Monday, August 20, 2007

The Digital Embrace

"To read a narrative continuum is in fact to arrange it in a variety of structures, to strive for concepts or labels which more or less sum up the profuse sequence of observations." - Roland Barthes

Just recently, I watched Zack Snyder's 300 on DVD, which, like Sin City (2005) and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), superimposes "real" actors on a sythnetic canvas: lumbering beasts, endless armies, gallons of blood, severed limbs, and entire cities were added in post-production while production likely consisted of actors in front of a green screen. Like the aforementioned films, 300 is a sometimes harsh melding of digital and analogic properties of cinematic style and narrative. Audience reception of these green screen films varies, but their presence in the Hollywood mainstream is becoming more prominent.

While many would agree that neither Sky Captain nor Sin City were entirely successful as genre narratives, it's tough to say whether that's due to their digital properties. That the manner in which a story is visualized greatly impacts the effect of the story doesn't help when attempting to assess these two elements independent of each other. Nevertheless, both movies relied upon familiar temporal and causual relations as they experimented with cinematic space via their digital design: Sky Captain is a very enjoyable throwback to a number of golden age film styles --from film noir to John Huston adventures-- while Sin City combined a hyper-violent Tarantino-esque visual design with a graphic comic aesthetic. These films' experimentation with spatial and temporal relations were successful with the target audiences for the respective films because their intended viewers were familiar with the genres and visual structures, and could "fill in the gaps" while acknowledging the artifice of the content and the sometimes harsh juxtapositions of the analogic and the digital.

300 is very much in line with this pre-established logic of spectatorship, not deviating much from the editing and compostional styles of contemporary music videos and popular cinema. It features digitally enhanced slow-motion action shots, detailed vistas and digitally created monsters that wrestle with the human actors; but this all serves to sustain the very same purpose as Mel Gibson's Braveheart and George W. Bush's war propoganda about honor, valor, and vanguishing evil. Some hail the film's supposedly groundbreaking visual techniques and synthetic compositions, but in reality, the film's images are purely conventional. That's not to say they can't be effective; but audience response (as well as some critical response) to the film has been overwhelmingly positive in my observations, and that response is what really interests me. 300 wants to convince you that it's status as digital --which the filmmakers boldly pronounce-- elevates it beyond the structural design and trends of photographically based films. It features self-consciously "different" movements and framing techniques by the standards of most risk-free popular cinema, but as compared to sitcom style framing and editing, that's not saying much. If we're comparing the film to the real originality from the likes of Tati or Kubrick, then it becomes evident that 300 fits more with the subset of popular cinema that prides itself on being different and noncomformist by showcasing overtly digital composition, but which really fits the mold of intensified continuity to a tee and challenges nothing.

Nevertheless, the film is worth analyzing for its employment of effects and how we are cued to perceive them. The digital environments inhabited by the respective characters of these films are at once supposed to be real and unreal inasmuch that the spectator may perceive them and form a spatial knowledge of them as concrete despite the acknowledged reality that they are unreal. These films therefore exhibit qualities of real, photographed space (an already questionable term). But by acknowledging the artifice of these environments, the viewer may thus accept the incongruent relations of cinematic space and thereby accept the faker looking effects as part of the storytelling. Coincidentally, this cues the viewer to settle into a state of passive admiration for digital images. It seems that the more overt filmmakers are with digital effects in movies such as 300 or Sin City, the greater response they achieve from their intended audience, of which many journalistic critics are apart. Yet distinct relations between the makeup of the images and the perceiver's ability to interpret them is largely underdiscussed.

Though I have staunchly defended digital technology in cinema since this blog's inception, I have focused on movies that I personally consider innovative. I have praised many big-budget films for their employment of the digital, but few of them have seen such high praise from popular audiences or even critics. As evidenced by what I consider to be significant advancements of the medium in movies like Miami Vice (2006) (a hugely budgeted movie whose treasures are only reaped by cinephiles and a handful of critics since it flopped with popular audiences), my interests in these media clearly differ with a common moviegoer or critic. Nevertheless, attempting to grapple with popular manifestations of digital media in cinema is crucial to my own perspective of digital technology. Specifically, I like to look at popular texts in relation to the greater advancement of the technology, especially how it is viewed in the eyes of consumers and moviegoers. There is undoubtedly a major shift occuring in popular cinema, if not from the filmmaking angle but instead concerning the collective understanding and interpretation of digital cinema.

