CINEMA, CGI AND THE MESSY MIX OF THE TWO
“At the entrance of the stand, the public waits in a long queue in order to witness the accomplishment of the magical operation par excellence: the transmutation of matter.”
—Roland Barthes on Plastic, c1954-56
In cinema’s earlier years, the commencement of a film would typically come as a title card, a credit roll—a projected playbill, if you will, stemming from the vaudevillian ancestry of the medium, determining the film’s principal characters and actors as the film’s classical overture bounced merry or sinister in the distance. We often see the same or similar nowadays, names fading up and down over establishing shots as the film settles in. But there’s a relatively recent (and it could only have been recent) mode that has become prominent in contemporary blockbuster Hollywood: one that sees us begin by climbing, crawling, flowing through a warren of stuff as those same names sally forth. Stuff, or a substance drawn from the subject of the film, abstracted to become a motif, thematic.
In addition to being so slight as to preclude mention, this new mode is so ubiquitous as to nearly defy example. Yet we might point to films like the Spider-Man (2002-2007) series, which we initiate by swinging through a world of spider’s webs, or the X-Men (2000-) films, which we start by whizzing through visualised genetics, or the Transformers (2007-) series, which see us float our way through a cavity amidst a universe of machinery, mechanically masticating at its borders—in the instance of Dark of the Moon (2011) tracking back out to reveal, strangely, this whole journey to have taken place inside the letter O of the series’ title. A particularly striking (if not quite blockbusting) example is Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009), in which we swirl through amniotic fluid as names blossom like rashes across various inspecific internal organs.
But why has this mode come about? Where did it originate from, and what does it mean? Are its qualities limited only to introductions, or can they be found elsewhere in the films?
The mode makes a lot of sense. This type of opening sequence, mobilising as it does a thematic substance or image drawn from the film, offers the viewer a priming, a tease for the feature about to start. Is Spider-Man not, at least in part, about webs? Plus it’s a lot more interesting than a static credits card. And, even if these films do not perhaps position themselves squarely at the centre of the genre, the type of movie that utilises this mode tends to have a science fictional, horror and/or fantasy element to it. As such, the thematic, continuously-rolling opening operates as a literal entrance to another world, as well as being a fantasy space in itself.
The continuously-moving quality of this mode could only have come into being after the invention and advent of computer-generated imagery—so much so that we must argue CGI usage to be a definitive factor in these openings. Ostensibly an animation, these introductory sequences offer unbroken, ceaseless railroad rides through whatsoever thematic substance (itself digitally rendered) the film might necessitate. A fly’s path, a rabbit’s is taken through these abstract worlds; swooping, spiralling, kissing and near-missing the cobwebs or machinery or genes or information, these are continuous animations only achievable through the technology (and artistry) of CGI.
This element of continuousness might appear to locate its ancestry in the cinematic long take. Take, for example, the prolonged tracking shot at the end of Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), or the illusion of one unedited shot of which Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) appears to be made—a dream realised in later films like Russian Ark (2002). A more apt lineage might, however, best be found in the ‘bullet time’ of The Matrix (1999)—a special effect in which, to communicate extremely rapid movement, live action frames are interpolated with computer-generated extras. Shot in a zoetrope-like set, the camera swoops 360 degrees around its subject in a mix of recording and verisimilitude that could conceivably, in its artificially prolonged, Frankenstein form, go on forever.
A close cousin of this effect persists: whenever a flesh-and-blood superhero leaps from a roof, all of a sudden they turn into a infinitesimally floppier, infinitesimally shinier version of themselves as the camera (which, too, has just become digital) circulates upon implausible curves. Other similar-but-not-the-same phenomena are the impossible track and zoom, the impossible and impossibly fluid magnificatory shots we find again and again in contemporary CGI moving image—the zoom, like in the CSI TV series (2000-), when we rush deep inside evidence on an almost atomic level, or those same blockbusters already mentioned with their tiny action scenes set in the world of genes or blood or binary information—and the continuous track, like that shot in Fight Club (1999) when, narrating the explosion of Edward Norton’s apartment, the camera whooshes across the floor, over to the oven and down the back of the refrigerator.
