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August 28, 2006

Film, Digital Video, Effects

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've made two minute-long YouTube digital video masterpieces (here and here) ... I've just watched "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," an all-digital fantasy spectacle from 2004 ...

Why, it must be time for some Immense Thoughts about the nature of film and the nature of digital video!

Quick version:

  • Film. The upside: The results, even when awful in many respects, often have something of mystery and eros about them.

    The downside: As a process, traditional filmmaking is beyond cumbersome, intransigent, expensive, and remote.

  • Digital video. The upside: As a process and a medium, it's relatively easy, inexpensive, and convenient.

    The downside: The results tend to the flat, the literal, and the charm-free.

Film has poetry in it. As we stare ever deeper into the light, bewitched by the crystalline organic nature of the medium itself, the experience can be like staring into a lover's eyes, or having a religious vision.

Incidentally, feel free to laugh at my little prose rhapsody. But this characteristic of film has been noted since the beginning of film history. It can also be worth remembering that -- however tacky a thing a bad movie can be -- the 20th century is probably more likely to be remembered as the era of movies than of any of the more lofty arts. It can be fun to muse a bit about what it was about movies that so fascinated so many for so long.

Despite its irresistable attractions, digital video delivers nothing but information. It's bizarrely literal-minded, registering nothing but the empirical facts, and oblivious to auras and inner lights. You might say that it's an autistic medium.

Laugh at the generalization -- but as moviemaking goes digital, these are some of the issues that cinematographers and manufacturers of cameras, etc., are actually wrestling with. Is video's flatness a consequence of its restricted lattitude? Will tape shot at 24 frames per second (ie., at film-speed) cast more of a spell than tape shot at 30 fps (the usual speed of videotaping)? Or perhaps digital video should just give up the quest to deliver more film-like results and try to be itself instead? Yet even there ... Well, what to make of the fact that, while film grain has properties that many people find arty and attractive, almost no one finds digital-video "noise" anything but headache-making? These are all lively and current debates.

Film often seems to pick up the ineffable -- the core of Being. Looking closer, you enter (for better or worse, btw) into the Self, into love, into the nature of film itself. With digital-video ... Well, you harvest a lot of pixels, then bring the information into your computer and start playing with it there.

A word about "Sky Captain": I didn't mind it. Like Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City," the live action was shot in HDTV entirely against green screens; backgrounds and surroundings were composited and painted in digitally after the fact. The film (written and directed by first-timer Kerry Conran) certainly represents a lot of care, craft, invention, and passion. Anyone in the mood for a digital-era "Indiana Jones" action-fantasy movie could do a lot worse, and its retro-futuristic look (via "Metropolis," "Buck Rogers," and Hugh Ferriss) is loads of fun. God knows that "Sky Captain" is a lot easier to take than the recent digital "Star Wars" movies.

That said, the film meant no more to me than a cab ride through Times Square. The human content (actors, story, situations) is negligible, so the experience of watching the film is of gorging on eye-candy. The lights, colors, and images glow, shower, shimmer, vaporize, bubble, dissolve, whirl, halo, and blur. The soundtrack booms, throbs, and zaps, while the score does its "rousing adventure!" John Williams-y thing.

As a piece of Photoshop / AfterEffects invention, the film has a nice whimsical-pastichey thing going on. But my appetite for '40s-comic-book-covers come to life has its limits, I guess. I watched the film thinking, Why isn't this a completely-animated film? The faces and bodies of the actors seem meant to convey something engaging on a human level. But, in fact, they don't. There isn't a shot in the entire movie that feels alive. There isn't even a shot in it that features natural light -- or natural dark, come to think of it. The colors are drained -- "Sky Captain" looks less like a color film than a film that has been colorized. (Interesting, sure, but als distancing.) And although it's kind of cool that the movie isn't spoofy or campy, nothing takes the place of these attitudes: no spark, and certainly no naughtiness or sexiness. The film, in fact, seems to have no awareness at all of eros, or even of the basics of flesh. The girls -- Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie -- aren't photographed to look pretty, glam, or alluring. They look pretty bad, in fact. Their faces look cakey and clotted, as though lit from below for Halloween.

Despite the audacity of the pop visuals, despite the overwhelming quantity of fantasy, and despite the likable earnestness of the tone, in other words, the film felt airless and lifeless to me -- literal and flat. (But who knows? Maybe kids growing up on this kind of entertainment won't miss what they never had.)

