Sometimes it goes like this…

Hunter Cordaiy

Kate Atkinson & Brendan Cowell, Fat Cow Motel

Kate Atkinson & Brendan Cowell, Fat Cow Motel

Digital technologies and new forms of media delivery are dramatically changing the nature of documentary production, form and distribution. The audience can be a correspondent or a participant, not only a viewer. Digidocs

It eats technology

The cinema is a great cultural survivor. Whenever a technological threat has appeared which might diminish the grip movies have on the consciousness and hip pockets of their audience, the industry has taken advantage and turned into a parody of its own flesh-eating monsters, absorbed the new technology, gaining enrichment in presentation, audience attraction and ultimately, a new lease of commercial life.

This has happened because cinema has a fetish for gadgets and processes. Its history is littered with examples, some more successful than others, of using new technologies to create greater appeal.

The history of these special effects starts in 1902 with George Méliès’ A Trip To The Moon. His films created the legacy of the marvellous or fantastical which cinema has never relinquished. There is arguably a direct history from Méliès to the digital artists of the current cinema, both in the look of the image and its effect on the structure of narrative. The science fiction genre was born with Méliès, but the impact of digital technology goes far beyond the depiction of the scientifically wondrous. It is now, as films like Mullholland Drive, Timecode, Memento and others attest, a presence in all genres of storytelling and film forms.

After an initial panic, the cinema also successfully made a series of accommodations in response to its biggest threat, television. This has meant film and TV companies have absorbed each others archives, turned TV shows into movies and the reverse. The novelty of open-air screenings continues to be popular around the world despite being the antitheses of the passive darkened room. Even the width of film stock has expanded and shrunk in response to the handiness of the technology which uses it. No matter what size the camera, the process of constructing stories and recreating projected realities has continued unabated.

The digital is yet another cross-roads for the film industry. This time, some say, the issues are truly different because there has never been anything as fundamentally ‘new.’

Broadly speaking, there are 3 schools of thought on this: one is that digital technology is primarily an enhancer of effects, a tool which offers heightened presentation; the second says that digital is another dimension altogether where not only the look but the very structure of story and audience/subject relationship is fundamentally changed; the third is what might be called a whole-of-industry approach, embracing both the look and the structure of film.

Digital is now the norm across all media. Everything is on-line or else it appears to belong to yesterday. Increasingly, television shows and many films have a website, a chat room and on-line products for sale. This is being extended to include additional story involvement, as in the multiplatform TV series Fat Cow Motel (RT 50), formally launched this week by the Queensland Minister for the Arts, Matt Foley.

The look of it

For the general audience the impact of digital technology is in the effects— bigger, cleverer and ever-present. Two examples define the early boundaries. Remember the look of the screen in Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) when he experimented with the digital density of the image. The film had layers of beautiful, elegant images which were more like lithographs than moving screens, whose purpose was to elaborate rather than drive a story forward. Greenaway is a director who believes in the centrality of the image and has no interest in cinema’s link to classical literary narrative.

In the same year, writer/director James Cameron in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) used digital effects to enhance story, permitting concepts such as the resurrection of a character from shattered pieces of chrome, a digital character who never dies because the bytes are smoothly re-arranged in the way cartoon characters emerge unscathed from explosions.

It is clear that the magic or spectacle of cinema will be further dramatically enhanced by digital technology. Ironically, this may bring about a return to the origins of cinema, to the place where the wonder is there for all to experience. This is an important issue for all those who make and critique films. The audience no longer runs from the theatre when the train comes into the station. We have seen so much that so much more needs to be on the screen to get us to react with anything like the innocence of early film audiences.

This does not apply to today’s children, however, who now encounter the digital experience literally pre-birth. It is not something they have to learn, or use as a replacement for an older analogue way of thinking. This will fundamentally affect the development of their imaginations and their creative acceptance of the image experience on a variety of screens. Digital says films today should be effects perfect, like Lord of the Rings or Babe. Children now watch Walking With Dinosaurs (2000) on TV (a program which is generations better that Jurassic Park (1993) in terms of the quality of its effects). The ‘spectacle’ of Spielberg has become ‘infotainment’ on the small screen for all ages, and the voice-over gives the program an added educational authority which no parent can refuse. It is likely that applications like this explaining the complexities of science or ecology for example, will be as important for the digital presence as its use in classical storytelling on the big screen.

