Imitation of Life (4): Film is Dead, Long Live Video Games!

I opened this series of articles about CGI on the idea that “Video games are not cinematic and they will never be”, a radical statement that I would not repeat today without a load of nuances; here are some of them (a lot of them actually: be warned, this post is very long! So go grab a cup of coffee, or the entire Bodum, just to be sure…)

Where I introduce things

My initial argument looked like this: CGI is a category of animation and animation is a different art form with different creative processes than live-action cinema, so the idea of a “cinematic” video game doesn’t make much sense. It would be wise, said I, to think of video games in terms of animation instead of cinema. Then, with my analysis of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and more importantly Terminator 2, I wanted to show how the photographic image first resisted CGI by representing its digital creations as a radical Other tearing apart the fabric of film and challenging our belief in film’s faithfulness to reality. Again, I made a clear distinction between CGI (animation) and film (a faithful image of the real world, to put it simply), while also noting that this apparent resistance against CGI was in fact a manner of integrating a novelty in the classical visual language of Hollywood cinema. Not a resistance at all, in reality this tactic made the audience aware of the possibilities of the digital image before unleashing its full power in all of our theatres. I know, this wasn’t intentional and only a result of how the technology evolved (you can’t unleash the power of something you haven’t fully developed yet), but movies did support this interpretation. To stick with my previous examples, in about twenty years, we went from the dangerous T-1000 as CGI to the world of Pandora, a CGI heaven meant to replace the flawed, mechanical world of the humans; a perfect CGI Avatar to replace the handicapped human body; and a way for us, spectators, seating in the theatre like the main character on his wheelchair, to get lost and explore a marvelous new technology, and in the process lose sense of the real world (yes, Avatar is an ideological piece of crap).

Most people, I think, would easily follow my argument until that point. It stands to reason that CGI is not film, and that these two types of images are quite different in nature. Which lead us to the inevitable question: what does it mean for cinema if CGI is now omnipresent? (And its corollary: what does it mean for “cinematic” video games?)

But it’s an incomplete question.

So my last article took a new tangent while trying to deepen the “classical” ontology of cinema (there’s no real unanimity on this, so let’s say it’s classical for me). This time, my conclusion implicitly stated that cinema can exist only on film, and so that all kinds of digital images, not just CGI, are banished from the much-coveted realm of cinematic cultural relevance. This idea (whether we support it or not is irrelevant at this point) gives us a hint about why our first question was misguided: it didn’t take into account the disappearance of film, and the nature of the digital image, which is now the only format used in most regular theatres.

Obviously, such a radical stance about digital images seems indefensible: I mean, if I refuse to consider a video game as cinematic because of the digital nature of its images, following this idea to its logical conclusion, I would have to explain how, say, the Last of Us is less cinematic than Avatar, a movie shot with digital cameras and filled with CGI effects. We could always answer that the Last of Us is entirely made with CGI, so it’s closer to an animation movie, while Avatar still use a lot of live-action footage. But this raises another tricky question: what amount of CGI do we need for “cinema” to become “animation”? If a movie uses CGI in all of its shots, like Avatar probably did, is it still cinema? Or is it animation, or a mix of both? And how such a cinema or animation or whatever we want to call it is so different than the Last of Us? Interactivity may seem like an obvious answer, but consider this: I can interact with my DVD with a controller, and often the same one I use to play games… Movies may not be intrinsically interactive like video games, but at home we can control the images of cinema, and surely this possibility can’t be inconsequential. Here’s an idea, briefly mentioned in my last article: interaction came with the digital image. Or more precisely with video, but the point is that interaction was impossible with film: you couldn’t press Pause while watching Citizen Kane in 1941 in a theatre (because where else?)

So, what does it mean?

For one, it brings another round of absurd questions: if digital images can’t be cinema, are movies not cinematic anymore when they’re playing on DVD, a digital, interactive format? Surely it would be silly to think that cinema is such a fragile thing that it cannot survive a simple transfer of format and that all those movies I watched at home are not really, you know, movies? But then, if I want to preserve my cinéphilie, all those countless hours spent in front of my television or, worse, my damn anti-cinematic computer, I have to accept that cinema can live in a digital form… and in that case, why can’t the Last of Us be cinematic? It’s not like we’re saying that this video game is a movie; only that it has some qualities that we usually associate with cinema. Can a video game really be cinematic, in a meaningful way? I guess it depends whether or not watching Citizen Kane (the Shadow of Colossus of cinema) on DVD is still cinema. And whether or not a CGI-filled movie like Avatar can be considered as cinema.

Navi-people-holy-groundAvatar: A Natural Paradise made of fiber optics, or how the digital image will help us reconnect with the world…

Part 1: Film is dead, or where things get theoretical

But what can be so different with the digital image anyway? If I take the same picture, of the same object, at the same time, with a photographic camera and with a digital camera, why would the former be a re-presentation of a world past, as I argued last time, and not the latter? The two images would look pretty much the same (apart from some minor differences in resolution, textures, colors and so forth), and in both cases we would be in presence of a spatially and temporally distant object. Or so it seems (what follows is largely indebted to D.N. Rodowick masterful book, Virtual Life of Film).

