How Special Effects Work #5: Mary Pickford Kisses Herself



This is the latest in a long-running, very occasional series of posts about special effects but this is the first time (I can’t promise it will be the last) where my starting point is a trick I can’t explain. Of course, I know that the shot (see above) from Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary Pickford, playing two roles, appears to kiss herself, was created using a double exposure, but I don’t know exactly how they got it to look so seamless. I would be grateful for any inside information, and interested in any speculative theories, about how this magnificent special effect was achieved. Much of this post was derived from out-takes of research for a chapter on special/visual effects in the silent era, for a forthcoming volume of the Behind the Silver Screen series from Rutgers University Press, which should be available some time next year. Continue reading

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The Spielberg Hundred #005: The Magic of Special Effects


This is the complete screen recording of a paper I gave last month at a conference in Montreal, The Magic of Special Effects: Cinema, Technology, Reception, 10 November 2013. Aside from the final plenary talk by Tom Gunning, I was the last speaker at this intensive, 6-day conference, so I will plead a little bit of fatigue and befrazzlement; I mostly resisted the urge to rewrite my paper over the course of the week as I heard so many stimulating ideas from the other speakers, but I will no doubt feed some of that stimulation back into the next draft of my paper. What I presented was an early sketch of my chapter on Spielberg for a forthcoming book, and thanks to helpful comments and questions from other delegates, I have a better idea of what I need to do to develop it into a longer, stronger essay. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a work-in-progress, but let me know in the comments section if you have suggestions for improvement. Although the finished chapter will explore in more historical depth the relationship between Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, what I presented here is an attempt to characterise what Spielberg does with visual effects set-pieces, and how the audience is embedded in a “spectacular venue” for the presentation of marvellous things. 

The Spielberg Hundred #001: Introduction


Spielberg directing a dinosaur on the set of Jurassic Park: The Lost World

I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming anthology of extended essays on the work of Steven Spielberg, to be published in 2015. I’m going to be focusing on his use of special and visual effects, with particular interest in his longstanding relationship with the effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Aside from a couple of pieces on Georges Méliès, I’ve never done a study based on a single director, so this will be a fun exercise for me. I might even manage to produce a couple of articles out of it if it proves fruitful. Aside from his recent work, and a couple of films I re-watched during research for Performing Illusions, I haven’t seen the old Spielbergs since I was firmly in their target demographic. His films defined my childhood cinematic experience. It’s a toss-up whether Close Encounters was the first film I saw, or if it was Pete’s Dragon, at age 3 (memory eludes me), and I followed avidly anything he made, or had a hand in. Continue reading

Fragment #37: Jack Conway on Romance and Illusion


In case you thought complaining about how special effects are just not as exciting or authentic as real stunts, spectacle and peril was a new thing, here is an article from a 1933 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, in which film director Jack Conway worries that the spread of camera trickery might be depleting the excitement of film. One problem he notes, is that audiences have just become too wise to the illusions, and just aren’t fooled any more. Conway Hollywood Reporter[I found this article using Lantern, the amazing new search tool for the Media History Digital Library. It’s a great way to search for film and media articles from public domain journals. Read David Bordwell’s appreciation here.]

Norman O. Dawn Collection


These wonderful cards are from the collection of Norman O. Dawn, as displayed at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin last year, as part of the special effects section of the Making Movies exhibition. Dawn was the creator of many innovative special effects for photography and film, most notably the glass shot, where the mise-en-scene is augmented by scenery painted onto a pane of glass that is placed between the camera and the set/location. Here’s an example of Byron Crabbe (who also worked on King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game before his untimely death in 1937) painting set extensions onto glass for a scene from The Last Days of Pompeii (1935):

[This image was taken from NZPete’s fabulous blog about old-school special effects, including matte painting, glass shots and the like. Pete has managed to round up an impressive array of images and info about the techniques and personnel that made so many extraordinary moments of Hollywood’s golden age.]

