the construction of shots to be devised regardless of camera position and possible lines of movement:

We wanted to create scenes that were not in any way restricted by physical placement of cameras. … We wanted longer, flowing shots that built action to a level where the interactions of bodies would be so complex there would be no way that we could properly conceive of the cameras during shooting. Instead, we would create the master template for the choreography, and then have complete flexibility to compose shots in postproduction.’ (quoted in Fordham 87)

Gaeta claims that the virtual camera technology was supposed to mirror the way the technology in the film created an enforced hallucination in the Matrix whilst existence continued outside of it. The Matrix films thematise technology in ways which are not unfamiliar within discourses around science fiction and cyberpunk cinema, but the visual effects serve to knit the components of the franchise together as a transmedia experience, and go beyond the usual spectacular functionings of such illusions to solidify the connections between the diegetic and extra-filmic technologies. For instance, the presence of virtual actors within the films is more than a technical anomaly necessitated by the limits of human performance, but a fully integrated trope mobilising discursive elements within and without the text. The virtual actor was also the result of discussions of superhumanism between the Wachowskis and John Gaeta: “Within the Matrix, everything is really a state of mind, a mental self-actualization of your abilities. We wanted to visually depict that power, simulating events that Neo was part of.” (quoted in Fordham 86)

Virtual Actors and Cinematic Bodies

It would be easy to believe that the age of the synthespian is imminent, and that soon human actors will interact with computer-generated co-stars without the audience realising which is which. Will Anielewicz, a senior animator at effects house Industrial Light and Magic, promised recently that “Within five years, the best actor is going to be a digital actor” (quoted in Baylis). The apotheosis of an animated character into an artificially intelligent, fully simulacrous figure indistinguishable from its human referent is technically impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, but visual effects are not definitive renderings of a character or event, but indicators of ‘the state-of-the-art’ offering “a hint of what is likely to come” (Kerlow 1) in the field of visual illusions in the future. It is understandable that such a competitive industry needs to maintain interest in the potential of its products, but the mythos of the virtual actor has pervaded the Hollywood blockbuster in recent years; however, whereas in the pastthe computer-generated body had to fit into the diegesis unobtrusively, more recent films such as Avatar have moved away from the dichotomy of human and synthespian by fusing the marvels of CGI with the gestures, expressions and voices of real actors, creating immersive virtual worlds in which there is no tell-tale seam between illusion and reality. The seamless nature of this combination is still reliant on the actor’s performance to bridge the gap between the virtual and the actual by providing the digital body with a soul.

The Animatrix also explores uses of the virtual body – the CGI striptease which opens The Final Flight of the Osiris announces itself as ‘advanced’ by lingering on detailed surfaces of athletic bodies in action, drawing focus onto the technology which created it.Keen-eyed viewers might notice that Jue exhibits what might be the world’s first sighting of CG cellulite – the markings of a true body without the idealised gloss of airbrushed skin. Thus the desire for computers to create an ever more realistic “digital actor” has developed to include the imperfections of the human body. Jue’s movements were created from a combination of motion-capture from live actors, and ‘key-frame’ animation directed by computer animators. Unlike other CGI/human constructs such as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, in The Matrix trilogy, the virtual body provides a visual articulation of posthuman transcendence which confers fantastic capabilities upon the diegetic body and simultaneously imagines a liberated future for the cinematic body. No longer constrained by the limitations of the recording medium, the director is free to experiment with techniques such as ‘bullet time’ and the ‘virtual camera’ in order to present us with a world that, whilst clearly impossible in its flouting of the laws of physics or the death-defying stunts of its characters, nonetheless derives verisimilitude from its status as an autonomous entity; though impossible in our world, the removal of the spectator to a new, often techno-futurist reality eliminates the awkward juxtaposition of real/illusory as we struggle to reconcile what our eyes tell us with what our mind knows about the world we inhabit.Neo takes on the properties of a digitally cinematic body – he is preternaturally fast, fluid and precise in his movements. Through centring Neo in the onscreen action (Figure 2) and the use of digital effects (notably slow motion), Neo becomes both a powerful character within the story of a digital simulation and also a star perfomer within a filmic space. We could say that he is becoming synergised – he can assume the capacities of a computer game sprite or a synthespian, replicable and spectacular just by virtue of his very existence (as opposed to by virtue of what he actually does). His individual skill sets are downloaded as if they were applications for a smart phone, and it is within the realm of the Matrix that characters can use these skills to manipulate their bodies and appearances (what Morpheus calls “residual self image”), enabling them to become glamourised upgrades of their organic forms, which are prostrate elsewhere, grimy and linen-clad. The digital avatar, built from motion capture data, is a cinematic prosthesis which enables the performer to enact cinematisation directly, rather than through the use of tactical editing and careful composition which can, for instance, hide the face of a stunt double. The Brawl toys with viewers’ expectations about how an action sequence usually has to work around the limitations of the body. Virtual camera moves are only recognisable as such because we are familiar with where and how a camera can and cannot be moved.

