Yep, it's yet another film vs. digital brouhaha—but not in the way we're used to. The Atlantic (née The Atlantic Monthly) has published an excellent article by Govindini Murty and Jason Apuzzo called "At the Summer Box Office, a Battle Between Two Ways of Filming." In the words of my director friend Bob Burnettt, it's a "very interesting look at the feature world's inner turmoil."
Of course, I see it a little more globally—as just one facet of a broader sea-change in movies that's been ongoing for a couple of decades now. When I think of movies, I have in mind a very classic notion of what that means—live actors, in costumes, on sets, performing written screenplays, being lit by lighting directors and filmed with cameras by cinematographers. I saw John Patrick Shanley's film Doubt last night, and it was just the sort of movie I like—a coherent drama with some actual intellectual content centered around not just one but four superb acting performances. If you wonder why Meryl Streep is one of the cinema's greatest actresses—I mean in its entire history—see Doubt. And yet, for her 11 minutes or so of screen time, Viola Davis more than matches her. As a bonus, it turns out it was photographed by my favorite current cinematographer, Roger Deakins. I've actually actually bought certain DVDs, such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, just because he was the cinematographer; and I got Doubt not even knowing. As I say, a bonus.
It did cross my mind that many movies no longer rely on, or even require, performances by actors—and many more don't require their actors to be playing believable human beings. They might be playing characters adapted from cartoons or old TV series, or aliens, or exaggerated clichés, or that most celebrated denizen of our culture's many highly mannered favored plot devices, the serial killer. (I am eye-rollingly fed up with serial killers.) And we live in the age of special effects. Many movies are almost entirely special effects now, or special effects plus fighting, killing, shooting, explosions, or various other species of violence or sadism. In the era prior to my childhood, say the 1950s, special effects were crude and limited, and often campy or ludicrous because of it. I can't help but see them that way still: I can't watch any of the Batman films, for instance, with any greater "willing suspension of disbelief" than I experience watching a cartoon. Maybe a little less, even. Current special-effects-based cinema strikes me as being as mannered, ritualistic and codified as, say, Noh theater, and public favorites at the movies seem to occupy some space on a spectrum between juvenile and puerile. It's made me suspicious and wary even of fantastical elements in films I should accept.
Without going into it any further (and risking pissing people off), I'll just say I think the film vs. digital situation in feature films is part of a larger cultural battle—that neither side really needs to "win." I don't mind that other people get Avatar and The Avengers; do they really need to mind that I get The King's Speech and Winter's Bone? (You can thank me for not making a bad pun just there about throwing us traditionalists a bone.)
A worthwhile article, in any case. Might even have something to do with still photography, on some tangent or other, although I'm not going to stretch it that far myself.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured [partial] Comment by CK Dexter Haven: "You seem to be at the far end of a 'fantasy<—>reality' scale. I'm glad to be more in the center of that scale, but my lines of demarcation don't seem to be so solidly set. I agree, to use your examples, that Winter's Bone is a far more compelling film than The Avengers. I have zero interest in seeing The Avengers. My reason, when recently asked, was that I just don't like 'all those digital effects.' Yet, at the same time, I couldn't be more excited to see Prometheus. I'm fully aware that it will be no less effects-laden than The Avengers. But, somehow, sci-fi, for me, is a different animal, when done right, and the details and nuance make the difference.
"The other thing is that I seemed to have embraced 'effects' more back in 'the day,' when the starships and planets and explosions were real. Real models, rather than digital renderings. There's nothing less involving than seeing computer images fight and explode. It is, as you said, and as I've been used to saying, like watching a cartoon. Which brings me back again to the exceptions. When they're done right, by people with that sort of sensitivity, they work."
Featured Comment by Ross Chambers: "I've been out of the motion picture industry for too long to really comment on current technologies, but even 15–20 years ago CGI was used on probably every film where it could extend the toolbox of the director/cinematographer or save money. The 'glass shot' and the travelling matte were history (thank goodness) and enormous budgetary savings were made. And I doubt very much that any film stalwart noticed. Unfortunately some motion picture creators have overused the possibilities of digital technology, but that type of exploitation was ever so—the medium did start in sideshow alley, not the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Fortunately some reined in the razzle dazzle beast and managed to make some genuine works of art, even using CGI artistically."
Featured Comment by richardplondon: "'Oscar-worthiness' often turns out just as formulaic as the most face-palmingly derivative and incoherent summer blockbuster—which at least has some enthusiasm going for it. But the last Oscar panel did well to select the film A Separation in its foreign category. Recommended—its poetry and feeling are, refreshingly, those of life as lived: not, those of the scriptwriting correspondence course. Another nod for the films of Mike Leigh; they can sometimes seem contrived in their surface impression, but with such a powerful, unexpected undertow.... The film-making approach is quite unusual, too."
