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editorial | Issue 01 | The Manipulated Image

Live-action becomes pixel-grist for the digital animation mill

« previous With this "talent", increasingly more live-action images will be displaced or made redundant by the ability to create spaces, places and people directly within the computer. As the computer does not distinguish between how an image is created, filmed live-action footage is merely reduced to raw data. It becomes no different to the graphic images created within the computer itself. Thus, live-action footage is now inevitably only the first phase of a production process, during which all images will be digitised, then composited, animated, colourised and morphed to create a new and largely imagined "digital realism". What was once defined as "post" or "end processes" have been fundamentally shifted to the very heart of the production of motion picture images. The conceptual structure of production has collapsed and the ordering of images, their surface and manipulation have become part and parcel of the same digital jigsaw. The painter-filmmaker that Jean Jacques Annaud whimsically spoke of has escaped his chains and is loose and well in the asylum.

The aesthetic opportunities that this digital revolution offers the painter-filmmakers and their coveted blank screens are now almost limitless. It is therefore somewhat surprising that in neither the fields of low and no-budget fiction nor documentary, has this challenge been significantly and radically seized. Unsurprisingly, most of the trailblazing work has been led by film and video artists like Iris Batsry (Passage to Utopia 1985-93), and in particular David Larcher (E Etc (1969-87) Videovoid Trailer, Videovoid Text, & Ich Tank (1983-98), both of whom are now working consistently with digital tools. These works are exemplary and monumental visual poetic meditations that defy any traditional definitions or genre.

The video artist Lynn Hershman attempted and only half succeeded with a crossover into low budget digital narrative, with her production Conceiving Ada (1997), starring Tilda Swinton as the famous computer pioneer and daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace. It is probably only the much abused and frequently critically rejected filmmaking path taken by the individualistic Peter Greenaway that offers any serious trajectory for digitally smearing and scratching away at the fiction frame's canvas. From the start of his career the fugitive Greenaway has developed a multi-image aesthetic, bathed his films in rich rippling layers and collaged the screen space with painted images and text. It is with some regret that Greenaway's directory of cinema-action is not one which many filmmakers have been stimulated to follow, though his modest avant-garde research and development programme has been consistently and successfully recuperated by the advertising industry in a multitude of forms.

More recently, some directors, notably Nicola Bruce in I Could Read the Sky, have managed to subtly weave DV footage into the body of a film, in an almost notebook style, to heighten the warmth, subjectivity and intimacy of the narrative. Whilst, Harmony Korine's julien donkey boy offered a unique but also incoherent visual cacophony from collaging eighty six hours of footage from the use of thirty different types of DV camera. Also, the directors of Pi and Run Lola Run, seized upon the use of digital post-production technology to create a fast and frantic "Avid aesthetic" that co-opts the old suits of the avant-garde merely to tailor more designer wear mainstream narratives.

The aesthetics of surveillance and internet technology

But, it has been both surveillance imaging and internet technology that has possibly been the most prominent aesthetic influence to date, used most effectively in Timecode (2000), directed by Mike Figgis. He has increasingly experimented with DV camera technology as part of a process of provoking both the Hollywood studios and the audience about where this digital revolution might all lead. "It is beyond the imagination what digital tools are doing to filmmaking, he enthused at a recent Guardian lecture he gave at the National Film Theatre.

Timecode comprises four separate narrative takes, each filmed continuously and simultaneously. Mounted on one screen split into quarters, the film involves twenty main players, who improvise dialogue and whose stories - and screen space - interweave and overlap. Natural sound, music and dialogue are edited and mixed in such a way to guide the viewer smoothly through multiple narratives. Figgis intends to produce DVD versions of the film that allow the viewer to sound-mix their own movie. "The potential for greater interactivity, for multiple outcomes, is enormous", explained Figgis, who also did several live sound mixes of the film at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2000. "I wanted to demonstrate the possibilities of how you could watch this film twenty times over and never experience the same thing." It is indeed at this level of playful storytelling and narrative order that the film is most interesting. "It is all about telling interesting stories - but with the new ability to tell more than one story at the same time, and in new ways." Yet, in terms of altering the actual surface or the palette of the film, Timecode remains strictly conventional.

