To what extent has digital technology helped to establish greater realism in the cinematic experience?
The uptake of digital technology in the entertainment industry has been nothing short of phenomenal. In particular, digital technology has completely changed the experiences of filmmakers and viewers alike in the film industry (Thompson &Bordwell, 2010). What this appears to suggest is that the entertainment industry has not been left behind in embracing the latest technological developments. Digital technology is the use of electronic software and hardware (Fitzgerald, Kruschwitz, Bonnet & Welck, 2013; Purse, 2013). This technology has irreversibly altered how we view film studies as well as our approach to film culture. Computers have found widespread application in the various phases of film production. They are also widely used in the post-production stage of the film industry. In addition, computers are also widely used in the distribution and exhibition cinema (Branigan & Buckland, 2013). The essay endeavours to explore the extent to which digital technology has helped to establish greater realism in the contemporary cinema, especially its role in eliciting simulation and manipulation during film production and its effect on the experiences of filmmakers and viewers.
Digital technology has enjoyed increased use in enhancing our cinematic experience in the contemporary cinema industry (Fair, 2013). For instance, digital special effects and CGI (computer generated imagery) are widely used in contemporary cinema, especially with respect to action blockbusters (Whissel, 2014). Indeed, such digital special effects as monsters, scenery, and explosion have been abundantly used in leading blockbuster film (for example, the 2001-2003 trilogy Lord of the Rings (Pyke & Jackson, 2003). In addition, Digital Intermediary (DI) has also found widespread usage in blockbuster films as they aid in the removal of unwanted details such as graffiti from images (Buckland, 2009). For example in Amelie, a 2001 French blockbuster entailed the removal of graffiti on the streets of Montmartre (Jeunet, 2001). In addition, DI could also entail changing of details (for instance, fixing a bright blue sky or dark blue sky), or adding other details (for example, the creation of huge crowds even though previously only a few people had been featured). The use of digital special effect in mainstream cinema is not only confined to Hollywood films, but it also documented across the globe, such as in Joon-ho Bony’s 2006 Cinema The Host (South Korea), Timur Bekmambetov’s 2004 movie Night Watch (Russia), and John Woo’s 2008 film Red Cliff (China), among others. Such global visibility of digital special effects is a clear indication of “the globalized nature of computer culture and the dispersed spread of software skills” (Branigan & Buckland, 2013, p. 138). Digital technology dominates virtually all areas of cinema production and consumption (Buckland, 2009). For instance, the emergence of digital cameras has made it possible to produce low-budget cinemas. In addition, digital technology has also changed how film is distributed and exhibited. For example, the internet is now widely seen as an ideal platform for releasing films of a certain genre.
De Luca (2013) reports of a significant increase in the use of digital projections in cinema, a development that the author has attributed to the increased production of 3D films (De Luca, 2013). In addition, the website YouTube has gained popularity as a platform where amateur filmmakers can showcase their talent and in this way, compete with the mainstream cinema industry. It has also aided in the dissemination of low-cost films. This, along with the increased availability of affordable cameras that are also compatible with mobile phones has significantly changed the culture of contemporary cinema (Buckland, 2009). Digital technology has also played a huge role in rapidly changing virtually all the stages of contemporary film production. It has for example enabled the modern filmmakers to “storyboard, shoot, and edit their films in conjunction with the computer manipulation of images” (Prince, 1996, p. 27).
The increased popularity of realism in film theory in recent years is largely attributed to the ability of digital technology to elicit simulation and manipulation (De Luca, 2013). Even as digital overrides the photochemical support provided by contemporary cinema, it has raised questions as regards its former uncomplicated association with the real. This has not hindered the evolution of digital technology as evidenced by the uninterrupted adoption in the contemporary film industry. The ease with which we have witnessed the invention, perfection, and testing of new technologies is a testament to this claim.
The increased use of digital cinema techniques and equipment in the film industry in recent years has started to invade an area that was once the preserve of photographic film (Thompson & Bordwell, 2010). However, experience with past evolutionary iterations show that the development of such technology does not qualify as a precondition of sorts for modern quality in contemporary cinema but rather, it acts as another alternative available to film-makers (Henderson, Martin & Amazonas, 1999). To further underscore this claim, there is need to explore the apprehension about digital technology from a number of film directors, even as such renowned film directors as Robert Rodriguez and George Lucas have been seen to register enthusiasm at the unprecedented possibilities that digital technology would afford them in film production. Thompson and Bordwell note that, “many cinematographers, directors, designers, and other professionals were upset at the prospect of the death of photographic film, as were many movie fans, but the rise of digital cinema seemed inevitable” (2010, p.713).