In the case of the digital image, I would say that we do not feel temporally distant from the object represented; rather, we feel like we’re in the presence of an image of an object. A photographic image is also an image, no doubt, and I don’t want to suggest that the digital image is a mere insignificant simulacrum. My point is that the ontology of each of these images is quite different. Let’s phrase it this way: both are an image of an object, but film puts the emphasis on the object represented (an image of an object), while digital insists on the image (an image of an object). Why is this?

First, because film has a real, physical presence: the photographic image exists independently of the screen where it is projected. We can take a film strip in our hands and see the images printed on it. On the contrary, a digital image is not a visible object since it’s nothing more than a bunch of 0 and 1, meaningless for the human eye. As such, the digital image has no visual presence for us without a proper display. The digital image is immaterial.

Furthermore, while a photographic image projected on a screen is the same as its equivalent on the film strip (only larger), the digital image is more like an image of the data stocked on a hard drive, this data already being an image of reality as seen by a computer. In a sense, what we see is one possible interpretation of these 0 and 1, which could be decoded to appear in another fashion (we can always read it as a text file). Consequently, the digital image has no real shape of its own: for example, it adapts itself to the screen where it is displayed. Think of DVDs who can recognize the aspect ratio of a television and automatically adjust the frame accordingly. With a photographic image, it works the other way around: we have to adjust the screen for the image because it has a determined and stable form.

These are simple differences, maybe, but eloquent ones: the photographic image has a materiality, a constancy that the digital image lacks, which partly explains why Stanley Cavell could write, in The World Viewed, as we saw last time, that cinema does not present us with “likeness” of things, but, “we want to say, with the things themselves”. With film, because the image is really there, in a constant and fixed form, this sense of presence, of materiality, is transferred to the objects represented. But the digital image has no physical presence like film, and its identity is fluid, changing, in a way that feels unnatural: just like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, the digital image does not act like the world as we know it. As a result, the objects represented suffer from the same instable identity: the digital image offers only “likeness” of things, an image that looks like the things represented, but that could as well look like something else, or that could metamorphose into something else entirely. How can I believe that what I see is “the thing itself”, if the image of this thing is unstable, immaterial?

This idea is best understood if we consider that a digital image is like a pointillist picture: we perceive it as continuous, although, really, there are microscopic gaps between each pixel. Photographic images have been compared to a mould because the light emitted or reflected by objects is printed through chemical processes on a film strip, which then stores the appearances of these objects. An object is captured on film as a whole, by the direct contact of light on a sensible surface. With a digital camera, light also has to be focused by a lens, but then it is divided in tiny points, and store in the pixels. The resulting image is not a trace of light anymore. Rather, pixels act like samples of reality: reality has to be coded, fragmented in the pixels, and then decoded, reconstructed for an electronic display. The digital image is not a mould, but a reconstruction.

Indeed, when reality is stored on a hard drive, it is transformed into information. And like any computer data, it then becomes infinitely malleable, volatile: even if there’s no alteration whatsoever of the live-action footage captured by a digital camera, when we see the resulting image on a screen, we’re aware of these possibilities of manipulation, of transformation. For the digital image, reality is a source, one amongst many others, and one who is not necessarily fated to be restored; for the photographic image though, reality is a model that can only be replicate, and there’s no other possible source. The reality we see on film may be distorted in various ways, but something needs to be printed on a film strip in the first place, or else there will be nothing to distort. And this “something” is necessarily reality, even if it isn’t recognizable anymore. From the perspective of the digital image, reality being only a sample, faithfully restoring the source is an arbitrary choice: a sample is made to be manipulated, distorted, put in a new context. Since, as spectators, we recognize these possibilities, we might as well manipulate this image ourselves. In front of a digital image, we don’t want to be mere spectators: we want to control it, to play with it.

This intrinsic interactivity of the digital image is best understood if we think of how an image appears on an electronic screen. I will let Rodowick himself explain this idea: “The film projector produces movement by animating still images. But as presented on electronic displays, the image is movement or subject to continual change because the screened image is being constantly reconstituted, scanned, or refreshed. Being in a constant state of reconstruction through a process of scanning, the electronic image is never wholly present in either space or time.” (Virtual Life of Film, p.137)

This state of continual change explains why the digital image stays in the present tense: what we perceive with an electronic display is not change as it happened in a past time, but the perpetual movement of the image as it is happening right now on the screen. With the digital image, movement is recreated by pixels changing rapidly in succession. The image itself is continuously moving, fluctuating, following the constant input of the electric signals sent to the pixels, so there’s never one complete, consistent image, equivalent to the frame of a film strip. We cannot divide the digital image in such unities, in a number of still images by second, because the screen is constantly scanning, moving, even when the image seems motionless.