Effects, effects: my mind is on effects ... I'm reminded of taking a course in multimedia production long ago. It was the first time I ever had a chance to handle digital video. What struck me right away was the whole question of effects. Traditional film is, by and large, about what you've gotten on film. And with film, the procedure is generally to do your best to ensure that you have captured some real content on your film; to order the footage effectively in the editing; to apply (not too flamboyantly) some effects; and call the results a movie. Making a traditional movie is like doing traditional cooking. It's about bringing out what's best in your natural ingrediants, and then ordering them in pleasing ways.

The tendency with digital video is much different. Once the information has been downloaded into the computer, almost everyone finds it impossible to resist playing with effects. Eons ago, musing over primitive digital video, I remember thinking, "Omigod, this is going to be anything but a matter of respecting what's been caught on film. This is going to be something different. The footage you capture is just going to be raw material for messing-around-with in the computer. And the final creation is going to be not a heightened presentation of natural content but the orchestration of effects." Cheap, convenient, easy -- and, perhaps, plastic.

In the world of digital video, effects are cheap, easy, and hard to resist. But how do you make them mean anything? I'm not sure anyone has solved this problem yet.

In a comment on a recent posting, visitor Chris Bennett put it much better than I have:

I guess one could think of a distinction between the kind of effects Alec is talking about and modern CGI effects as that between 'organic' special effects and 'synthetic' effects. I'm reminded of the scene in Cocteau's Orphee where the hero enters the mirror into the underworld. The mirror 'being entered' is clearly a shot of a hand dipping into still water turned through 90 degrees. The recognition of this adds hugely to the poetic power of the shot causing it to act like a metaphor.

Even Harryhausen's 'claymation' stuff has a haunting dimension because it possesess the compelling sensation that we are watching an inert substance come to life. I had this sensation watching this even when I was quite small by which I mean it works on us on a sensual level.

Modern CGI by it's very nature does not allow this kind of metaphor to arise 'organically' from its own process of becoming. Other ways have to be found to make it bear fruits that are unique to it's medium. Mostly, it is used as a cost effective alternative to photographing 'impossible' situations.

"Haunting" ... "Inert substance come to life" ... "Poetic power" ... That's it! You may not be surprised to learn that Chris himself is a first-class painter whose work casts distinctive moods and delivers very human and craftsmanlike pleasures. Chris' site is here. Please check his work out.

Reading up on "Sky Captain" online, I was puzzled that no one mentioned the Lucas-produced, 1994 "Radioland Murders," which, if I remember right, was also shot almost entirely against green screens. It's passably entertaining, but it also has that same airless, deracinated, no-real-spark digital feeling. Francis Coppola envisioned this "do anything your imagination tells you to do" way of filmmaking back with "One From the Heart." Making feature films in this way is said to be liberating for filmmakers, and perhaps it is. Judging from how lifeless most of these pictures have been, though, I'll venture the thought that the real liveliness in digital-video isn't to be found in feature films at all, but in home filmmaking, YouTube-ing, and videoblogging.

I've gnawed away at these matters regularly at this blog. I wrote about my reservations about a couple of Robert Rodriguez's digital films, "Sin City" and "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." I cracked some jokes about one of the "Star Wars" prequels here. Visitor Toby Thain takes a Compleat Curmudgeon's view of the digital revolution in visuals here.



posted by Michael at August 28, 2006


This is a really interesting blog because it tries to talk about things for which we have no concepts yet -- they are too new but also too subtle. I kept thinking about Cocteau before you even mentioned him.

Even "Open Range" had a bit of that flattened quality you speak of, though consciously I approved of the cyber-painted skies that are so common here in Montana. Maybe it's just that the attention of the creators is so grabbed by the effects that they don't put full energy into the story or the acting interactions. But you seem to be saying there's something in the technology and maybe that's so.

When one sees movie stars in person or even on TV or in still candid photos, they look almost unrecognizably different from what we see in a movie, esp. if it is on a big screen. In the movie they are like people in a dream. I recall someone talking about Garbo and how easy it was for her to go disguised around the street, how her skin was unattractively rough, her face looked almost masculine -- but "how the camera loved her." Whether it is lenses, or the succession of images that get made into movement in our brains, or the lighting, or just the frame of mind in the director, something is clearly but very faintly different.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on August 28, 2006 11:22 AM

You ask, "Will tape shot at 24 frames per second (ie., at film-speed) cast more of a spell than tape shot at 30 fps (the usual speed of videotaping)?"

Yes. There's a sweet spot between too-low frame rates (jerky) and too-high rates (un-dreamy).

