Tilt-Shifting Pacific Rim


Two-thirds of the way through Pacific Rim — just after an epic battle in, around, and ultimately over Hong Kong that’s one of the best-choreographed setpieces of cinematic SF mayhem I have ever witnessed — I took advantage of a lull in the storytelling to run to the restroom. In the air-conditioned chill of the multiplex the lobby with its concession counters and videogames seemed weirdly cramped and claustrophobic, a doll’s-house version of itself I’d entered after accidentally stumbling into the path of a shink-ray, and I realized for the first time that Guillermo del Toro’s movie had done a phenomenological number on me, retuning my senses to the scale of the very, very big and rendering the world outside the theater, by contrast, quaintly toylike.

I suspect that much of PR’s power, not to mention its puppy-dog, puppy-dumb charm, lies in just this scalar play. The cinematography has a way of making you crane your gaze upwards even in shots that don’t feature those lumbering, looming mechas and kaiju. The movie recalls the pleasures of playing with LEGO, model kits, action figures, even plain old Matchbox Cars, taking pieces of the real (or made-up) world and shrinking them down to something you can hold in your hand — and, just as importantly, look up at. As the father of a two-year-old, I often find myself laying on the floor, my eyes situated inches off the carpet and so near the plastic dump trucks, excavators, and fire engines in my son’s fleet that I have to take my glasses off to properly focus on them. At this proximity, toys regain some of their large-scale referent’s visual impact without ever quite giving up their smallness: the effect is a superimposition of slightly dissonant realities, or in the words of my friend Randy (with whom I saw Pacific Rim) a “sized” version of the uncanny valley.

This scalar unheimlich is clearly on the culture’s mind lately, literalized — iconized? — in tilt-shift photography, which takes full-sized scenes and optically transforms them into images that look like dioramas or models. A subset of the larger (no pun intended) practice of miniature faking, tilt-shift updates Walter Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious for the networked antheap of contemporary digital and social media, in which nothing remains unconscious (or unspoken or unexplored) for long but instead swims to prominence through an endless churn of collective creation, commentary, and sharing. Within the ramifying viralities of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and 4chan, in which memes boil reality into existence like so much quantum foam, the fusion of lens-perception and human vision — what the formalist Soviet pioneers called the kino-eye — becomes just another Instagram filter:


The giant robots fighting giant monsters in Pacific Rim, of course, are toyetic in a more traditional sense: where tilt-shift turns the world into a miniature, PR uses miniatures to make a world, because that is what cinematic special effects do. The story’s flimsy romance, between Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) makes more sense when viewed as a symptomatic expression of the national and generic tropes the movie is attempting to marry: the mind-meldly “drift” at the production level fuses traditions of Japanese rubber-monster movies like Gojiru and anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion with a visual-effects infrastructure which, while a global enterprise, draws its guiding spirit (the human essence inside its mechanical body, if you will) from Industrial Light and Magic and the decades of American fantasy and SF filmmaking that led to our current era of brobdingnagian blockbusters.

Pacific Rim succeeds handsomely in channeling those historical and generic traces, paying homage to the late great Ray Harryhausen along the way, but evidently its mission of magnifying 50’s-era monster movies to 21st-century technospectacle was an indulgence of giantizing impulses unsuited to U.S. audiences at least; in its opening weekend, PR was trounced by Grown Ups 2 and Despicable Me 2, comedies offering membership in a franchise where PR could offer only membership in a family. The dismay of fans, who rightly recognize Pacific Rim as among the best of the summer season and likely deserving of a place in the pantheon of revered SF films with long ancillary afterlives, should remind us of other scalar disjunctions in play: for all their power and reach (see: the just-concluded San Diego Comic Con), fans remain a subculture, their beloved visions, no matter how expansive, dwarfed by the relentless output of a mainstream-oriented culture industry.

We Have Never Been Digital: CGI as the New “Clumsy Sublime”

In his essay “Before and After Right Now: Sequels in the Digital Era,” Nicholas Rombes gives an example of the troubling way that CGI has eroded our trust in visual reality. Citing the work of Lola Visual Effects to digitally “youthen” the lead actors in the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, Rombes cites a line from the effects house’s website: “Our work has far-reaching implications from extending an actor’s career for one more sequel to overall success at the box of?ce. We allow actors and studios to create one more blockbuster sequel (with the actor’s fan base) by making the actor look as good (or better) than they did in their ?rst movie.” Rombes responds: “What is there to say about such a brash and unapologetic thing as this statement? The statement was not written by Aldous Huxley, nor was it a darkly funny dystopian story by George Saunders. This is a real, true, and sincere statement by a company that digitally alters the faces and bodies of the actors we see on the screen, a special effect so seamless, so natural that its very surrealism lies in the fact that it disguises itself as reality.”

Before we adjudicate Rombes’s claim, we might as a thought experiment try to imagine the position from which his assertion can be made – the nested conditionals that make such a response plausible in the first place. If a spectator encounters X-Men: The Last Stand without prior knowledge of any kind, including the likelihood that such a film will employ visual trickery; if he or she is unaware of the overarching careers, actual ages, and established physiognomies of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan; and perhaps most importantly if that viewer cannot spot digital airbrushing that even now, a scant six years later, looks like a heavy coat of pancake makeup and hair dye, then perhaps we can accept Rombes’s accusation of hubris on the part of the visual-effects house. On the other hand, how do we explain the larger incongruity in which Rombes premises his critique of the “seamless … natural” and thus presumably unnoticeable manipulation on a widely-available text, part of Lola’s self-marketing, that highlights its own accomplishment? In short, how can a digital effect be simultaneously a surreptitious lie in one register and a trumpeted achievement in another? Is this characterization not itself an example of misdirection, the impossible masquerading as the possible, a kind of rhetorical special effect?

The truth is that Rombes’s statement in all its dudgeon, from an otherwise astute observer of cinema in the age of digital technologies, suggests something of the problem faced by film and media studies in relation to contemporary special effects. We might describe it as a problem of blind spots, of failing to see what is right before our eyes. For it is both an irony and a pressing concern for theoretical analysis that special effects through their very visibility – a visibility achieved both in their immediate appearance, where they summon the powers of cleverly-wrought illusion to create convincing displays of fantasy, and in their public afterlife, where they replicate and spread through the circulatory flows of paratexts and replay culture – lull the critical gaze into selective inattention, foregrounding one set of questions while encouraging others to slip from view.

By hailing CGI and the digital mode of production it emblematizes as a decisive break with the practices that preceded it, Rombes acquiesces to the terms on which special effects have always – even in predigital times – offered themselves through From the starting point of what Sean Cubitt calls “the rhetoric of the unprecedented,” such scholarship can only unfold an analysis whose polarities, whether celebratory or condemnatory, mark but one axis of debate among the many opportunities special effects provide to reassess the changing nature of textuality, storytelling, authorship, genre, and performance in the contemporary mediascape. A far-ranging conversation, in other words, is shut down in favor of a single set of concerns, organized with suspicious tidiness around a (rather abstract) distinction between truth and falsehood. This distinction structures debates about special effects’ “spectacular” versus “invisible” qualities; their “success” or “failure” as illusions; their “indexicality” or lack of it; and their “naturalness” versus their “artificiality.” I mean to suggest not that such issues are irrelevant to the theorization of special effects, but that their ossification into a default academic discourse has created over time the impression that special effects are only about such matters as “seamless … disguise.”