When asked about similarities between the Burly Brawl and the climactic battle between the Bride and the Crazy 88 gang in his Kill Bill Volume I (2003), Quentin Tarantino was keen to distance himself from such “CGI bullshit,” even though his fight scene is as much a cinematic construction as any in the Matrix: “You know, my guys are all real. There’s no computer fucking around. I’m sick to death of all that shit. This is old school, with fucking cameras. If I’d wanted all that computer game bullshit, I’d have gone home and stuck my dick in my Nintendo” (quoted in Dinning 91). Tarantino objects to the over-use of CGI, but forgets that one of the reasons for the deployment of such “profane” digital imagery in the Matrix films is precisely for the purposes of differentiation from the films to which it refers (or pays homage). Yuen Woo-Ping served as a martial arts advisor on both the Kill Bill and the Matrix series, but the combat between Neo and Smith represents a dramatic remediation of the choreography for which he is renowned, rather than the generic authenticity for which he was enlisted by Tarantino. The Burly Brawl is built up from a series of actions appropriated from the kung fu film’s generic database, hyperbolised, digitised and virtualised. David Bordwell refers to the kung fu film’s use of “expressive amplification,” whereby “film style magnifies the emotional dynamics of the performance” (232). Therefore, combatants in kung fu films can appear to fight with superhuman speed (under-cranking the camera during shooting makes the projected film run slightly faster), skill (supporting wires can help them to defy gravity) and strength (power powder sprinkled on clothing, coupled with sound effects, accentuates the visual and sonic impact of a blow). The Brawl remediates what Bordwell terms the “one-by-one tracking shot,” a technique of cinematic authentication through which a fighter is shown moving through a group of combatants in a continuous take. The length of the unedited shot cues the spectator to accept that the performer is demonstrating a sustained sequence of skills. During the Burly Brawl, two such shots occur, the first performed by Keanu Reeves and a group of stunt performers, the second by his digital double. Subjecting the real and virtual bodies to the same modes of mediation helps foster the viewer’s fascination with a discrepancy between the two. Throughout the Brawl, the spectator is incited to distinguish between them, just as the kung fu fanatic will inspect the text for evidence of the star’s authenticity or replacement by a diegetically anomalous but technically necessitated stunt double. The trilogy constructs a dialectic between old and new by remediating kung fu motifs and visual stylings; for instance, the pedagogic dojo fight sequence, wirework and choreographed combat. When Keanu’s digital copy flies through the air, the illusion is distinct because the virtual body is unfettered by the need for physical reference – wirework always exhibits the body’s need for balanced weight distribution, providing its distinctive, super-real look.
The Matrix films have presented a series of postulations on the past and future of special effects. Virtual cinematography is defined in relation to earlier, less technologised forms of cinema (kung fu, anime) by remediating their motifs of physical or animated display in the service of a technological spectacle. However, it also offers a ‘utopian’ idea of a cinema free from the tethers of indexicality and practical constraints. This liberation is reflected in Neo’s empowerment as a virtualised body, free from the gravitational and physical restrictions of the real world.One must keep in mind though, that since this fiction always exists as a redesigning of existing reference points, the concept of virtual cinematography is, for the time being, only an illusion of what the future holds. The spectator is empowered with mastery of the film text by a profusion of textual exit points, which offer the chance to observe the spectacle from a remove that reveals its artificiality, while simultaneously celebrating the seductive force of its artifice.

Bibliography

  • Baylis, Paul. “Weekend Beat: In quest of the ‘holy grail’ of the truly lifelike digital actor.” 7 June 2003.
  • Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Harvard: Harvard UP, 2000.
  • Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
  • Buckland, Warren. “Between Science Fact and Science Fiction: Spielberg’s Digital Dinosaurs, Possible Worlds, and the New Aesthetic Realism.” Screen 40:2 (Summer 1999): 177-192.
  • Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
  • Dinning, Mark. “The Big Boss.” Empire 14:11 (November 2003): 84-92.
  • Fordham, Joe. “Neo Realism.” Cinefex 95 (October 2003): 84-127.
  • Hunt, Leon. Kung Fu Cult Masters. London: Wallflower, 2003.
  • Kerlow, Isaac V. “Virtual CG Characters in Live-Action Feature Movies.” 19 November 2003.
  • Klein, Norman M. The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects. New York : The New Press, 2004.
  • Klinger, Barbara. “Digressions at the Cinema: Reception and Mass Culture.” Cinema Journal 28:4 (Summer 1989): 3-19.
  • Lamm, Spencer, ed. 2000. The Art of The Matrix. New York : Newmarket Press.
  • Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder. New York : Columbia UP, 2002.
  • Prince, Stephen. “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images and Film Theory.” Film Quarterly 49:3 (Spring 1996): 27-37.
  • Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
  • Sellors, Paul C. “The Impossibility of Science Fiction: Against Buckland’s Possible Worlds.” Screen 41:2 (Summer 2000): 203-216.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
  • Wood, Aylish. “Timespaces in Spectacular Cinema: Crossing the Great Divide of Spectacle Versus Narrative.” Screen 43:4 (Winter 2002): 370-386.

