When “Great Leaps Forward” Aren’t, or, the Art of Looking Bad

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I recently came across Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday writing about a screening several weeks ago at CinemaCon of 10 minutes from Peter Jackson’s (and Warner Bros.’) attempt to extend the Lord of the Rings franchise with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.  The film is currently slated for release in December of this year. Some of what she had to say has me wondering if looking crappy might not be the new cool for the silver screen.

CinemaCon – or, more formally, the Official Convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners —  is an annual come-together in Las Vegas of exhibitors and other industry professionals gathered to see what the studios have coming down the pipeline.  Exhibitors have been just as hungry as LOTR fans to see if Jackson has pulled off his long buzzed-about four-play.  After all, the original trilogy grossed a combined theatrical box office total of nearly $3 billion worldwide.  If Hobbit plays at the same level, that kind of lobby traffic will move an awful lot of popcorn.

Jackson had startled audiences and woken up the movie industry with how far he’d pushed the use of CGI and motion-capture throughout the LOTR films.  Though they’ve become routine now, remember how fresh those from-here-to-the-horizon hordes of invaders looked at the time?  And no one had, to that point, used motion-capture as deftly as Jackson had with the obsessed, skeletal Gollum.  Match Gollum against CGI-created Jar Jar Binks from George Lucas’ second Star Wars trilogy, and the consensus is Jackson had out-Lucased Lucas.

Exhibitors had reason to be a little drooly about what Jackson might visually have in store with The Hobbit, and they weren’t the only ones.  LOTR fans, sci fi and fantasy geeks, cinema tech heads and movie hounds have all been sitting up, heads cocked, tongues out, their fingers flying around their keyboards as they’ve blogged away in a lathered frenzy of anticipation because Jackson has been shooting The Hobbit in a new 3-D digital format designed to make previous 3-D processes look like your grandpa’s GAF Viewmaster in comparison.  The new process shoots film at 48 frames per second – twice as fast as the since-anyone-can-remember standard of 24 – providing an unprecedented clarity of image.

From what Hornaday says, the new process did exactly what it was supposed to do…and, evidently and ironically, that may be the problem.

The images screened at CinemaCon were so clear, so vivid, they looked more like video than film.  And while that seems to have given Hobbit’s CGI-rendered critters a unique visual pop, it doesn’t seem to have done as well by the movie’s humans.  According to Variety’s Josh L. Dickey, “…human actors seemed overlit and amplified in a way that many compared to modern sports broadcasts…and daytime television.”

Hornaday also reports, however, that not everyone was put off by the Good Morning, America-ish results of the new process.  Let me quote from her story:

“But at least one film-lover in Vegas liked what he saw.  The Hobbit footage, wrote online film columnist Jeffrey Wells on his Web site, Hollywood Elsewhere, was ‘like watching super high-def video, or without that filtered, painterly, brushstroke-y, looking-through-a-window feeling that feature films have delivered since forever.’  The high frame rate, he continued, ‘removed the artistic scrim or membrane that separates the audience from the performers’.”

I thought Wells’ was a remarkable statement because I wouldn’t normally consider descriptives like “painterly,” “brushstroke-y,” and “artistic scrim” a bad thing.  It’s ironic I came across this story during the same week we’ve been discussing Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) and Blade Runner (1982) here at Sound on Sight.  “Painterly” – and correct me if I’m wrong – is what Scott usually tries for.

My take on Wells’ comment was it was a bit like saying that the 48 fps process had made a dream seem less, well, dreamy…and that that was a good thing.

But then the longer I thought about what he’d said, the more it made a kind of unhappy sense to me.

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Providing Mr. Wells isn’t just some contrarian who likes to stir the pot to get a good argument going, he may be onto a new, developing visual sensibility.

One reason movies have changed over the years is because the sensibility we bring to watching them has changed.  The movies – by and large – of the 1940s look substantially different from the movies of the 1960s and 1970s.  The standardized briskly-paced, master-medium-close-up formula of Old Hollywood gave way to a European-influenced languor in the 1960s – long shots, long takes (think Altman, Coppola, Kubrick) – alternating with an Eisensteinian delight in fracturing space and time (Peckinpah); a veering between dense, naturalistic dialogue (Scorsese and, again, Altman) and a dramatic, almost opaque minimalism (Boorman, Pakula).  Those were stylistic changes which worked for the young, cinema-attuned audiences of the time.

