Sunday, 5 August 2012

Is Film Dead?



So, back to the panel discussion in which I took part at the Edinburgh International Film Festival:

'Is Film Dead?' was the title of our talk. And by 'Film' I mean the actual strip of celluloid that runs through a camera or cinema projector.

The panellists at EIFF. (Photo by Pako Mera Copyright EIFF)


We had a lively debate on-stage, and with members of the audience, about the future of film as a recording and presenting medium and also in general about the impact digital technology has had on animation. There were a cross section of views ranging from die hard celluloid fans who are still making experimental work directly onto 16mm film, right through to students whose entire experience has been purely digital (for the benefit of which panellist James Rice brought on stage in a large roll of 35mm movie film and an even mightier roll of 70mm film, in case people had never actually seen the stuff before). And then there were others, myself included, who are caught somewere in between old-school film and new-wave digital. Speaking personally, I love the look you can achieve shooting on film, but I also love digital projection because it's steadier, and won't get covered in specks and scratches after only a few showings. So for some projects (like The Last Belle) I'd probably originate the image on film, but post-produce digitally.

But, having said that... even major studio movies that are created entirely digitally are still transferred onto film negative for long term storage because film has proven itself to be a pretty stable storage medium for at least a hundred years so far, and still counting. In contrast digital files can start corrupting within months. And even if you're lucky and they don't start corrupting, the play-back technology keeps changing so rapidly you have to keep endlessly transferring your work to whatever the latest storage medium is anyway - continuously treading water to stay in the same place. So there are pros and cons to both mediums.

Yours truly, sitting on his soapbox.
(Photo by Pako Mera Copyright EIFF)


I don't want to paraphrase - probably inaccurately - the opinions of others during this event, but I'm happy to stand on my blog-soapbox and pass on the conclusion I came to at the end of the discussion. And basically it is this: don't throw the baby out with the bathwater (as your Granny might have said). No matter how wonderful all the new stuff is don't let it completely flush away traditional methods. Let's have every possible tool at our fingertips.

For example, after the event I got talking in the bar to journalist Michael Burns (whose website Fired By Design you can visit here). I'd never met him before but we started an enjoyable chat around a mutual interest in visual effects and I began to reminisce about my teenage years making the train trip to central London three or four times annually to pick up the latest issue of the wonderful American visual effects magazine CINEFEX. The articles in that magazine covered all the latest movie releases (Return of the Jedi, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, etc) and had copious photographs showing effects magicians making glass paintings, constructing foreground miniatures, applying prosthetics, shooting motion-control spaceships, and (most exciting of all) blowing stuff up into a million tiny pieces with vast wodges of pyrotechnics.

"The audience likes an explosion."

Then came the digital revolution.

Then the magazine was stuffed full of photographs of someone staring into a monitor, or someone standing behind someone staring into a monitor, or (most exciting of all) two people standing behind someone staring into a monitor, while one of them points at it. (If you like this kind of thing check out the incredibly bizarre but strangely compelling web site Hovering Art Directors here).

 OK, but seriously... there's no denying that special effects have advanced incredibly in the last decade or two thanks to digital technology. Effects now can be seamless, flawless and available to anyone with an imagination thanks to their relative cheapness. And that's nothing but a very good thing. But what bothers me (as the endless photos of people staring into monitors will testify) is that we are often in danger of becoming standardised into one way of achieving something, one way that offers a guaranteed solution to our problem. The dreaded production 'Pipeline'. And this standardised way of operating - this standardised way of thinking - can mean that films become more and more similar to look at. And it might also mean that the knowledge of older ways of doing things could completely die out. What I yearn for is a mix and match philosophy, so that old-school stuff (foreground miniatures, prosthetics, hanging stuff off wires, blowing crap up) can be mixed in with high-tech stuff (digital compositing, three dimensional matte painting, and so on). Horses for courses. Let's not lose our ability for left-field thinking.

