Titles on the Fringe

Once again I find myself without much to add to the positive consensus surrounding a new media release; in this case, it’s the FOX series Fringe, which had its premiere on Tuesday. My friends and fellow bloggers Jon Gray and Geoff Long both give the show props, which by itself would have convinced me to donate the time and DVR space to watch the fledgling serial spread its wings. The fact that the series is a sleek update of The X-Files is just icing on the cake.

In this case, it’s a cake whose monster-of-the-week decorations seem likely to rest on a creamy backdrop of conspiracy; let’s hope Fringe (if it takes off) does a better job of upkeep on its conspiracy than did X-Files. That landmark series — another spawn of the FOX network, though from long ago when it was a brassy little David throwing stones at the Goliaths of ABC, NBC, and CBS — became nearly axiomatic for me back in 1993 when I stumbled across it one Friday night. I watched it obsessively, first by myself, then with a circle of friends; it was, for a time, a perfect example not just of “appointment television” but of “subcultural TV,” accumulating local fanbaselets who would crowd the couch, eat take-out pizza, and stay up late discussing the series’ marvelously spooky adumbrations and witty gross-outs. But after about three seasons, the show began to falter, and I watched in sadness as The X-Files succumbed to the fate of so many serial properties that lose their way and become craven copies of themselves: National Lampoon, American Flagg, Star Wars.

The problem with X-Files was that it couldn’t, over its unforgivably extended run of nine seasons, sustain the weavework necessary for a good, gripping conspiracy: a counterpoint of deferral and revelation, unbelievable questions flowing naturally from believable answers with the formal intricacy of a tango. After about season six, I couldn’t even bring myself to watch anymore; to do so would have been like visiting an aged and senile relative in a nursing home, a loved one who could no longer recognize me, or me her.

I have no idea whether Fringe will ever be as good as the best or as bad as the worst of The X-Files, but I’m already looking forward to finding out. I’ve written previously about J. J. Abrams and his gift for creating haloes of speculation around the media properties with which his name is associated, such as Alias, Lost, and Cloverfield. He’s good at the open-ended promise, and while he’s proven himself a decent director of standalone films (I’m pretty sure the new Star Trek will rock), his natural environment is clearly the serial structure of dramatic television narrative, which even in its sunniest incarnation is like a friendly conspiracy to satisfy week-by-week while keeping us coming back for more.

As I stated at the beginning, other commentators are doing a fine job of assessing Fringe‘s premise and cast of characters. The only point I’ll add is that the show’s signature visual — as much a part of its texture as the timejumps on Lost or the fades-to-white on Six Feet Under — turns me on immensely. I’m speaking, of course, about the floating 3D titles that identify locale, as in this shot:

Jon points out that the conceit of embedding titles within three-dimensional space has been done previously in Grand Theft Auto 4. Though that videogame’s grim repetitiveness was too much (or not enough) for this gamer, I appreciated the title trick, and recognized it as having an even longer lineage. The truth is, embedded titles have been “floating” around the mediascape for several years. The first time I noticed them was in David Fincher’s magnificent, underrated Panic Room. There, the opening credits unfold in architectural space, suspended against the buildings of Manhattan in sunlit Copperplate:

My fascination with Panic Room, a high-tech homage to Alfred Hitchcock in which form mercilessly follows function (the whole film is a trap, a cinematic homology of the brownstone in which Jodie Foster defends herself against murderous intruders), began with that title sequence and only grew. Notice, for example, how Foster’s name lurks in the right-hand corner of one shot, as though waiting for its closeup in the next:

The work of visual-effects houses Picture Mill and Computer Cafe, Panic Room‘s embedded titles make us acutely uneasy by conflating two spaces of film spectatorship that ordinarily remain reassuringly separate: the “in-there” of the movie’s action and the “out-here” of credits, subtitles, musical score, and other elements that are of the movie but not perceivable by the characters in the storyworld. It’s precisely the difference between diegetic and nondiegetic, one of the basic distinctions I teach students in my introductory film course.

But embedded titles such as the ones in Panic Room and Fringe confound easy categorical compartmentalization, rupturing the hygienic membrane that keeps the double registers of filmic phenomenology apart. The titles hang in an undecidable place, with uncertain epistemological and ontological status, like ghosts. They are perfect for a show that concerns itself with the threads of unreality that run through the texture of the everyday.

Ironically, the titles on Fringe are receiving criticism from fans like those on this Ain’t It Cool talkback, who see them as a cliched attempt to capitalize on an overworked idea:

The pilot was okay, but the leads were dull and the dialogue not much better. And the establishing subtitles looked like double ripoff of the opening credits of Panic Room and the “chapter 1” titles on Heroes. They’re “cool”, but they’ll likely become distracting in the long run.

I hated the 3D text … This sort of things has to stop. it’s not cool, David Fincher’s title sequence in Panic Room was stupid, stop it. It completly takes me out of the scene when this stuff shows up on screen. It reminds you you’re watching TV. It takes a few seconds to realize it’s not a “real” object and other characters, cars, plans, are not seeing that object, even though it’s perfectly 3D shaded to fit in the scene. And it serves NO PURPOSE other than to take you out of the scene and distract you. it’s a dumb, childish, show-off-y amateurish “let’s copy Fincher” thing, and I want it out of this and Heroes.

