Digital Reality

urlVisual effects have enhanced the cinematic experience from the beginnings of film as a medium, Although film, in its inherent nature is able to capture ‘reality,’ and assessed as a powerful tool to do so, its functions as an art form extend and have given way to digital art forms, the combination of which have evolved from ‘special effects’ to ‘visual effects.’ Stephen Prince’s book, Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The Seduction of Reality, explores the highly specialized techniques involved with creating not only visually appealing cinema, but the ways in which it has also enhance narratives, enabling filmmakers to create ‘better’ realities, that could not have been created without these effects. In the age before digital visual effects, filmmakers needed to create ‘special effects’ using only analog technology. The video below is an example of the “slit-scan” technique used in a film praised for its special effects (and one of my all time favorites), Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey. It explains the evolution of this technique, from panorama photos to its use in film, showing that filmmakers used the tools they had to create effects to seduce their audiences. 2001’s outstanding effects done mainly by Douglas Trumbull, who continues to work with digital visual effects today, were a time before digital effects—the tools have changed since then.

The History and Science of the Slit Scan Effect used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from on Vimeo.

Stephen Prince states that,

Visual effects always have been a seduction of reality, more so today than ever before. This seduction is not predicated upon an impulse to betray or abandon reality but to beguile it so as to draw close, study and emulate it, and even transcend it (9)

He later writes,

“…digital tools are best understood not as applications undermining realism but as modes of translation—seductions of reality—designs for creating new extensions of realism and fictional truths” (53).

In viewing these digital effects as “modes of translation” and “seduction of reality,” the visual effects not only have the ability to create alternate realities, for example, the oft-mentioned Jim Cameron’s Avatar, but are tools also used to translate reality using digital techniques to the screen making some things seem more ‘realistic’. “Critiques of digital imaging suggest that because digital images can be invisibly manipulated, a viewer cannot trust the image or know that an authentic location is really that” (52). These critiques stem from the indexical notion of film itself as producing a copy of reality, a defined space that exists. Therefore, digital imaging can be criticized as deceptive to the audience and adverse to ‘realism’ cinema. Using ‘montage’ techniques, digital compositions are used to create seemingly seamless long takes, as Prince notes, techniques used in the film, Children of Men. He argues that although Bazin saw montage as, “anti-cinematic because it does not respect the unity of space” (94), Alfonso Cauron uses digital composition, similar to the montage technique to create the same effect. This unity of space creates an immersive and more realistic cinematic experience for the viewer through creating a continuous image of space, and can be enhanced through digital tools. These digital tools are able to follow ideologies of realism, through compositing images, and combining separately filmed pieces to create a long take. It is this digital ability, to enhance reality, to make the cinema more ‘realistic’ through enhancing qualities, that makes the cinema a more immersive experience. Below is the scene he gives as an example of a ‘long take’, which is actually composited from different digital elements.

These digital tools help to create an immersive cinematic experience, and one in which the digital tools are increasingly becoming increasingly optically ‘realistic’ and gives a sense of ‘being there.’ However, as in our previous discussions films are being increasingly experienced on smaller screens and digital technologies have also allowed for this. These visual effects are better on a large screen, and the intention of creating an immersive cinematic experience is that they are shown on cinematic screens. Therefore, there is a pressure to create the grandest visual effects in order to drive audiences to the theaters. While the underlying themes and techniques of cinema will remain, digital tools expand the possibilities of filmmaking into an increasingly immersive and ‘real’ experience. Douglas Trumbull, welcomes new digital technologies and is on a mission to create a completely ‘immersive cinema’ experience. He feels the need to embrace these technologies to further the imagination and abilities of the cinema as an experience.

Image found through Creative Commons


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