Cultural practice and experience

Since the creation of film as an art form, there have been few truly great technological revolutions, changes which have altered the very essence of the medium. In 1927 The Jazz Singer introduced sound, in 1939 Gone With The Wind perfected colour cinematography, and now the last great revolution of Film; Computer Generated Images. This essay seeks to argue that CGI has had a meteoric impact not only on the production of film, but also on the cultural effects of film itself. In short it has changed the design and the reception of the most significant popular art form in the Developed World, and today’s technology is just the beginning.

Film is the most complete art form. By this I mean that film concentrates the two most fundamental human senses; hearing and vision. The question for the film maker is how much impact can they exercise through these senses. In telling stories with film, to what degree can they immerse, shock and cause emotional or intellectual upheaval in the audience’s minds. Furthermore to what degree does modern CGI further these aims, and does it come at a cultural price.

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In 1895 the Lumiere brothers used a brief snippet of film to open the first public exhibition of motion picture. The exhibit was a train steaming towards camera. The result would have been fantastic to observe; “Audiences didn’t know what cinematography actually was … they assumed a real life train was about to emerge from the screen and run them over. They panicked and ran1.” This example goes to the very heart of what many modern films use CGI to create. As opposed to the more theatrical dramatic forms, which film traditionally adopted, being the revolutionary son of theatre. Some modern films try to replicate reality.

Whereas drama would serve as theatrical catharsis, modern film tries to serve up the ‘visual spectacular’. They try to shock the audience with visions so ‘real’ that they mirror the events they portray with such accuracy that the experience could be first hand. It is about breaking down the artifice, attacking its status as artificial and mirroring reality is the summum bonum: “Anyone can create beautiful images of things we’ve never seen before … but there are relatively few people who can hold the mirror up to reality2.” The previous quote, by James Cameron, must be read in the light of making reality mirroring spectacular effects.

Maybe an innate fascination with the spectacular draws audiences to effect saturated films, but one thing is for certain, the special effect films are the most popular by far. In the 1998 Top Ten highest grossing films, five were heavily reliant on CGI: Titanic, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, The Lost World and Men In Black. Since then four more CGI films have entered the top ten; Star Wars Episode 1, Godzilla, The Matrix and Armageddon. Now seven of the Top Ten films are CGI spectaculars.

The biggest of them all, and the first true CGI jaw dropper, Titanic, grossed nearly 1.8 billion dollars world wide, over twice as much as its next competitor, Jurassic Park3. All of these new Top Ten CGI films have arrived in cinemas, and in the record books, in the last 8 years, displacing such well recognised and critically acclaimed films as The Godfather, Jaws and Gone with the Wind. So there is clearly a fanatic thirst in popular culture for the consumption of the CGI spectacular.

So the CGI revolution has facilitated a boom in the film industry, raising it to a paramount position in the consumption of popular culture. The exact films which have caused this are of the CGI genre, so the computer cannot be doubted as the driving force behind this renaissance. Consider then the sheer scope and level that has been facilitated by the “computer that ate Hollywood4”. John Nelson head of one of the leading special effects houses, Mill Film, states; “we can basically do anything, given enough time and enough money, anything is possible5.”

This view is probably more true now than when he first spoke it. This year the first true fully CGI ‘mirroring reality’ film is to be released. Final Fantasy is different from traditional 100% CGI films in that it does attempt to mirror reality. Pixar and Dreamworks studios have produced fully CGI films before – Toy Story, a Bug’s Life, Antz – but these films are closer to animated films than live action films. Final Fantasy has computer generated ‘actors’ whose resemblance to tangible actors is almost total.

Final Fantasy’s director Hironubu Sakaguchi states “you can put the camera anywhere6”. In 1997 Titanic replicated actors with CGI and asked other people in the effects industry to identify which actors were real and which were CGI: “They say ‘maybe those three.’ Of course everybody in the shot is CG7!” So it does appear that anything is possible with CGI. The painstaking effort that Douglas Trumble’s 2001: A Space Odyssey model work involved is now common place in Television, let alone the large budget features. The only remaining question therefore is who will bring dramatic interpretation to these CGI actors? Someone must ‘perform’ the CGI creation.