On the contrary, with film, movement is created through the rapid succession of still images, so the images themselves are not moving. Movement comes from the succession of still images. True, film is also fundamentally discontinuous, because time is divided into these 24 frames per second, but when a film strip pass in front of a projector, the spatial and temporal unity of a single frame is preserved. Each frame remains continuous, undivided, a unity whole and consistent; so, what we see is really change as it happened between each of these frame. Film restores a past time by this succession of still images that reproduces a movement from the past; the movement we see in the present is the same as the movement that happened in the past. The digital image can still reconstitute a past time, but only by producing another movement, in the present, happening inside a metamorphic, always-changing and therefore never fully whole image. This, again, explains the interactivity: since the images are moving now, in front of us, since they’re imitating the past with their own movement, and since they’re not still photographs fixing a moment for all eternity but images with their own life imitating the past only because we ask of them to do so – because of all this, we can control them.

(For the sake of clarity: I’m referring here only to the way digital images are screened, and not to how they’re produced, because keyframing, for the most part, works like traditional animation. But since we can only encounter a digital image on an electronic display, it doesn’t matter how it was created: the experience of the digital image is defined by how it is screened, by this present movement on the electronic display. That’s why a movie shot on film, but projected or screened in a digital format is not a representation of a world past anymore. Citizen Kane on DVD supposes a whole other experience than Citizen Kane in a theatre, even if the images remain the same; we’ll see this in a moment.)

To summarize: with film, because the image is consistent, continuous, physically present, the world represented seems more present, in a material sense (it’s “we want to say, the things themselves”). At the same time, we’re kept at distance from it, because what we see already happened and we have no control over the past. This is the paradox of film: the present experience of a past time, the presence of a world that is nonetheless absent because of this temporal distance. With the digital image, there’s no distance in time, but in a sense there’s no world either, so this paradox is gone: we’re in the presence of an image, instead of the “things themselves”. This image may be closer to us, because its discontinuous and fluctuating nature is keeping us in the present, but in return the world seems farther away. This image bears signs of the past, but since we can control it, we see it in relation to what it can become, instead of what it was. In place of a time past, this kind of image reconstructs the movement on the screen as we watch it, and so this movement forward does not appear ineluctable: we can stop it, we can rewind it, we can alt-tab it. The digital image is a perpetual present, leaning towards the future, upon which we have some means of control, usually in the form of a controller, a remote, a keyboard, a mouse, etc.

Or, in as few words as possible: film is the present experience of a world past, while the digital image is the experience of a present image.

spring-breakers-580
Spring Breakers: Feels as if the world is perfect. Like it’s never gonna end… Just pretend it’s a video game…
I got Scarface. On repeat. SCARFACE ON REPEAT. Constant, y’all!…

Pragmatic intermission

At this point, the more pragmatic readers are shouting (if they’re still here): yeah, but who cares? When I’m watching a movie, do I really perceive these differences in how the movement is produced? If I can’t tell the difference between the images of film and digital cinema, how is this supposed to affect me? Citizen Kane is Citizen Kane, and it doesn’t matter whether I see it on DVD or on film. It’s still the same masterpiece, the same damn moving images. To which I would answer: I agree that perceptually the difference between film and a digital image is minimal. I’m a nostalgic dinosaur, so I will swear that the digital image is “colder”, more “flat” and more “clean” (in an unnatural way) than film, but then maybe it’s just me and my prejudices. In my mind, this ontology of the digital image explains why it appears “cold”, but I know that most people can’t tell the difference between film and digital cinema in a theatre (hell, most people don’t even know that theatres use digital projectors), so my personal experience surely can’t stand as proof in this matter. Perceptually, for most people, film and digital appear alike; I will concede as much.

But, and here the pragmatics should be more open to my argument, the context in which we experience cinema does change our perception of these moving images: in a theatre, the difference between film and digital cinema is more superficial because the experience of watching a movie in a dark room full of strangers with no possibilities of controlling the images is quite similar in both cases. However, the experience of watching a movie at home on DVD or with streaming is radically different, mainly because in this context we’re not only spectators: we can interact (albeit minimally) with the images, by stopping them or rewinding them for example. This interaction is made possible by the nature of the digital image, but we don’t feel this possibility quite as well when we don’t actually hold the remote in our hands. In such a context, the experience of a past time is almost gone: we see the images as something we can interact with, here in the present, so there’s no more distance between us and the images (although, again, the world represented is more distant). And we should not neglect the smaller screen: the world represented can’t feel as real when it can be contained in some piece of furniture.

This context of viewing cinema at home, especially on DVD, an interactive format that gave us far more control over a movie than video ever did, radically altered our perception of cinema, more than anything else. In fact, film was doomed forty years ago when the first person bought the first movie on videotape. In terms of aesthetics, the disappearance of film is not a revolution; this was the real revolution, the moment movies became readily available (and controllable) on video, which was, in retrospect, the first step towards the digital format.