Featured Comment by Andrew Molitor: "As a side note, something that interests me is that while we're very very close to being able to simply delete physical actors and render them convincingly in digital, we cannot do the same with voices. A synthetic, animated, and credible image of an actor is doable. A synthetic, credible, voice seems to not be at this point."
Mike replies: I've been making your first point for some time, and everybody always pooh-poohs me. But I think it's inevitable. There was a TV series on in the U.S. called "King of the Hill" that basically used animation to replace actors, but the action and story lines were naturalistic enough that it could have been a conventional sitcom with human actors—it was not cartoonish in that sense. The animations juse moved around in coherent space and spoke to each other and did entirely the kinds of things that real humans do. When you think of it, most actors on the screen are symbols, and audiences don't demand that the symbols be purely convincing to be meaningful to them. How else could audiences care about E.T. or Shrek?
And, even in films with human actors, they often aren't purely convincing as humans. Not only is there a wide gap between actors acting a part and real people photographed in documentaries—is there anyone who doesn't know within about five seconds which they're watching?—I also have a particular problem in that I tend to see actors and not characters. Even good actors sometimes don't get around this for me. One of the great things about Doubt was that I was seeing Sister Aloysius, not Meryl Streep. (Usually, I see Meryl Streep.)
Just look at how wonderful the sophisticated Pixar animantions are. Then look at the costs and limitations of human actors...they can charge lots of money, they have to be insured, they can get ill or injured during filming, they have their own ideas about how they want the part to be played, and they can be prima donnas and be late to the set and so forth. (On the good side, they can be dispatched to the talk show circuit to talk up the movie.) When computer rendering becomes easy, it will have none of those downsides. I think it's just inevitable that we'll see more and more screen entertainment with non-human actors. Of course, real acting performances—like Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt—can never be replaced, because they require acting genius.
Featured Comment by Jeffrey Lee: "It's strange that in a medium that is so visually oriented, there seems to be such widespread failure to appreciate how much a story can be told through the photography of the story. My two favorites of late in this regard are Steven Soderbergh and Chris Manley. They go beyond just simply presenting the action in front of the camera. They are able to construct images using composition, colour, and tone that speak to the written storyline."
Mike replies: That's a fascinating issue, isn't it? And very deep, I think. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa credited his early fascination with silent films with his lifelong ability to convey significant story meaning without words. Many of his movies have very emotional scenes without any form of speech.
Featured Comment by John Banister: "I'm reminded of some words written by Asimov, recounting an old story about Beethoven and Goethe. They were walking along together and frequently encountering expressions of praise from those passing by. Goethe expressed discomfort at this, and Beethoven told him not to worry because—"I am sure that all the accolades are for me." Asimov told a friend that he thought Beethoven was correct to think he was the greater artist because one has to translate Goethe.
"I encountered somewhere the notion that the lack of necessity of the dialogue in many movies relates to international sales. There are more viewers around the world who appreciate not needing the words than there are here who are tired of disposable dialog. I've watched a fair number of movies in the company of people who didn't speak the language and seen them encourage their friends to watch the ones where the story could be followed without needing an understanding of what was spoken.
"While I see action movies with disposable dialog, I have a hard time considering them to be greater art. But I do cut them some extra slack when I consider that the disposable nature of the dialog may well be by design."
Featured Comment by Avi Joshi: "I work in visual effects and so in a way I enjoy watching some of the ridiculous fx-laden summer blockbusters. But only if it's accompanied by a half-decent story. Ultimately that is king. If there's no story, I'm not parting with my money.
"Vfx artists slog to make that movie magic happen. To put things in perspective, I worked on a show last year where a 15-minute intro sequence to a summer movie took a team of 75 artists over 100,000 hours clocked in. So I hate it when so much effort is put into a movie with not much else to prop it up. Hence I tend to avoid movies by Michael Bay.
"Black Swan was a great example of some wickedly cool effects, seamlessly blended in. A great story, fantastic performances, 16mm film and a little CG to help sell it all.
With regards to a shooting film or digital, I know of a few filmmakers who have chosen to shoot film recently mainly because they were uncertain whether film would be around much longer. Also the Arri Alexa seems to have won over a lot of DoP's who were against digital (Deakins included).
"I hope it continues with an even divide of people shooting film and digital. Both have their merits and both have their pitfalls. And I can hope that there will continue to be good use of Vfx in well written/executed dramas. In either case it keeps me employed."