Norman McLaren: Spectacular Abstractions


[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Harrison Laird. The assignment was to produce screening notes to accompany a small collection of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Comments and feedback below would be most welcome. Read more student work here.]

Born in Stirling Scotland in 1914 and having attended the Glasgow School of Fine Arts from 1932, Norman McLaren is known as one of “the most significant abstract filmmakers of the British inter-war period” (Sexton), with influences stemming from the Russian filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin.  Despite being successful and influential during this period, it is after the war that he “enjoyed a significant degree of artistic freedom” (McWilliams) in being able to return to filmmaking for pleasure. Having been influenced in particular an abstract film by the German animator Oscar Fischinger, McLaren’s experimentation in technique and content produced an avant-garde collection that displays an incredible attention to the individual frame, and in the aesthetic symbiosis of both image and sound from one frame to the next; the result being, especially in films such as Begone Dull Care (1949) and Blinkety Blank (1955), an elaborate and exciting meld of musical improvisation, abstract imagery, and exploding colour. In each film, McLaren’s technique is “something to be defined precisely, and exploited just once – it seeming important that each film be regarded as a unique invention” (Curtis, 178) stressing the need for diversity throughout his work.

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The Significance of Sound in Norman McLaren’s Films


[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Jonny Williams. The assignment was to produce a set of screening notes that might be of use to first time viewers of a set of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Feedback in the comments section below would be most welcome.]

Norman McLaren was a 20th century filmmaker renowned for his innovation with non-traditional techniques of animation within his filmography, ranging from stop motion and pixilation as seen in 1952’s Neighbours to scratching images directly onto film such as in Begone Dull Care from 1949 and 1955’s Blinkity Blank (in which the soundtrack was also produced via the film). McLaren’s works share a reliance on audio in order to drive the visual aspect of his films.

Born in Scotland in 1914, McLaren followed his father’s employment path initially whilst attending the Glasgow School of Art from 1932 to 1936, studying interior design. During his time there, he became interested in motion pictures, and especially experimental film, leading him to set up a production group for him and his fellow students. As he couldn’t afford a camera, he instead washed off the emulsion from an cinema’s discarded 35mm reel and painted directly onto each frame. Around 15 years later, McLaren employed this same technique in the production of Begone Dull Care.

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The Short Films of Jan Švankmajer


[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, David Guerrini-Nazoa. The assignment was to produce a set of screening notes that might be of use to first time viewers of a set of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Feedback in the comments section below would be most welcome.]

Jan Švankmajer is a renowned Czech filmmaker, who has been continually cited as an immensely influential Eastern European animator. His influence can be said to have had an impact on the western cinema of animation as a whole, even though at the start of his career as a filmmaker his work was screened by the Czech communist government, and later nearly completely repressed from 1970s to the 1980s – in fact it was only after that period in which he expanded from his short films into full feature-length films. In terms of origins, his inspirations rise from his childhood experiences, Czech surrealism, communist censorship suffered and the folk tradition of Central Europe, especially notable for drawing on gothic influences. In fact, Švankmajer tells that his artistic interests began when he was given a puppet theatre for Christmas as a child; one especially can see an obvious link to this in his first short film, The Last Trick (1964).

Figure 1

Here two magicians, with heads made out of papier-mâché and clockwork machinery, take turns performing tricks on a bare wooden stage against a pitch-black backdrop. The film concludes on a rather violent note, as after a series of particularly aggressive handshakes the pair quite literally tears each other apart, till all that remains are two floating arms fiercely grasping each other (Fig.1).

This film shows some of the themes that would reoccur in his later work – violence, destruction, and a breakdown of communications, the style of film that can be noted to prelude his turn towards surrealism. However, while there is stop-motion animation in this film, it is hardly to the same extent as used in his later ones, with the majority of this in live-action with the tricks of magical movement done in koroko style utilising the black backdrop. The resulting film creates somewhat unsettling images, which are repulsive and fascinating at once, such as the one created by the fat black beetle crawling out of ears and on pictures of ladies combined with a series of visuals with added layers of depth and meaning. This is not simply some ‘trick’ film, but a combination of humour and the grotesque.

