I had to ask myself some personal questions recently, when it occurred to me that I had put Under the Skin and Holy Motors on consecutive weeks of a Film Appreciation course. I love both films, but I can see how they would be divisive in similar ways: I wanted to end the course with a couple of contentious films that would challenge students’ ideas about what cinema should do, and these are fairly accessible examples of feature-length experiments in narration, identification, performance and genre, all ideas that had been pertinent to the course (Holy Motors was also the set film for a week on cinephilia, since it strikes me as a film which targets the prone and yearning minds of a certain kind of viewer pining for an old-fashioned form of passionate and philosophical film about film). It’s also a good exercise to ask students to explain opaque films with reference to what they do know about film form, style and technique, showing how this kind of analysis can unlock and illuminate the meanings they have been used to communicate.
In the second of a trio of videos about Stanley Kubrick’s film, this week’s podcast is an audio-visual race through Marvel Comics’ adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Continue reading
There’s no question that I overuse lens flares on occasion … The kneejerk reaction from the director of photography is usually, “OK, we’ve got to flatten that light because it’s going to flare.” I think it’s one of those things that you want to make sure that, obviously, it’s … To me it’s such a cool beautiful image, the light through the glass. There are times that I feel like it sort of adds another kind of smart element, and it’s hard to define. But it is a visual taste that I do like. I think there are a couple shots in Super 8 where I just think I should definitely pull back here or there, but I can’t help myself sometimes.
I had begun plotting to write about lens flare in Super 8 shortly after leaving a screening this evening. Living in the Netherlands, and being quite busy at the moment, I often get to see films later than most people who profess an interest in cinema, so I was not entirely surprised to find that somebody, in this case Adam Nayman at Cinema Scope, had already offered a perfectly fine analysis of that very topic nearly three months earlier. He made many of the points that had occurred to me while watching the film, along with many others that had not; I agree that, while the use of lens flare (which, as in the example above, whether simulated in post-production or a natural by-product of scattered surplus light entering the lens) might be seen as an authorised tic beloved of director J.J. Abrams, it is better understood as akin to the affected (and affectionate) artifacts in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse, where the pops and scratches on the over-worked “prints” of the film were a shortcut to evoking the conditions under which their film might wistfully be watched: i.e. it is a nostalgic device to reinscribe the image with the traces of pre-digital imperfections, from a time before the fetish for immaculate, malleable visuals arrived (though I would humbly submit that such a time never really existed, since digital technology was invariably used to couch its visualisations in the tones and trappings of analogue processes). Continue reading
One thing that will strike you about the Fleischers’ 1927 cartoon short Ko-ko in 1999 is how it anticipates other motifs in science fiction cinema. Most notable is the moment where the eponymous clown finds himself trapped in a feeding machine with more than a passing resemblance to the feeding machine tested by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936). When a stern Max Fleischer tries to bring Ko-ko down a peg or two by creating a bunch of rival clowns, Ko-ko rebels and shunts the competition out of the frame. Fleischer punishes his creation by conjuring Father Time, who pursues Ko-ko into the future – 1999, to be precise. There, he is assailed by all kinds of automated obstacles, and acquires a wife out of a vending machine. Like A Trip to Mars, which I posted here a couple of weeks ago, this is an extract from the excellent Inkwell Images DVD set, which also features documentaries about the Fleischer Bros. Studios. The music is Stereolab‘s remix of Shonen Knife‘s Hot Chocolate, taken from the Ultra Mix album.
The movie plot du jour involves a protagonist whose perception of reality is shown to be unstable. Without spoiling any of them, because they all have different ‘solutions’ or explanations for their reality-warping concepts, I would put Inception, Shutter Island, Unknown, The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code into this recent cycle of movies. All hinge upon a crisis of subjectivity for the male lead, and a concomitantly thankless role for the female, who is invariably asked to serve as the anchor to the Real, the thing to which the hero must return for confirmation of the stability, continuity and value of the real world (or some version of it). [While we’re at it, and because it’s the target for so much derision, most of it well deserved, let’s put in a good word for Sucker Punch, which also offers a wholly subjectivised reality, but from the perspective of a female protagonist; I suspect that Black Swan would also qualify in this category.] Here, the gimmick is that our hero is occupying someone else’s body, in a looping segment of their life, but this is not a film that is particularly hung up on the psychological backlash that this might cause, focusing instead on the opportunities it presents for rewriting one’s own personal history and on the wish-fulfilment of correcting past errors and perfecting one’s interactions with the people and places we meet every day and take for granted.
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.
- 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.
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- Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder. New York : Columbia UP, 2002.