Come the 1980s, another change for another audience sensibility.  Films became faster – more edits, more beats – reflecting a sensibility first cultivated by cruising through the growing cable spectrum, then by videogaming, then by cruising the infinite variety of the Internet.

Jeffrey Wells may have tipped to yet another evolutionary phase in audience sensibility; something being shaped by the interplay of, principally, two media dynamics.

1.  Speed Freaks

Videogames, the Net, talking to each other in 140 characters bits on Twitter, texting during every waking moment because five minutes without some kind of stimulation is a form of mini-death have long had their impact on movie storytelling:  hyper-accelerated, action/effects-packed movies which may not make much sense because they don’t have to, populated with broad-stroked characters because that breakneck pace won’t allow for much more.   Think Michael Bay (I try not to).

2.  The (Un)Real World

The boom in reality programming since the Writer’s Guild strike of 1988, both on the broadcast networks and on cable, is cultivating a generation of audience growing attuned to the unsophisticated, unpolished, unapologetically raw quality of unscripted TV.

Each demographic cohort following the Baby Boomers has been watching less TV than the generation before, and, not coincidentally, spending more time on alternate, generally non-narrative media (online, videogaming, texting, tweeting, etc.).  When those younger generations do tune in to TV, they’re just as likely to head for cable’s more sensational unscripted offerings as for the broadcast nets.

It’s primarily a young audience fueling cable successes like MTV’s Teen Mom (the series’ 2009 premiere was MTV’s highest-rated launch in over a year) , Comedy Central’s Tosh.0 (which outdraws both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report), Bravo’s various The Real Housewives of Wherever, and MTV’s ratings monster, The Jersey Shore (drawing approximately nine million viewers at its peak putting it on par with a number of broadcast network hits and ahead of shows like Glee, House, and Law & Order:  SVU).

Throw that in with how much time young users spend on YouTube (which accounts for 43% of the online video market and is the third most visited website behind Google and Facebook) watching amateur video, and it’s not a hard stretch to conceive of a generation of video viewer for whom the badly-lit, badly-framed footage produced by non-professionals has become a new standard.

That might – and I emphasize might since this is nothing more than an instinctive guess – account for the popularity of “found footage” flicks like the Paranormal Activity series (three installments so far with a fourth due in October), Cloverfield (2008 with a sequel in the works), The Last Exorcism (2010), The Devil Inside, Chronicle, Project X (all 2012), and the flick given credit for kicking off the found footage craze, The Blair Witch Project (1999).

You mix those two ingredients together and you get an intriguing paradox:  an appetite for a more “honest” look, something devoid of the usual studio veneer and artifice, something visually pure and true…in service – at least in the case of The Hobbit – of a story that’s pure artifice.  It’s like saying, I want a fairy tale that looks like a hidden camera documentary.

Say what?

Why?

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If it turns out, in time, Wells is onto something, there’s no “why” to it; it’s an almost natural by-product of those two cultivating influences.  And, to be fair, there’s not a “good” or “bad” to it anymore than there was a good or bad to the change in how movies looked from the 1940s to the 1960s.  The eye learns to look anew at a new way of looking.

Wells may like the unvarnished quality of this new 3-D, but we’ve been through this kind of thing before:  the Mumblecore movement of the early 2000s, and before that, Lars von Trier and his Dogme 95 disciples, each looking for something more natural, more real, something honest.

Which it never really is, particularly – as is the case with a number of Mumblecore and Dogme 95 films – when it’s in service of stories which are, in their own, faux naturalistic way, as contrived and manipulated as an old-fashioned, high-gloss studio “meller.”  Dancer in the Dark (2000) isn’t any more life-like than Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds (2012).  It just does a better job of looking more life-like.

Being enthused about how Gandalf won’t look like a carefully-crafted, studio-polished, CGI-enhanced envisioning, but, instead, like somebody being quizzed by Matt Lauer isn’t something I can quite plug into.  There’s a part of me that, intellectually, gets what Wells is saying.  But there’s another part of me that keeps saying, “Dude, ya know the guy’s a wizard, right?”

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Every step forward usually requires leaving something behind, and if this is, indeed, the way the crowd is walking, I’m going to miss that painterly and – God forbid! – artistic look.