The degree of progression from this early film, and the influence of joining the Czech Surrealist Group and his marriage to Eva Švankmajerová, a surrealist painter, can be observed in some of his later work, such as Jabberwocky (1971). This film utilises a variety of found objects not made for the film, brought to life via a wide variety of stop-motion animation techniques. Starting with Lewis Carroll’s poem being read out by a child to the scene of a wardrobe moving through a forest, the film is set within the space of a child’s play area (Fig.2), within which, a series of what could be called ‘adventures’ or events occur using inanimate items brought, rather bizarrely to life, that result in the symbolic growing-up, or an escape from childhood.

Figure 2

The impact of surrealism makes it difficult to summarise this film, much is occurring amongst scenes of violence and destruction, in which toys are constantly created and destroyed or changed, with the last scenes having the picture of the father figure vandalised by a blob of ink escaping a maze and the room via the window. This, as described by Nottingham, can be seen as a commentary on the repression of the communist regime and the censorship imposed on freedom of expression (the blob of ink running away, having the last laugh by vandilising the picture).

Also quite present, and arguably present even in The Last Trick even if to a much lesser degree, is the subject of food. Švankmajer openly talks in interviews about his ‘obsession’ with the subject of food within his films stretching back from his childhood as a ‘non-eater’. In Jabberwocky, this can be quite plainly observed in the scene of ‘doll cannibalism’, where dolls at a table are seen to be cooking and eating smaller dolls, which has also been seen as a metaphor for Švankmajer view of the Czech socio-political during the communist government’s ‘normalisation’ period (Fig.3).

Figure 3

Thus, Jabberwocky is another sinister yet fascinating creation; unfortunately, in conjunction with The Ossuary, it was perceived by the Communist Czech government to have an undermining message and sparked the repression and censure of his film making. And it is the latter that would confine his work and reputation to Czechoslovakia till about the 1980s.

Today, Švankmajer is well known for his use of stop-motion animation particularly with clay, otherwise known as claymation. This is mainly due to the fact that when he did become more known to the Western cinema as a whole, one of the first widely distributed was Dimensions of Dialogue (1982).

Figure 4

This film is a trilogy of different types of discussions, presented through a media of claymation. ” Exhaustive discussion”, “Passionate Discourse” and ” Factual Conversation” (Fig.4)  are portrayed through absurdity of surrealism and the cultural background of heads styled similar to Arcimboldo’s (an Italian artist who worked in the courts of Prague during the 1500’s and admired by surrealist artists). It also hinges heavily on images of the mouth, eating and food. Also, violence and destruction are also at the fore in each of the discourses, whether it be figures consuming, tearing, or exhausting their partners in various forms. Due to his then recent liberation from political repression, this topic easily links back to a newfound freedom that enables Švankmajer to actually engage in discussion without state-enforced limitations.

While Švankmajer made many more films, not all animated or short, arguably one can capture the progression he made as an artist, noting the continuities and changes over the course of his career, via a selection of his short animated films. And even though the context in which he made his films has changed dramatically, mainly due to the collapse of communism, his films to this day continue to demonstrate the same gothic and macabre style, pioneering novel styles of stop-motion animation that are fascinating to watch.

Works Cited

Filmography:

©David Guerrini-Nazoa, 2010

Painting On Film: A (Mis)Understanding of the Abstract


[This a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Olly Beaton. There will be several more to come this week. The assignment was to produce screening notes to accompany a small collection of films connected by one of the topics from the module. Comments and feedback below would be most welcome.]

One of the emerging experimental techniques of avant-garde films of the postwar period involved directors etching directly onto film rather than using a camera. This concept was heavily influenced by the rise of abstract expressionism in western art, notably through artists such as Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky. Their paintings often offered no clear representation of anything, and demanded that spectators searched the images to find their own meanings. Likewise, these films neither followed a narrative structure, nor contained any characters, and often lasted less than a minute. Through analysing Norman McLaren’s Begone Dull Care (1949), Stan Brakhage’s Rage Net (1988) and Brakhage’s Eye Myth (1967), we can begin to appreciate the purpose of such films, even if it will prove impossible to draw any conclusive understanding of them.

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Travel and Transport in Early Cinema


[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Katie Newstead. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. See more student work here.]

This selection of films from the period 1895 to 1906 shares the common theme of travel. During this time, few people travelled for leisure and tourism; those that did, usually did so on the basis of military service or for business purposes.  The invention of the steamboat in the late 1700s, and the passenger train in 1821 coincided with the development of pre-cinema; with devices such as Shaw’s Stereotrope (1861) presenting a number of still images in quick succession to create the illusion of one moving image.  Thus, a connection can be drawn between society’s desire to travel, and cinema’s attempts to represent movement.

