Digital Cinema-“The Eighth Wonder of the World”.

The King is dead, long live the King. Digital cinema is very much here to stay, replacing practical film, practical effects and the limits of practicality itself. Digital effects in cinema are so much more than just SFX now, so much so that the actual, corporeal world is leaving our screens fast and is being replaced with something which may look just as real, if not more so. To slightly butcher a quote from the third Pirates of the Caribbean film; “The immaterial has become material”.

A good example of the prominence of the digital overlapping the physical is motion-capture technology. The intersection between what is “real” (the actors and actresses) and the “unreal”. Once one would have to rely on practical effects if one wanted to create a monster, or at least something humanoid but not human. Take for example the works of  Weta Workshop, specifically with actor Andy Serkis. This creature, this creation with practical effects would have been terrible. The actor would be hindered by prosthetics, and the performance would be lost under rubber and glue. This digital layer allows the actor’s emotion to be kept, allowing Gollum to become such a sympathetic and integral character. While Gollum is mostly human motion capture doesn’t have to limited there. In 2005’s King Kong, the famous ape, the “eighth wonder of the world”, was a motion capture creation, with Andy Serkis once again performing this time as a massive, wild, blonde-fancying and above all else, realistic creation. Entire films have started to rely on motion-capture. The new Planet of the Apes films (also featuring Andy Serkis, this time as a chimp), Avatar and  Spielberg’s TinTin (again, featuring Serkis) used motion capture to great effect. It’s worth noting that all these films had thier digital effects done by Weta Workshop, the effects company founded in part by filmmaker Peter Jackson.  Emily explains the process in somewhat greater detail this video.

Of course for the most part, Emily isn’t real. There are a few tell tale signs of this sure, the eyes and corners of the mouth, but that’s pretty close.

And we’re only getting closer. Don Levy says that films “are a deception”. Inherently, all films are fake. Blood is corn syrup, rocks are plaster and if you can’t see the actors faces then it’s probably not them. With the rise of digital cinema, this can be taken to a whole new level. Blood is pixels, rocks are pixels, actors are pixels. And this is okay. Cinema has embraced digital technologies with open arms, and this can be seen as the natural evolution of cinema, the obvious next great step like sound and colour was once before. There’s a backlash to this change, of course. I don’t think digital only cinema will take over, but I certainly think that within the next few decades we’ll see an entirely digital film and we may not know it.
The only issue I have with it is the name. Calling these digital creations films even though they are devoid of actual film seems dishonest, but I guess that’s a train which has left the station. Indeed, very few films actually still record on film these days.  Lev Manovich says that “digital cinema=live-action material+painting+image processing+compositing+2D computer animation+3d computer animation”. Fair description but we’ll probably need a better name than that too.

Melies said that “it is today possible to realise the most impossible and improbable things”. Imagine how overwhelmed he would be to see what impossibilities can be created today via digital means. Personally, I think he’d be chuffed.


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