But my phrasing here is misleading because it implies that our conception of cinema changed because of these new images, because of a new kind of cinematic experience brought by the digital images, when really it works the other way around: since we created these new contexts in which to view cinema, our conception had changed before, or else we would not have considered possible or worthwhile to transfer film into digital, to bring movies in our homes (television must surely be considered as a transitory phase here: movies were already in our homes, but we still had no control over them, except for changing the channel). Maybe it wasn’t clear at first, maybe we were only trying to fulfill some tacit needs (capitalist or consumerist perhaps) to possess cinema, to distribute it in our homes and to control its images. Why exactly I don’t know, but something changed; not only with cinema, but in our whole relationship with the world. Images do not change accidentally, but in order to reflect our own point of view on the world, as we find new ways to represent the world in a manner that is more suited for our needs.

In truth, then, the old ontology of the photographic image was not needed anymore, so we built new contexts for cinema, and they brought to life this new ontology. In other words, the idea was there before, in some kind of latent state perhaps, but ultimately it is the actual experience of the digital image that operated, in our minds, this transition from cinema as a world past to cinema as a present image.

Two novelties, mainly, were responsible for this shift. First, as I said, the emergence of new contexts: the theatre is now one possible context amongst many. We’re used to see cinema everywhere, on every possible screens, big or small, and mostly in an interactive form, so we’re more familiar now with the experience of a present image. The ubiquity of the digital images (we can even produce and manipulate them easily with our personal cameras and computers) pushes in the background our previous relationship with photographic images, altering our movie viewing habits. And that’s partly why our theatres are more deserted than ever: we don’t see the purpose of such a context because we think in terms of the digital image and the theater is not suited for it. Digital cinema in a theater doesn’t make much sense; it is meant for our television set, remote in hands, and available on demand. Seeing a movie or a photograph on film may still briefly remind us of the idea of a world past, but these occurrences are getting rarer. They will soon disappear completely: my five years old son, watching a movie in a theatre, wonders why he can’t turn the volume down or skip the previews. His point of reference isn’t film, but digital.

And second, since the possibility of CGI looms over every image these days (or Photoshop for photography), we can never know if what we see has been manipulated or not in post-production. Like I wrote last time, today, all floors may hide a T-1000, so we lost our belief that a movie corresponds to the actual circumstances of the shooting, to the real world that was in front of the camera. There’s always a doubt, an hesitation about an image’s authenticity; “it may be a trick”, “surely it wasn’t really like that, it was photoshopped”, etc. Because of this, we cannot believe that cinema is the “world itself”; it may be the world, it may be something else… the problem is that we can never know. And from the perspective of the digital image, as it should be self-evident, CGI is not an intruder: like I said, for this kind of image, reality is one possible source that can be mix with any other input, like CGI. Both CGI and a digital image of live action footage are already present images, so there’s no ontological rupture between them. The digital image welcomes CGI (well, CGI is a digital image); that’s why the T-1000 is so dangerous in the photographic world of Terminator 2, while Pandora can be a paradise in the digital images of Avatar. Just the same, since we now think in terms of the digital image, we accept the presence of CGI in live-action cinema. CGI is not threatening anymore.

So not only did the contexts of viewing moving images changed, but in addition we lost our belief in the faithfulness of cinema (and photographs) towards the world, especially in the case of digital cinema. In other words, we slowly got rid of everything film meant. Film is now an artefact, a reminder of a previous manner of representing the world. In that sense, yes, the pragmatist may be right to ask who cares if a movie is shot on film or with digital cameras: the point is not that movies changed (after all, they pretty much look the same), but that we changed. The fact that movies are now mostly digital even in theatres only consecrates our already existing conception of cinema as a present image. The end of film in our theatres (or anywhere, really) only marks the end of a period of transition: we’re officially in the digital age. It doesn’t matter anymore if we see a movie on film or on a digital format; we think in terms of a present image anyway.

To answer our pragmatists, then, defining the ontology of the digital image is the first step towards understanding what our new relationship with images is; how it still relates to cinema; and what it says about our own outlook on the world. Not a small feat, clearly, and not one I’m pretending to undertake here; this is a mere tentative sketch of some of these ideas.

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Pacific Rim: Take that, analogical monsters!

Part 2: It’s Alive! (Or not?)

At this point, it seems we have to reformulate our initial question, but I’m lazy so I will borrow one from Steven « post-cinematic » Shapiro: “What happens to cinema when it is no longer a cultural dominant, when its core technologies of production and reception have become obsolete, or have been subsumed within radically different forces and powers?” I would answer: just like the world it used to represent so well, cinema becomes an image, a sample that can be re-contextualized or repurposed inside new types of images. From cinema, we retain its visual language, but get rid of his previously essential ethical relationship with reality. This is what “post-cinematic” means for me: when cinema is no longer the world itself, but an image, a cultural referent.