Nonetheless, cinema fans should banish the thought that the adoption of digital technology by the film industry on a large scale would affect cinematic quality negatively (Dargis & Scott, 2012) as only the filmmaker possesses such powers. Digital technology in the film industry brought life imaginations and illusions to the overall experience of cinema (Purse, 2013). Morphing software in conjunction with other novel technologies have helped to mask the flaws usually liked to contemporary film effects technology, including composites and blue screen. Sobchack (2000) reports that the effects of computer-generated morphing have further helped to obscure conceal the line between illusion and reality. As technology in the film industry becomes more sophisticated, the illusions experienced in film production are more evident, further pushing the film industry into an era of enhanced digital realm (Sobchack, 2000). For instance, Sobchack (2000) reports that the development of laser-based Pixar scanners during the mid-1980s facilitated smooth progress of morphing when Photoshop technology emerged in the late 1980s (Young, 1999). It had a huge effect on the ease with which images in film production could be manipulated, as well as their level of quality (Bolter & Grusin, 1999).
In trying to emphasize the strong link between realism and continuity as practised in contemporary film production, Buckland (2009) notes that digital cameras enable filmmakers to capture images during film production with a similar resolution to that permitted by the analogue camera. This greater continuity therefore imparts greater realism into the process of filmmaking. Inferences regarding realism as practised in cinema production are often associated with abstractions of indexicality, according to Henderson et al. (1999). The authors further note that these abstractions of indexicality integrate photographic image with the corresponding point of reference (Henderson et al., 1999). This link further functions as the point of divergence between formalism and realism in film theory (Andrews, Hockenhull & Pheasant-Kelly, 2015). Such an approach to the notion of realism in film production hinges on the idea that unlike line drawings or paintings, photographic images are indexical signs. In other words, their connection to referents is rather existential or casual (Purse, 2013).
The instructive nature of photographs means that they resemble the objects they are supposed to represent. It is virtually impossible therefore, to divorce photographs from their referents (Stam, 2000)given the causal connection between the two. On account of it being a photographic medium, cinema has enabled theorists to come up with theories of realism related to the indexical nature of photography. For example, in developing his realist aesthetic to photography, Andre Bazin relied on what he referred to as the “objective” nature of photography. On this, Bazin was alluding to the fact that a photograph image is mechanically related to its referent, devoid of space and time conditions (Buckland, 2009). All key technological innovations are intended to enhance the film fan’s sense of having experience ‘real life’ at a time when he or she is watching a film.
Even as the above argument can be readily implemented in the production of ‘analogue’ film, one is likely to encounter various challenges when used in the digital era (Bolter, 2001). This is due to the ability of digital technology to alter our idea of the image. Simply put, the rise in the popularity and usage of digital technology in contemporary cinema has radically changed the relationship of film viewers with the image. While analogue image tended to have ‘constructed’ meaning, this is not the case with digital images. This is further proof of the replicating nature of photographs, even as digital imagery has been likened to an interpreting portrait.
Digital technology has however rendered film recording in photographic style antiqued (Wheeler, 2003). Besides taking over the principle of the medium, digital technology also fundamentally changed how we view and integrate film production and review (O’Hehir, 2014). Whereas analogue images are, by and large, rigid, on the other hand, digital images can be manipulated by both filmmakers and the viewers. There is need therefore to view digital images as essentially replicate construction, which radically changes their connection to the audience. Prior to the digital era in film production, film-makers introduced sophisticated lighting in the hope of developing an artificial atmosphere that would enable them to record film amid a colour and sound complicated result paradigm (Thompson & Bordwell, 2010). The medium was further developed by the use of montage, along with the increase application of editing in film (Ricciardelli, 2014). While this helped to further progress the narrative features of cinema, it came at a price; the simplicity and clarity of the film image was affected. This thus paved way for the emergence of unconventional or alternate cinematography like the contemporary ‘hand-held’ or deep-focus camera style (Gromala & Bolter, 2003), an adaptation that has in turn changed the audience’s view as well as the aesthetic appeal to cinema.