Perniciously, by responding to CGI in this way, special-effects scholarship participates in the ongoing production of a larger episteme, “the digital,” along with its constitutive other, “the analog.” Although it is certainly true that the underlying technologies of special-effects design and manufacture, like those of the larger film, television, and video game industries in which such practices are embedded, have been comprehensively augmented and in many instances replaced outright by digital tools, the precise path and timing by which this occurred are nowhere near as clean or complete as the binary “analog/digital” makes them sound. In point of fact, CG effects, so often treated as proof-in-the-pudding of cinema’s digital makeover, not only borrowed their form from the practices and priorities of their analog ancestry, but preserve that past in a continued dependence on analog techniques that ride within their digital shell like chromosomal genetic structures. In a narrowly localized sense, digital effects may be the final product, but they emerge from, and feed in turn, complex mixtures of past and present technologies.

Our neglect of this hybridity and the counternarrative to digital succession it provides is fueled more than anything else by a refusal to engage with historical change – indeed, to engage with the very fact of history as a record of incremental and uneven development. Consider the way in which Rombes’s charge against CGI rehearses almost exactly the terms of Stephen Prince’s influential essay “True Lies: Perceptual Realism: Digital Images, and Film Theory.” “What is new and revolutionary about digital imaging,” Prince wrote, “is that it increases to an extraordinary degree a filmmaker’s control over the informational cues that establish perceptual realism. Unreal images have never before seemed so real.” (34) Prince’s claim about the “extraordinary” nature of digital effects was written in 1996 and refers to movies such as The Abyss (1989), Jurassic Park (1993), and Forrest Gump (1994), all of which featured CG effects alleged to be photorealistic to the point of undetectability. Rombes, writing in 2010, bases his claim about digital effects’ seduction of reality on the tricks in a film released in 1996. “What happens,” Rombes asks, “when we create a realism that outstrips the detail of reality itself, when we achieve and then go beyond a one-to-one correspondence with the real world?” (201) The answer, of course, is that one more special effect has been created from the technological capabilities and stylistic sensibilities of its time: capabilities and sensibilities that may appear transparent in the moment, but whose manufacture quickly becomes apparent as the imaging norm evolves. If digital effects are as subject to aging as any other sort of special effects, then concerns about the threat they pose to reality become empty alarms, destined to be viewed with amusement, if not ridicule, by future generations of film theorists.

The key to dissolving the impasse at which theories of digital visual effects find themselves lies in restoring to all special effects a temporality and interconnectedness to other layers of film and media culture. The first step lies in acknowledging that special effects are always undergoing change; the state of the art is a moving target. Laura Mulvey’s term for this process is the “clumsy sublime.” She refers to the use of process shots in classical Hollywood to rear-project footage behind actors – effects intended to pass unnoticed in their time, but which now leap out at us precisely in their clumsiness, their detectability.

The lesson we should take from this is not that some more lasting “breakthrough” in special effects waits around the corner, but that the very concept of the breakthrough is structured into state-of-the-art special effects as a lure for the imagination of spectators and theorists alike. The danger is not of realer-than-real digital effects, but our overconfidence in critically assessing objects that are predicated on misdirection and the promise of conquered frontiers – and our mistaken assumption that we as scholars see these processes more objectively or accurately than prior generations. In this sense, special-effects scholarship performs the very susceptibility of which it accuses contemporary audiences, accepting as fact the paradigm-shifting superiority of digital effects, rather than seeing that impression of superiority as itself a byproduct of special-effects discourse.

In this way, current scholarship imports a version of spectatorship from classical apparatus theory of the 1970s, along with a 70s-era conception of the extent and limit of the standard feature film text. Both are holdovers of an earlier period of theorizing the film text and its impact on the viewer, and are jarringly out of date when applied to contemporary media, in their cycles of replay and convergence which break texts apart and combine them in new ways, as well as to the audience, which navigates these swarming texts according to their own interests, their own “philias.” The use of obsolete models to describe special effects is all the more ironic for the appeals such models make to a transcendent “new.” The notion that the digital, as emblematized by CGI, represents a qualitative redrafting of cinema’s indexical contract with audiences, holds up only under the most restrictive possible picture of spectatorship: it imagines special effects as taking place in a singular, timeless instant of encounter with a viewer who has only two options, accepting the special effect as unmediated event or rejecting it as artifice. That special-effects theory from Andre Bazin and Christian Metz onward has allowed for bifurcated consciousness on the part of the viewer is, in the era of CGI, set aside for accounts of special effects that force them into a real/unreal binary. The digital effect and its implied spectator are trapped in a synchronic isolation from which it is impossible to imagine any other way to conceptualize the work of special effects outside the moment of their projection. Even accounts of special effects’ semiosis, like Dan North’s, that foreground their composite nature; their role in the genres of science fiction (Vivian Sobchack), the action blockbuster (Geoff King), or Aristotelian narrative (Shilo McClean), only scratch the surface of the complex objects special effects actually are.

What really changes in the clumsy sublime is not the special effect but our perception of it, an interpretation produced not through Stephen Prince’s perceptual cues, Scott Bukatman’s kinesthetic immersion in an artificial sublime, or Tom Gunning’s appeal of the attraction – though all three may indeed be factors in the first moment of seeing the effect – but by a more complex and longitudinal process involving conscious and unconscious comparisons to other, similar effects; repeated exposure to and scrutiny of special effects; behind-the-scenes breakdowns of how the effect was produced; and commentaries and reactions from fans. Within this matrix of evaluation, the visibility or invisibility, that is to say the “quality,” of special effects, is not a fixed attribute, but a blackboxed output of the viewer, the viewing situation, and the special effect’s enunciatory context in a langue of filmic manipulation.

According to the standard narrative, some special effects hide, while others are meant to be seen. Wire removal and other forms of “retouching” modify in subtle ways an image that is otherwise meant to pass as untampered recording of profilmic reality, events that actually occurred as they seem to onscreen. “Invisible” effects perform a double erasure, modifying images while keeping that modifying activity out of consciousness, like someone erasing their own footsteps with a broom as they walk through snow. So-called “visible” special effects, by contrast, are intended to be noticed as the production of exceptional technique, capitalizing on their own impossibility and our tacit knowledge that events on screen never took place in the way they appear to. The settings of future and fantasy worlds, objects, vehicles, and performers and their actions are common examples of visible special effects.

This much we have long agreed on; the distinction goes back at least as far as Metz, who in “Trucage and the Film” proposed a taxonomy of special effects broad enough to include wipes, fades, and other transitions as acts of optical trickery not ordinarily considered as such. Several things complicate the visible/invisible distinction, however. Special effects work is explored in publications and in home-video extras, dissected by fans, and employed in marketing appeals. These paratextual forces, which extend beyond the frame and the moment of viewing, tend inexorably to tip all effects work eventually into the category of “visible.” But the ongoing generation of a clumsy sublime reveals a more pervasive process at work: the passage of time, which steadily works to open a gap between a special effect’s intended and actual impact. Dating is key to dislodging reductive accounts of special effects’ operations. The clumsy sublime is a succinctly profound insight into the way that film trickery can shift over time to become visible in itself as a class of techniques to be evaluated and admired, opening up discussions about special effects beyond the binary of convincing/unconvincing that has hamstrung so many conversations about them.