Let’s try to explain this by coming back to our starting point: it becomes clear that if we can easily qualify the Last of Us as “cinematic”, it’s because we do not think anymore of cinema as a world past. If we did, such a statement would be nonsensical. Moreover, the difference between CGI and a digital image of live-action footage is minimal: the digital image can be infinitely manipulated in post-production, and all these possibilities erase the traditional difference between animation and cinema. The creative processes are practically the same now; for cinema, reality is one possible material amongst others. So, since CGI now live happily within cinema, and since we think of cinema as a present image, surely the Last of Us can be cinematic (or more likely post-cinematic, but let’s stick with the usual epithet). We could even argue that it represents the future of cinema, that Naughty Dog took the lessons of our good-old analogical Hollywood on how to use moving images in an expressive manner, and then adapted them for a product of the digital era. I mean: if the digital image is intrinsically interactive, a good digital movie should make use of this essential quality, no? Ok, maybe not, I’m exaggerating: it would be best to say that cinema doesn’t fulfill the potential of the digital images, while video games are perfectly suited for them. But if it so, if the world is now a digital one, whereas the twentieth century was analogical, video games may have to take the place of cinema as the definitive art form of an era.

Seventeen years ago, Lev Manovich announced “ […] cinema exits the stage. Enters the computer.” In this essay, Cinema and Digital Media, and again in his influential book, the Language of New Media, Manovich presented cinema as a transitory form of moving images that paved the way for the digital media. He wrote this in 1996, at a time we were still clinging (barely) to our old conception of cinema; now that the ontology of the digital image defines our relationship with moving images, cinema as we knew it has definitely served its purpose, and it’s time to move on… but we’re not exactly “moving on”, at least not to something else entirely. As this cinematic leaning in video games shows, cinema is still the respected elder everybody’s looking for. The reason is quite simple, and goes deeper than a desire to share cinema’s acceptance as a valuable form of popular culture. In Manovich’s words, digital media (not just games) have been shaped around cinema visual language: “element by element, cinema is being poured into the computers: first, one-point linear perspective; next, the mobile camera and rectangular window; next, cinematography and editing conventions; and of course, digital personas based on acting conventions borrowed from cinema, to be followed by make-up, set design, and the narrative structures themselves” (Language of New Media). No wonder being cinematic is often the highest praise for a video game! Cinema has shaped our understanding of moving images, and it’s apparently difficult to get free of this decisive influence.

Indeed, digital images can be anything they want, but for the most part they decided to imitate their photographic predecessor… Here’s another reason why the digital image is an image of an object, especially in the case of CGI: for film, reality was a model, but for the digital image, the real model is not reality, but reality as it was traditionally represented by film – at least when the digital image is trying to be realist, which, obviously, is not always the case. But I’m writing here about the intersection between cinema and video games, and essentially, when we think of CGI in movies and in cinematic video games, the model of the digital image is another image (insert Baudrillard here). Nowhere is this more obvious than in these cinematic video games: when we speak of video games realism, as we’ve heard a lot in the past months concerning the “innovations” that the new consoles by Microsoft and Sony will make possible in terms of visual fidelity, we do not mean that video games are able to simulate reality, but truly that they’re able to simulate the realism of the cinematographic image, and especially realism as defined by the Hollywoodian conventions.

For example, why use a rectangular frame, when the digital image is malleable at will, unrestricted by the shape of a film strip? Is there something less realist in an oval shape, like some paintings use? Comic books do this all the time, and to great effect: adapt the frame of a panel to the subject represented – a digital image could very well do the same, but for the most part never does.

A more telling example, when it comes to perspective and the spatial relations between the objects, CGI imitates those we’re used to see in photography, but they were only visual conventions built for the lenses of the camera. Like Manovich said, photography offers a one-point perspective, but in painting other methods were designed to create the impression of depth in a flat image, and they can be equally “realist” as one-point perspective. CGI could represent perspective in any way the artist sees fit, but I don’t think I ever saw something else than the usual monocular perspective in a context where realist human figures where represented in a CGI image (obviously, again, it’s a different affair in abstract works).

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Another eloquent example: looking at this image above, from the Last of Us, we could ask why the background is blurry. In cinematography, depth of field is determined by many factors (the aperture, the focal length, the lighting, the distance between the camera and its subject, the movement in the frame, etc.), but with CGI, in theory everything could be in deep focus. It’s not even a good term, because there’s no such thing as a “focus” with CGI. There’s no lens, no reality, no physical limitation whatsoever, so nothing with which to focus on, and nothing to focus on. I guess it’s probably easier for a digital artist to make a blurry background instead of a sharp and detailed one, but I’m pretty sure that CGI is just imitating the type of image we’re familiar with.