These devices could generally only be viewed by one individual at a time.  It was not until 1895, when the Lumière brothers invented the Cinématographe, which captured, processed and projected images on screen, that films could be shown to multiple audiences.  One of the most famous Lumière films is L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat/Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, due to the myths surrounding its initial public reaction.  Allegedly, a number of spectators were so frightened by the image of a train driving towards them, that they fled the screening.  German writer Hellmuth Karasek described the film as having a ‘particularly lasting impact; yes, it caused fear, terror, even panic.’ (2004:89-119)

While the accuracy of these tales has been debated, it is easy to imagine how audiences must have responded.  The oblique angle of the camera parallels that of the railway track, providing a sense of distance and perspective.  The fact that the train directly approaches the audience actively engages them with the image; they witness its increase in size as it speeds towards them, which further enhances the scene’s verisimilitude.  The camera takes a point of view stance, allowing for identification between the spectator and passenger; they both patiently wait on the platform, whilst watching the train’s arrival.  It could be argued that this plays on the current ideological desires of travel; the audience can fantasise that they too will be boarding the train.  If the camera had been placed on the opposite platform to the waiting passengers, for example, this would have meant that the audience would not have been able to see the train approaching, and its arrival would have obscured those boarding it.  Therefore, the camera’s clever positioning enables it to record a large amount of action; the train’s arrival and the people waiting, which functions together to form a coherent narrative.

The first public screening by the Lumière brothers took place on 28 December, 1985 and, while it did not include the above film, one member of the audience was particularly significant.  Georges Méliès, the son of a wealthy shoemaker, had long been interested in the creative arts; reportedly drawing caricatures of his teachers as a boy.  At around 10, he was taken to see legendary French magician Robert-Houdin, who later tutored Méliès in the art of magic during his military service.

After his father’s retirement in 1888, Méliès sold his shares of the shoe factory to purchase the theatre in which he had been inspired; The Théâtre Robert-Houdin, and reopened it that year.  After the Lumière’s debut screening, he approached them with the intention of buying a Cinématographe, which they refused to sell.  Unperturbed, he bought a British invented camera, and began to make his own films from 1896.  He made films across many genres, including: documentary, comedy, pornography, and what is considered to be the first science-fiction film: Le Voyage Dans La Lune/A Trip to the Moon (1902).

Le Voyage Dans La Lune was believed to have cost 10,000 francs, and consequently is also regarded as the first big-budget film.  Influenced by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and H. G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1901), Méliès’ film starred several acrobats looking to earn more money than they normally would on stage.

The excitement of travel is clearly evident; note the ceremonious nature of the rocket launch, complete with trumpeters, the flying of the tricolore, and the cheering crowds.  The women who insert the shuttle into the rocket then turn to wave at the camera, allowing the audience to feel part of the action and the celebration.  This sense of the active audience is similar to that of  L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat, and serves to make the activity of viewing a film more engaging and appealing, and allows for greater empathy with the characters.

The shot of the moon increasing in size as the rocket speeds towards it mirrors the train’s approach of Ciotat Station.  While the Lumière brothers used this technique to enhance reality, Méliès arguably uses it to create suspense and excitement; the viewer eagerly anticipates the moon-landing, and the imminent adventure.

The image that follows is the most iconic of the whole film and, indeed, of Méliès’ entire filmography; the rocket crashing into the anthropomorphic face of the moon.  This has been reproduced many times: from the iron railings between 8th and 9th Avenue in New York, to the logo and statue of the Visual Effects Society’s yearly awards ceremony, therefore indicating the importance of this image among the public.

This image also appears in the third and final film of this selection: The ? Motorist or The Mad Motorist (1906), which was produced by keen motorist and engineer R. W. Paul.  The film takes place between London’s Holborn and Muswell Hill, and the Orange Tree Pub, which the motorist drives up the face of, served as a production base for location shooting.  The theme of the film must have been very close to the bone for Paul; who had previously been charged for speeding.  The film does not seem to be condoning bad driving; on the contrary, the driver and his passenger appear to be enjoying the thrill of movement, and the feeling of freedom; which is illustrated by the car’s journey into space.  During this fantastical voyage, the car drives around a moon that is similar to the one that features in Le Voyage Dans La Lune.

The ? Motorist could be cited as influencing such literary figures as Toad in The Wind in the Willows; both characters revel in the pleasure of speed.  Furthermore, in a 1907 essay by Russian writer Andrei Bely, a character very similar to that of the mad motorist is described as: ‘Death in a top hat – [...] baring his teeth and rushing towards us.’ (Bely, 1907; in Tsivian & Taylor, 2005:120) While this is not a particularly accurate physical description of the motorist, the fact that a Russian author should be writing about this film suggests evidence of a wide distribution, as well as an inspired and excited audience reaction.

As a whole, the three films that make up this selection demonstrate a desire to travel for pleasure, the need for individuals to broaden their horizons, and the positive anticipation of the future; a modern, industrialised world that is constantly striving towards speed and immediacy.