Writer-filmmaker Chris Petit's 1993 short film Surveillance, on the other hand, whilst using a similar but more random split screen form, also starts to engage with the potential pleasures of a degraded picture surface and takes issue with 'storytelling' and 'narrative' in itself. In an almost Ballardian reverie Petit wrote, "I wondered if these surveillance images reminded me of experimental films. I also wondered if these automatic recordings weren't at the heart of a new avant-garde. They hark back to the first films ever made, to the simplicity of a cinema before stories, before production schedules, before the organisation of material, and without a narrative so that the viewer is freed to speculate on those daily details that later become the background to stories. These first films and this latest technology record what is there; people, weather, streets. They are primarily topographical and silent too. They also share the same lack of technical definition. In an age of high resolution, these smeared, dreamlike images have the comfort of a vague memory." (Film Comment : March-April 2001)

Dogme cinema reinvents 60's Direct Cinema movement

The most widely discussed digital feature films remain those made by the Dogme Trinity. In reality, these are clearly quite modest extensions of the films of the French New Wave and the North American documentary Direct Cinema movements of the Fifties and Sixties. Kristian Levring, Director of The King is Alive , Dogme #4 cheerfully acknowledges that, "of course, when you talk about Dogme, Godard should be president. Look at A Bout de Souffle (1959). I think that is probably the best Dogme film that could be made." (So you really think you can do it Dogme style ? Richard Kelly. Independent on Sunday, 2000) Certainly the notoriety of Dogme has principally developed because of the attraction of younger and impoverished filmmakers to the potential of the fast and restless hand held aesthetic that such new domestic lightweight camera technology can make so appealing and appalling.

However, it can be seen that the "rules" of the Direct Cinema movement of the early sixties, as outlined by Richard Leacock, are surprisingly and unerringly similar to the well publicised Danish Dogme95 manifesto. "No lights, no tripod, no microphone boom or pole, never wear headphones (they make you look silly and or remote), never more than two people, never ask anyone to do anything again and most especially never ask anyone to repeat an action or a line. Allow lots of time, don't shoot all the time, if you miss something, forget it in the hope that something like it will happen again. Get to know your subject if possible in order to generate some kind of mutual respect. OK these are rules, not laws, and rules can be broken." (Unpublished Essay. A Search for the Feeling of Being There. Richard Leacock 1997)

In 1954 with Jazz Dance, Leacock pioneered the use of a mobile and fluid film on 35mm, an achievement that is enough to even make a "digital maverick" of today blush. He called his whole process, "stages in de-professionalisation", which also rings true with the new digital school of thinking. The Director Roger Tilton wanted to capture as a short film the experience of an evening at a lower East Side New York Jazz Dance Hall. At the time the handiest camera was still a 35mm Mitchell NC and the Reeves magnetic 35mm sound recorder weighed about 70 pounds and was only called portable because it had handles on it. The only viable solution was for Leacock to shoot the dance hall with two hand-held spring-driven Eymo cameras - used for gathering war footage in WW II - with 100 feet loads which ran for just one minute. The longest take without rewinding was 15 seconds. This jumping, jiving, dancing movie is an unbelievable example of the mobile camera at work and despite extreme advances in camera technology has rarely been bettered.

The parallel development of new camera technologies with the evolving documentary aesthetic has always been critical. Bob Drew, as a former editor and reporter on Life magazine, knew how reportage could be significantly reshaped with miniaturised synchronous film equipment. So, using radically modified Auricon cameras and the new Bulova wrist-watches, the first 16mm hand-held mobile synchronised cameras were born. D A Pennebaker, Drew and Leacock revolutionised a chapter in the history of the documentary movement, and a whole body of films which presented unique, spontaneous and close personal observation were born. Leacock went onto MIT to explore the technology of Super 8 mm film cameras, CCD, Hi-8mm video and the new mini-digital camera technologies. Leacock, was of course only one of a number of mavericks that seriously connected the development and changes in camera technology to the documentary aesthetic and form. For example, George Stoney's use of the Video Porta-Paks within the National Film Board of Canada's Challenge for Change Program significantly altered the call for access for all, to media production tools.

The new wave of European 'essay films'

Some European emigrés, notably Jonas Mekas and Robert Frank, used mobile film camera technology to transform the post-war American 'underground' filmmaking scene. Mekas in particular created a series of highly personal and autobiographical diary films which one can argue were precursors for the present wave of essay films currently being made by distinguished filmmakers linked or related to the " French new wave" of the sixties. The late Robert Kramer with his last film (Cities of the Plain - 2000), Agnes Varda's moving and entertaining "wandering-road-documentary" The Gleaners and I (2000) and Alain Cavalier, have now turned to the easy to use, accessible mass market digital cameras as their technology of choice. As a result they have produced a body of first person authored documentary films that are arguably more distinctive, moving and profound than most of the over publicised Dogme films to date.