The same goes for the decoupage: in theory, again, a CGI “shot” can last forever and can be “taken” from any desired angle (I used scare quotes because there’s no such thing as a “shot” with CGI, since there’s no camera to shoot anything). But cinematics in video games still follow the guidelines of Hollywoodian continuity editing: the angle of the virtual camera is always in a “human” position (meaning there’s no extreme low-angle shot for example, or no ostentatious visual distortions), the editing follows the 180-degree and 45-degree rules, there’s no apparent cut between the shots, most scenes use the shot reverse shot template, etc. There’s nothing inherently realist in this supposedly invisible style: the purpose of continuity editing is to attenuate the obligatory spatial and temporal discontinuity of the editing process. If we do not see the cuts, and can feel the movie as a continuous flow, we can forget more easily that it’s a movie and think of it instead as a “real” world. At least this is the assumption. But with CGI, if the goal is to preserve the spatial and temporal continuity of a scene, why not make one long take, à la Half-Life? There’s no need for editing at all with CGI. I’m not saying that the long take would be more realist than a shot reverse shot sequence, and obviously cutting to different angles can serve expressive purposes, but all of these techniques were designed around the physical possibilities and limitations of the movie camera. Now that there’s no camera in any real sense of the word, why pursue a style that was designed for this camera?

Mainly, I guess, because these video games strive for the realism of the cinematographic image. For sure, visual fidelity is equally important in order to produce a convincing impression of reality, but even if CGI could perfectly imitate the textures and movement of real life, would we still feel the image as “realist” if the virtual camera did all sorts of physically impossible acrobatics, or would position itself in weird, incomprehensible angles? Our perception of the image as a convincing imitation of the real world would probably clash with the behaviour of such an unnatural camera (why do we use the word camera anyway?) In recent years, movies began to use virtual cameras moving in a physically impracticable way (all those long and tortuous travelling in the industrial realms of the Orcs in Lord of the Ring for example), but these movements are still comprehensible from our human point of view: a real camera could theoretically reproduce the same movements if it was attached to some flying device. Such an attempt would just be too expensive and perilous to make. So these prodigious movements are still realist, in the sense that they’re consistent with the physics of our world, but CGI is not tied down by any kind of physics. A virtual camera respecting these laws of physics is an arbitrary constraint.

This is the paradox of the digital image (I mean here CGI and digital photography, and only in the context of the entertainment industry): a new medium that, instead of inventing its own language, tries to imitate an established one, film, only better. That last part is important: when Peter Jackson moves his virtual camera in Lord of the Ring like I described above, the idea is that the digital image can attenuate the difficulties of moving a real camera in a real space. These movements are not something a real camera could never do, but rather something that would be too difficult to accomplish with a real camera. In this way, it is implied that the virtual camera helps to fulfill all the possibilities of a real camera; as it is used now, CGI doesn’t open new aesthetics possibilities, but perfects the ones of the photographic image. It’s also the explicit goal of all the re-editions of old movies in DVD and Blu-ray: now you can see your favorite movies like never before! Or better: now we can see the classics like they were really intended! As if Welles, Ford or Hawks meant to film in digital all along, but just couldn’t because it wasn’t yet possible.

Frankly, and in order to answer one of our opening question, Citizen Kane is inconceivable as a digital product because its philosophical discourse, as I briefly described here, is intimately tied down to the idea of film as a world past and to an idea of time that can’t be express by the digital image. So, yes, I will dare to say that Citizen Kane on film is not the same as Citizen Kane on DVD. And the actual masterpiece is the former, obviously. If, as I like to say, writing a critic is putting into words our experience of an artwork, watching Welles’ opus on DVD can only give us an idea of what the movie is about, a simili-experience of the movie as intended. You can’t pause Citizen Kane (hey, it’s even in its famous contract: no interruption, no alteration whatsoever!), but you can pause its DVD. It’s the same images, but a different experience, and therefore a different movie (I’m not saying that we can’t understand at all Citizen Kane when it’s on DVD, but that our way of interacting with it contradicts the vision of the world these images support).

Citizen-Kane
Citizen Kane: Can we really understand what this mean, when seen as a present image?

The experience may change, and our conception of movies with it, but the digital image does not revolutionize the visual language of cinema or photography: for better and for worst, it is the same, only better. The visual language of Citizen Kane on DVD remains the same, but the image is certainly cleaner (better!) than an old, badly deteriorated print. Likewise, Hollywood aesthetics didn’t change that much from Griffith to Nolan. The movies may be bigger, faster, louder (and way more expensive), but it’s still our good-old classic, invisible style. Only better!This pretension of being “better” is certainly the most irritating aspect of the digital image: it’s not better, nor worse, it’s only different. Understanding how it is different would be wise, or so I think.

In some ways, I agree with Manovich when he says that cinema was a transitory form of moving images, leading to the modern digital media. With hindsight, we can see how film prepared the way for the digital image: for example, I described the latter as a sample of reality, but the former was also some kind of sample itself. Film takes a fraction of reality and puts it in a new context, adjacent to other images, other fractions of reality that were not really close to each other in the real world. But the comparison doesn’t stick as well with film because it is far less malleable than what we usually mean by a “sample”. Surely, film prepared us for thinking in terms of sampling, even if it doesn’t really function as a sample itself (more like a proto-sample) – so yes, the transition between film and digital cinema is just that, a transition, and not a great divide. After all, the difference between an image of an object and an image of an object is only a matter of emphasis, so it appears quite easy to go from one to the other. And since the digital image, in the entertainment industry at least, insists for following its predecessor, it’s difficult to really see a difference, apart from this seemingly minor emphasis. That’s why I felt I have to include a “pragmatic intermission” in the middle of this article: in terms of visual language, the images are so similar than a careful comparison between film and the digital image seems quasi-superfluous. On the other hand, as I hope this intermission made more convincing, the experience of the digital image as a present image is absolutely novel, and is quite different, if not downright contrary to our experience of film as a past time. And on this matter, there is a divide, a revolution, of which we have yet to fully understand the far-reaching consequences.