…I DVR’d the show while I was working, came in about 40 minutes into it before flipping over to my recording. They were outside the building at Harvard and I thought, “Hey cool, Harvard built huge letters spelling out their name outside one of their buildings.”… then I realized they were just ripping off the Panic Room title sequence. Weak.

The visual trick of embedded titles is, like any fusion of style and technology, a packaged idea with its own itinerary and lifespan; it will travel from text to text and medium to medium, picked up here in a movie, there in a videogame, and again in a TV series. In an article I published last year in Film Criticism, I labeled such entities “microgenres,” basing the term on my observation of the strange cultural circulation of the bullet time visual effect:

If the sprawling experiment of the Matrix trilogy left us with any definite conclusion, it is this: special effects have taken on a life of their own. By saying this, I do not mean simply to reiterate the familiar (and debatable) claim that movies are increasingly driven by spectacle over story, or that, in this age of computer-generated imagery (CGI), special effects are “better than ever.” Instead, bullet time’s storied trajectory draws attention to the fact that certain privileged special effects behave in ways that confound traditional understandings of cinematic narrative, meaning, and genre — quite literally traveling from one place to another like mini-movies unto themselves. As The Matrix‘s most emblematic signifier and most quoted element, bullet time spread seemingly overnight to other movies, cloaking itself in the vestments of Shakespearean tragedy (Titus, 1999), high-concept television remake (Charlie’s Angels, 2000), caper film (Swordfish, 2001), teen adventure (Clockstoppers, 2002), and cop/buddy film (Bad Boys 2, 2003). Furthermore, its migration crossed formal boundaries into animation, TV ads, music videos, and computer games, suggesting that bullet time’s look — not its underlying technologies or associated authors and owners — played the determining role in its proliferation. Almost as suddenly as it sprang on the public scene, however, bullet time burned out. Advertisements for everything from Apple Jacks and Taco Bell to BMW and Citibank Visa made use of its signature coupling of slowed time and freely roaming cameras. The martial-arts parody Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002) recapped The Matrix‘s key moments during an extended duel between the Chosen One (Steve Oedekerk) and a computer-animated cow. Put to scullery work as a sportscasting aid in the CBS Superbowl, parodied in Scary Movie (2000), Shrek (2001), and The Simpsons, the once-special effect died from overexposure, becoming first a cliche, then a joke. The rise and fall of bullet time — less a singular special effect than a named and stylistically branded package of photographic and digital techniques — echoes the fleeting celebrity of the morph ten years earlier. Both played out their fifteen minutes of fame across a Best-Buy’s-worth of media screens. And both hint at the recent emergence of an unusual, scaled-down class of generic objects: aggregates of imagery and meaning that circulate with startling rapidity, and startlingly frank public acknowledgement, through our media networks.

Clearly, embedded titles are undergoing a similar process, arising first as an innovation, then reproducing virally across a host of texts. Soon enough, I’m sure, we’ll see the parodies: imagine a film of the Scary Movie ilk in which someone clonks his head on a floating title. Ah, well: such is media evolution. In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying the effect in its more sober incarnation on Fringe, where this particular package of signifiers has found a respectful — and generically appropriate — home.

Planet of the Apes

As my attention shifts to one of the major goals of the summer — drafting a proposal for my book on special and visual effects — I’ve started to augment my movie-a-day habit with some classic FX titles. These are films I’ve seen before, in some cases many times, but which need revisiting. Seeing them now can be a corrective shock, revealing my memory for the sloppy generalizing mechanism it is. Impressions of movies watched in childhood blend together, in the adult mind, like ingredients of a stew, a delicious melange that is nevertheless a kind of monotaste: a tidy averaging of visual and narrative pleasures that, with a fresh viewing, shatter back into discrete components. The movie again becomes a complex terrain rather than a distant map, a succession of contrasting images rather than a single iconic poster still, a cascade of rediscovered characters, tableaux, action setpieces, and lines of dialogue. It’s like opening a box of forgotten photographs.

In the case of Planet of the Apes — Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 original, not Tim Burton’s lousy 2001 remake — I was stunned to find a film far more stark, confident, somber, chilling, and stylish than the simplistic caricature to which I’d reduced it. My first encounter with Planet of the Apes came sometime in the mid-1970s, when it ran as part of “Ape Week” on our local ABC affiliate’s Four-O’Clock Movie. I’d get home from school in time to watch an hour or so of cartoons before the feature came on; Ape Week was just one of several themed lineups I looked forward to eagerly, including “James Bond Week” and “Monster Week” (a string of Eiji Tsuburaya‘s Godzilla and Mothra movies).

The Apes series was a perfect fit for the Four-O’Clock Movie because there was one for every day of the week: from Monday’s installment of the first film through Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) on Tuesday, Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) on Wednesday, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) on Thursday, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) on Friday. The end of the week didn’t mean an end to Apes, though. Right about that time, a live-action TV series aired, followed by an animated counterpart on Saturday mornings. It would be thirty years before I heard the term transmedia franchise, but — along with daily reruns of the original Star Trek series — Apes was my inaugural passport to the labyrinthine landscape of distributed science-fiction storyworlds.