Bibliography:

  • Grahame, K. (2005), The Wind in the Willows, Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.: New York.
  • Gunning, T. (2005), ‘Lunar Illuminations: A Trip to the Moon, 1902′, in: Geiger, J. & Rutsky, R. (eds), Film Analysis, Norton & Company, Inc: New York & London, p.64-80.
  • Herbert, S. (2000), ‘Introduction’ in: A History of Pre-Cinema, Routledge: London.
  • Joyce, S. (2000), A Trip to the Moon: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Other Influences, (Online Essay).  Available from: http://silentsf.com/Project_Melies/Melies_HTML/Essay.html (Accessed 7 November, 2009)
  • Karasek, H. (2004), The Moving Image: Volume 4, Number 1, p.89-118
  • Taylor, R. & Tsivian, Y. (2005), ‘The Reception of the Moving Image’ in: Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception, Routledge: London, p.108-129.
  • Verne, J. (1865), From the Earth to the Moon, (Republished in 2005), Barnes & Noble Publishing: America.
  • Wells, H. G. (1901), First Men in the Moon, (Republished in 2008), Arc Manor Publishers: Rockville, Maryland, USA.

Filmography:

  • L’arrivée d’un train à la Ciotat/Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumière, 1895)
  • Le Voyage Dans La Lune/A Trip to the Moon (Méliès, 1902).
  • The ? Motorist (Paul, 1906)

©Katie Newstead 2009

The Films of Georges Méliès


[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Joe Hickinbottom. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. To be provided as a handout which is to be read prior to the viewing of the selected films. See more student work here.]

  • Une Partie de Cartes / Playing Cards (1896)
  • L’Auberge Ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn (1897)
  • La Lune à un Mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898)
  • L’Affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair (1899) – selected sequences
  • Le Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Fig. 1

Born in 1861, French film-maker Georges Méliès displayed an active curiosity in the arts from an early age, so much so that his particular interest in puppetry and stage design gained him a place at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His parents’ desire for him to learn English led him to London where, after attending the shows of John Nevil Maskelyne and George Alfred Cooke in the famous Egyptian Hall (Figure 1), he became fascinated by stage conjury. Returning to Paris, Méliès purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin. Here, he worked as a theatrical entertainer, integrating the magic and illusionist skills he studied in England into his performances, alongside the development of his own tricks. When Méliès witnessed the first demonstration of the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe – a camera, printer and projector in one – he immediately proposed that he buy the machine, but the brothers refused. Nevertheless, his drive to explore moving pictures guided him towards electrical engineer Robert W. Paul who sold Méliès one of his projectors. Méliès subsequently started to construct his own camera and, on completion, he held his first film screening in April 1896.

 

Fig. 2

Initially Méliès exhibited the films of other artists, most of which were produced for the Kinetoscope, patented by American inventor Thomas Edison. Yet, months later, Méliès shot his first ever movie, Une partie de cartes / Playing Cards (1896), using a single reel of film lasting approximately 1 minute. In the film we see a group of men, outside, casually playing cards and enjoying each other’s amusing company whilst drinks are brought to them by a waitress (Figure 2). A direct duplication of the 1895 Lumière film of the same name, Une partie de cartes is somewhat different to much of Méliès’ ensuing work in that it is an actualité (or ‘actuality’) piece, apparently recording factual everyday events as they occur. Méliès’ competent sense for camera positioning and shot composition, however, are clearly evident here, making full use of the frame in the array of actions carried out within it. His central role as an actor would be the first of many dramatic performances in his own films, maintaining the status as a showman which he very much enjoyed in the theatre.

 

 

Fig. 3

During the shooting of another actuality in 1896, Méliès made a discovery that would strongly inform his films from thereon. When his camera momentarily jammed, the processed film showed the effect of objects suddenly appearing, disappearing and transforming. Realising that the camera possessed this ability to manipulate time and space, Méliès proceeded to build his own studio where he could create his ambitiously spectacular and magical moving images. In 1897’s L’auberge ensorcelée / The Bewitched Inn, we can observe Méliès’ complexly arranged combination of camera trickery, pre-prepared props and staged illusions. He brings to life the inn guest’s hat and clothes through the use of wires; makes various items of furniture vanish and materialise elsewhere by means of jump-cuts; and causes a candle to sporadically explode when the wick is lit by the guest, again played by Méliès (Figure 3). L’Auberge ensorcelée illustrates a distinct progression in Méliès’ work towards a more intricate and multifaceted approach to film-making, incorporating conjury and camera effects in a manner that transcended the marvels available to see on the stage.