Dawn created these cards to record his array of techniques used on more than eighty films, and to illustrate them for the producers and executives who had to be convinced that such amazing illusions were possible. If nothing else, with their miniature watercolours, oil paintings, sketches and handwritten notes, they stand as testament to the artisanal, hands-on nature of early special effects.

Final Call for Papers – Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts


Call for Papers!

The deadline for submission of abstracts is fast approaching. We’ve had some amazing submissions so far, from a variety of contributors, but there’s still time for a few more. Full details are below, but you can ask for more info if you need or want to know more…

Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts

Edited by Michael Duffy [Towson University], Dan North [University of Exeter], and Bob Rehak [Swarthmore College]

Deadline for Abstracts: 1 March 2011
Deadline for Submissions: 1 January 2012

Recent decades have seen ever more prominent and far-reaching roles for special and visual effects in film and other media: blockbuster franchises set in detailed fantasy and science-fiction worlds, visually experimental adaptations of graphic novels, performances in which the dividing lines between human and inhuman – even between live action and animation – seem to break down entirely. Yet the cinema of special effects, so often framed in terms of new digital technologies and aesthetics, actually possesses a complex and branching history, one that both informs and complicates our grasp of the “state of the art.” At stake in studies of special/visual effects is a more comprehensive understanding of film’s past, present, and future in an environment of shifting technologies and media contexts.

We seek contributions to a volume focused on special effects as aesthetic, industrial, and cultural practices, moving beyond formal analysis to a wider consideration of special effects’ historical roots and developmental paths, their underlying technologies and creators, and their intersection with other domains of art, commerce, and ideology. We are particularly interested in essays that elaborate on specific periods of change that special and visual effects have undergone over the course of their history. Although we welcome work that deals with digital technologies and contemporary cinema, we encourage contributors to contextualise recent developments in relation to broader histories of visual illusion and spectacular artifice.

The book will integrate an online forum to develop an extensive bibliography, web links to further reading, and a scholar/practitioner directory.

Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • Theoretical approaches to the study of special effects history and technique, including (but not restricted to) ‘ontology’ debates surrounding the interplay between analogue and digital technologies.
  • Theories of spectatorship, visual illusions, and special effects.
  • Critical histories/analyses of individual processes, e.g. matte paintings, compositing, bluescreen, the Independent Frame, miniatures, stop-motion animation, animatronics, prosthetics, motion capture, etc.
  • Pre-visualization techniques, including production design, concept art, and animatics.
  • The ongoing influence of effects pioneers including Georges Méliès, Segundo de Chomon, James Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl, Albert E. Smith, R.W. Paul, and other makers of early ‘trick films’.
  • Changes to studio structures and the evolution of the special-effects ‘house’.
  • Industry “stars” such as Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, Richard Edlund, Tom Savini, Eiji Tsubuyara, Rick Smith, Ray Harryhausen, Willis O’Brien, John P. Fulton, John Gaeta, etc.
  • The uses of special effects and spectacle in the  experimental or avant-garde works of film-makers including Peter Tscherkassky, Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren, etc.
  • The significance of special effects in non-Hollywood, low-budget and independent cinema.
  • Special-effects fandom, connoisseurship, and critique
  • How animatronics, puppetry and make-up are adapted/reconstituted/re-contextualized for studio/franchise rebirths.
  • Visual effects in television, video games, and transmedia.
  • Spectacular uses of colour, widescreen, IMAX, and 3D processes.
  • Self-reflexive uses of special effects as a commentary on the history/ontology of media.

