There are a lot of really useful and valid points in Chuck’s piece but I think there is something particulalry interesting about the way immersion is ‘sold’. I’m reminded of John Belton’s analysis of the way Cinerama, VistaVision and Cinescope were often marketed as producing three dimensional effect even though they were not stereoscopic technologies. In a similar way, the RED camera has recently been heralded for being "completely grainless and there’s almost a three-dimensional quality where you feel as if you can reach into the screen because there’s an incredible depth to it". Often the same language is used for stereoscopic and non-stereoscopic technologies in a way that (I think) intentionally blurs the boundaries between the two in order to suggest enhanced effect. Promotion material will then emphasise the uniqueness of stereoscopic technology when it suits them and downplay it when they need to market products across platforms and windows. This can, of course, backfire when audiences ask for ‘authentic’ 3D which was seen by the general panning of Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans’ post-production coversions.
The constraints imposed by rights are certainly affecting demand (or at least access). I do think that debates over the longevity of the DVD/Blu-Ray format are introducing other complications. There is some evidence that the CD format may be abandoned by the end of 2012, which certainly raises questions about the viability of the DVD format.
But this still points to the bigger question of what ideas of immersion (or of a tehatrical experience in the home) are getting sold via the promotion of Cameron’s reputation as a technological auteur.
Panasonic has exclusive rights to Avatar 3D through the middle of next year, so they stood alone re: bringing the director’s vision ‘home’. Avatar 3D bundles were (and are) only available with select Panasonic TVs and Blu-ray players so the market for this ‘immersion’ (outside of the three 2D versions of the film that have already been released widely) was never that large. But they irony is that copies of the 3D edition go for $100+ on eBay, since the only other way to watch the film is on HBO 3D On Demand, and that’s at a less-than-optimal <720P per eye (the 3D Blu-ray can only do around 1080p/24 frames/sec. compared to the theatrical 2K resolution, which in itself may be supplanted by a 4K projector). So there is a market for this kind of content, it’s just limited by both distribution and technology.
This is all a way of saying that, as you allude to, what’s being sold is conflicting ideas of (theatrical) immersion, rather than an actual duplication of the technology that makes it seemingly possible at home.
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.
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?
Bob - I’m completely with you in regards to the overstatement of ontological issues at the expense of practices and techniques. As the wonderful Dynamation short shows, special effects continue to be deployed in much the same manner today, albeit with different technologies and practices. At a very basic level, effects are still achieved by placing a physical human body in a manufactured environment, whether that environment is built with analog or digital technologies. And even when physical bodies aren’t visually present, the physical still lingers, whether in the motion-capture process or the human voice that supplements animation.
As a fan of Laurie Anderson going back to O Superman, I really appreciated your bringing this clip to light, Kimberly. Anderson’s stage shows were — still are? — legendary for their multimediation, a tradition drawing equally on prog rock, performance art, and opera. What jumps out at me in your curation is Anderson’s "avowal" of what Christian Metz called "avowed machinations," that is, trucage that announces itself as such. Falling outside the binary of noticeable vs unnoticeable effects that has for so long been used to taxonomize special-effects phenomenology, your example points us in the direction of effects that work in much more explicit, rhetorical, or critical registers. Even television commercials do this, showcasing special effects "concepts" as expressive (if revenue-centered) artifacts that don’t pretend to fit some narrative diegesis.
Michael, I really like your framing of the Dynamation short as an instance of match-moving avant la lettre. While there are certainly profound differences between digital and "analog" eras of effects manufacture, I continue to believe that the ontological gap has been overstated — or rather, that ontology matters less than practices and techniques in distinguishing media present from media past.
Tanine, great questions! I would challenge your suggestion, though, that Dynamation "escaped" the auteurist aura cultivated by Ray Harryhausen; while the short may indeed portray Dynamation as authorless, the larger cult of Harryhausen very much fed off his proprietary methods, and vice versa. This is characteristic of special-effects fandom/stardom, IMO: think of Gerry Anderson and Supermarionation, Douglas Trumbull and Slitscan, John Dykstra and the, well, Dykstraflex. But you’re right that contemporary effects work seems to operate under a different logic, one perhaps more affiliated with directors and franchises than effects artists; as I’ve argued elsewhere, bullet time was invented by many, but branded by the Wachowskis and The Matrix. (Not that this claim of ownership is undisputed …)
A really thought-provoking post. I wonder if you could elaborate on your footnote about how the Odessa steps were constructed to create an optical illusion. Are you referring to montage or to set construction (or both)?
I’m really looking forward to the essays this week, and I appreciate how you have framed the exploration of special effects in terms of the hybridity of "old" and "new." I’m also glad you brought our attention to this short "behind-the-scenes" film about Dynamation, which presages the "production diaries" and other promotional/how-to material available now online. I’m wondering, though, where this film would have been seen—in place of a trailer? As a short film before a feature? It also made me think about how the film has highlighted the term Dynamation, bringing attention to a technique, rather than an artist (Harryhausen, in this case). Dynamation then seems like a scientific or technical advance, rather than an artisanal technique associated with a particular practitioner. It thus seems to spring from nowhere, or rather from the ongoing progress of science. I imagine that Dynamation did involve new advances in special effects processing and manufacture, but it also seems like a way to advertise and create a brand-name for "older" techniques, namely stop-motion animation. This was reminiscent to me of how names of special effects have changed in order to appear "state-of-the-art," when their principles have not changed from the earlier version of the effect. The shift from the term "motion capture" to "performance capture" seems relevant to me here. Although the latter attempts to be more inclusive (tracking movements of the face, etc.), it seems more like a chance to re-brand and bring renewed attention to the technique. Are there other examples of this kind of renaming?