Saturday, May 5, 2007

"Nothing is More Human than Artifice"

Update: Excerpt now finalized.

"I do indeed say that writing is artificial, and maybe one of our divergences is due to my not having explained that I do not consider being artificial necessarily bad at all, but rather of itself good. Nothing is more human than artifice. Only human beings can make products that are truly artificial–extensions into the outside world of the interiority of human consciousness or, if you wish, appropriations of the outside world into the interiority of consciousness."
- Walter J. Ong

[The following excerpt is a small section of the paper I have recently completed concerning Film Language, Deleuze, and digital cinema. The paper's titles is Digital Artifice: Toward a Revisioning of Cinema and the Interpretation of Images. The above quote serves as something of an introductory passage for the paper and its explication of the relationship of language to technology. Keep in mind that this is but a small section. I would post the entire paper, but I am going to hold off for now in the interest of perhaps presenting and/or publishing it. That is if I'm lucky.]

A Digital Problem

Since cinema has ingrained itself in our collective consciousness and restructured thought, it is essential to analyze its stylistic and compositional techniques that have cemented themselves in our minds regarding how we see the world. Furthermore, to understand the thought processes it enables and works through, it is important to examine how its emerging technologies sustain or work against classical conventions of filmmaking, practices which have dominated American cinema, David Bordwell argues, even as it has moved into its supposedly “postmodern” age, a fallacy in and of itself (Bordwell, 2006).

According to Lev Manovich, cinema provides “lens-based recordings of reality,” (2001, p. 294) consisting of unmodified photograph recordings of real events taking place in real physical space. The camera “records” reality, says Manovich (2001). But to Deleuze, cinema embodies another reality, another space, another time (Uhlmann, 2004). Here, we have problem of conceptualization, highlighting the issues raised in trying to understand a medium that is a culmination and collision with many other media, electronic and otherwise. Thus, the importance of film technology is incredibly important and critical in possessing an understanding of what cinema is. Manovich claims that cinema captures an already existing world, whereas Deleuze claims that cinema does not represent a world - as a language might - but instead is its own world based on the spatial and temporal relationships it forges in the time-image.

If we define cinema by Manovich’s description of being a filmed reality, then any distortion of that reality compromises the integrity of the image. For cinema to be cinema, space and time must be captured photographically. Interestingly, Manovich does make mention of the birth of the moving image being in animation, but he keeps the two separate (2001). Manovich defines digital cinema as “a particular case of animation that use live action footage as one of its elements” (2001, p. 298) Thus, for Manovich, digital cinema is not really cinema at all, but animation, which is why he claims that the digital age is bringing cinema full circle and connecting it with its roots of animation. He traces the history of cinema to animation, a narrative medium that never involved film. Cinema was then born from the traditions of animation as a means of capturing motion, only it marked the beginning of photographically capturing images within a certain time and space. Interestingly, images of hand-drawn and digitally animated films are made to look as if they were captured photographically. From a cinematographic and continuity perspective, they are strongly influenced by the photographic properties of cinema, while obviously stretching the camera’s “recording” of actual movement.

We are experiencing the pinnacle of this problem right now in cinema, as digital technology is ever more prominent in mainstream, independent, and foreign films (McLean, 2007). The term "film" supposes that the means through which a moving image is presented is on film and photographically captured. But this definition is fundamentally contradictory of film’s narrative promise of providing a world into which the viewer may escape. The emergence of digital technology directly calls into question what constitutes a produced moving image and raises the question: does cinema need to be photographic to be considered cinema?

Digital cinema is often understood as digital effects in movies (McLean, 2007), in which a digital component is added to a photographically captured image, keeping true with Manovich’s definition. Much like animated films, the digital is often understood within a culturally cemented understanding of cinema as “film,” in that digital technology is processed in relation to photographically captured images. But what constitutes a pure photographed image? While a camera captures "actual" reality, that reality is represented on film differently than the eye may perceive it. While the camera is an obvious technological extension of physiological components of the eye and the brain, as is all of cinema, but what can we account for as truly being "real." Digital images on film represent a component of cinema outside of "film," yet it is often comfortably situated amongst our ideology of cinema as film. Therefore, digital images are designed to stand-in for “the real” (McLean, 2007); they synthetically add elements to a composition that the camera did not capture, but they are still positioned as such.

In terms of classical filmmaking, digital effects often serve the same purpose in their execution of classical norms and conventions (McLean, 2007). Since The Abyss (1989), digital effects have become increasingly prevalent in American filmmaking, in both big budget blockbusters, e.g. the computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), the shape-shifting T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992), or the spider-bots in Minority Report (2002), and lower budgeted art-house and independent films. How these digital effects are employed often vary incredibly. Nevertheless, their design remains the same: they exist as digitally added components of a photographically captured image. Although they do not take up space as “real” elements of a composition might, they are meant to feel that way. They may be incorporated to add to the narrative as the viewer sees it, in reflexive films such as the consumer apartment sequence in Fight Club (1999) or the visual presentation of Harold Crick’s very structured lifestyle in Stranger Than Fiction (2006), or they may be used to enhance a composition dramatically in small, almost undetectable ways.