Looking back on some of the more successful movies extensively employing digital technology, reception of them has been rather inconsistent both with critics and audiences. It's as if we are in a collective state of uncertainty regarding digital technology. Ever since Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Jurassic Park (1993), two movies that are discussed more for their use of digital effects than their storytelling, it seemed like digital technology was ready to explode. Now, roughly 15 years and millions of effects shots later, I cannot distinguish any clear direction in terms of how audiences and critics receive the technology. Some will often complain that movies are too effects-heavy, while others seem to crave effects since they spell out more destruction in high-budgeted action movies.

The prevailing current attitude in the critical community is one of trepidation, as movies are commonly criticized for their increased use of digital technology. About movies like 300 and The Matrix, we read popular cinema is embodying more aspects of video games as they are increasingly pixelated, to which I respond: How is that a criticism, and what does that mean, anyway? I have seen little real research or deeper analytical inquiries into how digital cinema is actually received with critics, consumers, and cinephiles. There are many opinions about it, but they are often based on uninformed assumptions. Meanwhile, there is so little actual criticism of digital storytelling outside your typical appreciations of digital effects in DVD documentaries and TV specials. Teminator 2 is routinely cited as a digital effects revolution and is considered a great movie because of it, yet its status as such has clouded the real issue of how those effects influence storytelling. (Note: Its arguably superior predcessor, The Terminator, by comparison, doesn't even seem to exist at all sometimes. I guess nobody wants to see a movie with stop motion animation anymore.) It seems that effects are often cited for why certain films are successes and others failures, yet there is no correlation between increased effects use and either box office revenue or critically agreed upon quality, which suggests two things: 1) that the reception of digital cinema may not be in line with the greater use of it in visual narrative, and 2) that critics and audiences are in many ways just as apprehensive about the technology as they were 15 years ago.

George Lucas' Star Wars prequels --which pioneered many of these digital filmmaking techniques and post-production-leaning filmmaking methods-- have raked in millions of dollars at the box office. But much of that can be attributed to the already rabid fan base of the series, Lucasfilm's and 20th Century Fox's successful marketing campaigns, and previous trilogy's status as a familiar mythology in moviegoers' canon. Though each recent Star Wars film made more than $300 million, critical and audience conjecture has not been kind to the films, even now as they are cemented as a trilogy. Yet when we hear about the failures of the films, one of the most common reasons is their reliance on digital effects, which in turns effects performances and the liveliness of the movie. But does that make effects inherently bad?

Since there seems to be little consistency when it comes to how certain digitally-based films are received, perhaps we can speculate that perceivers' expectations have something to do with it. Sure, we can lean on narrative quality, but that is often influenced more by personal and cultural ideology than real objective standards of quality. That some stories are poorly told for their over-reliance on digital cinema says more about viewers' notions of good storytelling (which shift according to the emergence of new technologies) than about the effects themselves. The fact is, there are innumerable potential contributors to how a film's images are perceived and interpreted that to single out effects not only is invalid and reductive, it says a lot about how a viewer conceives of visual storytelling at all.

In the scope of digital cinema's success stories, 300 is distinct insofar that its booming success was a great surprise to many. Although Frank Miller has a strong following, that alone cannot account for more than $200 million in theatrical box office receipts, in March especially (a month not known for generating big box office). The movie could have followed a similar pattern to like-minded predcessors; it could have been a relative success, such as Sin City ($74 million), or it could have borderline flopped, like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow ($37 million). But it far surpassed all expectations and is one of Hollywood's biggest success stories of the year. Yet one should note that while each of these films demonstrate the overwhelming presence of the digital in contemporary cinematic narrative with varying degrees of success, they each fit comfortably within specific genre norms and styles, further supporting the hypothesis that their images rely more on spectatorial acknowledgment of narrative relations and genre bounds, which thus yields passive admiration for supposedly new images.