What I loved about Planet of the Apes back then, and what has stayed with me over the years, can be summarized in two images that sent me into an ecstasy of eeriness: the ape makeup created by Ben Nye and implemented by John Chambers; and the famous final shot, in which the hero Taylor (Charlton Heston) stumbles across the ruins of the Statue of Liberty and realizes he’s been on Earth — not an alien world, but his own home — all this time. The frame is below; a grainy YouTube version can be found here.

It’s one of the great twist endings in SF — contributed, fittingly enough, by Rod Serling. But its unfortunate effect was to instantly reduce the movie to a grand cliche, a semiotic Shrinky-Dink, source of endless quotations and parodies in the decades that followed. The sad truth about twist endings is that they follow a logic opposite that of genre (in which the same patterns reappear over and over again without anyone taking offense; we applaud them, in fact, for their iterative familiarity): once given its Big Reveal, a twist shrivels on the vine, spoiled by critics, lampooned for its very memorability. Citizen Kane‘s Rosebud, The Sixth Sense‘s dead psychiatrist, St. Elsewhere‘s world-in-a-snowglobe — each exists, like Taylor’s final, horrible epiphany, as the ultimate self-annihilating closure, shutting down not just a particular narrative instance, but the possibility of its own resurrection in anything but smirkily insincere form. Shots like the one that concludes Planet of the Apes are, to me, a perfect example of Lacanian captation: they arrest and hold us in an escape-proof hermetic prison of the imaginary.

OK, psychoanalytic blather aside, what was so great about watching Planet of the Apes again? I suppose my answer is yet more Lacan, for both the apes and humans are trapped by and within their own misrecognitions. Taylor and his fellow astronauts firmly believe themselves to be on an alien planet, despite evidence to the contrary (the apes speak English); for their part, the apes see the humans as completely Other and cannot countenance any notion that there is an evolutionary link between them. It’s a comedy of evolutionary errors, the Scopes Trial replayed simultaneously as farce and deadpan drama. The truth of the situation is hidden, like the purloined letter, in plain sight; it is not until the end, in a traumatic confrontation with the Real, that Taylor traverses his fantasy. (Maybe that’s why the joke has been replayed so frequently in pop culture, from Spaceballs to The Simpsons; what is repetition but the insistent revisiting of trauma?) Of course, as often occurs in science fiction, the meta-misrecognition that operates here is failing to see in the portrayal of a “future” the actual representation of a “present.” Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth explores this aspect of the film and its sequels, arguing that Apes is a funhouse mirror held up to racial politics in the United States.

Bringing this all back home to the movie and its special effects, I see two kinds of misrecognition at play in the visuals, both of them integral to the suspension of disbelief by astronauts, apes, and audiences alike. First, of course, are the actual human beings (Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans) beneath the prosthetics and hair appliances. The makeup and costumes that turn these actors into sentient, speaking apes do not mask or muffle the performances, but rather estrange and amplify them: we watch and listen for nuances of emotion, an amused glint in the eye, a subtle shift in intonation, precisely because they are cloaked in filmmaking technology. At first glance the masquerade is comical, almost grotesque, but it quickly gives way to some remarkably graceful performances. Our twinned awareness of the trickery and investment in the fantasy reflects the knife-edge calibration of disbelief attending the finest FX work.

But there’s a second register of misrecognition here, one I would have missed completely if I hadn’t been watching a pristine widescreen transfer of the film. The first act of Planet of the Apes consists of Taylor and his fellow astronauts trekking across the forbidding but beautiful scenery of Arizona and Utah — in particular, the area of the Colorado River known as Lake Powell:

I was dumbstruck by this natural backdrop of mountains, deserts, and water, as gorgeously alien as anything in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). It occurred to me that the genius of this portion of the movie — an opening thirty minutes before the apes even show up — is that it places the spectator in a homologous position to the stranded astronauts. Like them, we stare at a world that is at once ours and another’s; a landscape both earthly and unearthly. Like the ape makeup, the cinematography forces us into sublime attentiveness, consuming every detail of a setting made familiar by our experience with terrestrial features, then unfamiliar through a storyline that presents it as an alien world, then familiar again in the final beachside revelation.

I guess what I’m saying with all this is that Planet of the Apes stands out to me as much for its planet as for its apes; and that in both constructs (and our response to them) we glimpse something of the multitiered, shuttling structure of belief and disavowal that great special effects provoke.

CFP: The Science of Special Effects

There’s an exciting conference coming up this fall — Film & Science: Fictions, Documentaries, and Beyond, (October 30-November 2 at the Westin O’Hare Hotel in Chicago). I’m involved as an area chair on the topic of special and visual effects, sharing the honor with my friend and colleague Michael Duffy, whom I met in 2004 at a London conference on Eadweard Muybridge and spectacle. Since earning his doctorate at the University of Nottingham, Michael has returned to the U.S. and is an active and valued contributor to this blog. We share a passion for special visual effects and a strong interest in thinking “outside the box” about them; we hope the readers of Graphic Engine will be inspired to contribute a proposal for the Chicago gathering. Here’s our CFP:

The ‘Science’ of Special Effects: Aesthetic Approaches to Industry

This area examines the industrial, technological, theoretical, and aesthetic questions surrounding special-effects technologies. Presenters may investigate historical changes in special and visual effects, as in the gradual switch from physical to digital applications; they may focus on the use of visual effects in film or television texts that do not fit into typically spectacle-driven genres (i.e., effects in drama, comedy, and musical narratives instead of in action-adventure, science fiction, or fantasy); they may consider the theoretical implications of special/visual effects and technology on texts; or they may concentrate on neglected historical and aesthetic values of effects development.