If today’s digital special effects can age and become obsolete – and there is no reason to think they cannot – then this undermines the idea that there is some objective measure of their quality; “better” and “worse” become purely relational terms. It also raises the prospect that the digital itself is more an idea than an actual practice: a perception we hold – or a fantasy we share – about the capabilities of cinema and related entertainments. The old distinction that held during the analog era, between practical and optical effects, constituted a kind of digital avant la lettre; practical effects, performed live before the camera, were considered “real,” while optical effects, created in post-production, were “virtual.” The coming of CGI has remapped those categories, making binaries into bedfellows by collapsing practical and optical into one primitive catchall, the “analog,” defined against its contemporary other, the “digital.” Amid such lexical slippages and epistemic revisions, current scholarship is insufficiently reflexive about apprehending the special effect. We have been too quick to get caught up in and restate the terms – Philip Rosen calls it “the rhetoric of the forecast” – by which special effects discursively promote themselves. In studying illusion, we risk contributing to another, larger set of illusions about cinematic essence.

What is revealed, then, by stepping out of our blind spot to survey special effects across the full range of their operations and lifespans? First, we see that special effects are profoundly composite in nature, marrying together elements from different times and spaces. But the full implications of this have not been examined. Individual frames are indeed composites of many separate elements, but viewed diachronically, special effects are also composited into the flow of the film – live-action intercut with special effects shots as well as special effects embedded within the frame. This dilutes our ability to quarantine special effects to particular moments; we can speak of “special-effects films” or “special-effects sequences,” but what percentage of the film or sequence consists of special effects, and in what combination? Consider how such concerns shape our labeling of a given movie as a “digital effects” film. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and The Matrix (1999) each contained only a few minutes of shots in which CG elements played a part, while the rest of their special effects were produced by old-school techniques such as animatronics and prosthetics. Yet we do not call these movies “animatronics films” or “prosthetics films.” The sliding of the signified of the film under the signifier of the digital suggests that, when it comes to special effects, we follow a technicist variation of the “one-drop rule,” where the slightest collusion of computers is an excuse to treat the whole film a digital artifact.

What, then, is the actual “other” to indexicality posed by special effects, digital and analog alike? It is insufficient simply to label it the “nonindexical”; in slapping this equivalent of “here there be dragons” on the terra incognita at the edge of our map’s knowability, we have not answered the question but avoided it. The truth is that all special effects, even digital ones, are indexical to something; they can all, in a certain sense, be “sourced” to the real world and real historical moments. If nothing else, they are records of moments in the evolution of imaging, and because this evolution is driven not only by technology but by style, it is always changing without destination. (As Roland Barthes observes, the fashion system has no end.) Digital special effects record the expressions of historically specific configurations of software and hardware just as, in the past, analog special effects recorded physical arrangements of miniatures and paintings on glass. Nowadays, with all analog effects retroactively rendered “real” by the digital, even processes such as optical printing and traveling mattes have come to bear their own indexical authenticity, just as film grain and lens flares record specifics of optics and celluloid stock. But the indexical stamp of special effects goes deeper than their manufacture. Visible within them are design histories and influences, congealed into the object of the special effect and frozen there, but available for unpacking, comparison, fetishization, and emulation by audiences increasingly organized around the collective intelligence of fandom. Furthermore, because of the unique nature of special effects (that is, as “special” processes celebrated in themselves), materials can frequently be found which document the effect’s manufacture, and in many cases – preproduction art, maquettes, diagrams – themselves represent evolutionary stages of the special effect.

Every movie, by virtue of residing inside a rationalized industrial system, sits atop a monument of planning and paperwork. In films that are heavy on design and special effects, this paperwork takes on archival significance, becoming technical archeologies of manufacture. Our understanding of what a special effect is must begin by including these stages as part of its history – the creative and technological paths from which it emerged. We recognize that what we see on screen is only a surface trace of much larger underlying processes: the very phenomenon of making-of supposes there is always more to the (industrial) story.

Following this logic, we see that special effects, even digital ones, do not consist of merely the finished, final output on film, but a messy archive of materials: the separate elements used to film them and the design history recorded in documents such as concept art and animatics. Special effects leave paratextual trails like comets. It is only because of these trails that behind-the-scenes materials exist at all; it is what we look at when we go behind the scenes. Furthermore, we see that special effects, once “finished,” themselves become links in chains of textual and paratextual influence. It is not just that shots and scenes provide inspiration for can-you-top-this performances of newer effects, but that, in the amateur filmmaking environments of YouTube and “basementwood,” effects are copied, emulated, downgraded, upgraded, spun, and parodied – each action carrying the effect to a new location while rendering it, through replication, more pervasive in the mediascape. Special effects, like genre, cannot be copyrighted; they represent a domain of audiovisual replication that follows its own rules, both fast-moving and possessed of the film nerd/connoisseur’s long-tail memory. Special effects originate iconographies in which auras of authorship, collections of technical fact, artistic influences, teleologies of progress/obsolescence, franchise branding, and hyperdiegetic content coexist with the ostensible narrative in which the special effect is immediately framed. These additional histories blossom outward from our most celebrated and remembered special effects; in fact, it is the celebration and remembering that keeps the histories alive and developing.

All of this contributes to what Barbara Klinger has called the “textual diachronics” of a film’s afterlife: an afterlife which, given its proportional edge over the brief run of film exhibition, can more frankly be said to constitute its life. Special effects thus mark not the erasure of indexicality but a gold mine of knowledge for those who would study media evolution. Special effects carry information and behave in ways that go well beyond their enframement within individual stories, film properties, or even franchises. Special effects are remarkably complex objects in themselves: their engineering, their semiotic freight, their cultural appropriation, their media “travel,” their hyperdiegetic contribution.

What seems odd is that while one branch of media studies is shifting inexorably toward models of complexity and diffusion, travel and convergence, multiplicity and contradiction, the study of special effects still grapples with its objects as ingredients of an older conception of film: the two-hour self-contained text. What additional and unsuspected functions lurk in the “excess” so commonly attributed to prolonged displays of special effects? Within the domains of franchise, transmedia storytelling, and intertextuality, the fragmentation of texts and their subsequent recontainment within large-scale franchise operations makes it all the more imperative to find patterns of cluster and travel in the new mediascape, along with newly precise understandings of the individuals/audiences who drive the flow and give it meaning.

To say that CG effects have become coextensive with filmmaking is not to dismiss contemporary film as digital simulacrum but to embrace both “digital effects” and “film” as intricate, multilayered, describable, theorizable processes. To insist on the big-screened, passively immersed experience of special effects as their defining mode of reception is to ignore all the ways in which small screens, replays, and paratextual encounters open out this aspect of film culture, both as diegetic and technological engagement. To insist that special effects are mere denizens of the finished film frame is to ignore all the other phases in which they exist. And to associate them only with the optical regime of the cinematic apparatus (expressed through the hypnotic undecidable of real/false, analog/digital) is to ignore the ways in which they spread to and among other media.

The argument I have outlined in this essay suggests a more comprehensive way of conceptualizing special effects in the digital era, seeing them not just as enhancements of a mystificatory apparatus but as active agents in a busy, brightly-lit, fully conscious mediascape. In this positivist approach, digital effects contribute to the stabilizing and growth of massive fantastic-media franchises and the generation of new texts (indeed, of the concept of “new” itself). In all of these respects, digital special effects go beyond the moment of the screen that has been their primary focus of study, to become something more than meets the eye.

