by Aaron Port
Widely discussed is changing state of cinema with the rise of digital imaging technology and the decline of analog film, in addition to the development of digital distribution platforms. Despite these revolutionary transitions in technology, commercial narrative cinema still largely operates on the cinematic form inherited from analog film and its technological limitations and refrains from exploring the unique creative potential afforded by the digital video medium; one strong example of this similarity can be seen with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) in relation to Star Wars (1977).
“Digital cinema” is difficult to quantify, as it refers to a collection of technologies including digital image capture, computer synthesis, computer post-production, and digital distribution (Rodowick, 94). These technologies contrast with counterpart analog film technologies that are generally falling out of industry favor, although digital cinema has directly borrowed visual aesthetics from film. Recent advancements of the digital image technology have achieved greater automation, resolution, color depth, and dynamic range in the pursuit of “photographic realism.” While this benchmark is arbitrary and largely culturally conditioned, the “realism” of analog film has been largely unchanged (Rodowick, 99). Thus developments in digital video and effects technology to advance “photographic realism” to better fulfill the aesthetic needs of cinema, and image quality of the digital image is thus gauged against that of film stock due to the subjective cultural value of film.
Although digital cinema can be seen as a formal continuation of analog cinema, the fundamentals behind digital cinema technology are far from new. It is a direct descendent of electronic video technologies dating back to the early days of television, and as such, is a technological continuation of digital video. This is important because, as Roy Armes states, video is a unique medium with specific historical context and aesthetics (Armes, 9). This should not be disregarded in contextualizing modern digital cinema, as film and digital video are two distinct mediums despite their apparent similarities. At their core, digital is an electronic and film is physical.
Film requires considerably more conscientious involvement to work with than video, and its form has historically reflected this. Film takes time, expertise, and money to load, remove, and develop. The mechanical limitations of the physical medium has also historically lead to in large camera sizes, which also resulted in the need for sturdy, cumbersome, and expensive equipment on which to place the camera. Post-production in film also requires more expertise, precision, and time than video post-production. All of these factors reduce the capacity for immediacy of analog film. Resultantly, commercial narrative film has developed an aesthetic of constructed stability and continuity.
According to Armes, video has the qualities unique unto itself and not shared with film. These can be summarized as immediacy and contrivance. Its immediacy is a product of its technology: the low cost of recording, the ease of instant replay and post-production, small camera size, synchronized sound capture, and the common use of the zoom lens. Similarly, its contrivance is a product of the potential for image manipulation with digital technology. The confluence of these two factors lends video to being a more “personal” medium than film, as the entire process can be within the realm of control of one individual, while the use of analog film technology inherently requires multiple individuals working simultaneously (Armes, 187).
Another pair of historical qualities unique to video is intended screen size and mode of address. While analog film is a medium almost ubiquitously created for large-screen projection to an audience, video has historically been used for small home television screens. Due to this and the nature of the distributed content, the visual system in use by commercial film has generally denied the camera’s role in capturing the action, while television has a well-established history of acknowledging the camera’s role (Armes, 193). Commercial cinema typically addresses the audience indirectly while television addresses the audience both directly and indirectly.
This difference in modes of address results in different viewing contexts for the audience between film and video. Cinema is based on a theatrical mode of presentation, typically emphasizing subjectivity and relationships between characters. In this viewing context, a paying audience member sits in comfort to individually experience a privileged view of the action with undivided attention. Television, on the other hand, is viewed in the home, and thus more often experienced socially or distracted. Thus, film and television have historically had entirely different viewing contexts: cinema pulls audience members out of their immediate situations while television accompanies them in their situations (Armes 193-143). This leaves digital cinema in a unique place, especially with the increase of distribution through Internet streaming. Feature films are increasingly being viewed at home on small screens. Thus, not only has the distinction in production and distribution technologies film and video blurred, but the distinction between viewing contexts has as well.
Despite the amount of overlap between digital cinema and video in technology and in viewing context, digital cinema utilizes few of the unique qualities of video, instead relying on aesthetics historically associated with cinema and analog film. Indeed, D.N. Rodowick argues that “today most so-called new media are inevitably imagined from a cinematic metaphor” but “this also means that it is difficult to envision what kinds of aesthetic experiences computational processes will innovate once they have unleashed themselves from the cinematic metaphor and begin to explore their autonomous creative powers.” (Rodowick, 98).