 

 

Fig. 4

As technical and mechanical advances were being made Méliès took advantage of the opportunities offered by the new equipment, introducing more sophisticated visual and narrative elements into his films. Longer reels allowed the assembling of a number of shots, or ‘scenes’, to construct a continuous story to act as a vehicle for his spectacles. Predating Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 movie The Great Train Robbery (often hailed as the first complete film narrative) by some years, La lune à un mètre / The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) saw Méliès produce a film three times longer than most of his earlier shorts. Here, Méliès’ recurring theme of dreams proves fertile ground for his deep-seated interest in the phantasmagorical, playing host to a devil, a celestial fairy and a gorging moon, amongst others (Figure 4). The hand-painted backdrops and décors provide distorted perspectives and depth-of-field, establishing an aesthetic of fantasy within which the astronomer’s ordeal unfolds. In this sense, and considering the advanced use of props, La lune à un mètre could be regarded as an elaboration on the earlier Le cauchemar / A Nightmare (1896), yet also as a precursor to the longer and more complicated tales Méliès would later deliver.

 

 

Fig. 5

A common misconception is that Méliès dealt mostly with fantasies and fairytales. Throughout his career he made films of a diverse variety including topical satires, historical re-tellings, science fictions, literary adaptations and dramatised actualities. His 1899 mini-epic L’affaire Dreyfus / The Dreyfus Affair attempted to accurately re-enact (albeit dramatically), the political event of the seemingly false imprisonment of French Army captain Alfred Dreyfus. Running at 13 minutes, L’affaire Dreyfus tells its story across eleven individual films designed to be shown in sequence. Whilst we notice Méliès’ typical use of painted backdrops, the more realistic and faithfully representative perspectives offer here an authentic aesthetic (Figure 5). This, augmented by the more naturalistic performances of his actors, aided Méliès in conveying his own views, portraying the captain as a tragic character. The film caused so much controversy that it was banned by the French government and is thus acknowledged as one of the first instances of political censorship, debunking the notion that Méliès was simply a director of much-loved child-like fantasy films.

 

 

Fig. 6

Notwithstanding this, Méliès is most remembered by audiences for his spectacular science fiction pieces. Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), displays the culmination of years of developing magic tricks, set design, mechanical props, and stop-motion, multiple exposure and dissolve techniques. The fragmented yet generally coherent narrative is acted out on an immense scale; the fantastical voyage making full use of Méliès’ skills. We watch as a rocket is propelled into the moon’s eye, as strange monsters dance playfully, and as vast landscapes appear to engulf the travelers (Figure 6). Up until his retirement in 1913, Méliès continued to produce such fantasies in addition to various trick films, dramas and even a Western. Although many of Méliès’ 500 or so films have been lost, his innovations as a magician, photographer, performer and film-maker can still be deeply recognised in those that survive. Working during a time when the camera was thought of predominantly as a device for capturing real life and projecting it back to the audience, Georges Méliès pioneered an entirely new realm of cinema, exploring the hidden capacities of the camera and the opportunities of spectacle held therein.

 

© Joe Hickinbottom 2009

Works cited:

  • Brooke, M., [n.d.], ‘George Méliès: An In-depth Look at the Cinema’s First Creative Genius’, FilmJournal.net [16 October 2009]
  • Early Cinema, [n.d.], ‘Pioneers: Georges Méliès’ [16 October 2009]
  • Ezra, E., 2000, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 1-49
  • Herbert, S. & McKernan, L. (eds.), Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey, London: British Film Institute Publishing
  • Joyce, S., [n.d.], ‘A Trip to the Moon: Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Other Influences’ [18 November 2009]
  • The Missing Link, [n.d.], ‘Méliès: Inspirations & Illusions’ [16 October 2009]
  • Richard, S., 1991, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Georges Méliès’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 39-55
  • Roland, C., 1991, ‘Georges Méliès as L’Inescamotable Escamoteur: A Study in Recognition’, in Usai, P. (ed.), Lo Schermo Incantato: Georges Méliès (1861-1938), Gemona: Le Giornate del Cinema Muto / International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House / Edizioni Biblioteca dell’Immagine, pp. 57-111

Georges Méliès: A Magician at Work


[This is a guest post by one of my undergraduate students, Izabella Curry. The assignment was to produce a set of notes for an imaginary programme of short films, connecting them by theme, artist or aesthetic. See more student work here.]

Georges Méliès, performer turned filmmaker, is renowned for his love of magic and the development of many innovative special effects. Although many of his films reflect this passion for theatre magic, Méliès himself is quoted as saying that filmmaking and theater “…are totally different processes”. One of his most noted discoveries was substitution splicing, which he famously discovered whilst shooting a street scene when his camera jammed causing one object to transform to another. He used this technique to create films depicting magic shows, generating ‘tricks’ not through the magician’s slight of hand or specially designed apparatus but through the editing. The Vanishing Lady (1896) is the first evidence of Méliès’s use of this effect, which quickly became a common trait of his films.

