Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New Ways of Seeing

Though I only watched the first hour long segment of The Discovery Channel's new miniseries, The Planet Earth, I was completely amazed by its images. I was reminded of the 2003 documentary, Winged Migration, in which filmmakers followed various species of birds migrating across the natural and technological world. It's a beautiful documentary containing little narration or accompaniment of textual information. In the film, the camera seems to live with birds, flying with them through the sky, diving through canyons. The major accomplishment of the film though is how it uses its technological capabilities for the purpose of exploring an abstract observation or connection with nature from the very refined perspective of birds and their migration. The Planet Earth doesn't adopt the same narrative approach, but it does use its technological capacity as an integral part of its storytelling, which is in this case the natural world as a whole. It is not merely embodying the styles and methods of nature documentaries, but becoming something new altogether with its technologies. And it does so solely through the images and the viewer's engagement of them. As I will discuss later, this is not without an attachment to old conventions, styles, that potentially hinder the results of these technologies from growing organically, but programs such as this represent the beginning of what I think could be a revolution in visuality and media.

While watching the first segment, I asked myself the question: how does manner through which these images were "captured" through various technologies constitute what the viewer is seeing? I thought of the concept that what one sees is more the result of how it is captured and represented rather than the object itself. How I see something is more the result of how its presented and positioned within various technologies and social and economic institutions. Regarding The Planet Earth, it's quite clear that its images were only made possible through the technological advancements in film and photography. We are in the age of High Definition, and it is greatly influencing images and their representative abilities, as well as how we viewers and makers relate to them. Thus, what we see is (in a sense) a "new" image.

HD in most cases is used merely to accentuate detail, to provide a more crisp and vibrant picture to images already familiar. For example, sports coverage is almost exactly the same, shot-for-shot, as it was before HD, but HD has become so popular because of it brilliantly it captures the picture and the experience of being there. This feeling of immersion was always a defining aspect of cinema that separated it from television, but with quality of the advancements of audio and visual technology, the cinema experience is becoming more widely available in your own home. HD has moved television yet another step closer to bridging the gap between cinema and television. Interestingly, while sports coverage remains mostly the same, other areas within the television realm have come to embody the aesthetics and visual styles of cinema, not just in a stylistic sense but also concerning the nature of the narratives. Sitcoms and Reality TV excluded, television dramas are more gritty, more daring, and more intense than ever, which is in part due to the mass improvements made in television audio-visual technology.

There are countless places in which such a discussion can go, most of which is very relevant, but right now I'd like to focus on images themselves - how they're captured and why television increasingly is becoming an appropriate medium for programs such as Planet Earth, which are in many ways revolutionizing the medium itself, thus altering the content and how viewers relate to it and understand it. My fascination with HD concerns not just the context of these images, but also the pristine quality of the images themselves, something that has long been around concerning still pictures. But what we have here are moving images captured in the most vivid color and definition.

The visual experience of The Planet Earth is hypnotic. Every image is sublime, every composition beautiful. The viewer simply can feel the images and their atmospheres more. While this program uses the aesthetic styles and conventions of nature documentaries as a springboard, it nonethless launches into a new realm of nature documentary. Where sports coverage has only experienced a minor expansion in terms of forming new images, this program was clearly made with intent of revolutionizing how, in this case nature, is seen and therefore understood. Without HD and other technological advances in image capturing (which I will not go into detail about, as I am still learning their details), this program would not have been made. Which is why I consider this program among others to be the beginning of a revolution. How this effects the medium itself in an economic sense remains to be seen, but there is no question as to the brilliance and beauty of the images presented on The Planet Earth.

Regarding cinema, a different revolution is currently in the midst: the digital revolution. While HD allows allows a camera to better capture an image, digital technology is altering how that image is captured, or in some cases constructed. No longer is the medium reliant on capturing a real moment in space and time for the purposes of narrative. Digital technology enables filmmakers to create those images and alter the photographed reality that the camera films. As mentioned above, the two media (cinema and television) are bridging together in many ways. HD is a large part of cinema technology, and digital technology is creeping into more television. All of this has happened because of technologies and media themselves, which are now understood and experienced so similarly that the content is likewise similar. The cinema will always have the theater and television will always be more personal. The shear locations of these media in terms of where a spectator acquires and experiences the content keep them apart. Yet, with the booming popularity of DVDs and the emerging realm of movie downloading as well as the more theatrical experience of watching television, even the economic aspects of location and marketing are converging, thus bringing about new understanding of their content, which will therefore alter the content.

Where this leads, I don't know. I do know that this revolution of how we see images and experience narrative has a long way to go. The presence of the intrusive voiceover in The Planet Earth is the greatest signifier that images are not only bound to familiar narrative structures in mainstream cinema and television, but that images are consumed in a very literate sense. We remain somewhat uncomfortable to interpreting images outside the familiar realm of classical narrative structures as well as language. So long that this discomfort continues, viewers and filmmakers will remain aprehensive towards seeing and creating new images, allowing the images to work upon us without telling/being told how to interpret those images. But the process has already begun in how images are captured, constructed, presented, as is seen in The Planet Earth and the film, Winged Migration. I would hope that eventually these new ways of seeing may result in more bold and daring images; images that challenge and provoke viewers rather than lull them into complacency and comfortable numbness. I'm confident that such technologies can take us in that direction, but it's a long road ahead before we're there.

1 comment:

Ted Pigeon said...

I saw more of the program recently and I would like to note that I am increasingly frusrated with Sigourney Weaver's narration. I noted its intrusiveness in the original post, but I feel I should further emphasize that the presence and content of the superfluous narration is almost balancing out the visionary images of the production, which serves as an awful reminder that television has a long way to go as a medium in regards to better content.

I still hold the optimistic approach that this may be the beginning of a new movement of visuality and entertainment media, but I can't get over the significance of The Planet Earth's narration, an element keeping the show from escaping the confines of connect-the-dots programming.