Other key areas of contemporary cinema that digital technology seems to have had a big influence on is with regard to the elements of sound and framing of image. Even as analogue cinema entails the capture of human characters by an analogue camera, in contrast, digital cinema usually entails changing the appearance of human characters (Wardrip-Freun & Harrigan, 2004), notably with regards to “air brushing”, in the digital morph, (Fitzgerald et al., 2013) and in changing facial expressions. Through digital technology, filmmakers have managed to change cinema into a fragment of animation, as opposed to the vice versa that was the norm with conventional movies. Digital cinema thus entails a departure from what Buckland (2009) calls “avant-garde cinema” where the main focus appears to be on the magnification of the image to realism.
This form of realism has only been made possible thanks to digital cinema. However, it puts to question our conventional ideas of space and time (Buckland, 2009). In this sense, digital cinema as made possible by the advent of digital technology could be regarded as post-human. While cinema through the centuries has endeavoured to depict the impossible in such a manner as to suggest that it is possible, on the other hand, digital technology affords cinema the luxury to assume full post-humanist significance (Henderson, Martin & Amazonas, 1999). There is also a deeper connection between realism as used in contemporary cinema and realism as applied in digital cinema. The key unifying aspect in both contemporary cinema and digital cinema is continuity. This technique has been widely used in realism.
In contemporary cinema, continuity of space and time is often established via aural and visual cues like lines of sight, use of off-screen space and sound bridges. Digital cinema also entails the use of continuity, albeit at a greater level. In this case, continuity is achieved via the use of cuts that connect images, though no cutting is actually achieved in the real sense. Buckland (2009) has examined the unbroken continuity in his analysis of the film, “War of the Worlds” directed by Steven Spielberg. The 150-second shot that Spielberg presents to the viewer features the three main characters: Ray (Tom Cruise), his daughter Rachel (Dakota Fanning), and his son Robbic (Justin Chatwin), who is trying to clam down his frightened sister. The most important thing to note about this scene is that its occurrence does not seem to involve even a single cut. It thus offers us “real time” or temporal continuity, thereby affording us a sense of enhanced realism to the scene. This has been achieved by ensuring there is no stopping of the camera movement. It thus circles the three characters as they move out of and into the vehicle. This is in accordance with the theory of cinema that Andre Bazin sought to advance and which states that spatial and temporal continuity aids in predicting realism.
The depiction of cinema as a photographic medium has led to the development of theories of realism by cinema theorists in relation to the indexical position of the photographic signal. Andre Bazin has made use of the “objective” nature of photography as a basis for his realist aesthetic that is intimately connected with its referents. Other significant cinema realists have underscored the important aspect of a recording medium that photography shares with cinema. Kracauer (as reported by Henderson et al., 1999) opines that film is an add-on to photography. He further notes that cinema and photography share “a marked affinity for the visible world around us” (Henderson et al., 1999, p. 395). For subtle and obvious reasons, digital imaging questions photographic realism ideas that ride on indexicality.
This notwithstanding, realism can still be used as a tool to anchor objects in digital imaging. Examples include the use of surface texture detail and realistic lighting (for example, highlights, shadows, and reflections). In addition, digital imaging aids in twisting, contorting, and bending physical objects in such a manner as to sneer at indexicalized referentiality (Andrews et al., 2015). It is also possible to infinitely manipulate a digitally created or designed image. In this case, the complex algorithms contained within the computer memory determines its reality, as opposed to its mechanical conformity with a referent. What this means is that while digital imaging can work in accordance with a different ontology as opposed to indexical photographs, it can as well operate differently from photographically coded realism.
The evolution and increased adoption of digital technology in contemporary film has meant that filmmakers no longer have to rely on the physical capacity of the camera to represent and transport for their viewers. Consequently, the old adage, “seeing is believing” appears to be no longer the case in contemporary film. Through digital technology filmmakers are finding it increasingly easier to achieve increased realism in contemporary cinema. If at all we are to fully appreciate the huge role of digital technology it transforming cinematic, it is important that we also evaluate the point of divergence of digital imaging from photographic realism and the abstraction of ideas of realism in film production. In this way, we shall be in a better position to acknowledge just exactly how digital technology has totally changed our experience with contemporary cinema as filmmakers, critics, or viewers.
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