When I was a film student a few million years ago, I remember a discussion about comparing film to other forms.  Yeah, you sat in a theater and watched the action play out in the proscenium of the screen, but it wasn’t like theater.  Stories played out often like novels, but it couldn’t go interior the way novels could; nope, it wasn’t quite like a novel.

The closest we could approximate was a movie was like a dream.

Like dreams, movies range from the brutally real to the utterly fantastic, but always have their own, consistent (when done well) logic.  In the hands of a good director, a movie feels real although it’s intangible.  In fact, it’s that very intangibility – its unreal-ness – which fosters the illusion of reality.  Wells is right; there has always been a separation between the audience and the performance in movies, but it’s that inability by the audience to reach beyond that “artistic scrim” and disrupt the dream which keeps the dream intact and makes it real.

You stare at a painting, you get lost in the painting.  But then you stand too close, close enough to see the blots and brushstrokes, and the illusion dies.  Wells seems to think that’s a good thing…or believes it won’t kill the illusion.

Even at their most earnest, movies have only ever given a creative impression of reality.  The shadowy noirs of the 1950s were more emotionally honest than the glossy melodramas of the 1930s, but, in their own way, they were just as stylized; just as the milestone flicks of the 1960s were stylized in a different way, but with the same intention of reflecting something of the complexity and ambiguity of the real world.

The second a director – even a documentary director — decides what goes in the frame, that he grants a figure power with an up-angle, mystery by cloaking it in shadow, or fakes authenticity with a handheld camera, he – or she – has manipulated reality, and any talk of visual purity after that is pointless.  The magic of movies – just as with any magic trick – has been in convincing us that what couldn’t possibly be real is real.  Once we see it’s just a trick, it’s not magic anymore.

Bill Mesce

9 Comments
  1. Staindslaved says

    Having only hours ago witness The Hobbit in the 48 frames per second I immediately wanted to rush online and talk about it and I remembered this article from months back. Unfortunately the only option I had to see The Hobbit in was the higher frames rate WITH 3D. I would have rather watched it with the higher frame rate only so I could analyse my opinions on it but oh well. I can’t be 100% sure if the absence of 3D would make a difference but this higher frame rate is a freaking train wreck. I was astounded not only at how bad it looked but at how much of a difference it made. The higher rate makes the images clearer to the point where a few landscape shots or streams of water looked as though they were physically right there in front of me. The problem is that the higher frame rate makes the characters speed about on the screen and move unnaturally, even cartoonishly. I was absolutely stunned by this. I cannot understand why this idea didn’t die in production. It’s as big a problem as if the higher frame rate made everything red turn blue and vice verse. It should have been looked at and said “oh, well clearly we can’t use this it’s too much of a distraction”. I still stand by my original stance that new ideas need support and risks should be applauded but WOW this 48 frame thing is dead on arrival.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Well, you and I wouldn’t be you and I if we couldn’t put ourselves on opposite sides of an issue, right, my old compadre? Giving the technology the benefit of the doubt, let’s consider the possibility that this is simply an issue of early adaptation imperfections. The first colorized movies looked like crap, too, and the first motion captures left a lot to be desired as well. It’s possible things could get better in time. That said, why would you wager $200 million per pic on a technology that still has some significant bugs. What you reported jibes with what a lot of reviewers are saying. And then you have Jeffrey Wells stance which is that this look you find off-putting is, actually, a good thing for those very same off-putting reasons.

  2. Staindslaved says

    I’d like to preface this with saying that I full respect Bill Mesce and love reading his articles (I usually find myself posting replies on them more than anything else on Sound on Sight). That being said I’ve often noticed that he comes off a bit doom and gloomy in his articles, each new thing being a bit of a threat, or as Bill better put it changes are “at best, mixed blessings”.

