FLM110 Topic 11
Spectacle and technology
In this topic, we begin to look at more contemporary issues to do with the rise of new film technologies and it’s effect on both filmmaking and viewing. In the last topic, this idea was hinted at in terms of the change in how we watch films with the advent of the Internet and other digital technologies, as opposed to traditional cinema viewing. As William Whittington (2013, pp. 42) states in your required reading:
Film technology has developed based on a complex intersection between industrial and aesthetic factors, which include global and industrial economics, advances in other fields such as electronics and computing, shifts in audience expectations, and the needs of specific film productions as well as the preferences of the filmmakers.
In other words, the rise of digital film technologies is a result of the relationship between industry, filmmaker and audience needs and desires. We will be looking at how these are manifested throughout this topic, however, we will also identify some of the costs of this, not in economic terms, but in terms of the effect on visual storytelling.
A history of technological development: Hollywood
We have already made mention throughout this unit various developments in camera technologies at the beginning of cinema in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the shift to smaller cameras to assist in camera mobility, which was connected to the development of cinematographic film language, changes in performance styles and the way audiences could identify with certain characters on screen. So even then, technology, storytelling and exhibition were in a tight relationship with one another.
Classical Hollywood era — introduction of sound and colour
During the height of the studio system, one of the reasons why the big studios became such global powerhouses was due to the implementation of sound technologies at the end of the 1920s. Warner Brothers, who produced Don Juan (1926, first synced sound effects) and The Jazz Singer (1927, first synced dialogue film using a Vitaphone), was one of the first studios to implement new sound technologies into not only the production of their films, but also in their cinemas for exhibition. The following clips are from The Jazz Singer — the first is an example of its use of synchronised sound with Al Jolson singing; the second is a “trailer” (of the old school variety) played to advertise the film in cinemas during this era. Note in this second clip the language used and way this “new technology” is being sold to the audience.
Vertical integration meant that the Big 5 studios were able to invest significant capital into sound technologies and keep it under their control. (For revision, on the Hollywood studio hierarchy, please revisit topic 4- genre.) This control allowed for on-set implementation of sound technologies with the assurance that re-recording and playback could be made through the process of printing the sound on the film reel itself.
Sound technology moved from being recorded on a vinyl disc and played in synchronisation with the film image to being placed as optical pattern on the celluloid. The Vitaphone company were the first to produce sound synced with film using the disc method and was a subsidiary of the Warner company, so Warner Brothers was essentially creating technology for its own use. Similarly, 20th Century Fox did the same when it used one of its subsidiary arms to create the Fox Movietone, which revolutionised the way sound was recorded and placed with the film image. The Fox Movietone positioned the recorded sound on the side of the film celluloid.
Technological developments have always been a way to market a film since the studio era. As we have seen with the beginning of the sound era and through to the introduction of colour and widescreen, films have been partly marketed as films you “must see” at the cinema. Historically, this had to do with falling box office attendances in the 1950s when television was introduced into almost every American household. Hollywood had to offer a kind of visual spectacle that people were not able to get on television — hence widescreen and bold colour. Look at this advertisement for White Christmas (1954) and consider the language used in relation to the technology. What words feature as a selling point here?
The word here is spectacle. This film is being sold to its audience through the enhancement of film spectacle due to the used of widescreen (VistaVision) and bolder colours (Technicolour).
Can you think of any recent trailers or publicity materials that reference technology as a main drawcard to the film? Or perhaps the marketing of films through technology is evident in different ways? For example, The Dark Knight (2008) and IMAX release of the bank robbery scene as a teaser at the beginning of I Am Legend (2007).
These days, film studios are not structured as there were in the studio era and therefore companies specialising in the innovation and creation of visual and sound technologies sell their products at places like trade shows (ShoWest, Cinema Expo International, or CineAsia, for instance). These tradeshows feature educational workshops and demonstrations aiming towards marketing their products to the film industry, particularly to exhibition spaces. Here is where you will see companies demonstrating new digital and 3D developments and products, which will normally require expert customised installation and specialised training for filmmakers and operators. In other words, these are not the kinds of technologies for prosumers (professional consumers) or consumers. They are very much intended for industry use.
The beginning of the blockbuster era in 1975 with Jaws also meant that the notion of cinematic spectacle (the bigger is better mentality) became of focus for Hollywood. We can argue that there has been nothing since the introduction of the blockbuster that has been so integral in the evolution of technologies for the enhancement of spectacle. Developments in camera, projector and sound technologies up until the present aim to enhance visual and sonic immersive spectator experience and something that we’ll look at soon is whether it has come at the detriment of other aspects of filmmaking and viewing.
