Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Pushing Into the Digital Realm

Variety today reported that James Cameron is beginning production on his next big budget sci-fi epic, Avatar, in April. While the news of Avatar has been the subject of much discussion in internet sites like Aint It Cool and countless message boards, this is the first official announcement of Cameron's return to Hollywood moviemaking since Titanic (1997). Cameron remarked in an interview with Aint It Cool that he will have a rough cut of the film by the end of this year, but that post production would take about a year and a half because of the digital photorealistic technology he will be using to render characters and environments.

What is perhaps most interesting about this news is that the film will supposedly revolutionize the digital medium that he helped to create with his films The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). More on these Cameron films and others in the future, but now I would like to focus this discussion on the impact of the digital cinema. Since those two films, a huge shift in big-buget filmmaking has taken place, starting with Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), before ultimately leading up to George Lucas' new Star Wars trilogy (1999, 2002, 2005) and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001- 2003). There have been many experiments in between, including the box office failure Final Fantasy (2001) and The Polar Express (2004), but the trio of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Peter Jackson have been the forerunners in the digital effects revolution that is seemingly now upon us. All have used the technology differently, yielding different results and various approaches to the medium.

The way the news reports have been presented, it would seem that Avatar will be the culmination of the progressively larger curve that digital cinema has been making since the late 80's. And leave it to the man who gave the medium its biggest push to take it the next level. What interests me is how this all affects current filmmaking trends and overall scope of cinema. Many critics and bloggers have complained in recent years that big budget filmmaking is being destroyed by the digital medium, citing that the emphasis is often more on flashy effects than on storytelling. It's hard to say if such generalizations are objectively true, because each of us has an individual perspective and will cite specific examples to make the case over whether this movement is good or bad for the cinema; it's all a matter of which perspective you choose to frame your film viewing and interpretation. Some will cite the recent Star Wars pictures as being too effects-heavy and the slew of empty Hollywood epics defined more by grand, sweeping shots of armies than actually telling a story. But, like I said, this is a very limited perspective. I would contest (from my own perspective) that for every one of these examples of how effects overpower storytelling, there are as many films that have made the medium part of the storytelling to great effect. Further complicating matters is how each individual views the medium of digital cinema and how this informs their perspective on given films. Some viewers adopt more traditional values when it comes to achieving special effects; these people would rather see something real and concrete on the screen as created by makeup, production design, and various stylistic techniques of presentation rather than something created on a computer. These viewers tend to scorn anything that they know contains so digital effects and question films for using them when they can create effects in a more genuine manner.

I find that this approach does not hold water for a number of reasons. The cinema is an ever changing medium. It was the first vehicle that allowed moving images to exist on a screen. Since its birth in the late 19th century, the media and technologies it has spawned have shaped culture and communication differently for everyone. Now, with digital technology affecting nearly every form of media, we can't escape images. Whether its television, news, internet, the immediacy of the content has made it such that we cannot live without these media. They force themselves into almost every aspect of our lives; the presence of cellular telephones, iPods, and digital cameras have affirmed that. From that point of view, it would only seem natural that the cinema take part as well. Whether these technologies have contributed significantly in a positive or negative manner is solely a matter of individual perspective. Those who do not embrace these media vehicles are informed by their experiences without them, and would rather continue living in the comfortable manner in which they have most of their lives without these media. This often determines one's perspective on the manner in which these new media and tecnhnologies contribute to our lives. There are several confounding factors contributing to each individual's perspective on whether this technology upsurge is good or bad. But even thinking in such terms of positive or negative reflects much about how those ideologies are formed. Perhaps rather than commenting on how or why a given technology is good or bad, we should be focusing on the factors that have lead to the creation of such media and technologies and what their emergence reflects about our current culture and manner of communication (as well as why some will inevitably embrace cutting edge developments and others rejects it). It ultimately is an issue of socialization.

Bringing the focus back to the cinema, every time a new technological advance has been made throughout history, it was met with almost unanimous trepidation and sometimes fear. Some artists embraced the possibility of advancing the medium, while many claimed that they ruined the integrity of the medium, i.e., the emergence of talkies, technicolor. The journey of the cinema is particularly relevant in regards to the content of the previous paragraph because the cinema itself is an immeasurably powerful form of communication. Its history and evolution in the last hundred years is something of a microcosm for all of communication, and the media filters which now shape it. As stated earlier, the moving image has changed the way we relate to the world. Media outlets (be it news, television or cinema) shape our socialized experienced by forming representations of the "world outside." Its progression as channelled through changing vehicles of technology has resulted in an inevitable demand for more immediacy - bigger, better, and faster.