Essays should run between 3000 and 6000 words in length. Send abstracts (title, 500 word description of project, and author bio) or requests for further information to: fxnewhistories@gmail.com

Editors can be contacted individually at:

Picture of the Week #65: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots


Yes, I know it’s a video, not a ‘picture’, but to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Edison, here’s a barely appropriate reminder of The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, filmed in New Jersey for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on 28th August 1895, by Alfred Clark. I could have chosen any number of Edison shorts to mark the man’s birthday, but this is a favourite of mine for its early use of a trick effect in a historical re-enactment. This is probably the first substitution cut, when the actor playing Mary (the Library of Congress lists this as one Robert Thomae) is replaced with a dummy for the moment of death. You can see the join, but it’s still quite skilfully done. This film would have been watched, one viewer at a time, on an Edison kinetoscope, and it apparently caused a bit of a stir, with some viewers allegedly fearing that somebody really had died for their art. I somehow doubt this, but it makes a nice story, and inaugurates the undying myth of the snuff film.

The film is not historically accurate – an eyewitness to the beheading on 7th February 1857 records that it took three strokes to decapitate Mary, while the film makes it all look smooth and easy. Right at the end of the film, you can see the executioner holding up her head for the watching crowd: this is most likely true; he also removed the head-dress from her severed head and revealed the secret that she’d hidden during her long imprisonment (19 years) at her cousin’s pleasure – her hair had turned completely white. Either that, or he dropped the head, having tried to pick it by the wig that Mary wore – accounts vary.

I’m not sure what involvement, if any, Edison himself had in the making of this film, but it definitely marked the start of an escalation in the sensational spectacles recorded for the kinetoscope. Alfred Clark made a few more grisly shorts, including The Burning of Joan of Arc, also produced in 1895. It reached a peak in 1903 with the notorious and self-explanatory Electrocuting an Elephant, which you can read about here: it’s a fascinating story, even if you don’t want to watch the film itself.

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.

Splice: Modern Family


[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.

Read on…

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen!


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Stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen turns 90 years old today. One of the most important exponents of stop-motion animation and its integration with live-action footage, Harryhausen has more than earned the retirement from the industry he has enjoyed since 1981’s Clash of the Titans. His menagerie of mythical beasts, living statues, warrior skeletons and alien invaders set the gold standard for special effects animation: inspired by, but undoubtedly building upon, the work of Willis O’Brien (who mentored him on Mighty Joe Young), Harryhausen’s creatures were endowed with a distinctive inner life that manifest itself in nuanced mannerisms or full thespian emoting. These miniature models were made to give fully rounded performances that invariably overshadowed the lunky performances of their human costars. A relentless populist with a boyish imagination, you could tell that he was driven by a desire to bring his mind-load of beasts into full-colour motion as directly as possible.

I once had the pleasure of meeting Harryhausen at a book signing. Arriving a little late, I was shocked to find him alone next to a pile of books and DVDs. Where were the legions of geeks? Could it be that his appeal had not filtered down to younger generations who hadn’t grown up marvelling at Saturday afternoon Sinbads and Bank Holiday Argonauts? My own affection for Harryhausen’s work had taken me by surprise when I welled up at the sight of one of the Jason and the Argonauts skeletons at a public talk he gave during the Animated Exeter festival a few years back. So, that should tell you something about the level of critical distance I’m able to take here. Anyway, I had a little chat with Ray and asked him to sign my copy of his book, and my old VHS of Jason. “Is this your favourite of my films?” he asked me. A bit sheepishly, I replied: “I have a bit of a soft spot for Earth vs the Flying Saucers.” Perhaps because he was hard of hearing, and I soft of speaking, he asked me to repeat myself, and in the middle of a quiet city-centre Waterstones I found myself loudly declaiming my appreciation of the 1956 alien invasion epic for which he supplied peerless animation and compositing in scenes of gleeful mass destruction. Since I plan to spend my autumn years shouting at people in bookshops, it was good to get some practice in, and to shake the hand of a man whose films still provide a little corrective every time my cinematic diet gets a bit too dark and heavy.

Happy Birthday, Ray Harryhausen. My humblest of gifts is a slideshow and gallery of some images and posters that should remind you of some of his achievements. View the slides above or click on any image below for a larger view:

See more Spectacular Attractions galleries here.

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