Something like a conclusion

We can feel these resemblances/differences in the movies themselves, especially in blockbusters. Modern blockbusters look like their ancestors (similar continuity editing, same focus on narration, and essentially the same ideology), but they’re quite different in more meaningful ways. I will just write down some preliminary notes for now, because as a good ex-student I know we have to finish an essay by pushing our subject in a new possible direction (no, really, it’s because my ramblings are already quite long). But consider this: blockbusters these days are in love with the idea of “reboots” and “Origin stories”, taking a well-known character, erasing his past, his previous incarnations, and putting him in a new context. Hmmm, it reminds me of something… Or think of super-heroes: humans, only better!

These are broad examples, but Hollywood movies tend to present space and time in a manner that is quite new, consistent with the ontology of the digital image. I’ve been reading (and enjoying) some of Film Crit Hulk’s WRITINGS lately (he’s the one who convince me it’s ok to publish a 8000 words essay on a blog), and some of his observations can be helpful here. For a spoilerish example:

« STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS CAN CRAFT SYNTHETIC MOMENTS OF HIGH URGENCY, BUT CAN NEVER SUSTAIN IT TERMS OF LARGER MEANING TO THE CHARACTERS. DID YOU NOTICE HOW LITTLE ACTUALLY HAPPENED OF LASTING CONSEQUENCE? HOW LITTLE OF A CHARACTERS EMOTION EVER CARRIES INTO THE NEXT SCENE? THINGS HAPPEN AND THEN THEY DON’T MATTER MOMENTS LATER. OUR DR. MARCUS CAN WATCH HER FATHER GET KILLED IN GRUESOME FASHION AND SCREAM HER LUNGS OUT, BUT IT DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A SINGLE BIT OF IMPACT ONCE IT’S OVER, FOR HER OR ANYONE ELSE. EVEN DEATH IS IMPERMANENT. EVERYTHING IS EXECUTED WITH EXCLAMATION POINTS BUT BECAUSE IS MOMENTARY AND THE END RESULT IS A SURPRISINGLY WEIGHTLESS AND MEANINGLESS FILM; ALL SOUND AND FURY SYMBOLIZING NOTHING »

The digital image is characterized by this immediacy, a sort of eternal present where the past exist only as a functional device, because it is needed or else there will be no plot. Space and time exist only on the surface of the image, and we’re often under the impression that the filmmakers don’t know what to do with them, so we have these scenes like Hulk describes. Hulk writes about dramatic structure, mostly, but it’s all related: characters don’t develop over time because there’s no such thing as a constitutive “past”; only the present moment of the digital image matters. By the way, I think this is exactly what happens in those cinematic video games, which suffer from what we like to call (unfortunately) ludonarrative dissonance: they’re made of images without a past, existing only in the present. The gameplay has no consequence on the narrative, so the game seems made of isolated, fragmented and unrelated moments. Taken apart, each moment is thrilling, but it doesn’t make much sense when you try to piece them all together. Each moment seems to forget what happened before, hence the “dissonance”.

Likewise, blockbusters with a coherent, meaningful sense of space are very rare, when it used to be a given. Action movies are the best example: not so long ago (1995!), in a movie like Die Hard with a Vengeance, much of the suspense was built around the simple fact that going from one place to another takes some time. The city was a real, physical space that McClane couldn’t just traverse in an instant. In the last (awful) movie of the series, he goes from one location to the next, but we never feel as if there’s some real distance between them. He’s there one moment, there another, and it doesn’t matter how he got there. Space has no materiality anymore. More tellingly, in the first movie, walking on broken glass was a difficult, painful ordeal, but now McClane can jump off high buildings without consequences. Again, this would make no sense if cinema was the “world itself”, but since it’s only an image now, a visual language, the real world has no presence on screen. McClane cannot be hurt by an immaterial world.

Cinema, even in its most traditional and apparently inflexible form, has changed more than what we usually acknowledge. And, as you could guess, even if a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan still shoot on film, his movies are undoubtedly products of the digital era (no one is more indifferent to the world than Nolan); shooting on film or not is irrelevant in most cases.