The converse is true too. Remember Showscan, the 70mm, 60fps film process? I've seen it a couple of times and, despite being celluloid, it has that dissatisfying literalness of TV.

Posted by: Lloyd on August 28, 2006 11:44 AM

I'm almost embarassed at just how much I enjoyed "Sky Captain". Yes, the acting was lacking and the story was cheesy, but have you SEEN Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers serials? This was the best Flash Gordon episode ever! Maybe it was just made for geeks of a certain age.

Posted by: Bradamante on August 29, 2006 8:29 AM

Don't you think it has more to do with the things being made with CGI and digital video (i.e., science fiction spectaculars) than the media themselves? I mean, I can see why reactions against a green screen would be worse (the actor isn't reacting to anything, so he has to fake it), but you could film a regular old movie in digital. Would it then lack eros and mystery?

Posted by: SFG on August 30, 2006 6:29 PM

Really interesting points made by all the posts above. Michael's reference to the'plastic' possibilities of digital media is something that prompted a thought regarding animation: Stop-motion has a sort of 'carved in time' look. CGI has a sort of 'modelled in time' look.
Indirectly connected with this; it might be useful to compare TOY STORY and WALLACE AND GROMIT. Both of these pieces of work are marvellous, achieving beautifully what they set out to do. In each case the ‘medium’ is absolutely appropriate for what they are conveying. The ‘means’ suit the ends – WALLACE AND GROMIT is achieved with ‘organic’ modelling whilst TOY STORY is built with ‘synthetic’ modelling.
Something interesting crops up if we imagine them being produced the other way around – WALLACE AND GROMIT with cgi and TOY STORY with stop motion.
They wouldn’t work.
OK, so why would WALLACE AND GROMIT not work in cgi or TOY STORY not work in stop motion.....
It is all to do with what each of the respective mediums infer, which is something caught up with their very genesis. Stop motion seems to constantly remind us of its origins; which belong to a world of inanimate pasticiene and cardboard. We seem to witness the 'magic' that is 'released' when one photographed frame is placed next to the previous one and so on - a sort of reading between the lines. It provides one with this strong sense of 'otherness' that is such a distinctive feature of this medium. WALLACE AND GROMIT, being part of the 'whimsy' tradition of British storytelling along with its references to the anachronisms of British culture, makes it particularly suitable to being conveyed through this 'otherness' which is stop motion. Even the quirky dichotomy contained in the name 'stop-motion' captures the paradox of the medium at its heart. All of which is suitable to its subject in this case.
TOY STORY on the other hand is a dream. It's 'otherness' is of a completely different order to that of the stop-motion world. This is a transcendental otherness, it does not have the connection with the world we know in the way stop-motion always implies and from which it draws its magic. The computer generated virtual world is the perfect expression for this transcental vision of toys shedding their 'object ness' and coming to life without any sense that it should be otherwise.

How this relates to the 'Sky Captain syndrome' we are talking about is somewhat more problematic. Perhaps a better comparison would be between Pixar's The Incredibles and Sky Captain. Genre-wise both are pretty close, the distinction being of course one is entirely CGI and the other is a mix. I've got my own ideas as to what the difference is but I would like to hear what others have to say.

Posted by: chris bennett on September 2, 2006 12:46 PM

Aside from the debate as to how special effects, whether they be ‘organic’ or ‘synthetic’ are best used, there is another aspect to all this. Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey could be thought of as one complete special effect. This is in no way to denigrate it. It points up an aspect of the process that is so rarely used: Namely, its ability to make palpable an internal vision that by its very realization conveys a poetry that is immune from realization by the verbal and dramatic conventions. One is of course familiar with ‘states of mind’ conveyed in the shorthand of film noir and other cinematic codes. But Kubrick’s film makes one aware of a state of mind that is particular and not general. It is a state that builds inside oneself as we watch the ‘environment’ of the film pass before our eyes. It is as if each set piece and its details produce a purely emotional ‘statement’ within us which when followed by the next has the effect of producing an emotional ‘dialogue’ of some indefinable yet almost visceral meaning. These effects, whilst sharing the genre of science fiction, are practically the antithesis of the function that special effects have in films of this type. They are not there primarily to amaze. They are there to convey a non-verbal poetry: A poetry that uses as its ‘language’ the realization of an environment that makes concrete a state of mind. The only way to ‘know’ what this is is to watch the film – the reason, as with his last film Eyes Wide Shut, that it was so misunderstood.

Posted by: chris bennett on September 4, 2006 4:21 PM

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