“..more than a substance, plastic is the very idea of is infinite transformation: as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible.”
Stemming from the traditional animation practice of keyframing (and more contemporary digital versions like tweening), bullet time and its familial effects remind us that, historically, practices of animation predate cinema. In recent years academics have sought to establish a more intimate connection between the two mediums, where previously they were positioned as almost definitive opposites. Lev Manovich argues well to rehabilitate cinema as a subgenre of animation, where Tom Gunning and Laurent Mannoni exemplify the more ‘animated’ practices of early and pre-cinema respectively.
In his slightly profoundly prophetic, slightly wrong-as-things-turned-out 1995 essay What is Digital Cinema? Manovich discusses how the existence of digital technology effects to atomise the photographic into simply another form of the animated. While “the difficulty of modifying images once they were recorded was exactly what gave cinema its value as a document”, the advent of digital technology means that, once digitized, “live action footage is reduced to just another graphic, no different than images which were created manually”. Augmentable, alterable, creatable: Manovich’s essay marks the beginning of our current age of computer-generated imagery.
“..this amazement is a pleasurable one, since the cope of the transformations gives man the measure of his power, and since the very itinerary of plastic gives him the euphoria of a prestigious free-wheeling through Nature.”
Discussing, as Manovich does, variant pre-cinematic technologies of animating images like the zoetrope, the tachyscope and the thaumascope, Tom Gunning argues that early film was a ‘cinema of attractions’, using exhibition techniques such as the manual winding and stalling of reels to address the spectator in a fundamentally different way than the pursuant hundred-plus years of “strangely heterogenous” narrative movies would effect. Initially used as a segment piece in vaudeville, Gunning explains how both the novelty of the medium itself and the content of early films were activities of confrontation, of spectacle, of attraction. Gunning’s narration of the lineage of the term is pertinent: “Then, as now, the ‘attraction’ was a term of the fairground, and for [Sergei] Eisenstein and his friend Yuketvich it primarily represented their favourite fairground attraction, the roller coaster, or as it was known then in Russia, the American Mountains.” The roller coaster—like our continuous-thematic opening credit sequences.
Gunning convincingly argues that the two main (and, again, heretofore opposed) strands of early cinema—the recorded actuality film, as exemplified by the work of the Lumière brothers, and the magic or trick films, as exemplified by that of George Méliès—mobilise in fact the same principle: “fascinating because of their illusory power”, he writes, “this is a cinema that displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator”. Perhaps, then, it is not so much the use of non-photographic techniques that is the primarily quality of animation, but the way in which it addresses, relates to its audience.
Even traditional narrative animation has a long history of the transmogrifative—of spectacular violence and recovery, of smiling, dancing inanimate objects, of stretching limbs and the metaphoric morphology of characters. A medium which habitually breaks the rules of reality and realism, animation foregrounds its falsity and disregards what narrative photographic filmmaking seeks to keep intact: its diegesis, or a consistent, illusory world. We might recall the not unrelated words of Walter Benjamin in his 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in which he writes (on cinema) that “The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.”
While CGI has typically been “subordinated to the goal of photorealism”, as Manovich points out, in which “cinema works hard to erase any traces of its own production process”, there are yet instances of its visibility to be found. When it happens to be uncanny or ill-judged in relation to its surrounding reality, the result is to have broken the diegetic illusion, to have brought its artificiality to the fore. Think of the shimmering suit of the Green Lantern (2011), or the final, fateful appearance of The Scorpion King (2002). Prolonged scenes of total CGI in otherwise predominantly live-action movies can have the same effect—the ridiculous, blossoming cavalcade of destruction the heroes magically outrun in disaster movie 2012 (2009), the fight scenes in films like Aliens versus Predator (2004) or indeed the Transformers series, which devote minutes at a time to indeterminate whirling sheens. Never quite real—slightly softer, more muted, slower than real action—CGI works at its best as a symbolic gesture in the mis-en-scene, ultimately failing in its most basic attempt to depict. Just as the existence of CGI reduces recorded image to one element amongst many, so too the intrusion of too much of this wonder substance into a live-action scene serves to exemplify its limitations.