Although their use varies depending on the narrative, genre, and stylistic aspects of a film, digital effects are meant to appear to take up the same space as the filmed aspects of a frame. Thus, these effects may be understood as organic extensions of classical filmmaking styles. While they exist to expand photographic capabilities, their place in narrative filmmaking is to sustain the elements of style as established by norms and standards defined long before the technology existed (McLean, 2007). However, digital effects are of growing prominence in many different films to the point that they work against their supposed purpose of upholding already established stylistic conventions. The fact that they are noticed and that the viewer can identify whether an aspect of a composition is “real” or not signifies a separation of the digital from the analog, a separation suggesting a tension. If the viewer can identify that a particular image or component of an image is digital, then the digital is not serving its purpose to stand-in for what the camera can actually capture.

An interesting example of the dualistic relationship between the digital and the analog is Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), a film that is realistically about 90 percent digital effects and 10 percent “real”. This is of course a rough approximation. The point is that an overwhelming portion of the film exists entirely digitally, which calls into question whether it should be called a film at all. It is a prime example of the shift Manovich explains in which cinema is being launched back into the realm of animation, becoming more of a painterly art than a photographic art. However, it returns to its painterly roots after having been strongly influenced by photographic properties, as mentioned previously, which can result in problematic ways of conceptualizing cinema. Herein lies the tension.

How digital images (both digital effects and digitally captured images) sustain classical filmmaking traditions through its photographic qualities is evident in Star Wars: Revenge of Sith, which follows a specific stylistic and narrative design. This makes it an interesting artifact of study for exactly how those stylistic and narrative elements are communicated, sustained, or altered through the film’s reliance on digital effects. However, its outward embracing of digital technology is subsidized by its use of such technologies to form a narrative that may have existed without it. The digital components of the film are designed to be perceived as analogically real. Therefore, the film’s attempt at classical structuring and stylistic devices is ultimately artificial. Compositions, movements, editing, and photography employ the digital to execute a thoroughly analog image; but such an image is not possible under digital terms Thus, the digital effects are essentially counteractive to the film’s intent of sustaining classical filmmaking and narrative values.

These films decisively exemplify the tension between “film” and “digital.” Many critics have lambasted the films and other effects-heavy productions, citing that they are overly reliant on effects and therefore not really “films”. Nevertheless, despite being problematic, the Star Wars prequel trilogy represents a significant exploration of digital technology in cinema; often times, they result in awkward movement-image effects, but there are moments laden throughout all three recent films that display a true time-image in their marriage of the digital and the analog to the point that they are unnoticeable and the image itself becomes new. Rarely are these moments seen, however, since many scholars have focused on the movement-images. Such criticisms tend focus on the presence of the digital and the presumption that a “filmed” reality results in more effective cinema. But this too is a problematic approach.

Since cinema has been defined by its photographic qualities for more than a century, the emergence of the digital as positioned in relation to that century’s worth of photographic properties seems to establish digital cinema as a betrayal of cinema's "realness." But cinema, in its narrative origins and manipulative nature, is a fundamental distortion of “reality” in that it locks movement to a specific space and time not our own; that is its purpose. From a Deleuzian episteme, one that collapses language and technology, cinema is not a representation. Therefore, to focus on the notion that a camera better captures a world and represents it than digital images do is incredibly problematic. Cinema is its own world; it’s own image. It does not represent and replicate movement but creates movement (and therefore time) in its complex compositional relations and elements, which constantly transmogrify to interact with one another so as to form an image that a spectator can “see” (Deleuze, 1989). The extent to which the spectator can “see” the whole image – essentially, that which is unseeable – depends upon those very relations that forge the movement on screen. Therefore, the problem with the Star Wars films isn’t in them being so reliant on digital technology, but rather in how they employ digital technology for the purpose of recreating the movement-image. To focus on the overwhelming presence of digital effects in the Star Wars films as the reason for their problematic nature is more a reflection of the ideology that the term “film” and film language imposes and assume on cinema and its spectators.

Deleuze claims that in its abilities to embody sight and sound as the eye, ears, and brain capture it, cinema becomes another world, another image, rather than a mere representation of perceptions of stimuli (Deleuze, 1986). Since cinema is a culmination of various media and technologies, to envision its properties as purely photographic would be to limit its capabilities and its visual potential. Nevertheless, the properties of language have categorized cinema and its narrative components to be a certain way, as is reflected in the recent Star Wars films, thus shaping an understanding not only of its content, but of the form itself.


Damian said...

Quick question, Ted...

Did you write this before or after I contributed my latest comment to your other post on the subject?

Ted Pigeon said...

Some before, and some after. This paper has been a constructuve effort since February.

Ted Pigeon said...

Damian, I thought you were referring to your initial reply a few weeks ago. I only recently saw that you found that book and quote. So the most recent one did not affect the content of my draft, but our discussions regarding your first reply definitely did.

I think Cook's approach is fairly in-line with Manovich. But for me paper, I'm actually focusing more on digital video. Nevertheless, this talk of digital is all very important in film studies. It prompts a question of identity regarding the medium of cinema itself, and it does not pose easy solutions. What is cinema and its properties? We find out that this is amazingly difficult to answer.

Damian said...

I was just wondering because your initial question on the nature of digital cinema reminded me of that section from Cook's book (HA!) that dealt with the idea of it essentially being a form of animation. I didn't realize that Cook was actually referencing Lev Manovich and I guess I was just struck by the fact that you then went on to quote the same Manovich article (in fact the exact same passage) that Cook and I were quoting.

Eerie, but cool. :)