It's clear that digital filmmaking techniques have advanced in extraordinary ways over the last 15 years. However, although movies are becoming increasingly digital in design, it still seems that audiences nor critics can really make sense of this technology, even in spite of 300's success, which just shows me that audiences are becoming more comfortable with this particular use of the technology, which should be expected after 15-20 years of mainstream use. How these technologies alter our way of seeing images is moreoreless uncertain, though, which is evident over the nature of the discourse surrounding digital cinema. There are proponents and naysayers on both sides of the debate for digital cinema's validity, but even considering digital technology in a "good" or "bad" light assumes photographic means of visual narrative is the standard by which all future technology is measured.

I'm sure I could be proven wrong with a number of examples, and I anticipate these arguments. But when we really step back and try to look at the bigger picture of digital cinema, it looks increasingly muddled in terms of the discourse about it and how it is perceived. We can all frame our opinions about the technology --however informed or uninformed they are-- and piece together an argument about digital technology and its place in storytelling, cinema, and visuality. But for every argument one makes, several others can counter that argument and offer another. Now, more perspectives are emerging along with potential uses for digital technology, which is now being used as much more than a tool for special effects-laden movies, but itself is becoming an expression on its own terms. David Lynch's Inland Empire, while not being a huge hit by any stretch, represents a prominent filmmaker actively exploring the possibilities of digital cinema. On the maintream front, Robert Zemeckis' forthcoming Beowulf employs a rare form of digital cinema in which the movements of the actors are digitally captured and then animated into a completely photorealistic, yet synthetic movie. In the case of Beowulf, as well as other animated movies like it (namely Monster House and Zemeckis' own Polar Express), the end result is entirely digital, but is based on photographic properties.

The shear diversity of uses of digital media and the variety of perspectives about them speaks to the lack of definition that really pervades the cleanly defined analog/digital dichotomoy. Having just seen Lynch's Inland Empire, a true convergence of form and content in the digital realm, I was reminded of how much there is still yet to be explored with these media, specifically their relationship to narrative. That connection is rarely breached (at least that I've seen) in discourse concerning digital media.

Filmmaking has drastically changed due to the prominence of digital cinema, not just for filmmakers but for viewers of and participants in these media. Now more than ever, more emphasis is placed on pre-production and post-production, whereas in the analogic days of cinema the greater emphasis was on production itself. How this shift alters the effect of making and seeing a film is difficult to sum up by examining (however in-depth) a number of digitally influenced films. But we may still gain some insight by observing normative trends of popular cinema of today from two broad vantage points: 1) how it sustains and/or deviates from the stylistic and narrative norms established in last 20 years of digital cinema (which entails observation of how digital cinema has evolved in that time), and 2) how it stands in relation to pre-digital cinema, or photographic (analogic) cinema. The binding element of these two modes of analysis is that the digital exists with the analogic rather than displacing it. The medium itself is made up of many media, so to say that a given film is strictly analogic or strictly digital is foolish. How the digital exists in relation to the photographic properties should be the focal point of analysis, since digital cinema abides by stylistic, visual, and narrative norms established long before digital technology.

If we are to accept "digital" as separate from "analog", we would be suggesting that we are in a new age of cinema, free of the constraints of linear storytelling and photographic properties. (I'm not even sure this is possible since even the most abstract of films abide by some visual or stylistic narrative framework, even if that's not adhereing to one.) Nice as that sounds, it's an awfully big claim that just wouldn't hold up if applied in theory or practice. But it's a mentality fueled by the popular analog/digital model that so many of us use to understand these technologies. If anything, the wide use of digital technologies and the endless ways in which they enable narratives and images to be seen, constructed, and interpreted in entirely new ways suggests how flimsy terms like "analog" and "digital" really are. Perhaps as more ways of expressing visual narratives are increasingly exercised in filmmaking through the use of digital video, effects, and animation, the separation of analog and digital will no longer be relied on to understand these emerging media and the analog/digital model may finally be rightly seen as a false dichotomy.


Daniel Vella said...

The cinematic image is inherently artificial, and the use of CG and digital media only foregrounds this fact. As with any tool, they can be grossly misused (either on a technical or a conceptual level) but I feel that in making evident the constructed nature of the image and granting the possibility of breaking down the realist fallacy that has so long held sway in mainstream cinema, they offer a number of exciting opportunities.