Possible papers or panels might include the following:

  • An investigation of the terms “Special Effect” and “Visual Effect,” what they constitute, and how their definitions have been delineated and complicated by changing technologies.
  • Special/visual effects “stars” such as Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, or Richard Edlund, and their impact on the construction and application of visual effects images for mainstream/non-mainstream cinema.
  • The changing relationship between visual effects technologies and pre-production, i.e. looking at “previz,” at the development of films “around” their effects sequences, or at the use of physical materials such as maquettes as templates for eventual CG elements.
  • How contemporary visual-effects practitioners negotiate and incorporate real world “physics” into their design of digital characters (“synthespians”) and environments.
  • How visual effects contribute to the formation of complete “environments” on screen, how they are incorporated into narratives, and how meaning is affected when a physical environment is entirely fabricated.
  • The implementation of special/visual effects by costume and motion-capture “artists” and actors, and how studies of these practices can offer insight into classic and contemporary working relationships between effects practitioners, actors and crew.
  • The Visual Effects Society and its impact on the industry and filmmaking throughout the organization’s history.
  • How directors or other creative personalities use physical and digital effects in their projects (e.g., Robert Zemeckis’ application of digital technologies or Guillermo Del Toro’s proclaimed interest in keeping a 50/50 balance between physical and digital effects).

The deadline for proposals is August 1; send them to me at brehak1@swarthmore.edu or Michael at michael.s.duffy@googlemail.com. We’re also happy to kick around ideas, so even if you don’t have a completed paper, feel free to get in touch!

Digital Day for Night

A quick followup to my recent post on the new Indiana Jones movie: I’ve seen it, and find myself agreeing with those who call it an enjoyable if silly film. Actually, it was the best couple of hours I’ve spent in a movie theater on a Saturday afternoon in quite a while, and seemed especially well suited to that particular timeframe: an old-fashioned matinee experience, a slightly cheaper ticket to enjoy something less than classic Hollywood art. Pulp at a bargain price.

But my interest in the disproportionately angry fan response to the movie continues. And to judge by articles popping up online, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is providing us, alongside its various pleasures (or lack thereof), a platform for thinking about that (ironically) age-old question, “How are movies changing?” — also known as “Where has the magic gone?” Here, for example, are three articles, one from Reuters, one from The Atlantic.com, and one from an MTV blog, each addressing the film’s heavy use of CGI.

I can see what they’re talking about, and I suppose if I were less casual in my fandom of the first three Indy movies, I’d be similarly livid. (I still can’t abide what’s been done to Star Wars.) At the same time, I suspect our cultural allergy to digital visual effects is a fleeting phenomenon — our collective eyes adjusting themselves to a new form of light. Some of the sequences in Crystal Skull, particularly those in the last half of the film, simply wouldn’t be possible without digital visual FX. CG’s ability to create large populations of swarming entities onscreen (as in the ant attack) or to stitch together complex virtual environments with real performers (as in the Peru jungle chase) were clearly factors in the very conception of the movie, with the many iterations of the troubled screenplay passing spectacular “beats” back and forth like hot potatoes on the assumption that, should all else fail, at least the movie would feature some killer action.

Call it digital day for night, the latest version of the practice by which scenes shot in daylight “pass” for nighttime cinematography. It’s a workaround, a cheat, like all visual effects, in some sense nothing more than an upgraded cousin of the rear-projected backgrounds showing characters at seaside when they’re really sitting on a blanket on a soundstage. It’s the hallmark of an emerging mode of production, one that’s swiftly becoming the new standard. And our resistance to it is precisely the moment of enshrining a passing mode of production, one that used to seem “natural” (for all its own undeniable artificiality). By such means are movies made, but it’s also the way that the past itself is manufactured, memory and nostagia forged through an ongoing dialectic of transparency and opacity that haunts our recreational technologies.

We’ll get used to the new way of doing things. And someday, movies that really do eschew CG in favor of older FX methodologies, as Spielberg and co. initially promised to do, will seem as odd in their way as performances of classical music that insist on using authentic instruments from the time. For the moment, we’re suspended between one mode of production and another, truly at home in neither, able only to look unhappily from one bank to another as the waterfall of progress carries us ever onward.

Indiana Jones and the Unattainable FX Past

This isn’t a review, as I haven’t yet made it to the theater to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (portal to the transmedia world of Dr. Jones here; typically focused and informative Wiki entry here). What I have been doing — breaking my normal rule about keeping spoiler-free — is poring over fan commentaries on the new movie, swimming within the cometary aura of its street-level paratexts, working my way into the core theatrical experience from the outside in. This wasn’t anything intentional, more the crumbling of an internet wall that sprang one informational leak after another, until finally the wave of words washed over me like, well, one of the death traps in an Indiana Jones movie.

