Digital Materialism: "300" Bodies in Virtual Space

Curator's Note

Two parallel discourses emerged in the popular press coverage of Zach Snyder’s 2006 film adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s graphic novel 300. The first celebrated the innovative use of special effects and digital aesthetics, while the second glorified the brutal training regime endured by the film’s actors as well as the lean and sculpted physiques that resulted from the intense training. While much could be said about 300’s advances in digital effects, the adaptation from book to film, and the fetishization of bodies within the film, I am more interested in the ways in which the hyperphysicality of the bodies interacts with the simulated space of the film and the claims this interaction makes about the materiality of digital space.

In the wake of the genomic and information revolutions of the 20th century, our 21st century cultural logic fantasizes about a transhuman utopia where flesh and information can be easily exchanged. This fantasy is sustained by a belief that both humans (their DNA) and informational structures (their bits of data) are fundamentally reducible to their constituent parts, and within this framework, ‘code’ functions as the universal equivalent. (I am deliberately invoking Marx’s terminology here – he refers to the money form as a universal equivalent – in order to trace a connection between the reductive and essentializing powers of capitalism and the informationalist fantasy I am describing.)

In this clip, we see the interaction between the hyperphysical bodies of the actors and, except for the ground and a few stalks of wheat, the completely simulated space that they inhabit. Despite the different ontologies of the pieces of the image, the resulting composite image is notable for picturing the easy exchange of information between its analog and digital pieces. The physical bodies of 300 are folded into the virtual spaces of the film, providing a visualization of the material expression of information. 300 provides a material instantiation of a central contradiction of our digital cultural logic. It visualizes the tension between analog and digital technologies, refusing to relinquish the physicality of the body while simultaneously imagining an environment in which flesh becomes merely one additional informational pattern. As such, 300’s use of special effects is symptomatic of not only contemporary approaches to image production, but also indicative of our increasingly digital view of the world.

 

Comments

Bob Rehak's picture

Bodies Drawn, Filmed, Painted, Rendered

Fascinating post, Drew. 300 belongs to a class of films I’ve been thinking of as (in Thomas Leitch’s words) hyperfaithful adaptations, which use digital technologies to bring graphic novels and comic books to cinematic life with as much fidelity to their source material as possible. Some, like The Polar Express and Watchmen, seem to fail precisely at the point where their uncanny mix of analog and digital mise-en-scene is exceeded by the uncanniness of the film/print distinction, a difference these simulacra inadvertently foreground while seeking to efface it. But others, like Sin City, find an ideal intersection between the larger media genres they connect and the digital/analog fusion on which their visual and narrative appeal hinges. (Maybe the magic ingredient is Frank Miller? Hmm, not if The Spirit was any indication.)

In this light, I wonder what role you see for the painterly and illustrative influences in 300’s special effects. The film’s virtual world as well as the physical bodies that inhabit it are themselves subsumed within an aesthetic domain "codified" by Miller and Lynn Varley: certain sequences, individual shots, and the governing color palette were designed with a microscopic eye on the graphic novel. Particularly from the viewpoint of visual-effects use in previsualization, art direction, and digital set construction — phases of production increasingly homogenized within the FX pipeline — might this template absorbed from the prior, nondigital medium of print constitute a third, specifically artisanal force in tension with the analog/digital dialectic you identify?

Drew Ayers's picture

Virtual Forces

Great points, Bob. The artisinal forces on 300 are certainly an important strand in the film’s ‘becoming.’ I hadn’t considered this kind of print authorship as a specifically different species - I grouped it under the larger umbrella of ‘analog technologies’ - but I think you’re right: the illustrative and painterly influences on the film form a distinct force on the realization of the film.

However, I would view this print influence as another example of a cultural desire to translate all entities via processes of code. Miller and Varley’s book was processed and rendered as informational code, much like the bodies of the actors. The specific forces of the book thus end up as actualized within the digital space of the film, and their visualization, while closely adhering to Miller and Varley’s template, is hybridized with digital cinematic form.  The computational processes of digital special effects serve as a translator to bring together print illustration, physical bodies, and digital space.

Though my piece may have been unclear in this regard, I wouldn’t frame ‘analog’ and ‘digital’ as dialectic forces. Rather, following Brian Massumi, I think of them in terms of their expression of virtual forces and production of sensation. The digital and the analog are pieces of the same whole, and they rely on a similar set of forces for their expression. Similarly, the digital must always pass through the analog in terms of production (translation of thought into material form) and reception (the sensation of material form by a body). The painterly influence you cite functions as a similar virtual force on the actualization of the film, existing together with the forces of industry, digital technology, etc. that comprise the end result of 300.

Bob Rehak's picture

Thanks

That clarifies things for me, Drew; thanks. And thanks for pointing me to Massumi’s work on virtuality, which does provide a welcome alternative to the often restrictive opposition between digital and analog (if this dialectic is a divided highway in which it’s hard to change direction, Massumi provides an off-ramp).

 

Michael S. Duffy's picture

Hybridized Spaces

Thanks for this, Drew (and Bob).  The issue of material and composite translation from graphic novel onto screen has indeed become a big focus in recent attempts to adapt some of these famous comic book and ‘pulp’ narratives into cinema, and not just in Hollywood.  I find Japanese anime/live-action director Mamoru Oshii (often known best as the director of 1995’s Ghost in the Shell) fascinating in this regard, both for his approach to film technique itself, and his ability to deftly shift back and forth between live-action and animated realms, not just in separate productions, but increasingly in his theoretical positioning of existential protagonists and environments within narratives such as Avalon (2001) and The Sky Crawlers (2008).  In Avalon, a human character fights virtual battles in competitive environments as the boundaries of her world grow more and more indistinct and malleable, in both psychological and physical/digital terms on-screen.  I think that film approaches many similar issues as you see in 300, Drew, and Hollywood now deals with this tension in interesting ways as well, Bob. 

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