I feel a distinction needs to be made between films (such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.) that use CG effects with the intention of bringing something impossible to life within a fundamentally realist, spatially coherent cinematic image; and films, such as 300 or Sin City, that revel in the deliberate artifice of their images. The Matrix can be seen to bridge the gap and remains, to my mind, the most successful at achieving the aims of this second group; though Sin City was certainly an enjoyable enough couple of hours. 300 I am less enthusiastic about, as I wrote a few days ago...

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Daniel!

You said it all in your first sentence. As Walter Ong observes, nothing is more human than artifice. By highlighting the diverse uses of digital media in cinema, I think it becomes clear that while distinctions are necessary (as you say), it's the categorizing that that has restricted many viewers and critics to begin with.

I'm not sure if I was successful, but I tried to put the world "real" in quotations throughout that post so as to point out its suspect nature. To suggest that a photographically captured moving image is any more real than a digital or animated one is assuming too much about the nature of cinema.

Within the last 20 years, we've seen an explosion of the digital that the word itself is revealing itself to be more and more a vague term. There are layers of digital cinema that we're only now beginning to explore.

As for your second point (i.e. second paragraph), I think it may be too tough to make such distinctions since there was a time before digital cinema when just about any image was still possible without digital aid. It would exist differently, certainly, and involve different artificial means, but I think we must be careful not to say that digital technology is used when something otherwise isn't possible (at least in terms of Hollywood effects films). The very presence of the technology limits filmmakers' and viewers' perception of what's possible and what isn't, and to say that digital effects are a tool for creating otherwise impossible images may be a limiting description of digital cinema.

Austintation said...

Great article...I'm currently working on my summary/analysis of 'Inland Empire' and really could use some inspiration for wrapping up some of those various functionalities. I'm surprised you haven't mentioned 'Avatar' (2009) which certainly will take the digital medium to even another level with its unprecedented production design and pure scope. I feel compelled to once again to reference Mann's dedication to such a rigid economy; 'Miami Vice' might be the most patronizingly brilliant look at the state of hpyer-reality within our world and the sacrificial standards of romance/corporate enterprise. Consequently, I'm glad other individuals share enthusiasm for the philosophical possibilities of the digital video/HD technology.

Ted Pigeon said...

There's a great article at Senses of Cinema that really delves into matters of economy, hyper-reality, flux, and corporate globilization in Miami Vice. If you haven't yet read, I recommend you doing so, Jeremy.

As for Avatar, I don't doubt that James Cameron is cooking up something entirely different when it comes to application of digital technology, but so little is known about it at this point (other than that they keep calling it revolutionary in press releases and articles) that I didn't want to comment on that just yet. Having seen the preview for Beowulf and knowing a little bit more of what it's all about, I thought I'd comment on that instead. I'm really looking forward to Avatar though, as both a movie fan (Cameron's been sorely needed back on the film scene... desperately) and a proponent of digital media.

Austintation said...

Yeah, I've been referenced to that article many a time--guess it's about time. Anyway, didn't mean to quixotically aggrandize Cameron's film, but it still looks like at least something significant is cooking at that camp...right? *confusion* I'm glad you finally got around to 'Inland Empire'--it's a bitch of a film to attempt to encompass--and my most recent viewing sort of channeled a few of the comments you made in your post, most interestingly the polarity of the analog sound/video design and digital sound/video design. 5 minutes into the film and Lynch seems to have already suggested a full-blown assault of each's capabilities.

Oh, and for the record, I despised '300'.

Ted Pigeon said...

I figured you'd seen the Senses article. Regarding 300, I didn't find it worthwhile either. It had some nice tones and textures, but the movie leaned excessively it's "look at how cool these images are" attitude that the movie itself amounted to little more than a advrtisement for severed heads. I didn't much like Sin City either, though I was just worn down by it; the first hour or so was striking. Of the three, Sky Captain is definitely my favorite. I was turned off at first, but on repeat viewings, I began seeing what Roger Ebert was talking about. What initially seemed lifeless all of the sudden exuded so much energy.

Daniel Vella said...

Hmm I have to confess I didn't particularly enjoy Sky Captain, though I only watched it once on its theatrical release, and never revisited it. 300 didn't do much for me either, but I found Sin City very entertaining, if not endowed with any particular depth.