However, the CGI revolution has not been bloodless. The previously mentioned dramatic catharsis of film seems to be suffering greatly at the hands of CGI. Variety seemed to address the conflict when reviewing Titanic, calling it; “A spectacular demonstration of what modern technology can contribute to dramatic storytelling8.” And the result was undeniably one of the great achievements of film. But where film substitutes stunning CGI visuals for drama, film is left poorer for it. It reduces film as a cultural phenomenon. The Matrix, a very successful CGI spectacular (in which the players realised humanity had undergone Armageddon and now lived in an alien’s servitude of true false consciousness) substitutes every conceivable dramatic catharsis with a CGI ‘intermission’.

It was like a showpiece and better belonged in the IMAX realm than that of feature film. Like “the modern day equivalent of the Victorian theatrical designer ‘Sensation’ Smith of Drury Lane; a master of spectacle, but little else9.” So it seems anything is possible but not everything. Forgive the tautology and consider how much more thrilling and terrifying Jaws became when Spielberg had to substitute special effects shots with chilling inferences, because the misbehaving and misanthropic shark model failed to work. It was the absence of reality mirrored that produced the quality. Consider the poetic inferences forced upon film makers by the ludicrously dictatorial Hayes Code.

It made for a more dramatically fulfilling, culturally resonating experience. Spielberg himself has confessed a pipe dream to remake Lean’s masterpiece; Lawrence of Arabia, and “to do it digitally would be a tremendous sin10.” He saw the merits of Lean’s real for real film making as “poetic … film maker naturalism11.” Coppola – when making Dracula – vowed never to use modern special effects in his movies12.

Kubrick, the greatest film craftsman ever, shied away from CGI and could not make A. I. because he doubted the dramatic impact of the computer effects. So some of the greatest directors, working during the CGI revolution, fear it smothering drama and as a consequence do not use it. CGI can be the antithesis of films greatest merits; dramatic, culturally enriching, socially truthful art. It cannot be seen a as substitute for conventional film, it is merely one sphere of filmmaking and to over rely on it, in John Grierson’s word, is to ‘die’: “When a director dies he becomes a photographer13”

The positive effect of CGI is that it emancipates the imaginations of a film maker, permits a canvass of limitless potential. It can facilitate film making on the most epic proportions. The Book of the century14; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, always deemed ‘unfilmable’ is now being made, thanks to CGI. This widens the scope of the art form, invigorating all audiences and more importantly altering and allowing for the enhancement of the practice of the most widespread popular cultural art form. As for the new experiences of such films, the box office alone testifies its popularity, and to a certain extent its new quality.

The negative effect is the possibility that far from enhancing film, it may – according to the fears of Coppola – alter the popular appreciation of film from being an art form, to the domain of “Sensation Smith” and pulp culture. Replacing the dramatic films of cerebral, emotional intelligence, for the jaw dropping ‘spectacle’. In my mind it is like comparing watching a firework display with Shakespeare. The rockets may make your adrenaline soar, but they will never impact culture in the way dramatic film has. In this immortal respect CGI spectaculars are inert.

So to strike the right balance CGI has to be a tool, a series of colours for the artist’s manipulation, and not the art in itself. Films which forget this do not ascend to a level of cultural appreciation. It is clear that although the spectacular element of such films make them more popular, but, films without the accompanying substance, found in drama and cultural meaning, will soon be forgotten. CGI is a process and not a product.

John Nelson describes the role of CGI aptly as “a supporting actor15.” The correct usage of CGI; to facilitate and support dramatic meaning with cultural impact, raises film to a new higher level. It further saturates the senses, breaks down the artifice and often now the suspension of disbelief is hardly necessary. When its done with judgement and skill it brings the practice of film as a cultural medium to larger fields and deeper levels. When done without accompanying intellect or emotion it impoverishes film, and threatens its status as a cultural influence. Film making has not changed, it has always been divided into the good and the bad. We must now add a further category, the hollow sensationalism of the ugly. In the hands of the artist we see the Lumiere’s train with terrifying belief, in the hands of ‘Sensation Smith’ we see it as a cheap ephemeral squib.

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