Download it now

There are assumptions in the digital sector which have to do with the fetish of the new. Our equipment, and therefore the depth of our experience, is either cutting edge or out of date. You have Flash to access an on-line program or not. If not, then the viewer has a sense of being disenfranchised. The new dimensions of wealth and poverty in the digital age are very much about access to technology and the information which flows from it. Ideas now seem to be contained within the digital flow. It’s not human thought but electricity which is the platform.

This will change with some speed. Whilst it seems an absurdly wasteful use of technology to buy a bottle of Coca Cola with a mobile phone, the recent inclusion of digital camera capacity in mobile phones which can then email images directly is ground-breaking.

Convergence automatically creates access which would otherwise be difficult or expensive to acquire. This will dramatically affect the capacity of program makers and storytellers to be viable in the new age. Development and production funding, along with the financial edifices which have grown up around them, will be competing soon with more practical needs like equipment acquisition and training.

Digital technology has also had a profound effect on the sequence of production. What has been established as a set of roles for 100 years is now reversed. Editors are now involved in pre-production and designers in post-production, cinematographers too. This has forced a new flexibility onto the process of producing films which will change the way creativity connects to narrative structure and presentation.

How big is my story?

Stories have always been the engines of spectacle and the basic rule of story construction since the origins of narrative cinema has been containment and simplicity. However, the potential branches of film stories have usually been denied in favour of a focussed narrative of no more than 2 lines, ie a major thread plus a sub-plot.

This structure has dominated cinema largely because the audience was passive, receiving the text in a darkened room. The situation of cinema determined that essential relationship. For a director like Hitchcock this meant he could give the audience information (by showing who is hiding behind the door with a knife), send the character to their inevitable death and leave the impotent audience whispering, “Watch out, Watch out!” to an unresponsive screen.

The interactive possibilities of digital technology suggest other relationships between story and audience, removing the sense of being informed yet powerless. Dave Sag of Virtual Artists suggests ‘yellavision’ where the audience alters the fate of a character by shouting at the screen. Writers in particular need to consider what this might mean for their carefully constructed storylines.

One such opportunity will soon be provided by the Digital Media Fund of the South Australian Film Corporation (www.safilm.com.au) who are proposing a digital think tank next year—a week’s retreat where change and chance (multiplatform and interactivity) can be explored. This is a welcome opportunity especially for writers who rarely travel the whole length of a production as true collaborators. If that bridge is crossed then “Once upon a time” might translate into “Sometimes it goes like this…”

For SAFC, allowing filmmakers to join forces with professionals working in digital media in the hothouse of a creative retreat, builds on the accords already negotiated with ABC On-line and SBS New Media which are intended to produce a range of projects including animation, on-line documentaries (see, for example, A Year on the Wing, on-line documentary, www.abc.net.au/wing) and short fiction. It is not certain, however, if these projects will be for the large screen or smaller ones such as TV or computer where they will be competing for audience attention with interactive game shows and T-commerce facilities. Nevertheless, these initiatives suggest all kinds of interesting possibilities.

Meanwhile, AFTRS (Australian Film Television & Radio School) is developing digital technologies specifically as tools for special effects in films. Exploring the plasticity of the image through digital effects is part of the drive behind the best experimental short films, where the compression of time and image makes the wondrous especially effective. Physical TV’s ATOM award-winning short dance film, No Surrender is a good example (www.artmedia.com.au/ physical_tv.htm). Director Richard Allen calls it “a digital age story” where the camera (cinematographer Andrew Commis, editor Karen Pearlman) is a malevolent presence on screen, forcing the audience to question the intention of the technology used to construct the narrative. This too is a form of interactivity, but more subtle and ultimately intelligent. No Surrender points the way to the possibilities that abound when collaboration occurs across forms and new technologies are integrated into the totality of the vision.

Opening quotation from Cutting Truths: Convergence, Interactivity & the future of documentary. Digidocs, www.reangle.com.au/digidocs

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 28

© Hunter Cordaiy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2002