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- 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.
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It has been difficult to keep up the earlier pace of blogging, due to an abnormally heavy workload this term. I’m hoping things will ease off towards Christmas and in the New Year – I wouldn’t want to deprive the world of my opinions for too long. It has also been hard to see new movies, though this afternoon I’m off to see Paul Leni’s Waxworks, and there’s a Hong Sang-Soo retrospective happening locally that should tick a few boxes in the old-movie department. As a stop-gap, here are some brief reviews of a few things I’ve managed to see at the multiplex next door. They are in no way connected, except that none of them works well on a triple bill with any of the others.
This blog has seen more than its fair share of monstery movie posters, but it’s Jack Arnold’s (1916 – 1992) birthday today, or at least it was when I wrote this, and still is (just!) in some places far West of here. Anyway, it’s a flimsy excuse to liven up my blog with a batch of posters and images from some of Arnold’s best known films like Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man. The sensational imagery and hyperbole of the marketing campaigns is matched in the films themselves not by a similarly one-note gigantism, but with a considered delivery of that premise. Well, maybe not Tarantula, which is about a massive spider, but The Incredible Shrinking Man is quite a mournful, agonising account of the effects on its protagonist of an ongoing process of ensmallening (it’s a perfectly cromulent word). Plus, it has one of the most extraordinary, unforgettable endings in all science fiction cinema, which I won’t reveal here.
Initially an actor, Arnold’s career path was diverted when he enlisted in the Air Corps after Pearl Harbor:
As luck would have it they sent me to join a unit that was making a film produced and directed by Robert Flaherty. Now Flaherty was a kind of idol of mine so I decided to tell him the truth. I went up to this giant of an Irishman and said, look, I’ve got something to tell you–I’m an actor, not a cameraman. But I told him that I thought I would be able to handle the job. And I guessed he liked the fact that I had told him the truth instead of trying to fake my way through it and he kept me on.
After I got out of the Air Force a buddy of mine who had been in my squadron said, let’s go into business together. So we started a documentary film company. We made a number of documentaries over the years – for the State Department, the Ford Motor Company and so on, and we won some prizes. Then I made a film for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union called These Hands. It was a feature spanning fifty years of the union which was good enough to be released theatrically, and it got very good reviews. I was even nominated for an Academy Award which brought me to the attention of Hollywood. Universal gave me a contract with them as a director and I started working for them in 1950.
[You may consider some of what follows to contain spoilers, but I’ve tried to avoid too many.]
“There are moral considerations,” says Clive (Adrien Brody) to Elsa (Sarah Polley) as they’re arguing over the course of the secret scientific experiments they are conducting. Breaking away from the roadmap set out for them by their corporate sponsors, they are trying to see how far they can go, just out of curiosity, with creating a new lifeform spliced with human DNA. The intricacies of this process are shown to using a montaged bunch of whip-pan, fast-cut sciencey bits (lots of wireframe models, scans, incubators and test tubes that give the impression that these tech people know what they’re doing), so that you can get beyond the how and focus on the what if? Moral considerations? Yes, there are. We know this, because we’ve seen other science fiction movies where people in white coats go a bit mavericky and “play god”. We know for instance that they will not resist their curiosity, will not abort the experiment, and that things will all go horribly wrong. Other clichés and conventions abound – the corporate end of the scientific complex will be populated with unscrupulous slimeballs, a woman chased through the woods will bang her head and fall over, and the cute little alien thing you just spawned in a lab will not stay sweet and cuddly forever. But this mash-up of familiar things hides its fair share of spikes, wings and stings.
[Towards the end, this review of Christopher Nolan‘s Inception will contain some spoilers, but until that point, I think it’s safe to read, unless you want to watch it with no foreknowledge. I’ll let you know before the spoilers begin. These are some half-formed responses to a first viewing, and I’d welcome dialogue and comments about the film. Forgive any errors or markers of haste that have crept into the text.]
Christopher Nolan continues to indulge his abiding preoccupation with mental states as narrative frameworks (Following, Memento, Insomnia) with Inception. The story plays out in a series of nested dreamscapes. Leonardo DiCaprio (fulfilling his contractual obligation to keep a determined furrow in his brow at all times to show how seriously he takes this acting thing) is Dom Cobb, whose job it is to enter people’s dreams and “extract” secrets from their subconscious minds. Desperate to get back to his estranged family, he decides to take on one last job to clear his name on charges for a crime he swears he didn’t commit – instead of extracting information, this new mission demands an “inception”; with his crack team of dream explorers, Cobb will plant an idea in a subject’s head.