    While I understand his concerns at the different tastes the younger generation has, especially towards entertainment/cinema I just can never agree with his cautious approach to it. I always think back to the speech at the end of ratatouille “the world is often unkind to new talent new creations, the new needs friends.” Cinema history is full of new approaches and new ideals that were bombarded at first. Spaghetti Westerns were passed off as violent, gory junk. Now The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is one of the consensus greatest films of the western genre. The same can be said about martial arts films, giallo films, science fiction, fantasy films, exploitation films and many many others. Change isn’t always good and like Bill said before, in one of our other back and forth posts, it is often a mixed blessing. Blockbuster films have expanded our imaginations and the reach of our creative abilities, but they’ve also made it so that Transformers and Twilight films explode at the box-office and films like The Artists, Hugo, The Tree of Life and The Descendants are restricted to modest profits/successes. Not all new ideas are good ones, smell-o-vision has never taken off and the weird China-Doll like animated features that motion capture brings us has yet to deliver a solid justification of its existence. All that being said “the new” does indeed need friends. I don’t know how this 48 frames per second will look, I don’t know what my opinions of it will be but I do know that I am excited to see it. Not because I love The Lord of the Rings (I do) but because it is something new, something different and I applaud Peter Jackson for trying to expand what can be done in film, even if it ultimately proves unnecessary, unrealistic or simply a situation where a great leap forward isn’t.

    Lots of love Bill, I’m sure you’ll reply and I can’t wait to read what you say.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Ah, so we meet again my old friend!
      Actually, it’s funny you mention my penchant for “doom and gloom.” The same thing has occurred to me, and I’ve often commented in my pieces that I worry I’m coming off as a curmudgeon. I think there was even one piece where I said we all have a tendency to have our tastes shaped by what we grow up with and it becomes very hard to extend our sensiblity past that imprinting.
      Which is a fancy way of me saying you’re probably right. Not by way of defense (because, as I say, you’re probably right) but explanation, I try to look at things in a long-term context (not because I’m particularly insightful or even bright, but simply because I’m old), and I also try to temper my own crabby opinions (or support them as the case may be) with numbers and/or at least consensus opinions.
      I don’t think anyone can deny that technological advances have finally gotten movies to the point Kubrick once bragged on (but couldn’t fulfill) that if it could be imagined, it could be filmed. But I also believe the numbers show that the box office, over the last 30 years or so, has come to be dominated (not exclusively but predominantly) by as narrow a range of movies as at any time in the industry’s history.
      Trying to balance my natural reticence with historical perspective, technological advance in movies has never been a guarantor that movies were going to be better: just shinier. Wide screen, stereo sound, color, 3-D (as well as gimmicks like, as you said, Smell-O-Vision, Emergovision, etc.) made movies more impressive. But there are still people out there making movies on a shoestring turning out more inspiring work than people working with $200 million budgets (I would even argue that some of those small flicks are even more fun).
      Me personally, I actually hadn’t thought much about digital v. film until I saw this article. Looking at Hollywood’s tech history, I have no problem seeing these kinds of shortcomings getting ironed out (hey, in the early days of color, they had to spraypaint trees green to get them to photograph as a proper green).
      What caught my eye in this was Wells’ unabashed embrace of something that didn’t — in the eyes of the other attendees — look good. He was GLAD it didn’t look good! To him, that was it’s strength, and to me, that ran contrary to what filmmakers have been trying to do for over a century.
      As I wrote, if there’s anything to this view, it’s not neccesarily good or bad, but maybe just the next thing. Yesterday’s Hudson River school of painting becomes next year’s motel art — I get that. Intellectually, I can understand it. Trying to get your gut to follow your intellect, though, is a bit hard sometimes.
      Look, amigo, any time you hear m pulling that bit where I put my foot up on a chair, whip off my glasses and start up with, “Ya know, kid, back in my day…,” you feel free to give me a nudge in the ribs and whisper, “Grandpa, you’re doing it again.”
      Thanks, as always, for the comment.

      1. Staindslaved says

        Hahaha, challenge accepted.

  3. The Movie Waffler says

    Despite the hype, I’ve yet to see digital that looks anywhere as good as film.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      I’m with you, Waffler, but the thing about this guy Jeffrey Wells is, in his eyes, that’s what he likes about digital.

  4. Marcus says

    Brilliant article and completely agree with everything said. I’ve often tried to articulate to myself why we can still feel invested in films which are astoundingly unrealistic – the description of the ‘dream’ and the ‘painting’ are totally apt in explaining this.

    1. Bill Mesce says

      Thank you, Marcus, but credit where credit is due: any perception I have I owe to Dr. Bernie Dunlap, the guy who first opened my eyes to the anatomy of film, and who is now president of Swofford College. Thanks, Bernie!

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