“..whatever its final state, plastic keeps a flocculent appearance, something opaque, creamy and curdled, something powerless ever to achieve the triumphant smoothness of Nature.”
These limitations are not in its ability to render, for truly it can create whatever can be conceived, nor its ability to resemble, for that too is by now most incredibly accomplished. Rather, in its insidiousness to pass, CGI usage tends to manifest itself in sensorily passive ways—a softness, a slowness, an uncanny sense of detachment—at odds with the confrontational nature of the content it is typically mobilised to portray, and indeed with the heritage of the medium itself. Its very mutability, its accommodation to flux, undermines its illusion.
“..the price to be paid for this success is that plastic, sublimated as movement, hardy exists as substance.”
Our careening movie introductions, decking mythic spaces out in thematic décor of a typically detail/microscopic/atomic variety, might well through their totally animated nature imply a more indigenous usage of the medium. As animation has a tendency toward the transformative, perhaps these ever-rolling scenes, exemplified by their continuousity, their seamlessness, their atomics, in kind exemplify what best CGI can do. Clearly, triumphantly false and categorically separate from the diegesis, this is CGI operating to some extent on its own terms, given over its own (virtual) space.
Yet here we are reminded once more of Benjamin’s Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Discussing, not unlike us, the effect of a new medium on the viewer of the time, Benjamin turns to the camera’s ability to zoom in and slow footage down. “With the close-up, space expands”, he writes, “with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.” Sounding eerily relevant to the mode we have under our own microscope, Benjamin proceeds to offer the following example: “The act of reaching for a lighter or spoon is a familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal…here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions.” CGI is now as cinema was then—yet, it seems, with its zooming and freewheeling, the language this new medium works toward is, critically, that of the photographic and not its own.
Nor do the ‘full CGI’ animations like the family films of Disney Pixar offer much hope for an instance of CGI in play on its own terms, away from the grammar of the photographic. Perhaps instead the best examples are to be found in those instances where its evidenced attributes are most explicitly manifest—when CGI usage in film is at its most transformative, most continuous of movement or change, most atomic in scale or subject.
For this we can turn to the strikingly similar, recurrent examples of abstract, morphological semi-solids that have pervaded cinema since the 1990s—examples of stuff, like the animated seawater in The Abyss (1989), the mercurial adversary of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), the eponymous invention in Flubber (1997), the molten mirror of The Matrix (1999), the Sandman and the alien Venom in Spider-Man 3 (2007), the tidal waves of Day After Tomorrow (2004), the personified sandstorm in The Mummy (1999). In a way a technological successor to the radioactive slime and putrescent flesh that dominated the cinematic era immediately prior, both in the mainstream and underground—the Ghostbusters (1984-1989) films, the Living Dead (1968-) series, The Blob (1988) remake, the original The Thing (1982), Society (1989)—this stuff can change shape, stretch, mimic, often overtaking its victims on a cellular or molecular level.
In discussing our centuries-long cultural and literary fascination with slime, writer Ben Woodward has positioned this abstract, shifting matter as representative of life—the pools of the stuff from which life came forth, the bodily fluids we routinely dispense—and narrates our almost fetishistic relationship with it, disavowing the stuff with one (clean) hand, and yet simultaneously fascinated with it. Dichotomous, then, like the hybrid life of CGI—definitively unable to exist in one fixed state, meaningful only when attached to film, we are as unsure of what we require from it as it is able to satisfy our every idea.
Woodward points out that slime signifies another dichotomy—in its “proof of cohesion and the hint of its undoing”. We might imagine the true CGI film to be just that, then: ninety minutes of pure gelatine, of shifting matter, of abstract networks of stuff, continually reincarnating onscreen. Unwatchably abstract and unspeakably horrific, this takes the core qualities of our initial subject, the continuous-thematic opening sequence, and reduces them, expands upon them to the extreme.
But then—what would the credits look like?
“The hierarchy of substances is abolished: a single one replaces them all: the whole world can be plasticized, and even life itself since, we are told, they are beginning to make plastic aortas.”