Usually I’m loath to take this approach, finding the twists and turns of, say, Battlestar Galactica and Lost far more compelling when they clobber me unexpectedly (and let me add, both shows have been rocking out hard with their last couple of episodes). But it seemed like the right approach here. Over the years, the whole concept of Indiana Jones has become a diffuse map, gas rather than solid, ocean rather than island. Indy 4 is a media object whose very essence — its cultural significance as well as its literal signification, the decoding of its concatenated signage — depends on impacted, recursive, almost inbred layers of cinematic history.

On one level, the codes and conventions of pulp adventure genres, 1930s serials and their ilk, have been structured into the series film by film, much like the rampant borrowings of the Star Wars texts (also masterminded by George Lucas, whose magpie appropriations of predecessor art are cannily and shamelessly redressed, in his techno-auteur house style, as timelessly mythic resonance). But by now, 27 years after the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Indy series must contend with a second level of history: its own. The logic of pop-culture migration has given way to the logic of the sequel chain, the franchise network, the transmedia system; we assess each new installment by comparing it not to “outside” films and novels but to other extensions of the Indiana Jones trademark. Indy 4, in other words, cannot be read intertextually; it must be read intratextually, within the established terms of its brand. And here the franchise’s history becomes indistinguishable from our own, since it is only through the activity of audiences — our collective memory, our layered conversations, the ongoing do-si-do of celebration, critique, and comparison — that the Indy texts sustain any sense of meaning above and beyond their cold commodity form.

All of this is to say that there’s no way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull could really succeed, facing as it does the impossible task of simultaneously returning to and building upon a shared and cherished moment in film history. While professional critics have received the new film with varying degrees of delight and disappointment, the talkbacks at Aint-It-Cool News (still my go-to site for rude and raucous fan discourse) are far more scornful, even outraged, in their assessment. Their chorused rejection of Indy 4 hits the predictable points: weak plotting, flimsy attempts at comic relief, and in the movie’s blunt infusion of science-fiction iconography, a generic splicing so misjudged / misplayed that the film seems to be at war with its own identity, a body rejecting a transplanted organ.

But running throughout the talkback is another, more symptomatic complaint, centering on the new film’s overuse of CG visual effects. The first three movies — Raiders, Temple of Doom, and Last Crusade — covered a span from 1981 to 1989, an era which can now be retroactively characterized as the last hurrah of pre-digital effects work. All three feature lots of practical effects — stuntwork, pyrotechnics, and the on-set “wrangling” of everything from cobras to cockroaches. But more subtly, all make use of postproduction optical effects based on non-digital methods: matte paintings, bluescreen compositing, a touch of cel animation here, a cloud tank there. Both practical and optical effects have since been augmented if not colonized outright by CG, a shift apparently unmissable in Indy 4. And that has longtime fans in an uproar, their antidigital invective targeted variously on Lucas’s influence, the loss of verisimilitude, and the growing family resemblance of one medium (film) to another (videogames):

The Alien shit didnt bother me at all, it was just soulless and empty as someone earlier said.. And the CGI made it not feel like an Indy flick in some parts.. I walked out of the theater thinking the old PC game Fate of Atlantis gave me more Indiana joy than this piece of big budget shit.

My biggest gripe? Too much FUCKING CGI. The action lacked tension in crucial places. And there were too many parts (more than from the past films) where Looney Tunes physics kept coming into play. By the end, when the characters endure 3 certain deaths, you begin to think “Okay, the filmmakers are just fucking around, lean back in your seat and take in the silliness.” No thanks. That’s not what makes Indiana Jones movies fun.

This film was AVP, The Mummy Returns and Pirates of the Fucking Carribean put together, a CGI shitfest. A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, Lucas said “A special effect is a tool, a means to telling astory, a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” Take your own advice Lucas, you suck!!!

The entire movie is shot on a stage. What happened to the locations of the past? The entire movie is CG. What a disappointment. I really, REALLY wanted to enjoy it.

Interestingly, this tension seems to have been anticipated by the filmmakers, who loudly claimed that the new film would feature traditional stuntwork, with CGI used only for subtleties such as wire removal. But the slope toward new technologies of image production proves to be slippery: according to Wikipedia, CG matte paintings dominate the film, and while Steven Spielberg allegedly wanted the digital paintings to include visible brushstrokes — as a kind of retro shout-out to the FX artists of the past — the result was neither nostalgically justifiable or convincingly indexical.

Of course, I’m basing all this on a flimsy foundation: Wiki entries, the grousing of a vocal subcommunity of fans, and a movie I haven’t even watched yet. I’m sure I will get out to see Indy 4 soon, but this expedition into the jungle of paratexts has definitely diluted my enthusiasm somewhat. I’ll encounter the new movie all too conscious of how “new” and “old” — those basic, seemingly obvious temporal coordinates — exceed our ability to construct and control them, no matter how hard the filmmakers may try, no matter how hard we audiences may hope.