The Gleaners and I isn't about its director, as the title might suggest, but Varda does let her presence weave through the film. The subject is actually about the "foragers, rummagers and scavengers who, by necessity, purely through chance or out of choice, pick up leftover items discarded by others." (A. Varda at the NYC International Film Festival, 2000). She has said "that filmmaking is itself a kind of gleaning" and most of the filmmakers who have followed this path have discovered that these small domestic digital cameras can be used as both a very sophisticated vacuum cleaner and as a filmic pen. Consequently, the exceptionally subjective essay film emerges as one of the most suitable forms for the use of this digital technology.

Cavalier was born in 1931, and worked initially as an assistant to Louis Malle, before starting to direct his own films set in the painful reality of the Algerian war. From the mid-seventies he evolved a way of working with little-known actors and a pared down style of mise-en-scene. His most well known film in England, Therese (1986) was a rigorous and simple chamber piece. Throughout this body of work, Cavalier could be seen as a filmmaker of gesture and faces and pursued this fascination within the form of his recent subjective documentaries. La Recontre, screened at Locarno in 1996 and was exhibited at a single cinema in Paris for a year. He shot it himself on Hi-8 Video as a kind of intimate diary of everyday exchanges between his partner and himself. The edited images are like a series of miniature intimist paintings, which would have been impossible to capture with the bulk and noise of conventional film cameras.

His latest film VIES (2000) is a series of portraits, shot with a digital camera, about which he says, "I shoot by myself, recording both picture and sound. It makes it easier with the person I'm shooting to move from life to film, and for there to be no observers present. We don't seem to diminish one another, when it might well be the opposite. There's only an affinity, which draws us together. If I get on well with someone, if I'm drawn to what they do, I've an annoying tendency to want to film them".

In a second interview with Le Monde, Cavalier explained his method as follows: "The picture to sound relationship is completely different with DV, you're alone, immersed in both image and sound which this time are part of the same apparatus. That changes the whole relationship with what you're filming. Before when I was handling a camera, I learned how to be a camera. Shooting with digital video transforms all relationships in the space in which you're filming. I've been a filmmaker working in kid gloves, I have become an instrumentalist who after practising his scales, then actually performs himself. The smaller the camera, the more simplified becomes the relationship between the one whose in front of the camera and the one whose behind it. That whole century, during which actors were bombarded by Big Berthas, it's all gone. There's been a directorial terrorism, based on a mixture of fear and fascination, which can now be escaped."

VIES is, on the one hand, a speculation on the nature of cinema itself, opening with a filmed sketch of a sixty year old eye-surgeon, on his last day in the operating theatre before retiring busily restoring sight. The film closes with Cavalier's mobile subjective camera exploring the beautiful but decrepit ruins of the country house that belonged to Orson Welles. Thus we are left with an archaeological site of cinematic fantasy and imagination. Yet, on the other hand VIES, is just a series of beautifully created, tender and intimate portrait films that are a perfect example of technology being used as a simple tool to assist a filmmaker in the recording of their everyday perceived reality. Both The Gleaners and VIES reinforce Rossellini's dictum "things are there; why manipulate them?"

However, for Jean Luc Godard, the technology of production and the aesthetic of the image have to be created hand in hand. He was driven to ensure that his cinematic production tools were, like suits, "instruments built to measure", whilst simultaneously pursuing the potential of transforming and manipulating the image. To this end, in 1976 whilst making Numero Deux, Godard developed a video laboratory in which to produce his radically manipulated images and texts and then in 1978, he worked with Francis Reusser of Aaton Cameras to develop a hand-held silent and unobtrusive 16mm and 35mm camera technology. In Scenario du Passion (1982), Godardcan be seen reaching up to make contact with a giant white video screen (his blank page or canvas) like a sorcerer summoning up the invisible, so that he can both "see" and "re-see-ve." For Godard, there is no such thing as "simple images - the whole world is too much for one image. You need several of them, a chain of images", and they will almost inevitably be multiple, dissolved, as well as being disconnected and layered. continued... »

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