Cinema and Special Effects Seen From a Non- Dual Based Approach to Communication

Paolo Teobaldelli

Part II. Theorising Cinema through an integrated theory of Communication. [A continuation of Teobaldelli's previous article appearing in Issue No 5.]

I will now make a brief attempt at individualising the main aspect of the filmic construction of physeos.

The main aspect of the production of filmic text is its direct use of reality in constructing the interactional textual world. We could say in fact that filmic texts are physeos constructed through direct semiotic (filmic) tranformations (recordings) of real matter (i.e. human beings, the natural world, artificial objects), i.e. what is commonly called the profilmic event. In the case of cinema (but not exclusively so) the textualiser, before the filmic recording, constructs a written verbal text as a first outline of the future filmic physeos, a verbal physeos (the script) that will guide the preparation and organisation of the filmic recording. The pro-filmic event is an extra-daily use of natural media in order to construct a concrete context for the future interactional textual world. Such pro-filmic events are then recorded on film (which can be of different materials and sizes which have an influence on the final physeos being its final physical matter).

After having recorded the various pro-filmic events and having worked on the film, by adding colours, special effects and by giving it a connectedness (with the montage) we have the filmic textual whole. As this textual whole will be the pole of a communicative context (in the textual polarised communication), the fruitor will re-activate, thanks to the connectedness, its filmic interactional textual world dependent on both semiotic textualising (the specific semiotical intentionality and connective ratio) and the pro-filmic event.

AS/SA nº 14, p.15

For example: a science fiction of the 30's will resemble one of the 90's more in its semiotic textual aspect than in the matter used since there are two variables to the matter: the state of science imagined (depending on the real state of science of that time) and the objects used in the construction of the profilmic event (clothes, furniture, lights, sounds etc.). Yet the semiotic textualising can also be rather different, inasmuch as the technique of the special effects is changed, but also because their use is subjected to change along with the development of semiotic filmic textualising over time.

From the First Tricks Towards Special Effects (From Craft to Industry)

The pioneer cinema in the last years of the 19th century was indeed a special effect per se. The filmic moving image presented itself as a new kind of spectacle: people, trains, horses moving on the screen shocked the first spectators as a perception of a dynamic misterious world, a magic trick. Yet, after some years the spectators were accustomed to think about what seen on the screen as a picturing or copy of reality.

As the great fictional power of the new medium became apparent and audience familiarity grew, the capability of the filmic to give a shape to strange and magical worlds wholly different from the everyday one came to the fore. It needed only some tricks in recording the profilmic event and in connecting the single to produce fabulous events on the screen. People running backwards, people dissolving or appearing as spirits, people flying, cars running at terrific speed, and so on, the world of phantasy for the first time acquired the aspect of reality.

If we analyse the first filmic worlds constructed with the use of tricks, we notice two main tendencies:

— The realistic tendency. This was the major tendency, i.e. to render those filmic strange worlds as realistically as possible. George Méliè?s' A Trip to the Moon (1902), was considered, for example, as a documentary, showing a real voyage to the moon. The more realistic the film, the more people were attracted to see it.

— The expressive tendency. This was a minor tendency, but still present in the history of cinema, i.e. to work with moving images to give shape to a fictional expressive reality as something more toward the artistic than the real. The film Humorous Phases of Funny Faces by James Stuart Blackton (1906), is an example of this tendency.

AS/SA nº 14, p.16

These two tendencies are not to be seen as sharply separated, since they were both present in different degrees. The common basis lies in the common intention to convey emotion to the spectators through the use of expressive effects.

In this sense we can argue that the realistic tendency is also an expressive tendency, its purpose being to express as well as possible a fictional world with the forms of reality. For example the Nosferatu by Murnau (1921): the speed of the vampire's horses is not only a speed per se but it is to be seen in the wider context of the scenario, as contributing to the expression of the terrific power of evil. The expressive tendency had also at times the general purpose of expressing real feelings, emotions, atmospheres with the help of more obviously fictional worlds. For example the use of painted scenarios in the Das Kabinett des Doktors Caligaris, by Wiene (1919) aimed to express the alienation and solitude that the individual can experience in a more mundane social context. This latter case is certainly a special one, inasmuch as the special effects were painted theatrical sets, suggesting that what is special about the effect is simply a device that helps in the process of giving shape to a particular extra-daily world. A preliminary definition of special effects might then be those techniques used in the construction of an extra-daily filmic world. The first pioneer cinema called this device the trick. The different camera, lighting, profilmic and editing tricks shared the common purpose of building a special filmic world .

Thus, the filmic construction, as well as any semiotic construction, is an augmented reality. Indeed special effects might be considered to include all that is useful in the building of filmic worlds, all that is more than a mere recording of what we have in front of the camera. However from a certain time onward the tricks became special effects in the sense of something special as opposed to familiar, 'normal' reality; so that the subject of realism is the basic key to understand the use of special effects and their functions.

As Griffith writes, after the second world war and the birth of television, the American cinema turned towards a wider use of special effects and tricks, trying in this way to maintain audience figures. In addition, from 1948, due to the growing fear of communism (and also of MacCarthy), few producers tried to produce films dealing with the reality of the social everyday life beyond picturing its surface. Only love affairs, family stories or historical events remained as subject matter. So, the cinema turned its eye away from the daily life toward a heightened reality, the spectacular one, a tenency which may also have been influenced by the secret role of the military in Hollywood production. The realistic tended to dominate over the expressive in special effects, requiring from us an analysis of the ideology of reality.