Four-Leaf “Clover”


Like the Manhattan-demolishing leviathan at its center — sometimes only a distant, crashing presence, sometimes terrifyingly close and looming — Cloverfield is an enigma built of striking contrasts. At once epic and intimate, the film seems utterly familiar in some ways and breathtakingly new in others. At its best (and there is a lot of “best” in its 84-minute running time), Cloverfield takes an almost unbearably cliched monster-movie premise and reinvents it whole, deftly stripping away the audience’s ability to anticipate what will happen next — even if, moments later, we realize that we saw the twists and shocks coming a mile away.

In this sense, the new film from producer and concept author J. J. Abrams, screenwriter Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves accomplishes what any good movie must: find a new, temporarily convincing way to obey the established rules of its genre and yet package them in a manner that seems fresh and original. I say “temporarily” because, of course, it’s a zero-sum game: assuming Cloverfield is the box-office phenomenon its makers and marketers clearly expect it to be, we’re in for any number of B, C, and D-grade knockoffs. We’ll quickly tire of the Cloverfield effect, just as we tired of the Matrix‘s bullet time, CG films featuring wisecracking animals in an urban setting, or — next on the block for burnout — the recent boomlet of pregnancy comedies like Knocked Up and Juno.

For the moment, though, we’re in the sweet spot. Cloverfield works beautifully as a lean, scary, and occasionally awe-inspiring fusion of science fiction and horror. Its impact seems inseparable from the promotional campaign leading up to its release, though what strikes me in retrospect (now that the quantum function of collective anticipation has collapsed, the wave of our wanting condensed into a hard particle of finished film) is how trickily non-promotional the publicity turned out to be. From its first teaser onwards, Cloverfield was sold to us more on the basis of what we didn’t know than what we did.

By the old logic of movie marketing, the more we were fed about an upcoming film, the better. Even in cases where a structuring piece of narrative information was withheld, as in The Crying Game, the absence itself became a lure, with reviewers falling all over themselves not to give away the Secret So Shocking You Won’t Believe Your Eyes! Not so Cloverfield, whose central mystery — the monster’s nature and appearance — became an object of extended forensic investigation by fans and, for many, the primary reason to turn up on opening day to see the film. Speculative images like the one at the top of this article (not, let me add, an accurate representation) abounded as fans scoured Quicktime files frame-by-frame and read clues Rorschach-like into promotional artwork. This was accompanied by much skepticism about the prospect of our ever actually seeing the monster; many felt we were in for another bait-and-switch of the Blair Witch variety.

It’s probably no spoiler at this point to announce that there is a monster, and a very satisfying one at that. What’s great, though, is how our fear and fascination toward the thing is mostly generated through the human activity around it, in particular the reactions of the quartet of young actors whom we follow throughout the movie. None is a well-known performer, for obvious reasons. Encountering a familiar movie face amid the frenzy and pathos of Cloverfield would destroy the film’s precarious conceit of being “real” footage captured by “real” people as the attack “really” happens.

The filmic pursuit of realism has a long and storied history — almost as long as the list of ways that Hollywood has put that realism to cynical use to sell its fictions. In staying within the boundaries of its metaphor, Cloverfield is endlessly gimmicky, finding ways to frame traditional dramatic setpieces and character beats while entirely avoiding artful compositions or anything resembling continuity editing. (As a side note, the visual effects are particularly impressive for the way in which digital elements have been added to jouncing camera work; the production’s match-movers deserve a special technical Oscar of their own.)

For Cloverfield‘s interwoven illusions — not just the spectacle of invented monsters, but affective phantasms like suspense and empathy — to work, everything must seem unplanned, contingent, or (my favorite word from graduate school) aleatory. That term means “dependent on chance or luck,” and it’s entirely appropriate in this context. Abrams and company have stumbled upon a way to put an electrifying new spin on a comfortable old story, and as fans of the genre, we are lucky indeed.

Top Ten


The New York Times’s roundup of the top box-office earners from 2007 mentions something that I found interesting: with the exception of The Bourne Ultimatum, “nine of the Top 10 grossing films were science fiction, fantasy or animation.” Within that techno-generic triangulation, it’s not entirely clear where something like Zack Snyder and Frank Miller’s 300 (at #7) would fall; the film isn’t SF or fantasy – the Times labels it “mock-historical” – and its mise-en-scene is almost entirely digital, bringing 300 as close to animation as live action can become without imploding into absolute Pixarity. Below are the rankings; more thorough information can be found here.

  1. Spider-Man 3: $336,530,303
  2. Shrek the Third: $322,719,944
  3. Transformers: $319,246,193
  4. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End: $309,420,425
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: $292,004,738
  6. The Bourne Ultimatum: $227,471,070
  7. 300: $210,614,939
  8. I Am Legend: $209,506,903
  9. Ratatouille: $206,445,654
  10. The Simpsons Movie: $183,135,014

As a student and fan of special effects and new media, I’m struck by the completeness with which the top 10 encapsulate an evolving mode of high-tech production in serial media. While some might see as obvious the correlation of huge budgets, high-volume special and visual effects, and the SF/fantasy/animation triad, to me their confluence at this moment in history deserves some attention. A few observations:

  • Most of the movies on the list are of a type I’d call “culturally suspect”; even if releases like Ratatouille (#9) and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (#5) won praise from critics, the accolades often seemed qualified, even grudging; Ratatouille was not “just” a cute-animal movie, Order of the Phoenix was “comparatively dark and mature” for a film aimed at children. The air of disreputability echoes the low standing of science fiction and fantasy as genres, and of animation as a form. The films’ enormous profitability stands in striking contrast to their devalued cultural status.
  • Four of the movies were entries in a sequel chain, and one (Transformers, at #3) is, as the Times points out, a likely launchpad for a new franchise. I point this out not to repeat the lame lament that “no one makes original movies anymore,” but to highlight the degree to which serialization and adaptation are increasingly evident in LSMPs (Large-Scale Media Productions). There is enormous profit in transmedia systems.
  • A majority of the titles are marked by state-of-the-art visual effects; they are, in short, special-effects films. Again, the standard complaint here is that flashy FX are responsible for the metastasis of production and marketing budgets in recent decades or that FX have crowded out good storytelling; but I find those objections rather reactionary and pointless. It’s more interesting to consider how these megabudget productions serve as R&D labs for visual effects methodologies – here understood not simply in terms of resultant onscreen spectacles, but the whole offstage infrastructure of previsualization and pipelining that subtends and coordinates the production of those spectacles. I speculate that methods of manufacturing spectacle (and of faking less “marked” elements of filmic realism) trickle down from the megaproductions, becoming available to films that are smaller in scale and arguably more subtle and sophisticated in their employment of FX.

Speed Indeed


The trailer for Speed Racer has been available for a little under a week, and word of it is spreading through social channels almost as quickly as through the manifold viral vectors of information space. (The world of organic embodied communications can only stand back and shake its head in wonder at its fleet digital progeny. YouTube’s version is here; I recommend viewing it in higher quality through the official website.) I’ve watched the trailer several times myself, in increasing fascination; students and colleagues have emailed me links to it; I even overheard two students discussing it excitedly, as though it were the movie itself: It’s already out? Cool! Whatever the merits of the work-in-progress the trailer is advertising, it has certainly achieved its intended purpose, acting not so much as a preview, but rather a demo of the full-length version that will hit theaters in May 2008. It captures the movie in miniature, scales it down to an iPod-sized burst of visual attractions and narrative beats.

I admit to being suckered (or sucker-punched) by the look of Speed Racer, a hypperreal funhouse crafted from neon candy and shot in an infinitely deep focus that would make Gregg Toland or James Wong Howe weep for joy. I guess it’s not surprising that Larry and Andy Wachowski, following up the silvery-green slickness of their Matrix trilogy, have prepared another film whose brand identity depends largely upon its visual texture: an internally consistent cinematic VR — a graphic engine in the truest sense — in which cinematography, visual effects, and mise-en-sc??ne have flowed into each other like gooey fudge.

Actually, add editing to that mix, for the Speed Racer trailer is the first I can think of to offer a scene transition as a visual hook. The image at the top of this article shows the endpoint of a camera move: tracking around protagonist Speed (Emile Hirsch), the background blurs into a rainbow ribbon, and Hirsch’s shoulder “wipes” the next shot into existence. The moment features prominently in the trailer and in stills grabbed from it (like the one I found by Googling), yet it seems to be neither a turning point in the narrative, a revelation of character, nor a generic marker. Instead, it showcases a new “verb” in film grammar, signaling that Speed Racer will not simply tell a great story, but will tell it using an entirely new set of rules.

Yeah, right. We’ve all heard this before; cinema probably started making promises it couldn’t keep on December 29, 1895, the day after the first public screening of a motion picture. But unlike the Lumi??re Brothers — who called cinema “an invention without a future” — the Wachowskis have set themselves the task of forging cinema’s next epoch. Whether they can do it with Speed Racer remains to be seen. On the surface, it’s a giddy experiment in mapping anime style into live action, though I suspect the production has stretched the concept of digital animation so far that any ontological divide between it and live action has long since ceased to matter. It may end up no more successful than Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), which also toyed with a new kind of transition, in that case a pattern of orthogonal wipes based on comic-book panels. Lee’s experiment didn’t do much to pep up that dismal movie, but something tells me that Speed Racer will fare better. Here’s hoping.

Remembered for His Monsters

William Tuttle

With sadness and a sweet sense of nostalgia I note the passing of one of the great effects technicians, William Tuttle, who died July 27. (The NY Times obituary is here; you may need to register with the site to view it.) Tuttle headed the makeup department of MGM and worked on many films I remember fondly from when I was a kid: The Fury (the 1978 Brian DePalma film that ends with the explosion of John Cassavettes); Logan’s Run (1977), in which he turned Roscoe Lee Brown into a silver-faced cyborg artist nutcase named Box; Young Frankenstein (1974), where Tuttle’s makeup for Peter Boyle both satirized and honored Jack Pierce’s artistry in the 1931 Frankenstein; and “The Night Strangler” (1973), one of the pair of telefilms that launched the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Tuttle also did standout work in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) and The Time Machine (1960), creating a morphing set of identities for Tony Randall in the former and the fearsome Morlocks in the latter.

