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editorial | Issue 01 | The Manipulated Image

Nowadays every Hollywood blockbuster in its entirety goes through a digital gateway between filming and release print. So what happens in front of the camera is merely pixel-grist for the digital 'mill'. In this article, Keith Griffiths argues that the possibility to digitally manipulate every single frame of live-action film returns the form to the realm of animation. The computer's intervention in 'post-production' can now be liberated in pursuit of 'hallucinations of reality'.

animate! still Copyright © animate 2001

Stills from The Falconer and Asylum, by Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair, produced by Keith Griffiths.

Keith Griffiths is an independent producer. Amongst those whose films he has produced are Jan Svankmajer, The Brothers Quay, Simon Pummell, Patrick Keiller, Chris Petit and Iain Sinclair. He has directed many documentaries for television on animation and the American avant-garde. He is currently working on film projects with novelist Rose Tremain, artist Steve McQueen and graphic novelist Dave McKean.

He was awarded the Arts Council / Prudential - Observer Award for Cinema and has sat on the ACE's Lottery Film Panel for the past five years. He was a Principal Visiting Lecturer at the Northern Media School and is currently a Reader at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design (Farnham).

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The Manipulated Image

Five years ago, one was likely to be branded a deeply suspicious bar room bore, to be avoided at all costs, by merely mentioning the word 'Digital'. Pedants remained convinced that 'cinema' was that island of luminous reality, a spec of light projected onto the hallowed multi-screen sheds littering the perimeter of our provincial malls and ring-roads. Nowadays, comment on the state and future of 'digital cinema' appears as regularly as clockwork across a wide range of the critical and trade press. Digital pollution rides high on the Richter scale, it is impossible to ignore. 'Digital' has arrived.

But arrived from where? And what are the likely ramifications of this on a continuously evolving new wave of cinema practitioners and producers? Back in 1995, the optimistic techno-pioneering director James Cameron said, "we're on the threshold of a moment in cinematic history that is unparalleled. Anything you imagine can be done. If you can draw it, if you can describe it, we can do it." (Wired, Dec. 1995) Cameron continued, "anything is possible right now if you throw enough money at it, or enough time. We have the right tools, or we can combine tools, to do anything. But, that doesn't mean it's easy, that it's straightforward, that it's intuitive, or that it's cost effective." (Wired May 1996)

However, to achieve any cinema of ambition and imagination, whether it is of the mega-budget Hollywood scale that Cameron reveres, or the "low - no budget" indie camp, it requires a new kind of "talent". Curiously, in Hollywood the word "talent" was previously only reserved for actors, the bulwarks at the storytelling heart of the movies. The digital artisan talents, the cool dudes, who are going to be the backbone of the cinema of the future will inevitably emerge as strange mutants. As Scott Ross, the Chief Executive of the special effects house Digital Domain told the Hollywood Reporter, "the kind of artistic digital specialists the technology requires don't really exist yet. We are basically asking a lot of people to learn Esperanto and write poetry at the same time." (Wired Dec. 1995)

Much of the recent debate about digital cinema has been sparked, not by the startling digital Special Effects of recent blockbusters, but rather by the distinct range of ultra low budget movies shot on digital (DV) video. The Last Broadcast, The Blair Witch Project and of course the first fruits from Lars von Trier's provocative Dogme95 project, - in particular The Idiots and Festen (The Celebration), both of which were launched at Cannes in 1998. The current razzmatazz surrounding these very modestly budgeted and firmly conventional realist films now dominates most debates about digital cinema and consequently associates it firmly with a no-budget-garage-band school of apparently more truthful filmmaking.