Talk: The Biology of Virtual Creatures

The Biology of Virtual Creatures: Unconventional Applications of a Science Education in Hollywood Special Effects

Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 8:00 p.m.

Science Center 199, Swarthmore Campus

From Chester the Cheetah to swarming Dementors to the Iron Man Mark-I suit, Bradley Gabe’s (’94) computer graphics skills have been honed by experiences working on high-end digital effects in commercial and feature film productions at Quiet Man, Industrial Light & Magic, Stan Winston Studio, and Janimation.

As an active member of the CG community, Bradley has advanced technical approaches to CG production through consulting, teaching courses, leading seminars, and conducting Master Classes at Siggraph and other venues. In 2009 he was honored by his industry peers with an Autodesk Masters award.

In Media Res: Special Effects

Somewhere around the introduction of Google+, I developed an allergy to self-promotion, and withdrew my parasocial feelers from Facebook as well as the nascent G+. I mean to cast no aspersions on the active users of those sites; my going dark, or at least dimmed, on the social-networking front stems not from disapproval but from simple overload. I’m returning to teaching from a year of sabbatical, and I’m a new father to boot, making for happy but exhausting times. I could be better about taking the raw material of my life (and the slightly more refined material of my professional activities) and plugging it into a live data feed, but my curmudgeonly suspicion that the public affordances of new media, so often presented to us as opportunities for self-expression and collective knowledge-building, are simply labor under the sexy sign of the digital — the conscripted misrecognized as the voluntary — stays my hand.

All that said, though, I do have news: this week I am co-organizing a set of pieces on special effects at In Media Res, the MediaCommons project devoted to showcasing short audiovisual “exhibits” accompanied by learned commentary. This week’s posts, by Kimberly Ramirez, Drew Ayers, Chuck Tryon, and Dan North, come out of a larger project, an anthology entitled Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts, co-edited by me, Dan North, and Michael S. Duffy.

You can read more about that project and the week’s curations in our introductory essay, located here.


Watchmen: Stuck in the Uncanny Valley

[Warning: this review contains spoilers — and at the end, a blue penis.]

One wonders if Masahiro Mori, the roboticist who introduced the term “uncanny valley” in 1970, now wishes he’d had the foresight to trademark it; after laying largely dormant for a couple of decades, the concept came into its own, bigtime, with the advent of photorealistic CG. Or perhaps I should say CG posing as photorealistic, for what nearly passes muster in one year — the liquid pseudopod in The Abyss (1986), the lipsynched LBJ in Forrest Gump (1994), the entire casts of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), The Polar Express (2004), and Beowulf (2007) — lapses into reassuringly spottable artifice the next. The only strategy by which CG convincingly and sustainably replicates organic life, in fact, is Pixar’s, and their method is simultaneously a cheat and a transcendent knight’s-move of FX design. Engaging in what Andrew Darley has called second-order realism, Pixar’s characters wear their manufactured status on their skin, er, surface (toys, bugs, fish, cars) while drawing on expressive traditions derived from cel- and stop-motion animation to deliver believable, inhabited performances and make us forget that what we’re watching are essentially, with their sandwiching of organic and synthetic elements, cyborgs.

Of course, by casting its films in this manner, Pixar retreats from true uncanniness. Humanity has always been an easier sell when it comes to cartoonish abstractions; ask anyone from Pac-man to Punch and Judy. The uncanny valley actually kicks in when a simulation comes close enough to almost fool us, only to fall back into uncomfortable, irreducible alterity. Such is the fate, I think, of Watchmen.

That calm, urbane salon that is the internet is already abuzz with evaluations of the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel — actually, it’s been buzzing for months, even years, another instance of what I have elsewhere termed the cometary halo that precedes any hotly-anticipated media property. Fans have been speculating, cogitating, and arguing about the whys and wherefores of overnight techno-auteur Zack Snyder’s approach for so long that the arrival of the film itself marks the conversation’s end rather than its beginning. The Christmas present has been unwrapped; Schoedinger’s Cat is out of the box; we’ve traveled into the Forbidden Zone only to learn we were on Earth the whole time.

My own take on Watchmen is that it’s an impressive feat of engineering: detailed, intricate, and surprisingly unified in tone. Beyond a splendid opening-credit sequence, however, it isn’t particularly invigorating or dramatic — hell, I’ll just say it, the thing’s boring for long stretches. As Alexandra DuPont, my absolute favorite reviewer on Ain’t-It-Cool News, points out, the boring bits are unfortunately more prevalent toward the end, giving the movie as a whole the feeling of a party that peters out once the fun people leave, or a hot date that takes a wrong turn when someone brings up religion. (And while I’m linking recommendations, let me encourage you toward the smartest movie site out there.) Watchmen is still a rather miraculous object, an oddly introverted and idiosyncratic epic whose very existence lends support to the idea that fans have become an audience important enough to warrant their own blockbuster. Tastewise, the periphery has become the center; the niche the norm.

For Watchmen, love it or hate it, is fanservice with a $120 million budget. Let’s remember that to hardcore fandom, love and hate are as difficult to disarticulate as the tattoos on Harry Powell‘s knuckles; the object is never simply accepted or rejected outright (that’s a mark of the fickle mainstream, whose media engagements resemble one-night stands or trips to the drive-through) but instead studied and anatomized with scholarly rigor, its faults and achievements tabulated and ranked with an accountant’s thoroughness. Intimacy is the name of the game — that and passing the object from hand to hand until it is worn smooth as a worry bead. I’ve no doubt that Watchmen will be worried to death in coming weeks, the only thing keeping it from complete erasure the periodic infusion of new material: transmedia expansions like Tales of the Black Freighter, or the four-hour director’s cut rumored to be lurking on Snyder’s hard drive.

The principal focus of all this discussion will undoubtedly be the pros and cons of adaptation, for that is the process which Watchmen foregrounds in all its contradiction and mystery. Viewing the film, I thought irritably of all the adaptations to which we give a free pass, the ones that don’t get scrutinized at a subatomic level: endless versions of Pride and Prejudice, and let’s not forget that little gift that keeps on giving, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare, it seems to me, is as viral as it gets, and Masterpiece Theater a breeding ground that could compete with Nadya Suleman‘s womb. Watchmen simply takes faithfulness and fidelity to a cosmic degree, its mise-en-scene a mimetic map of the printed panels that were its source.

Or source code; for what Synder has achieved is not so much adaptation as transcription, operationalization; a phenotypic readout of a genetic program, a “run” in cinematic hardware of an underlying instruction set. Watchmen verges, that is, on emulation, and its spiritual fathers are not Moore and Gibbons but Turing and von Neumann. Snyder probably thought his hands were tied; there’s no transposing Watchmen to a new setting without disrupting its elaborate weavework of political and pop-cultural signifiers. The origin of the story in graphic form means that cinema’s primary ability, visualization, had already been usurped; faced with a publicly-available reference archive and a legion of fans ready to apply it, Synder may have felt his only option was to replicate down to the tiniest prop and wardobe detail what’s shown in the panel. Next level up is the determining rhythm of Moore’s scripting: storytelling and dialogue have been similarly transposed from printed page to filmed frame, and while some critics laughingly excoriate Rorschach’s purple prose, his overheated voice-overs sounded fine to me (Rorschach’s a rather self-important character, after all — as narcissistic and monomaniacal in his way as the ostensible villain Ozymandias). Editing, too, copies over with surprising fluidity: some of the most effective sequences, like the Comedian’s funeral interwoven with flashbacks to his ignoble career, or Jon Osterman’s tragic temporal tapestry of an origin story, are crosscut almost precisely as laid out on the page.