This can be witnessed in the similarities between Star Wars and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in terms of visual structure and modes of address. These are particularly relevant choices to discuss commercial narrative cinema due to similarities in their business context and their use of film technology. Both of these films were very popular with audiences: Rogue One was the second-highest grossing film of 2016, and its 1977 predecessor was the highest-grossing film of its year (Box Office Mojo). Rogue One, as a spin-off of sorts, draws obvious influence in form from the original, and is also characteristic of the larger commercial film market’s increase in use of existing intellectual property. Also like Star Wars, Rogue One was pioneering in its of cinematic visual effects. Despite these similarities and similarities of production, theme, and story structure, these two works of cinema in the same franchise used two different mediums: Star Wars on analog film and Rogue One on digital (Miller).
Compare a scene from Star Wars: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGp_5gOww0E) with a similar scene from Rogue One: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C4qw0T8O3eI). Both are typical scenes from their respective films, and they are extremely similar apart from the specific action, dialogue, characters, lighting, editing, and tone. The similarities include locked-off camera with added shake; special-effect exterior shots; a combination of wide, medium, and close-up shots; non-diegetic orchestral score, and dramatic, indirect modes of address to the audience. Overall, these scenes function very similarly in their respective narratives, and despite their differences, conform to similar cinematic rules despite thirty-nine years between the films’ releases.
However, very different technologies were used to achieve these similar scenes. Most obvious is that Star Wars was shot and distributed on film and Rogue One on digital. However, both were shot rather conventionally, with clearly constructed sets and artificial lighting. In essence, despite Rogue One being shot digitally, its style rejects immediacy uniquely afforded to video capture, instead opting for the cinematic aesthetic. More interestingly, however, are the effects: practical effects were constructed on set and shot on film, then composited for the scene in Star Wars. In Rogue One, digital effects were used. Despite the creative potential possible with digital effects, both strategies achieved the same goal: the effects fit within the “world” of the story and are diegetic. That is to say, they are portrayed as “real” to the characters and thus to the audience through indirect address. In fact, one of the characters in the scene (the droid, K-2SO) is created entirely by digital effects but is treated as any other character in the story of the film. Thus, despite differences in technology and thus creative potential within technology, both films conform the “cinematic” aesthetic and mode of address.
In essence, digital technology in Rogue One afforded the filmmakers an incredible contrivance unique to video – the ability to digitally construct entire settings and characters – but only in diegetic, “realistic” circumstances. That is to say, contrivance is only used in circumstances that do not draw attention to the contrivance. This can be witnessed in countless other contemporary commercial films. Rogue One, perhaps infamously, takes this a step further in its recreation of the likeness of deceased actor Peter Cushing from Star Wars (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtY3bsHVSTw) through digital effects (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_NFh6NSRNIU).
Compare this execution to the effects used in the music video Money for Nothing by the Dire Straits: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAD6Obi7Cag). Released in 1985 during the explosion of the music video format, the video featured effects that make no attempt to fit within the world captured in the live-action footage. Instead, they intentionally draw attention to themselves. This is, in a sense, a direct mode of address to the audience. The contrivances afforded by digital video technology are, in a sense, acknowledged as such and the video celebrates it. As Armes asserts, the pop video needs not conform to the cinematic aesthetic and can embrace its contrivance (Armes, 157-158). Of course, some films explore direct modes of address through effects (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oJFcr42adA) or through dialogue directly addressing the audience (Deadpool – example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QfPsRh8G0vA), but these are used only in circumstances that uniquely serve the story and are not part of common commercial film grammar.
“Digital cinema”, despite using the technological toolset inherited by video, is still envisioned, produced, and largely categorized in the context of “cinema,” which historically has been ontologically defined by its use of analog media. Digital cinema blurs this ontological distinction between film and video, as seen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. However, video is not only a collection of technologies – it is a creative medium in its own right with unique qualities not shared by film such as immediacy and contrivance. Thus, because digital cinema largely draws upon cinematic language, a unique untapped creative potential exists that is not being explored commercially in contemporary digital cinema.
Armes, Roy. “On Video.” Routledge, Chapman, & Hall, 1988.
Box Office Mojo. “1977 Domestic Grosses.” Box Office Mojo. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.
Box Office Mojo. “2016 Domestic Grosses.” Box Office Mojo. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.
Miller, Neil. “The Amazing Camera Technology Behind The Look of Rogue One.” Film School Rejects, 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 07 Mar. 2017.
Rodowick, D.N. “The Virtual Life of Film.” Harvard University Press, 2007.