Jonathan Poritsky

On Reality

There is a scourge attack­ing our cin­ema today. It is an ail­ment that has been fes­ter­ing lit­tle more than a decade by my count. I speak not of a drought of inter­est­ing char­ac­ters, nor a dearth of orig­i­nal plot­lines. In many ways we excel in those depart­ments, though this is of course arguable. For this par­tic­u­lar tirade, I will speak of some­thing seem­ingly anti­thet­i­cal to the cin­ema of the writ­ten word: reality.

(a near ver­ba­tim essay could be writ­ten about doc­u­men­tary film if only one took my core thoughts and wrote the oppo­site, but another day, another blog)

The story of Go Motion is well known to those who have seen the spe­cial fea­tures on the Jurassic Park DVD or for those for­tu­nate few who remem­ber the behind the scenes fea­turette air­ing on NBC. For those unfa­mil­iar, Steven Spielberg was hell bent on cre­at­ing the most real­is­tic dinosaurs ever por­trayed on screen, and he knew, along with spaced out crony George Lucas, that inven­tion was the only way to achieve this. So a for­mer appren­tice of Ray Harryhausen pre­sented his new sys­tem for stop-motion ani­ma­tion, which improved on all of the short­com­ings of the FX style. Impressed beyond words, Go Motion was signed to cre­ate most of the film dinosaurs.

But Lucas and his ILM friends had a secret, the rea­son why he hadn’t directed any­thing in awhile. A new con­cept, a new sys­tem, a new form if cre­ation that would ulti­mately blow Go Motion out of the water. We all know how the story ends. It was dig­i­tal ani­ma­tion in the film, and the rousng suc­cess of “Park” fur­ther fueled the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion to the point where you can­not go to the the­ater today with­out see­ing an image that has some­how been dig­i­tally affected.

I put this as the final nail in the cof­fin for whimsy, which has been replaced by real­ity. This is the nar­ra­tive equiv­a­lent of the inven­tion of the car. Certainly we could get places faster, but man had to adjust to putting faith in a machine, no longer an ani­mal. Our tac­tile cre­ation and inven­tion ended with the death of Go Motion. And now there are no lim­its. We cre­ated this infi­nite dig­i­tal play­ground and have been strug­gling ever since to cope with its vastness.

But we’ve done more than cope. We’ve used this gift to our advan­tage on count­less occas­sions. Whether it’s a sum­mer block­buster filled with all dig­i­tal char­ac­ters (remem­ber not so long ago when Jar-Jar was an unprece­dented idea?) or your run of the mill roman­tic com­edy requir­ing spe­cific snow­fall on a Hollywood back­lot in July, the term “fix it in post” has become more and more legit­i­mate thanks to the dig­i­tal won­der. Back to the ear­lier anal­ogy: we couldn’t func­tion as a soci­ety any­more if we sold our cars and sad­dled up. Much the same thing has hap­pened with film thanks to dig­i­tal effects. But in both instances, we must ask our­selves if we can accept the con­se­quences of the life­less replacement.

To my orig­i­nal point in this matter.

Given our infi­nite cre­ative pow­ers, there has been this move­ment since “Jurassic Park” to por­tray real­ity on screen. Or rather to real­is­ti­cally por­tray imagery. I’m not say­ing this drive wasn’t there before, but sim­ply that it was never really an option. We could strive for it but fall short, gen­er­ally hav­ing to rely on our wits for a workaround. A clas­sic exam­ple might be “Planet of the Apes”. For its time, the makeup was con­vinc­ing and hadn’t been seen by audi­ences before. To a mod­ern eye, the cos­tumes still hold water, but if you com­pare it to the film’s more recent remake, you’ll notice that the post-digital retelling con­tains more accu­rate pri­mates, in regard to their faces, the sounds they make, how they carry them­selves. One can always shout back that the orig­i­nal ape makeup was all the more orig­i­nal for its “short­com­ings” in that it cre­ated a new race as yet unknown to us. Not the apes we see, but closer to humans beyond just their speech.

Which might bring us to “Transformers” next. A recent view­ing of the ani­mated film showed a world with no intent on seem­ing real, but one that jus­ti­fies itself. The film uti­lizes a color palette of nearly every color in the galaxy, using extremes in the spec­trum to show emo­tions and nar­ra­tive curves. These are com­mon ani­mated effects. But in the mod­ern film, we see the same bleak real­ity that is so often per­va­sive in mod­ern movies. The auto­bots may be dirty at points, and their col­ors, though far from muted, are still col­ors rather grounded in our con­cept of what we per­ceive on an aver­age day, wan­der­ing around Everytown, USA. And of course, it was so impor­tant nar­ra­tively to explain why the bots are there and how they work and how they speak. Almost no stone is left unturned (except of course how Megatron seems to have some form of Autobot power matrix in his chest) when it comes to explain­ing the real his­to­ries of the dif­fer­ent bots.

Perhaps it is our fault. Maybe audi­ences just can’t take a film seri­ously with­out real­is­tic rel­e­vance. The funny thing is that I would con­sider many of the block­buster type films I refer to as plagued by this dis­ease of real­ity to be escapist cin­ema. People go there to enter a world they can­not live in their nor­mal daily lives. So why must we go to the the­ater and see our world with some “other” traps­ing around along­side us? Why can’t we let our­selves go and enter another reality?

This needs to be wrapped up, and that last sen­tence seemed like a good enough spot, but I can’t fin­ish this off with­out giv­ing credit where credit is due. There is one small patch of peo­ple work­ing tire­lessly against real­ity on screen. I speak of course of our friends over at Pixar. Both the sto­ries they pro­duce and their method­ol­ogy com­bine to cre­ate some­thing wholly dif­fer­ent. Ever since “Toy Story”, we have been taken to worlds unseen by humans in ways we had never con­ceived. Or, as in the Brad Bird films, we view sub­strata of our real­ity. A world that looks like ours but is full of super­heroes with our same mis­giv­ings, or a world where rats’ hands were clean enough to cook up a peasant’s delight. And the rats did look alarm­ing real, I’ll con­cede, until of course, you looked into their big white eyes. The rest of us have a lot to learn off that mag­i­cal lit­tle mouse house studio.

Until next time, keep it real.

Leave a Reply