Hollywood pioneered the digital technologies

But, the euphoria surrounding this low cost digital production of films has somewhat submerged the short but remarkable history of technological dreams and achievements of the intrepid big budget egg heads. One should not forget that it was Hollywood that shouldered much of the costly burden of research and development in the new technologies. Also, it was they who could afford to pioneer and embrace computer and digital experiments on a larger scale, from the technological and aesthetic challenges of Francis Ford Coppola's electronically produced and painted One From the Heart (1982) through to Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man (2000), of which Alexander Walker in his regular column in the London Evening Standard surprisingly wrote, " a film whose bleeding-edge technology is up there with such landmarks of art and science as 2001 : A Space Odyssey." (Sept. 2000)

To look back at some of those highlights is still revealing and breathtaking. Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) was the first film to feature a computer-generated character in the form of a stained-glass knight; in Star Trek IV (1986) the heads of the principal cast were scanned to create a time-travel effect. Three-dimensional computer-generated imagery made its debut in James Cameron's The Abyss (1989), and he then carried forward his experiments in morphing to create the first human-based computer character in Terminator 2 (1992). In Death Becomes Her (1992) Robert Zemickis digitally cosmeticised both Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn and Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), with realistic marauding prehistoric animals, audiences were reportedly driven to edge of their seats. Forrest Gump (1994), The Mask (1994), Casper (1995), and Species (1995), were all landmark, mega-budget films from the front line of a digital cinema movement, that was to lead to Toy Story (1995) being the first 100 per cent computer generated animation motion picture. Since then the technological process has accelerated phenomenally and Titanic (1997) Antz (1998) A Bugs Life (1998) The Phantom Menace (1999), The Matrix (1999) and Gladiators (2000), all "pushed the digital envelope" further than most people could have dreamt was possible a decade earlier.

In 1996 James Cameron prophesised that, "it would be five years at the earliest and ten years at the latest, before most movies are scanned end to end after filming." (Wired May 1996) In essence, what he was predicting was a revolution in the very nature and the value of the film frame. He could foresee that each and every frame would soon be manipulated and transformed digitally and that from hence forth, film footage captured through the lens was clearly to be demoted to raw data.

Digital filmmaking becomes a 'democratic' technology

George Lucas foresaw the other central debate in digital movie-production, when he declared that it would, "eventually create a more democratic filmmaking environment. Anyone will be able to create movies. Pretty soon you'll be doing it on your PC." (Digital Filmmaking: The Changing Art and Craft of Making Motion Pictures, Thomas A Ohanian and Michael E Phillips, 1996) Indeed, now four years later, filmmaking has never been more accessible and affordable. Many new digital feature films at the micro independent end of the market are actually being made for a few thousand pounds. The theory behind this democratisation is that filmmakers can make films more often, keep practising their craft and take more creative risks. But as Rod Stoneman (Chief Executive of the Irish Film Board) writes, "Before we get carried away with our own optimism we should put this development in context. Cultural production always involves that ineffable, but important component - talent, brilliance, creativity. There has been a widespread cheap availability of the biro for a long time - but there are not a large number of great new novels published each year." (Film and the Digital Future : forthcoming issue of KINEMA) And, this is the rub, are filmmakers taking more cinematic and aesthetic risks and do we want or need more movies anyway?

The practical issues of production economics and access have tended to dominate the majority of public debates to date. The charismatic American low budget indie promoter John Pierson (Spike Lee and Kevin Smith were just two of his remarkable success stories) admits that the new digital image making gizmos are inspiring a phenomenally wide range of people to make movies, but he remains cautious about the long-term benefits. He recognises what many forget, that it is "very hard to make a good feature film. But maybe putting the possibility in the hands of more people is a net gain." (The Auteur as Gearhead, David Chute. The LA Weekly June 2000)

Res magazine (a DV quarterly devoted to "The Future of Filmmaking") boldly predicts that there will be "a shift in power, one that turns in the favour of independent filmmakers and away from the studios." This view is supported by the born-again Lenny Lipton of the digital age, Peter Broderick. As President of Next Wave Films, started in 1997, he provides support to new filmmakers making ultra-low budget English language features around the world and tries to convert all who fall into his path to the "value" of the Digital Revolution. "The digital word has spread rapidly among filmmakers. When people ask me how much they need to make a feature, I ask them how much they have because that will probably be enough." (The Auteur as Gearhead, David Chute. The LA Weekly June 2000) continued... »

Read responses to Issue 01.

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