The Vanishing Lady depicts a magic show shot from a single camera position from the perspective of an audience member. As with many of Méliès’s films, in contrast to modern day films, gestures are made towards the audiences. The pair bow, both at the beginning and the end of the film, and the magician makes gestures to the ‘magic’ as if presenting it to the imaginary audience. This acknowledgement of an audience paired with the film’s French title that references the Theatre Robert-Houdin indicates Méliès previous profession on the stage. The overt awareness of the audience works with the theme of the film as a show, therefore the presumption that it is performed to somebody. However, the use of gestures and addressing of the camera’s presence is common in most of Méliès work, including the more narrative-centered texts, which to a modern audience is surprising. This film is also a precursor to Méliès’s seeming fascination with the female gender. The presence of women in his films can be read in two ways: firstly to exhibit his power over women via the use of them as the subject of the magic; secondly, it could be read as a sexual frustration, such as in A Nightmare when a woman appears on the end of his bed. He tries to grab her and she is transformed into a man. This is also present in The Astronomer’s Dream, in which a lady lies provocatively on the crescent of the moon as the astronomer tries to reach her. Still, as seems to be the case with most of Méliès’s films, it is the special effects that are the main attraction. Although the film seems to be captured in one take there are in fact four breaks where the shots have been spliced together to create the disappearance and appearance of both the lady and the skeleton.

This said, although in the context of the period this technique is exceptional, the film itself is in fact one of many magic displays he made using film during his career. More original perhaps is what is believed to be the first film adaptation of the classic fairytale Cinderella (1899). Once again Méliès has been credited with another film technique milestone, the dissolve. Cinderella seems more narrative-based and its three dissolves allow a smooth scene transition signaling the next part of the story. However, although the film clearly tells a story, it is often asked if Méliès valued the narrative or if the plot was just a vehicle for the special effects. Ezra talks about the non-diegetic inserts as features of the ‘cinema of attractions’. She states that there are three in Méliès’s films: the character bow, as seen in The Vanishing Lady, the dance sequence and the spectacular tableau, both of which feature heavily in Cinderella. They are moments not necessary for the narrative, but rather guilty pleasures for the eye.

For example, in Cinderella there is a dance number by Old Father Time and a chorus of girls who transform back and forth between human and clock [see video above]. I guess it could be argued that this enhances the fantastical theme of the film; nonetheless, it is clear that these prolonged dance sequences are an opportunity for the demonstration of Méliès’s film techniques.

 

Cinderella, however, is not the only one of Méliès’s films whose plot is centered on fantasy. His films have recurrent themes of dreams, mystical characters and, predictably, magic. His film A Nightmare (1896) and his later, longer and more elaborate version The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) both depict a dream. Similar techniques are used to those in The Vanishing Lady (what looks like the same painted backdrop is used). However, in A Nightmare Méliès also uses substitution splicing for the backdrop as well as the characters, depicting the main character being carried by his dream into another world entirely.  A Nightmare is the oldest example of “Méliès’s Lunar Fantasies” which are a recurring theme in his later films such as A Trip to the Moon (1902). Cinema has since continued to be obsessed with the ‘moon movie’ both in the science fiction and fantasy genre, and it seems like once again we owe this to George Méliès’s humorous depiction of the man in the moon. However, in both The Nightmare and The Astronomer’s Dream the moon is depicted as a more menacing character than in A Trip to the Moon. It begins as part of the background, and through splicing Méliès creates the effect of it growing as it comes closer resulting in the moon consuming most of the shot. Although he seems to attempt to portray the moon as an ominous figure with a large mouth and what seem like an appetite for humans, the oversized mechanical props used in both films give it a comical edge.  The Astronomer’s Dream also uses enlarged props to aid the narrative, to ensure the audience notice everything within the mise-en- scene.

Méliès used complex mise-en-scene to create these imaginary worlds, all within the restricted area possible to capture the shot. This is also evident in Cinderella when the ball scene is almost amusing, as the party guests struggle to take baby-steps during the dance to remain within the frame. So it seems that Méliès not only pioneered many essential techniques in film but he did this all within the restriction of the basic technology present at the time. He was a playful yet innovative filmmaker who used his knowledge of theatre magic to create real magic on screen.

© Izabella Curry, 2009.

 

Works Cited

  • Bordwell, David, 1997. ‘The power of Mise-en-scene’ in Film Art, an Introduction. [e.d.] Thompson, Kristin. International Edition, McGraw Hill, pp. 171, 172
  • Cosandey , Roland,1992. ‘George Méliès as L’Inescamotable Escamoteur’ in Positif, Issues 317-377. Nouvelles editions Opta.
  • Ezra, Elizabeth, 2000. George Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur. Manchester: Manchester University Press
  • Fischer, Lucy, 1979. ‘The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic and the Movies’ in Film Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 1. University of California Press pp. 30-40.