Back on Roger Rabbit I remember Robert Zemeckis saying how he had always admired the sequence in Mary Poppins where Dick Van Dyke and Co float up to the ceiling with laughter. Each shot pulled a different trick: a character might float up towards the ceiling on wires; as we cut into close up they'd now be positioned on a kind of see-saw rig and filmed only from the waist up; cut back to a long shot and they're composited optically into the set. This approach was applied on Roger Rabbit to manipulate the props that the animated characters were apparently interacting with: in one shot a prop might hang off wires; in the next it would be puppeteered by a rod that would later be hidden by the animation; in the following shot the prop might be held by a real human hand optically sliced off at the wrist by a soft edged split-screen matte and then covered by the character animation. Zemeckis's point was that just as the audience are about to figure out the trick, change it.

I'd apply exactly the same 'change the trick' rule to animation. If you want one kind of 'feel', use stop motion. If you want another, use computer models. If you want a 'paint on paper' feel get out some paint and a stack of paper. And perhaps where the future lies: mix it all up together, blend your techniques, integrate 2D and 3D. Diversity is the thing - it doesn't just keep the audience on their toes, but the film makers too.

One of the most pleasurable sequences I ever got to animate on was for Richard Williams's Animator's Survival Kit title sequence (which you can see here). The decision to animate this came about years after the original book cover, upon which it is based, was designed. As Dick said retrospectively, "If I knew we were going to have to animate this thing I would have designed it differently!"

The original logo had all the painterly rendering, shading, and cross-hatching that you might expect from an illustration, and to reproduce this look for animation took some thought. Under usual studio circumstances this would have gone through the standard digital scan and paint programs we're all familiar with. But that would also have meant all sorts of complications with additional matte levels to run behind the cross-hatching, additional rendering levels, matte levels for matching characters in front and behind, and so on. A big compositing job to pull together all sorts of disparate artwork levels. So we decided to do it the old fashioned way: draw it straight onto frosted cel and then paint it. Just two steps. Easy.



But the obvious downside to this was that to choreograph all Dick's levels of animation and my levels of animation, featuring multiple characters walking in rhythm, into a 2 minute single take shot on a film rostrum camera would have been a nightmare. By no means impossible, but a nightmare nonetheless. Plus we had 2 computer animated characters (produced by Pieter Van Houte) to add in too. So the solution was to use the pros of each technology and avoid the cons. Draw and paint traditionally for direct simplicity, shoot each level separately with a digital camera, generate the cg characters with cg, and composite the whole lot in the computer for maximum flexibility, before outputting to film.

Under Richard Williams' direction, and Mo Sutton's production, this sequence was a delight to work on. Hard work, for sure, but not technically ungainly. It seems to me that flexibility is always the key:  keeping all the tools available to us, high-tech, low-tech, and everything in between.

The old veterans who worked during the heyday of the Disney studios spoke of their excitement at working on projects like Fantasia, where they would see footage produced by another unit in the studio and not have a clue how it was achieved. Things were developing at an incredible rate: new ways of inking, new ways of shading and rendering, airbrush effects, matte effects, multiplane and depth effects. And once something had been successfully achieved the information about how it was created would be disseminated throughout the studio to whoever was interested. Inevitably, for a whole bunch of reasons, there was eventually a decline at the studio and every production became, for a while at least, standardised. Standard production method, standard 'look'. And, to the delight of the accountants, predictable standardised costings. But the great difference these days is that technology has democratised the whole film making process, and it has become available to more and more individuals, and small set-ups. It's these people - all of us - who I hope take the dreaded 'pipelines' we are supplied by manufacturers, the standardised way of thinking and producing, and bend, twist, break, and sometimes even throw away those pipelines to keep things fresh and exciting for all.
Like all great magical illusions, there's nothing more exciting than watching something and mumbling to youreslf, how the hell did they do THAT?

So is 'Film' Dead? Well, I hope not. Ailing a bit maybe, but hopefully not on its last legs. Even if the medium of film, or any 'traditional' technique, becomes more boutique than mainstream, let's hope they all survive and prosper and intermingle to create brand new and exciting illusions



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