What’s left to Synder and the cinematic signifier, then, is a handful of sensory registers, deployed sometimes with subtlety and sometimes an almost slapstick obviousness. Music plays a crucial role in the film, as does the casting; some choices are dead-on effective, others (Malin Akerman, I’m looking at you — with sympathy) not so much. The most talked-about aspect of Synderian style is probably his use of variable speed or “ramping,” and on this front I’m with DuPont: the effect of all the slow-mo is to suggest something of the fascinated readerly gaze we bring to comic books, lingering over splash pages, reconstituting in our internal perceptions the hieroglyphic symbolia of speed lines and large-fonted “WHOOSHES.”

But back to the uncanny valley. The world of Watchmen is undoubtedly digital in ways we can’t even detect; there are certainly some showstopping visual moments, but I’d argue that more important to the movie’s cumulative immersive impact are the framing, composition, and patterns of hue, saturation, and texture that only a digital intermediate makes possible. It’s less garish than Sin City, and nowhere near the green-screened limbo of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, but all the exterior shots and real-world sets shouldn’t blind us to the essential constructedness of what we’re seeing.

And here’s where the real uncanniness resides. We’re often hoodwinked into thinking that the visual (indeed, existential) crisis of our times is the rapidly closing gap between profilmic truth and what’s been simulated with computer graphics. But CG is merely the latest offspring of a vast heritage of manipulation, a tradition of trickery indistiguishable from cinema itself. Watchmen is uncanny not because of its visual effects, but because it comes precariously close to convincing us that we are seeing Moore’s and Gibbons’s graphic novel preserved intact, when, after all, it is only a copy — and a lossy one at that. In flashes, the film fools us into forgetting that another version exists; but then the knowledge of an original, an other, comes crashing back in to sour the experience. It is not reality and its digital double whose narrowing difference freaks us out, but the aesthetic convergence between two media, threatening to collapse into each other through the use of ever more elaborate production tools and knowing appeals to fannish competencies. At stake: the very grounds of authenticity — the epistemic rules by which we recognize our originals.

I’ll conclude by noting that the character who most fascinated me in the graphic novel is also the one I couldn’t tear my eyes from onscreen: Dr. Manhattan. He’s “played” by Billy Crudup, and as I noted in my post on Space Buddies, the actor’s voice is our central means of accepting Manhattan as a living character. Equally magnificent, though, is the physical performance supplied by Manhattan’s digital surface, an iridescent azure body hanging from Crudup’s motion-captured face. Whether intentionally or through limits in the technology, Dr. Manhattan never quite fits into his surroundings, and that’s exactly as it should be; as conceived by Moore, he’s a buzzing collection of hyperparticles, a quantum ghost, and Snyder uses digital effects to nail Manhattan’s transhuman ontology. (He is, both diegetically and non-, a walking visual effect.) Presciently, the print version of Watchmen — published between 1986 and 1987, when CG characters were just starting to creep into movies (see Young Sherlock Holmes) — gave us in Dr. Manhattan our first viable personification of digital technology. The metaphysical underpinning and metaphorical implications of the print Manhattan, of course, are radioactivity and the atomic age, not digitality and the information revolution. But in the notion of an otherwordly force, decanted into a man-shaped vessel but capable of manipulating the very fabric of reality, they add up to much the same: Dr. Manhattan — synthespian avant la lettre.

Digital Dogsbodies

It’s funny — and perhaps, in the contagious-episteme fashion of Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell filing patents for the telephone on the very same date, a bit creepy — that Dan North of Spectacular Attractions should write on the topic of dog movies while I was preparing my own post about Space Buddies. This Disney film, which pornlike skipped theaters to go straight to DVD and Blu-Ray, is one of a spate of dog-centered films that have become a crowdpleasing filmic staple of late. Dan poses the question, “What is it about today that people need so many dog movies?” and goes on to speculate that we’re collectively drowning our sorrows at the world’s ugliness with a massive infusion of cute: puppyism as cultural anodyne.

Maybe so. It seems to me, though, that another dynamic is in operation here — and with all due respect to my follow scholar of visual effects, Dan may be letting the grumbly echoes of the Frankfurt School distract him from a fascinating nexus of technology, economics, and codes of expressive aesthetics driving the current crop of cinematic canines. Simply put, dogs make excellent cyberstars.

Think about it. Nowadays we’re used to high-profile turns by hybrids of human and digital performance: Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s goldplated mother in Beowulf, Brad Pitt as the wizened baby in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Hmm, it only now strikes me that this intertextual madonna-and-child are married in real life; perhaps the nuclear family is giving way to the mo-capped one?) Such top-billed performances are based on elaborate rendering pipelines, to be sure, but their celebrity/notoriety is at least as much about the uniquely sexy and identifiable star personae attached to these magic mannequins: a higher order of compositing, a discursive special effect. It takes a ton of processing power to paint the sutured stars onto the screen, and an equivalent amount of marketing and promotion — those other, Foucauldian technologies — to situate them as a specific case of the more general Steady March Toward Viable Synthespianism. Which means, in terms of labor and capital, they’re bloody expensive. Mountains of data are moved in service of the smallest details of realism, and even then, nobody can get the eyes right.

But what of the humble cur and the scaled-down VFX needed to sell its blended performance? The five puppy stars of Space Buddies are real, indexically photographed dogs with digitally-retouched jaw movements and eyebrow expressions; child voice actors supply the final, intangible, irreplaceable proof of character and personality. (To hell with subsurface skin scatter and other appeals to our pathetically seducible eyes; the real threshold of completely virtual performance remains believable speech synthesis.) The canine cast of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, while built on similar principles, are ontologically closer to the army of Agent Smiths in The Matrix Reloaded’s burly brawl — U-Capped fur wrapped over 3D doll armatures and arrayed in Busby-Berkeleyish mass ornament. They are, in short, digital dogsbodies, and as we wring our hands over the resurrection of Fred Astaire in vacuum-cleaner ads and debate whether Ben Burtt’s sound design in Wall-E adds up to a best-actor Oscar, our screens are slowly filling with animals’ special-effects-driven stardom. How strange that we’re not treating them as the landmarks they are — despite their immense profitability, popularity, and paradoxical common-placeness. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only cuddly!

I don’t mean to sound alarmist — though writing about the digital’s supposed incursion into the real always seems to bring out the edge in my voice. In truth, the whole thing seems rather wonderful to me, not just because I really dug Space Buddies, but because the dogsbody has been around a long time, selling audiences on the dramatic “realism” of talking animals. From Pluto to Astro, Scooby Doo to Rowlf, Lady and the Tramp to K-9, Dynomutt, and Gromit, dogs have always been animated beyond their biological station by technologies of the screen; we accept them as narrative players far more easily than we do more elaborate and singular constructions of the monstrous and exotic. The latest digital tools for imparting expression to dogs’ mouths and muzzles were developed, of all places, in pet-food ads: clumsy stepping stones that now look as dated as poor LBJ’s posthumous lipsynching in Forrest Gump.