Young FrankensteinThe Time Machine

If you recognize in this retrograde stroll through Tuttle’s filmography the archival trace of IMDb, you’re exactly right; I called up that website reflexively, using it, as I so often do, as a prosthetic augmentation of my mediagoing memories. What’s interesting in this case is how much of Tuttle’s work I was completely unaware of: all the non-monstrous, un-fantastic makeup jobs he did on Hollywood stars, making them look glamorous or rugged or merely screen-real instead of bizarre. Perhaps Tuttle’s best-known creation — in that it triggers for a much of a certain TV-watching generation an avalanche of networked associations to black-and-white anthology dramas, smart SF & fantasy, and twist endings — played on just that split between the “normal” and the “hideous,” in the episode of The Twilight Zone entitled “Eye of the Beholder” (1960). Almost as unmistakably recognizable as Rod Serling’s wry face and voice is the twisted visage of the medical staff unveiled in “Beholder”‘s wrenching final images. For all the faces that William Tuttle helped to look pretty or handsome, it’s the monsters we’ll remember him for.

Eye of the Beholder

To Capture A Giant

In reading up on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007), I was intrigued to note the coining of a new term for the creation of CG (computer-generated) performance in movies: soul capture. It’s the brainchild of Double Negative, a London-based visual effects company that was one of several involved in the most recent Harry Potter film. Double Negative worked on approximately 950 of Phoenix’s 1400 effects shots, categorized by “geographical area”:

Hogwarts, both inside and out; the Forbidden Forest, where Harry and his friends encounter Grawp, Hagrid’s teenage half brother; the Hall of Prophecy, a mysterious and cavernous storage space in the Ministry of Magic and the Veil Room, which lies at the very heart of the Wizarding world.

(Interesting in itself this mapping of labor, with its strong suggestion that a movie’s diegesis or storyworld is increasingly conceptualized in spatial terms, more akin to videogame environments and theme parks than to linear narrative – but on the other hand, the linearity of cinematic storytelling has always been only an ex post facto phenomenon, with films being shot out of order for economic reasons and only in editing arranged into apparent sequentiality.)

Anyway, soul capture refers to the particular breed of motion capture with which Double Negative took elements of the performance provided by Tony Maudsley and used them to “drive” the performance of the giant CG character Grawp, the 16-foot-tall half-brother of Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane).

Now I have to admit that the Grawp sequences were easily my least favorite parts of Phoenix in both its print and film incarnations. In the book, Grawp struck me as an unnecessary and overly cute bit of comic relief, an uninspired attempt to open up and explore Hagrid’s already perfectly realized world. In the movie, Grawp’s essential flimsiness was amplified by visual effects that simply didn’t work. In a movie filled with otherwise bold and imaginative FX, Grawp doesn’t look or move right: with his stretchy, misshapen features, he comes across as a regular-sized man who’s been massively inflated with air. Which, in a certain sense, he is: Maudsley’s “soul-captured” performance has been mapped onto the surface of a CG balloon, then integrated with surprising clumsiness into settings with other actors. Of course, this clumsiness could be explained as a function of Grawp’s half-wittedness; like Gollum (Andy Serkis) in The Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003), an FX-driven character’s eccentricity/monstrosity seems to justify a lack of grace and subtlety in its realization. (This is not to knock Gollum, whom I truly dug, but to highlight a particular faultline in state-of-the-art CG between the cartoonish and the mimetic, and the psychological mechanisms by which that faultline is ideologically negotiated and naturalized.)

Grawp’s failings aside, I’m struck by the rapid evolution of nomenclature in what we might call “acting effects.” In the late 1990s, around the time that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Hironobu Sakaguchi & Moto Sakakibara, 2001) was gearing up, the keyword was motion capture. In behind-the-scenes materials, we were treated to the sight of actors pantomiming on blank soundstages, wearing leotards crisscrossed with grids of tiny spheres – markers providing reference points for the computer, and later animators, to use in reconstructing the performance digitally. In the early 2000s, John Gaeta and the effects crew at ESC were using universal capture to scan Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving in ultra-high-resolution for The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003). By the time of The Polar Express (Robert Zemeckis, 2004), the keyword was performance capture, and markers studded Tom Hanks’s face and eyelids. Now we have soul capture, presumably expressing some further evolution of capture modalities, with a concomitantly finer degree of resolution.

The point, I think, is not whether any of these tools is “better” than any other, or even especially revolutionary as a shift in filmmaking methods. As Andre Bazin so valuably observed, the camera itself is a primary “capture technology,” one that marks an irrevocable break with previous methods of representing reality. If anything, the swooning (and market-driven) discourse around new forms of capture signals a movement sideways into painting and illustration, for what’s really being taken from Maudsley or Serkis is components for future blending, ingredients in a recipe of illusion.

Hence David S. Cohen gets it wrong when he writes that “Actors give films their humanity and heart. Visual effects let the audience see things that no camera could capture. So the battle lines [are] drawn: soul vs. spectacle.” Movie performances have always been based on the “spectacle” of the actor’s preserved essence, whether in a rubber Godzilla suit, in Jack Pierce’s makeup for Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), or for that matter in the screen personae of Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. “Humanity and heart” are reduced to a two-dimensional skin of photons in the final instance, an insurmountable layer of dead screen severing us from living performance – even as it brings that performance magically to life for us.