At this point, I think we can see more clearly why I said that cinema is nothing more than an image for the digital images. Or at least for the digital images as they are used now: the problem is not the digital image itself, but the fact that we haven’t found yet how to use it in a meaningful way. Cinema was the definitive art form of the twentieth century because of the ontology of film, which was a reflection of its time. As Cavell wrote, this position of the spectator standing apart from the world reproduced our own being-in-the-world in the twentieth century, our own sceptical relationship with the real world (sorry for the heideggerian turn of phrase, but I don’t know how else to say this). As an art form, cinema entails a particular ethical commitment towards reality because of the essential link between film and reality. By putting us at distance from the world, the photographic images can help us see reality anew, and in this way restore our own commitment towards the world. A good movie will not merely “show” reality in a sort of neutral stance, but instead will guide us through reality, or illuminate it, in order to find a way to fill that distance between us and the world. A good movie works from the distance created by film and asks the spectator to commit himself with the world represented.

That’s why, last time, I asked why I feel more engaged, body and mind, with cinema than with a video game: cinema invites me to find a place in the world, and this takes an effort, a will. On the contrary, video games throw me in a world, and that’s it: I’m there, from the moment I start the game. Video games give us a world we can play with, which usually means to conquer it, or to shape it to our image. The effort video games ask of us is not to find our place in a distant world, but to take the present image of a world and make it our own. As I said in an earlier post, video games are quite solipsistic: by design, the world is made for the player, and everything in it is at our disposition. Obviously, this is hugely different from the experience of photographic cinema. But if the world is now digital, our ethical commitment has to be redefined, in order to reflect our new relationship with the world, which is not one of spectators anymore. The question, then: if the experience of a world past is outdated, does it mean that solipsism is the way to go? Or is it that video games haven’t found a good use yet of their images? (I’m hoping for the second option, but sometimes I fear I’m wrong…)

Star_Trek_Into_Darkness_32Into Darkness: A ship falling upside down; a movie inversing one of the most famous scenes of the series; in order to regain control of the ship, Spock has to learn how to see the world from Kirk’s point of view and vice versa; in other words, one must learn from the past… but do we?

Star Trek Into Darkness is a product of the digital image (and a fascinating movie by the way, because, like Oblivion earlier this year, it seems to theorize and try to justify its own shallowness; I’ll probably come back to it at some point), but we would look in vain there for any kind of real commitment towards the world. We could say the same for most Hollywood movies of the past years, with a few exceptions: David Fincher, Ang Lee and Michael Mann are probably the most relevant digital authors right now (and probably Lynch if he would just, please, please make another movie!) These authors show that cinema can still be relevant, even in its digital form. Or another example, Spring Breakers, a movie about the digital image if I ever saw one: the characters long for an everlasting moment (“I wish it never ends”), and the movie throws away all manners of causality, opting instead for a (very) repetitive structure, with fragmented, interpolated scenes with no sense of progression, and a total indifference towards death, completely meaningless in such a context. As the characters say themselves, they live in a video game… (indeed, the ending is strangely reminiscent of Hotline Miami.)

The digital image entails a whole new way of viewing and interacting with the world, just like the photographic image did in its time. Just to be clear, again: this new relation with the world is not a consequence of the digital image. Rather, the digital image encapsulates, or represents, our modern relationship with the world. So… why imitate film if its particular ontology is not only impossible to emulate with digital images, but also less suited for our current needs? Or, from the point of view of video games: what’s the point of imitating a photographic art form if you can make better use of the digital image, by pushing it in a direction cinema can’t? And this solipsism, couldn’t we resolve it by not imitating another image, and thus avoid reducing the world to a malleable image?

In my mind, video games are at the best place right now to explore what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century, just like cinema was the most representative art form of the twentieth century, because video games (and not just the cinematic kind) are the most expressive use we have found yet for the digital images. Unlike cinema, video games are impossible without the digital image: they should use the interactivity and this idea of the present image to lead us back towards the world (I don’t know what would be the purpose of art if it’s not primarily ethical). Maybe it’s possible by imitating cinema, but if it is so, we sure haven’t found the way yet. I must say I’m not even sure video games, cinematic or not, are up to the task right now like cinema surely was very early in his lifetime, but for the most part, I remain hopeful.

Why my doubts?

Well, another time (I will write a proper article on the the Last of Us, which is quite good, I think, but we’re really, really far from a Citizen Kane-esque moment – then again, Citizen Kane is one of the most important artistic achievement of the twentieth century, so maybe we should try looking for a less intimidating example, ok?)

At the end of this series, I can state again the ideas I mean to explore with this blog, which I hinted at in my introduction: what we lost with the disappearance of film; what we gain with the digital image; what it means to be in presence of an interactive image; the corresponding ethics and aesthetics; and especially how video games and cinema can explore these ideas.

THE END

Sylvain Lavallée Écrit par :

"Car une chose est d’apprendre à regarder les films « en professionnel » - pour vérifier d’ailleurs que ce sont eux qui nous regardent de moins en moins - et une autre est de vivre avec ceux qui nous ont regardés grandir et qui nous ont vus, otages précoces de notre biographie à venir, déjà empêtrés dans les rets de notre histoire." Serge Daney

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