These days it’s the rare dog (or cat, bear, and fish) onscreen whose face hasn’t been partially augmented with virtual prosthetics. Ultimately, this is less about technological capability than the legal and monetary bottom line: unlike human actors, animal actors can’t go ballistic on the lighting guy, or write cumbersome provisions into their contracts to copyright their “aura” in the age of mechanical reproduction. Our showbiz beasts exist near the bottom of the labor pool: just below that other mass of bodies slowly being fed into the meat-grinder of digitization, stuntpeople, and just above the nameless hoardes of Orcs jam-packing the horizon shots of Lord of the Rings. I think it was Jean Baudrillard, in The System of Objects, who observed that pets hold a unique status, poised perfectly between people and things. It’s a quality they happen to share with FX bodies, and for this reason I expect we’ll see menageries in the multiplex for years to come.

The End of the World (As We Know It)

Sometimes the metaphor is so perfect it seems the gods of discourse and simulation must have conspired to produce it. The video clip now spreading across the internet — in the Huffington Post‘s words, “like wildfire” — not only visualizes the earth’s destruction by asteroid, but the global proliferation of the clip itself, a CG cartoon leaping from one link to another in a contagious collective imagining of apocalypse:

The video has apparently been in existence at least since 2005, when (according to my quick-and-dirty sleuthing) it aired as a segment on the Discovery Channel series Miracle Planet. Only recently — perhaps after being contextually unmoored by the swapping of its narration for a Pink Floyd soundtrack — has it “gone viral,” scorching the graphical territories that have grown around our planet like a second skin since the dual foundings in the 1960s of the internet (nee ARPAnet) and the computer-graphics movement whose granddaddy was Ivan Sutherland. The reasons for the asteroid clip’s sudden popularity are, I suspect, both too mundane and profound ever to explain to anyone’s satisfaction: on one level, it’s about the idle clicking of links and impulsive forwarding of attachments that has become the unconscious microlabor of millions who believe ourselves to be playing as we work (when, in fact, we are working as we play); on another level, it’s about 9/11, The Dark Knight, and conflict in the Middle East. Tipping points, for all their blunt undeniability, remain enigmatic things at heart. Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) spilled water off the back of his hand to illustrate nonlinearity and strange attractors; I submit to you “Chocolate Rain,” Twilight, and now a video, running time just under five minutes, that renders in lush but elegant terms the immolation of our homeworld.

I’m not about to get all moralistic on you and suggest there’s something unhealthy about this spectacle, or the way we’re passing it eagerly from platform to platform like a digital hot potato. It is, in a word, supercool, especially when the continents start peeling up like the waxy bacon grease to which I applied my spatula after an indulgent Christmas breakfast last week. In its languid, extended takes it recalls the Spider-Man sequence that Dan North and I recently kicked around, and in its scalar play — a square inch or two of screen display windowing outward onto the collision of planetary bodies — it’s like a peepshow of the gods, the perverse cosmos literally getting its rocks off, caressing earth and stone together like Ben Wa balls. The clip is mercifully blind to the suffering of life on the ground (or for that matter in the air and sea); its only intimations of pain are displaced, oddly, onto architecture, with Big Ben and the Parthenon in flames.

What the clip brings to mind most powerfully, though, is a similar exercise in worldshaping now more than 25 years old: the Project Genesis sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982). That brilliant, franchise-saving movie revolved around an experimental device called Genesis, a high-tech MacGuffin that motivated the piratical faceoff between Admiral James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh (is my geek showing?) as well as some beautiful matte paintings, a cloud-tank nebula, and a thrilling countdown sequence scored by James Horner before his compositions became simulacra of themselves.

But all of the Genesis device’s visual and auditory puzzle-pieces would not have cohered as potently in my imagination if not for the way it is introduced early in the film, by a short CG sequence showing the effect that Genesis would have on a lifeless planet:

Several things tie the Genesis sequence to the asteroid-strike video: formally, each begins by tracking inward on a celestial body and ends with a pullback to show the world turning serenely in space; the midsection consists of a sweeping orbital arc, dipping down to the level of mountains, forests, and oceans before lifting back into the stratosphere. Most importantly, each details the utter transformation of a planet, albeit in opposite directions: Genesis brings, in the words of Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch), “life from lifelessness,” while the Discovery Channel’s asteroid inverts the dream of creation, showing its necessary, extinguishing counterpole. The difference between them reflects, perhaps, a shift in how we imagine the possibilities of technology through science fiction: Star Trek‘s utopian vision has given way to the more shadowed and conspiratorial nihilism of Battlestar Galactica (a series that begins in the fires of nuclear armageddon).

But there is also a story here of computer graphics and how they have, for all their evolution, stayed much the same in their aesthetics and predilections. The Genesis sequence was a groundbreaking piece of work from the nascent CGI department at Industrial Light and Magic — a proof-of-concept exercise in ray tracing and fractal modeling by artists and equipment that would soon spin off into Pixar. ILM founder George Lucas, obsessed with extending his authorial control through the development of digital production tools like SoundDroid and EditDroid (forerunner of Avid and nonlinear editing systems), let the future juggernaut slip through his fingers, only later realizing the degree to which CGI would revolutionize filmmaking by merging the elastic, constructive capabilities of animation with the textured realism of live-action. In Pixar’s most recent work — the acclaimed Wall-E, whose glories I’ve been revisiting on my Blu-Ray player — one can see the same hunger to take worlds apart in favor of building new ones, an awareness of how closely, in the world of visual-effects engineering, creation and destruction intertwine. Like other films that have captured my attention on the blog this year — I Am Legend, Planet of the ApesWall-E serves up apocalypse as spectacle, a tradition that continues (proudly, perversely) with the asteroid video.

Happy new year to all, and best wishes for 2009!

Getting Granular with Setpieces

Dan North has published an excellent analysis of the Sandman birth sequence in Spider-Man 3, using this three-minute shot as springboard for a characteristically deft dissection of visual-effects aesthetics and the relationship between CG and live-action filmmaking. His concluding point, that CGI builds on rather than supplants indexical sensibilities — logically extending the cinematographic vocabulary rather than coining utterly alien neologisms — is one that is too often lost in discussions that stress digital technology’s alleged alterity to traditional filmic practices. I’d noticed the Sandman sequence too; in fact, it was paratextually telegraphed to me long before I saw the movie itself, in reviews like this from the New York Times:

… And when [The Sandman] rises from a bed of sand after a “particle atomizer” scrambles his molecules, his newly granulated form shifts and spills apart, then lurches into human form with a heaviness that recalls Boris Karloff staggering into the world as Frankenstein’s monster. There’s poetry in this metamorphosis, not just technological bravura, a glimpse into the glory and agony of transformation.

I don’t have anything to add to Dan’s exegesis (though if I were being picky, I might take issue with his suggestion that the Sandman sequence simply could not have been realized without computer-generated effects; while it’s true that this particular rendering, with its chaotic yet structured swarms of sand-grains, would have taxed the abilities of “stop-motion or another kind of pro-filmic object animation,” the fact is that there are infinitely many ways of designing and staging dramatic events onscreen, and in the hands of a different creative imagination than Sam Raimi and his previz team, the Sandman’s birth might have been realized in much more allusive, poetic, and suggestive ways, substituting panache for pixels; indeed, for all the sequence’s correctly lauded technical artistry and narrative concision, there is something ploddingly literal at its heart, a blunt sense of investigation that smacks of pornography, surveillance-camera footage, and NASA animations — all forms, incidentally, that share the Spider-Man scene’s unflinching long take).