Technical development is never conducted in isolation though. Normally it will be the major studios, theatre chains and global manufacturers who work together to make their technological innovations a possibility for use and implementation in production and exhibition. A major example of this is the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI), a joint venture between Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures, Universal and Warner Brothers and publishes a number of papers and best practice documents to establish standards for audio and image encoding. The DCI addresses these issues in a cinema theatre context as well as a TV broadcasting context. These standards are not mandatory and there is room for discussion with manufacturers, various marketing groups and audiences through the use of forums, surveys and mobile posts. So audiences are also consulted here, as all this technology is, in essence, to make their (our) experience of film of the highest visual and audio quality it can be, so we will pay the ticket price.
One of the fundamental factors that drives new film technology innovation is necessity. In contemporary film, filmmakers and production units often develop new and innovative technologies for the needs of specific production circumstances. For example, George Lucas encouraging his special effects company “Industrial Light and Magic” (ILM) to develop computer software packages to create entire digital characters for the Star Wars prequels.
James Cameron is probably one filmmaker who consistently working in the area of technological innovation for necessity. We can look at his input into underwater technologies for 2D and 3D initially developed to short documentary footage for Titanic (1997) and later used for IMAX documentary productions like Ghosts of the Abyss (2003). Computer technologies have been implemented in a number of blockbuster films in order to find ways of cutting production costs, however, this has the contradicting effect of raising film production costs due to the expanding global market place (something we can look at further in the next topic) and the implementation of these new computer technologies.
For deep sea diving footage, Cameron and his brother invented submersible robots that can withstand the pressure of being submerged in the depths of the ocean. He also helped invent the 3D reality camera system, where he coaxed Sony in Japan to help reconfigure their HD cameras to fit into small spaces in order to fit 2 lenses side by side. For Avatar (2009), he also created a ‘virtual camera system’ which allowed him to interface with a CG world so that he could view his actors as their characters when they were doing performance capture. In this clip, we see that process, sometimes labelled ‘e-motion capture’, from the actor’s point of view as well.
Filmmakers like Cameron are what we could call ‘technological determinists’ in that they see the innovation of technologies as a necessity for evolving their craft. Let’s take a closer look at this idea.
Theories of technology
This is a critical approach that suggests that technology itself determines what is possible within an art form and that in some way the personal agency or artistic freedom of the filmmaker (as artist) is lost or degraded. This is similar to what we sometimes see in science fiction films like the Terminator series where technology is created and embraced due to the efficiency it can bring. On the flip side, however, what happens in Terminator is humanity to becoming enslaved to the technology. This is technological determinism taken to the extreme and describes the way this theory has been criticised.
Some scholars have found this approach limiting, even though the idea of it is evident in a lot our popular culture and discourse surrounding social media technologies (like Facebook and mobile technologies). This approach can be problematic due to the difficulty of drawing a direct connection between the technology and the effect it has society, yet there are other effects and variables that would also need consideration, such as cultural contexts (East versus West) or economic concerns (smaller national cinemas don’t have the budgets to afford highly priced film technologies).
Some filmmakers like Christopher Nolan or Michel Gondry are reverting back to older techniques for their visual effects and stunts. Some of these techniques include the use of prosthetics and make up for actors, matte paintings, miniatures for sets, and various other in-camera techniques. For example, Nolan used wired rigs, rotating sets, and slow motion photography for a lot of his visual effects in Inception. We can see his approach int he following clip.
Something you may like to discuss in tutorials is what kind of approach do you prefer? Cameron’s technological approach to visual storytelling or more traditional Nolan’s? What are some of the positives and negatives to each one?
Technology and the film audience
As we looked at in the previous topic, fans utilise online technologies to engage with film and television texts through discussion forums and websites. This is part of a strategy for audiences to feel connected to the film and television texts they enjoy watching. In this sense, online technologies have allowed audiences to immerse themselves and deconstruct certain texts for pleasure in the form of fan videos, mash-up, slash fiction, forum discussions, etc.
We can also look at the purpose of technological innovation in cinema as a method for filmmakers to immerse their audiences even further into the fictional (or in the case of some IMAX documentaries, the natural) world. This forms a rationale for filming in IMAX 70mm, like Nolan did for The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (2013) recently, as well as the use of 3D. In the following clip, Alfonso Cuarón discusses his film Gravity (2013) as immersive through the filming and exhibition of it in IMAX cinemas. Note what is said about immersion and technology.
Provide a response to the following questions in the blog assessment:
Do you think technology has eroded the craft of film storytelling (spectacle is more important than a solid narrative)?
As a filmmaker, how would you use technologies to immerse your audience? Are they considered older or more recent technologies?
Whittington, W. (2012). “Contemporary Film Technology”. In J. Nelmes (Ed.), Introduction to Film Studies 5th ed. London; New York: Routledge. pp. 41–58.