In a way, this has happened recently with digital cinema. Filmmakers are exploring the medium in dynamic and interesting ways - some use it as a way of channeling traditional storytelling such as George Lucas's Star Wars prequels, which build almost entirely synthetic worlds. Lucas has come under heat because these films showcase a mix between old and new ideals that have been brought on by digital cinema. The problem he had with changing the vehicle of achieving his style is that audiences had a knowledge of the previous films, all of which were cutting edge, but were firmly implanted in the filmmaking trends that have dominated movie making since its inception. Equipped with the knowledge of the previous films, many viewers found Lucas' new creations to be an awkward mix of the old and the new, or the old channeled by the new. His films were met with mixed criticisms, but they are a fascinating staple in modern digital filmmaking that embody a somewhat awkward stage that the cinema finds itself in as the digital realm breathes over us. His films are often known for that akward style, but they also showcase the positive, with almost sublime fusions of new and old filmmaking ideologies, resulting in powerful images and a vastly new approach of telling stories. During individual moments of those films, it's hard not to feel as though we are stradling old and new ways of seeing and interpreting images.

Other filmmakers are exploring how this new vehicle of forging images can provide a new way of seeing images in relation to storytelling as a whole. Michael Mann's recent film, Miami Vice (2006) exemplifies this very new trend. In the case of the Star Wars films, Lucas wanted to achieve the same stylistic result, only the means by which he created that style has changed. With Miami Vice in particular, Mann explores the relationship between the image and the stories those images produce. The screenplay could have yielded a very basic action film featuring familiar visual and stylistic approaches that typically define the genre and categories to which the film belongs. But with his film, Mann challenges those tropes, visually reinventing how such stories typically are presented by actively calling attention to the environment in which the story takes place and the characters live. He attempts to redefine cinematic space by deliberately confounding the presentation of stories that are inherently traditional. While this discussion is venturing into David Bordwell's territory of story and style in modern movies, it is still relevant within the digital discussion because Mann achieves his effect with the digital technology he employs to construct and present the images of the film, which in turn affects every other element contributing to the film's style. By choosing to shoot the film digitally, Mann took full advantage of the visual possibilities that the medium presented him and deliberately confounded the stylistic norms that dictate cinematic space.

These films exemplify how the technology is changing the cinematic medium in large ways and small - in how we experience the same conventions with it and how its presence confounds those very conventions. Other filmmakers are utilizing the technology to function more fluidly with the storytelling. Steven Spielberg's recent big budget efforts are particularly noteworthy because he wants the digital elements to slip in unnoticed with the other classically positioned and constructed elements, thus creating a different effect. His Minority Report (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) both feature extensive effects sequences in crafting images that otherwise could not be made without digital effects. However, they are made to look "real" within the environment of each film. Other filmmakers have attempted to work digital elements seamlessly into their films, but ultimately this has failed on almost all counts with the exception of Spielberg. His use of the digital medium is often mean to enhance his commitment to classical style and structure. But, he too is drifting away from many of the trends that have constituted many of his own earlier films and classical Hollywood filmmaking as a whole.

Debating over whether digital cinema will positively or negatively effect filmmaking and film viewing is really beside the point. It is here to stay, and such debates serve as indicators of how certain viewer's allegiances to particular styles and manners of film making and viewing are determined. But this is a constricting approach to the cinema, since the cinema over the years has defined, reflected, and informed the evolving modes of communications that dictate our lives. The medium itself is about possibility. The extent to which the ways of seeing that cinema provides will further be altered remains an interesting subject of discussion. For example, the forthcoming 3-D "revolution," something that has come and gone over the years, provides an interesting element to the discussion because it essentially redefines the parameters by which we can see. This prompts questions about what the cinema is and what specifically makes it up. To what extent these new media and technologies alter the experience of the presentation and consumption of images seems to be changing all of the time, and given the interactive nature of much of modern media, 3-D cinema fits comfortably within that realm. The question of whether 3-D cinema can actually be called cinema is indeed an interesting one, especially given the current discussion of digital cinema, but that will be the subject of another post. In the mean time, it's prudent to think about what actually defines cinema. Is it the four corners of the two dimensional screen or can it be more interactive? It's tough to say.

Nevertheless, with all of these technology vehicles altering the cinematic experience, the cinema once again reveals itself as an ever-changing media of image productions and consumption. And it makes for a significant subject of thought and discussion.

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