But my attention was caught by this line of Dan’s:

This demarcation of the set-piece is a common trope in this kind of foregrounded spectacle — it has clear entry and exit points and stands alone as an autonomous performance, even as it offers some narrative information; It possesses a limited colour scheme of browns and greys (er … it’s sand-coloured), and the lack of dialogue or peripheral characters further enforces the self-containment.

I’ve long been interested in the concept of the setpiece, that strange cinematic subunit that hovers somewhere between shot, scene, and sequence, hesitating among the registers of cinematography, editing, and narrative, partaking of all while being confinable to none. Setpieces can be an unbroken single shot from the relatively brief (the Sandman’s birth or the opening to Welles’s Touch of Evil) to the extravagantly extended (the thirteen-minute tracking shot with which Steadicam fetishist Brian DePalma kicks off Snake Eyes). But we’re perhaps most familiar with the setpiece as constituted through the beats of action movies: hailstorms of tightly edited velocity and collision like the car chases in Bullitt or, more humorously, Foul Play; the fight scenes and song-and-dance numbers that act as structuring agents and generic determinants of martial-arts movies and musicals respectively; certain “procedural” stretches of heist, caper, and espionage films, like the silent CIA break-in of Mission Impossible (smartly profiled in a recent Aspect Ratio post). Setpieces often occur at the start of movies or near the end as a climactic sequence, but just as frequently erupt throughout the film’s running time like beads on a string; Raiders of the Lost Ark is a gaudy yet elegant necklace of such baubles, including one of my favorites, the “basket chase” set in Cairo. Usually wordless, setpieces tend to feature their own distinctive editing rhythms, musical tracks, and can-you-top-this series of gags and physical (now digital) stunts.

Setpieces are, in this sense, like mini-movies embedded within bigger movies, and biological metaphor might be the best way to describe their temporal and reproductive scalability. Like atavistic structures within the human body, setpieces seem to preserve long-ago aesthetics of early cinema: their logic of action and escalation recalls Edison kinetoscopes and Keystone Cops chases, while more hushed and contemplative setpieces (like the Sandman birth) have about them something of the arresting stillness and visual splendor of the actualite. Or to get all DNAish on you, setpieces are not unlike the selfish genes of which Richard Dawkins writes: traveling within the hosts of larger filmic bodies, vying for advantage in the cultural marketplace, it is actually the self-interested proliferation of setpieces that drives the replication — and evolution — of certain genres. The aforementioned martial-arts movies and musicals, certainly; but also the spy movie, the war and horror film, racing movies, and the many vivid flavors of gross-out comedy. The latest innovation in setpiece genetics may be the blockbuster transmedia franchise, which effectively “brands” certain sequences and delivers them in reliable (and proprietary) form to audiences: think of the lightsaber duels in any given phenotypic expression of Star Wars, from film to comic to videogame.

On an industrial level, of course, setpieces also signal constellations of labor that we can recognize as distinct from (while inescapably articulated to) the films’ ostensible authors. One historical instance of this is the work of Slavko Vorkapich, renowned for the montages he contributed to other peoples’ movies — so distinctive in his talents that to “Vorkapich” something became a term of art in Hollywood. Walt Disney was a master when it came to channeling and rebranding the work of individual artists under his own overweening “vision”; more recently we have the magpie-like appropriations of George Lucas, who was only in a managerial sense the creator of the Death Star battle that ends the 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope. This complexly composited and edited sequence (itself largely responsible for bringing setpieces into being as an element of fannish discourse) was far more genuinely the accomplishment of John Dykstra and his crew at Industrial Light and Magic, not to mention editors Richard Chew and Marcia Lucas. Further down the line — to really ramify the author function out of existence — the battle’s parentage can be traced to the cinematographers and editors who assembled the World War II movies — Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Dam Busters, etc. — from which Lucas culled his reference footage, a 16mm reel that Dykstra and ILM used as a template for the transcription of Mustangs and Messerschmitts into X-Wings and TIE Fighters.

Thirty years after the first Star Wars, sequences in blockbuster films are routinely farmed out to visual effects houses, increasing the likelihood that subunits of the movie will manifest their own individuating marks of style, dependent on the particular aesthetic tendencies and technological proficiencies of the company in question. (Storyboards and animatics, as well as on-the-fly oversight of FX shots in pipeline, help to minimize the levels of difference here, smoothing over mismatches in order to fit the outsourced chunks of content together into a singularly authored text — hinting at new ways in which the hoary concepts of “compositing” and “continuity” might be redeployed as a form of meta-industrial critique.) In the case of Spider-Man 3, no fewer than eight FX houses were involved (BUF, Evil Eye Pictures, Furious FX, Gentle Giant Studios, Giant Killer Robots, Halon Entertainment, Tweak Films, and X1fx) in addition to Sony Pictures Imageworks, which produced the Sandman shot.

When we look at a particular setpiece, then, we also pinpoint a curious node in the network of production: a juncture at which the multiplicity of labor required to generate blockbuster-scale entertainment must negotiate with our sense of a unified, unique product / author / vision. Perhaps this is simply an accidental echo of the collective-yet-singular aura that has always attended the serial existence of superheroes; what is Spider-Man but a single artwork scripted, drawn, acted, and realized onscreen by decades of named and nameless creators? But before all of this, we confront a basic heterogeneity that textures film experience: our understanding, at once obvious and profound, that some parts of movies stand out as better or worse or more in need of exploration than others. Spider-Man 3, as Dan acknowledges, is not a great film; but that does not mean it cannot contain great moments. In sifting for and scrutinizing such gems, I wonder if academics like us aren’t performing a strategic if unconscious role — one shared by the increasingly contiguous subcultures of journalists, critics, and fans — our dissective blogging facilitating a trees-over-forest approach to film analysis, a “setpiece-ification” that reflects the odd granularity of contemporary blockbuster media.


It’s still Jessica Yellin and you look like Jessica Yellin and we know you are Jessica Yellin. I think a lot of people are nervous out there. All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram.

— Wolf Blitzer, CNN

I woke this morning feeling distinctly unreal — a result of staying up late to catch every second of election coverage (though the champagne and cocktails with which I and my wife celebrated Obama’s amazing win undoubtedly played a part). But even after I checked the web to assure myself that, indeed, the outcome was not a nighttime dream but a daylight reality, I couldn’t shake the odd sense of being a projection of light myself, much like the “holograms” employed by CNN as part of their news coverage (Here’s the YouTube video, for as long as it might last):

I’ve written before on the spectacular plenitude of high-definition TV cross-saturated with intensive political commentary, an almost subjectivity-annihilating information flow on the visual, auditory, and ideological registers. In the case of CNN’s new trick in the toolbox, my first reaction was to giggle; the projection of reporter Jessica Yellin into the same conversational space as Wolf Blitzer was like a weird halftime show put on by engineering students as a graduation goof. But the cable news channel seemed to mean it, by God, and I have little doubt that we’ll see more such holographic play in coverage to come, as the technology becomes cheaper and its functionality streamlined into a single switch thrown on some hidden mixing board — shades of Walter Benjamin’s observation in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” about striking a match.

