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
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
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 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’ 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)
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.
I like to keep track of references to Georges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon, which is already the most thoroughly referenced film here at Spectacular Attractions. The latest sighting comes in the BBC’s recent adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon, one of the acknowledged influences on Melies’s film. Gatiss’s version of the story incorporates a framing narrative where a young boy at a fairground wanders into a tent where an old man sits guarding his cinematographe films on the day of the Apollo Moon landings. Persuaded to tell his tale, the old man spins a yarn, accompanied by a film show, of how he and his friend Professor Cavor (Mark Gatiss) became the first men to land on the Moon and to meet its inhabitants, the Selenites. Wells’s book ends inconclusively – we don’t find out what happens to Cavor when he is left behind on the Moon. Gatiss gives a solution to the mystery that explains why Neil Armstrong wasn’t met by spindly, air-breathing aliens when he made his giant leap. It’s all rather fun, but the highpoint, at least for my all-consuming self-interests, came during a hallucinatory sequence where Bedford (Rory Kinnear) imagines returning to the Moon to rescue Cavor, all told in the style of a Melies movie. Bedford has been forced to flee the Moon, leaving Cavor stranded amongst the Selenites, and suffers from feverish visions as the spacecraft tumbles back to Earth.
In H.G. Wells’s book, Bedford imagines himself separated from his body, looking back with disdain upon “Bedford”, who he came to believe was “just a peephole through which I looked at life”:
I can’t profess to explain the things that happened in my mind. No doubt they could all be traced directly or indirectly to the curious physical conditions under which I was living. I set them down here just for what they are worth, and without any comment. The most prominent quality of it was a pervading doubt of my own identity. I became, if I may so express it, dissociate from Bedford; I looked down on Bedford as a trivial,incidental thing with which I chanced to be connected. I saw Bedford in many relations–as an ass or as a poor beast, where I had hitherto been inclined to regard him with a quiet pride as a very spirited or rather forcible person. […]
For a time I struggled against this really very grotesque delusion. I tried to summon the memory of vivid moments, of tender or intense emotions to my assistance; I felt that if I could recall one genuine twinge of feeling the growing severance would be stopped. But I could not do it. I saw Bedford rushing down Chancery Lane, hat on the back of his head, coattails flying out, en route for his public examination. I saw him dodging and bumping against, and even saluting, other similar little creatures in that swarming gutter of people. […]
I still reasoned that all this was hallucination due to my solitude, and the fact that I had lost all weight and sense of resistance. I endeavoured to recover that sense by banging myself about the sphere, by pinching my hands and clasping them together. […]
Enough of this remarkable phase of my experiences! I tell it here simply to show how one’s isolation and departure from this planet touched not only the functions and feeling of every organ of the body, but indeed also the very fabric of the mind, with strange and unanticipated disturbances.All through the major portion of that vast space journey I hung thinking of such immaterial things as these, hung dissociated and apathetic, a cloudy megalomaniac, as it were, amidst the stars and planets in the void of space; and not only the world to which I was returning, but the blue-lit caverns of the Selenites, their helmet faces, their gigantic and wonderful machines, and the fate of Cavor, dragged helpless into that world, seemed infinitely minute and altogether trivial things to me.
In Gatiss’s version, Bedford still suffers from hallucinations, but he doesn’t forget about Cavor, but instead reimagines the perilous situation as a comic trick film. We know that the pair were filming their adventures, and that Bedford’s story would never be believed, so this filmic apparition seems consistent with themes of the film. It’s not a perfect simulation of Melies’s style – there are too many close-ups, not enough extreme long shots, and the sets are less elaborately detailed, but it’s an affectionate homage that tips a hat to the long history of Wells adaptations, and to Melies’s pivotal role in making them cinematic. (You might also notice the cunning casting of Gatiss’s colleagues from The League of Gentlemen, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, as the Moon and the Sun.)
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.
This week, your pictorial reward is a bunch of monster-themed posters from my collection of poster JPEGs. Next week, you can look forward to sexy-themed (to use the scientific term) posters for your delectation, followed by comic and heroic posters. The week after that, I’m open to suggestions for a theme – I have quite a lot of posters to display, and not enough picture-of-the-week spaces to put them in. I hope you enjoy the scenery of these garish, trashy marvels. Check on the slideshow above, or browse below for larger views of any of the pics.
[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]
[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]
For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges Méliès‘ A Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.
2012 is not a film that has divided critics. Most people think it’s crap. I was undecided about Roland Emmerich. Is he just another Michael Bay, marshalling expensive mayhem and ill-gotten sentiment painted by numbers to a strict blockbuster formula? Or is there some wit and irony folded into delirious excess of the whole enterprise? Emmerich seems to be making the same film again and again, continually dressing up one idea of global catastrophe’s effect on families in ever bulkier clothing. I myself can’t quite decide. I oscillate between giving it some credit for fabricating a committed deconstruction of the blockbuster disaster movie, and trying to pretend that I ever went to see it at all. So, maybe you too can indulge your indecision, or flatter your hardline opinions with another of Spectacular Attractions‘ patented “Build Your Own Review” posts. Think of it like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” approach to film reviewing. That way, you won’t be distracted by the sight of me weaseling out of my responsibility to give my own view…