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editorial | Issue 01 | The Manipulated Image

Storytelling overrides new visual possibilities

« previous Rarely, however, does Broderick or his evangelists publicly address the question of the aesthetic potential that is dramatically being opened up by the advances in the technology. Indeed, the aesthetic ambitions would appear to be fundamentally reined in by relying on the conventions of mainstream narrative storytelling that dominates both the Hollywood system and the majority of low budget feature films produced and distributed commercially. Next Wave Films stress that the keys to success after "dedication" are "a strong, unique script that grows out of a filmmaker's personal experience and passion... whatever you do, resist high concepts". This manual for production success is inevitably extremely attractive and tempting to the filmmakers who primarily want a cut-price short cut into the "commercial industry". (DIY=DVC. Peter Broderick, Sight & Sound. March 1999)

It is equally appealing to public funding bodies, who increasingly need to justify their activities with instant success and a recognisably palatable if unchallenging product. To take risks, or to attempt failure, in order to see is not the vocabulary of the Next Wave Digital Manual, and is probably too high a concept anyway. It is certainly some distance from Jean Luc Godard's dictum "to see not this or that, but only to see if there is something to see". (Revue Belge du Cinema, no. 20/23 Jean Luc Godard 1989.) The independent sector, targeted by Next Wave Films, could once be clearly defined as a nerve centre for process, a think-tank for the stimulation of ideas, where filmmakers often had the courage to bite the hand of those who fed them because, sooner rather than later, their creative content would perversely (re-)fuel the commercial system. This quality of subversion has now increasingly been (re-) decorated by a new cool voguish movement, which is in equal measure conservative and economically austere. The success of the revivalist Next Wave "road-show meetings" across the globe is thus explained by the dictum - the revolution is nigh but don't panic: it's neither threatening nor challenging.

One of the pivotal issues for the new digital cinema is highlighted by the respected American independent producer, script writer and academic James Shamus. In a reprinted Round Table discussion "Independence in the Cinema" (October 91 Winter 2000) Shamus condemns his academic colleagues for "embedding the understanding of cinema in primarily a visual arts context" and for a "lack of interest in the power of narrative."

Like Peter Broderick, Shamus clearly nails his colours and his increasingly successful Hollywood career to a conventional cinematic mast. He chooses blatantly to ignore the reverse side of the coin and to recognise that the digital signposts point back to the future and the inspirational and painterly hand-crafted origins of early cinema. Jean Luc Godard's point in his video essay Scenario du Passion was that in early cinema they started by just filming and that "scripts" came later, the invention of production companies, as a way of breaking down and itemising costs.

It is of course not surprising that the majority of critics, filmmakers and audiences still equate the cinema with "conventional storytelling" and the term "digital", as some form of new and possibly interactive way of exploring narrative, or an engagement with the characters and their plot lines. However, the critic and image maker, Lev Manovitch usefully reminds us that "narrative" explores only one aspect of cinema and one which is neither unique nor that essential to it, "the challenge which digital media poses to cinema extends far beyond the issue of narrative. Digital media redefines the very identity of cinema." (What is Digital Filmmaking?). Manovitch proposes that the lens based recording of reality, which has been the perimeter fence of cinema, is challenged irrevocably by a digital world, because the computer, operated by a skilled artisan, can create similar and totally credible photo realistic images and scenes which have never actually been filmed.

Pre-cinema history became marginalised animation

Here one is inevitably drawn back to the development of the optical tools and toys which predominately define our recognition of the "pre-cinema" period. There were those famous optical 'toys', including the Thaumatrope, the Praxinscope, the Zoetrope which all utilised the manual manipulation of images, or frames, often hand-painted and hand-animated. In particular, the magic lantern shows, with their hand-painted frames, became increasingly complex, with presentations using overlapping and multi-plane images projecting apparent motion. Engineers, optical experts, projectionists and performers also collaborated to create the phantasmagoric illusions and performances, (an aesthetic of the supernatural), for the visual entertainment of the middle classes. These parlour room and entertainment hall projections helped create the public appetite for the range of entertainment genres that would soon encompass most of the cinema and television of the future: travelogues, natural history, the everyday affairs of the military and royalty, fairy tales and melodramas. This rich and complex period of "pre-cinema history" is of course but one example of the metamorphosis of a very everyday literary culture into one that will become increasingly visually informed. And, the start of an era when once more art, science and technology become increasingly and refreshingly inter linked.

As this history of mechanically generated images and products evolved, it gradually progressed into what we now define and recognise as "cinema", being a place where a typically itinerant form of entertainment began to be organised outside the walls of the home, and commercially developed for a wider public. At the same time, the value, recognition and importance of these hand manipulated and painted images became increasingly marginalised and metamorphosised into one of the most despised genres of cinema: animation. So, on the one hand, there was a graphic, non-photographic, and often self-consciously constructed discursive and discontinuous form. On the other, was an ever and increasingly stable technology, with a "dominant storytelling narrative" form, where the production process itself was increasingly eliminated from sight, and where reality was recorded or "captured" by a lens onto film. The magic theatre was transformed into the dark cave of flickering fleeting images, where audiences pinned to their seats peered at the reality of their everyday lives and experiences. All so-called special effects, whether mechanical or optical, employed in this (re-)production process were now used towards the creation of a completely recognisable "reality".

Every movie frame can now be manipulated

But, with the radical development of computing technologies over the past two decades, the perimeter fence has dissolved quite dramatically. The animated image, which had come to be viewed as only a marginal format, and the Cinders of cinema for almost a century, has now once again become absolutely central to the cinematic production process. The big budget bruiser Jean-Jacques Annaud acknowledged this when he wrote, "today many people grow up in front of electronic screens rather than library shelves, better acquainted with the iconography of electronic games than the poetry of Baudelaire. The talent of new auteurs will therefore rely less on dialogue. After all, the cinema was built around an animated picture. It has once more the option of becoming an animated painting." (Sight & Sound 1996)

Logic suggests that we might now therefore be reaching a full circle in the history of a cinema, which was born with the hand-manipulated animated image and now has the potential of returning to that point. Digital filmmakers with the training and sensibility of conventional animators can and probably will soon modify every frame of a film by hand, the raw footage being only the first process in a continuous graphic animation process of rearranging and painting "a filmed reality". James Cameron's 1996 spectre of ninety minutes or 129,600 hand-manipulated images is now upon us. And, as Jean-Jacques Annaud predicted, "the pendulum of power will swing to directors, who will be able to work not only on the set with human material, but before and after shooting, with all the tools for creating dreams at their fingertips. New technologies will do more for cinema auteurs than the cinephile militants of the 50s ever did." (Sight & Sound. 1996)

Cameron explains that in the early days of both electronic and digital cinema, whilst there was of course always active research, "it was being done in rarefied environments, at universities and the R&D labs of big software companies. It hadn't reached the artists yet, per se. It hadn't pollinated into the film industry which had both the art and money to make it a broad cultural phenomenon." (Wired May 1996) But, crucially as this cross pollination has spread, costs have lowered, economic software has become more widespread, and increasingly a wide range of traditional motion picture techniques have been replaced by digital technologies, many of them just bought off the supermarket shelves. So, whilst nearly everything one needs is now readily available, "what you can't replace is the trained eye, and the heart of the artist. As much as computers have democratised information and computing, software still can't take the place of the artist's mind. You need people who not only have the soul of artists but are trained as artists not as technicians." (Wired May 1996) Once this newly defined "talent" base is in place, the logic of the lens-based motion picture production process itself could be turned upside down for good. continued... »

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