Leaving aside the joking references to Star Wars (whose luminously be-scanlined projection of Princess Leia served, in 1977, to fold my preadolescent crush on Carrie Fisher into parallel fetishes with science-fiction technology and the visual-effects methods used to create them), last night’s “breakthrough” transmission of Yellin from Chicago to New York contains a subtle and disturbing undertone that should not be lost on feminist critics or theorists of simulation. This 2008 version of Alexander Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you” employed as its audiovisual payload a woman’s body. It was, in this sense, just the latest retelling of the sad old story in which the female form is always-already rendered a simulacrum in the visual circuits of male desire. Yellin’s hologram, positioned in compliant stasis at the twinned focus of Blitzer’s crinkly, interrogative gaze and a floating camera that constantly reframed her phantasmic form, echoed the bodies of many a CG doll before it: those poor gynoids, from SIGGRAPH’s early Marilyn Monrobot to Shrek‘s Princess Fiona and Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, whose high-rez objectification marks the triumphal convergence of representational technology and phallic hegemony.

But beyond the obvious (and necessary) Mulveyan critique exists another interesting point. The news hologram, achieved by cybernetically tying together the behavior of two sets of cameras separated by hundreds of miles, is a remarkable example of realtime visual effects: the instantaneous compositing of spaces and bodies that once would have taken weeks or months to percolate through the production pipeline of even the best FX house. That in this case we don’t call it a visual effect, but a “news graphic” or the like, speaks more to the discursive baffles that generate such distinctions than to any genuine ontological difference. (A similar principle applies to the term “hologram”; what we’re really seeing is a sophisticated variant of chroma key, that venerable greenscreen technology by which TV forecasters are pasted onto weather maps. In this case, it’s been augmented by hyperfast, on-the-fly match-moving.) Special and visual effects are only recognized as such in narrative film and television — never in news and commercials, though that is where visual-effects R&D burns most brightly.

As to my own hologrammatic status, I assume it will fade as the magic of this political moment sinks in. An ambiguous tradeoff: one kind of reality becoming wonderfully solid, while another — the continuing complicity between gendered power and communication / imaging technology — recedes from consciousness.


I look at Blade Runner as the last analog science-fiction movie made, because we didn’t have all the advantages that people have now. And I’m glad we didn’t, because there’s nothing artificial about it. There’s no computer-generated images in the film.

— David L. Snyder, Art Director

Any movie that gets a “Five-Disc Ultimate Collectors Edition” deserves serious attention, even in the midst of a busy semester, and there are few films more integral to the genre of science fiction or the craft of visual effects than Blade Runner. (Ordinarily I’d follow the stylistic rules about which I browbeat my Intro to Film students and follow this title with the year of release, 1982. But one of the many confounding and wonderful things about Blade Runner is the way in which it resists confinement to any one historical moment. By this I refer not only to its carefully designed and brilliantly realized vision of Los Angeles in 2019 [now a mere 11 years away!] but the many-versioned indeterminacy of its status as an industrial artifact, one that has been revamped, recut, and released many times throughout the two and a half decades of its cultural existence. Blade Runner in its revisions has almost dissolved the boundaries separating preproduction, production, and postproduction — the three stages of the traditional cinematic lifecycle — to become that rarest of filmic objects, the always-being-made. The only thing, in fact, that keeps Blade Runner from sliding into the same sad abyss as the first Star Wars [an object so scribbled-over with tweaks and touch-ups that it has almost unraveled the alchemy by which it initially transmuted an archive of tin-plated pop-culture precursors into a golden original] is the auteur-god at the center of its cosmology of texts: unlike George Lucas, Ridley Scott seems willing to use words like “final” and “definitive” — charged terms in their implicit contract to stop futzing around with a collectively cherished memory.)

I grabbed the DVDs from Swarthmore’s library last week to prep a guest lecture for a seminar a friend of mine is teaching in the English Department, and in the course of plowing through the three-and-a-half-hour production documentary “Dangerous Days” came across the quote from David L. Snyder that opens this post. What a remarkable statement — all the more amazing for how quickly and easily it goes by. If there is a conceptual digestive system for ideas as they circulate through time and our ideological networks, surely this is evidence of a successfully broken-down and assimilated “truth,” one which we’ve masticated and incorporated into our perception of film without ever realizing what an odd mouthful it makes. There’s nothing artificial about it, says David Snyder. Is he referring to the live-action performances of Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young? The “retrofitted” backlot of LA 2019, packed with costumed extras and drenched in practical environmental effects from smoke machines and water sprinklers? The cars futurized according to the extrapolative artwork of Syd Mead?

No: Snyder is talking about visual effects — the virtuoso work of a small army headed by Douglas Trumbull and Richard Yuricich — a suite of shots peppered throughout the film that map the hellish, vertiginous altitudes above the drippy neon streets of Lawrence G. Paull’s production design. Snyder refers, in other words, to shots produced exclusively through falsification: miniature vehicles, kitbashed cityscapes, and painted mattes, each piece captured in multiple “passes” and composited into frames that present themselves to the eye as unified gestalts but are in fact flattened collages, mosaics of elements captured in radically different scales, spaces, and times but made to coexist through the layerings of the optical printer: an elaborate decoupage deceptively passing itself off as immediate, indexical reality.

I get what Snyder is saying. There is something natural and real about the visual effects in Blade Runner; watching them, you feel the weight and substance of the models and lighting rigs, can almost smell the smoky haze being pumped around the light sources to create those gorgeous haloes, a signature of Trumbull’s FX work matched only by his extravagant ballet of ice-cream-cone UFOs amid boiling cloudscapes and miniature mountains in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But what no one points out is that all of these visual effects — predigital visual effects — were once considered artificial. We used to think of them as tricks, hoodwinks, illusions. Only now that the digital revolution has come and gone, turning everything into weightless, effortless CG, do we retroactively assign the fakery of the past a glorious authenticity.

Or so the story goes. As I suggest above, and have argued elsewhere, the difference between “artificial” and “actual” in filmmaking is as much a matter of ideology as industrial method; perceptions of the medium are slippery and always open to contestation. Special and visual effects have always functioned as a kind of reality pump, investing the “nonspecial” scenes and sequences around them with an air of indexical reliability which is, itself, perhaps the most profound “effect.” With vanishingly few exceptions, actors speak lines written for them; stories are stitched into seamless continuity from fragments of film shot out of order; and, inescapably, a camera is there to record what’s happening, yet never reveals its own existence. Cinema is, prior to everything else, an artifact, and special effects function discursively to misdirect our attention onto more obvious classes of manipulation.

Now the computer has arrived as the new trick in town, enabling us to rebrand everything that came before as “real.” It’s an understandable turn of mind, but one that scholars and critics ought to navigate carefully. (Case in point: Snyder speaks as though computers didn’t exist at the time of Blade Runner. Yet it is only through the airtight registration made possible by motion-control cinematography, dependent on microprocessors for precision and memory storage for repeatability, that the film’s beautiful miniatures blend so smoothly with their surroundings.) It is possible, and worthwhile, to immerse ourselves in the virtual facade of ideology’s trompe-l’oeil — a higher order of special effect — while occasionally stepping back to acknowledge the brush strokes, the slightly imperfect matte lines that seam the composited elements of our thought.