AS/SA nº 14, p.17

Realism and the Ideology of Reality

As soon as the western thinking goes far from the dogmatic catholic view of the world through empiricism and Kantianism, it approaches in the XIX century a new powerful domain, that of reality. The schemata of tradition in the arts and of rationalism in philosophy are strongly criticised in the name of what is real, which becomes the goal both of artistic and of scientific production. The attention to reality becomes then a unique tendency which traversing all human activities. Yet the term 'reality' hides an ideology based upon the conception of a direct, pure perception of a physical objectivable world, the ideology of fact. That this ideological faith in facts was not universally shared is however clear from the history of photography, the division between daguerreotypists and consisted not only in an opposition between two different photographic techniques but also between two different conception of photography, the former directed towards the scientist anxious to capture the essence of reality, the latter directed towards an inquiry of human dimensions, a lively reality.

Realism in the arts since the 18th century onwards has then two senses:

— Realism as an historical tendency of arts in realistic picturing.

— Realism as a breaking point of an old and consumed artistic tradition devoted to the service of an ancient and decaying power. This realism aims to break the false images of ideology (by modifying either its forms or its entire matter).

In the latter tendency we find the explosion during the 19th century of a powerful and complex artistic matter that has rarely been explored, taking its richness from the present, the here-and-now that reaches its own being-there by being framed in the perspective of historical being, that fixes the perceptual continuum of consciousness in a living and dynamic artificial whole able to better the decay of the old. This dynamism, exalted as a new metaphysical world by Husserlian phenomenology, is in reality a process of concrete-connecting, formative acts, which elaborate their own world without pause as they modify and transform it.

Yet this new matter had to face an invasion of the realistic picturing tendency supported and modified through the strong integration of science into imaging technologies and ideologies. The realistic tendency was far from its origins in the reign of natural perception of the natural world. This process of distantiation has passed through the increase of exploratory tools created by science, which allow us to go beyond the limits of perception, to enrich or to distort them. This going beyond perception, assigned to a presumed methodology of inquiry into reality provided a view of the world broadcast as truth, a method identical with the real world. But there is no tertium able to certify that to be truth. Yet, as we know from history, to be maintained, power relies on trust, on blind belief in its ideology as much as on opporession. Thus the new technologically-mediated world assumes the aspect of the ideological world of power. The technological dominance is so great that humanity itself assumes the aspect of a mixture of natural and technical (cyber) matter, and the world of fictional cinema therefore became a multidimensional world, abandoning in the process the 3D world of natural perception. Yet such a multidimensional world is not itself human, but an ideological portrait of humans. It is in this context that we now approach the problems and challenges of digital media.

AS/SA nº 14, p.18

Water: Two Faces of Reality

Although the last ten years have witnessed some outstanding examples of the expressive tendency in digital effects (Antonioni for example in his Profession Reporter worked on the colours of the desert in order to attain his very precise intention), my aim is to confront two films which have used digital techniques for a common realistic purpose, to re-present water. The two films I will analyse are: Waterworld, (Kevin Reynolds, USA, 1995) and El Viaje (Fernando E. Solanas, Argentina, 1992). The first has a noble plot: in a world where water is ubiquitous, a hero, half human half mutant, tries to escape with a young woman and her daughter to a semi-mythical 'Dryland'. Most of the film's water is real. However the story of how the digital water has been conceived highlights the contemporary use of special effects. The digital effects were used mostly for the final sequences, a spectacular battle in the corridors and decks of a rotting ship. The special effects of water used came in part from the physical knowledge of water of Jerry Tessendorf, Erik Krumrey and David Wasson of the society Aret. Who worked on the problem of the realistic appearance of water. As scientists they tried to render their water as realistically as possible. Using digital motion control, they reproduced the action scenes before attempting to create realistic water for that context. Yet the technicians of Areté had problems in understanding the artistic expressive needs of the creative staff of Cinesite. If we look at their account of this problem, we realise that the director of the film, Kevin Reynolds, has taken some reference footage and wanted all the other footage to look the same. He searched, we might say, for a unity in the fictional matter he had to process. He didn't care too much for realism in the representation of water, preferring to give his attention to the degree of expressivity in the text he was building. The technicians undertook to modify some of the code used in generating the water effects in order better to meet the requirements of the director, although they always took care of the realistic features of water. The film was promoted as a masterpiece of digital effects, but was a notable box-office failure, perhaps because the idea of special effects looking like common water was less than appealing. What this anecdote does reveal, however, is the tension and the possibility for compromise between scientific realism and the expressive tendency.

A more interesting use can be found in the digital effect of water used in El Viaje by Fernando Solanas. The water of Solanas's movie is not a simple sign standing for something else. It is rather an objectual element of the particular world created by Solanas, a Latin America seen through eyes full of love and passion for its people and earth, but also critical eyes full of disgust for the enormity of its injustice and oppression. The water is a strange element that Solanas inserted in the world of his movie, symbolising the expansion of oppression within Latin America. He assigns to a Chilean barquero the task of describing it. He says that this water is the result of the high tide in Chile of 1973, a clear reference to the junta organised by Pinochet with the help of USA intelligence. He says he escaped from that tide, but it has assumed enormous proportions and he is still rowing away. The water is not just a metaphysical symbol, it is rather the physical concrete matter circumscribing people, their everyday life, their desires for a better world, and such a water has a disgusting feature, more expressive than realistic. The element of water in Solanas' movie is then a powerful semiotic object able to play a determining aesthetic role during the plot. He binds for example with the words of a song a young artist plays breaking the silence of the solitude and fear of the oppression:

"Floto in Argentina,

entre mierda y urina"

(I swim in Argentina,

between shit and piss)

The effect of anxiety and uncertainty that the water is able to evoke is one of the best components of the film, and is able to interact semiotically with the entire plot giving as result a not only a powerful experience of new cinema but an outstanding example for stimulating the cinema towards expression with the help of digital techniques.

AS/SA nº 14, p.19


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