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Digital visual effects and popular cinema: an introduction.

As this issue goes into production in June 2007, multiplexes around the United States are bracing for audiences certain to flock to cinemas to see Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean. At World's End, Shrek the Third, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Aside from the fact each is the latest installment of a successful franchise, these films share a heavy reliance upon digital visual effects to provide audiences with the visual and narrative pleasures they have come to expect from contemporary blockbusters: dynamic, gravity-defying action sequences taking place against the backdrop of visually stunning imaginary worlds often populated by an array of fantastical creatures that only Computer Generated Images (CGI) can provide. While these spectacle-oriented films showcase and foreground their use of digital visual effects, many other films make less conspicuous use of any number of new digital technologies, software, practices and processes to alter color, sound, lighting, framing, costume, and setting in more transparent yet nevertheless significant ways. And while some films are shot entirely on DV, others features shot on 35mm are processed on a Digital Intermediate (DI), then subjected to extensive post-production work before being output once again to 35mm.

Critical and scholarly response to the increasing and undeniable importance of digital technologies and visual effects in feature-length filmmaking has been somewhat predictable. While some herald the utopian potential of digital cinema (the democratization of film production, the endless potential for expanding the representational scope and optical field of the cinema, the increased realism or seamlessness of special effects), others proclaim (once again) the death of cinema as we know it and decry the decline of narrative and characterization at the expense of gaudy, meaningless spectacle. Whether or not such forecasts are correct, it is certain that we are witnessing another of the cinema's more profound transitions, equal to those that brought about the shift to feature-length filmmaking in the 1910s, the shift to recorded sound in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and the rise of Widescreen and color cinema in the 1950s.

The articles in this special issue analyze the changes and outcomes associated with this historical shift. Lisa Purse explores spectatorial identification with the computer-generated bodies of digital heroes in relation to questions posed by CGI about the changing ontological status of the moving image. Insisting that digital effects should not be analyzed in isolation from a film's wider representational strategies, she discusses the outcome of locating virtual beings in action cinema's "body-centered" visual and narrative terrain.

Bob Rehak analyzes the peculiar history of "bullet time" and its "migration" across formal and generic boundaries through a cycle of "quotation and parody ... becoming first famous, then overfamiliar, then tiresome and aesthetically uninteresting." Noting the shared fate of another CG effect, the "morph," Rehak pays careful attention to "how special and visual effects age--following trajectories across and among texts, moving along chains of quotation and mimicry, existing not just synchronically but diachronically." In the process Rehak sheds considerable light on the changing behavior of visual texts in contemporary media.

Jason Sperb turns to the status and possibility of cinephilia in the current historical era. Sperb acknowledges that for many scholars writing in the second half of the twentieth century, "cinephilia seems rooted in the pursuit of hard-to-find, elusive films as well as in particular reception practices. Implicit in traditional cinephilia is the cult value of things not yet seen by many." For this very reason, Sperb argues, thinking about cinephilia in relation to the affect created by digital visual effects in popular cinema risks "creating a temporal paradox." His contribution asks and answers the questions, "Can we reconcile the nostalgia of cinephilia with the advances of digital imagery? Can the pastness of one continue to re-invigorate the newness of the other?"

Aylish Wood uses approaches from information studies and genetics to theorize the "micromanipulation" of different elements of an image, particularly color. Focusing on Sin City, Batman Begins, and Hulk, Wood shows how new technologies, particularly the DI, "allow filmmakers closer control over the image and consequently enable different kinds of expressive work."

Riccardo de los Rios and Robert Davis turn their attention to the spatial implications of digital reframing to show how, in making Irreversible, Gaspar Noe and his team used digital technologies to "subvert the complacent viewer's expectations regarding time, space, and the textual integrity of the projected image rather than market the comforting illusion of a sensorially consistent world."

Hence the essays included in this special issue address a broad range of questions regarding the impact digital technologies have had on recent film history. The approaches and methodologies used by each author vary widely and so provide a range of possible approaches to the emergent study of digital visual effects.
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Author:Whissel, Kristen
Publication:Film Criticism
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Previous Article:In memoriam.
Next Article:Digital heroes in contemporary Hollywood: exertion, identification, and the virtual action body.

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