Recent developments in digital imaging for motion pictures have resulted in some fundamental, seed changes, in two areas of approach to film making, which I shall explore in this essay. These changes, being fundamental in nature, affect both how film directors approach their work and what determines the end result. First Fundamental Change: Artistic Reference. – The directors we often look at as the great directors of a generation, such as Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Ridley Scott, all look to Cinema as their creative points of reference and inspiration when approaching their work. Martin Scorsese is like a walking encyclopedia of cinema history, and can often reference almost any picture from the Golden Age of American Cinema from the 1930’s to 1950’s. Francis Ford Coppola is also very much a great student of film history. All these directors are on record often siting movies they saw that were made in the Hollywood Studio System, which had great impact on them artistically.
There now is another group of contemporary directors, who approach their work from an entirely different artistic reference altogether. These directors, such as, Christopher Nolan, James Wan, Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, and The Wachowski Brothers, look to 40 years of Television & Comics as their artistic frames of reference. Television is a fundamentally different medium, with an antithesis to cinema in many aspects. Initially, when television was introduced, it took its lead from commercial radio broadcasting in the 1920’s and 30’s. Another area where television differed from Cinema, was in its constant use of close ups due to long and wide angle shots being useless on such a small sized TV screen relative to the average size of Cinema screens being 40 feet and larger.
TV now has greatly influenced Cinema to a point where the two mediums have morphed together into a new hybrid form of entertainment, which is neither purely cinematic, or wholly electronic.
The Second Fundamental Change: Mis en Scene vs Painterly Medium – Another area of fundamental change in movie story telling is coming from the way many film directors are working with actors and setting up scenes. Nowadays, it is quite regular to hear questions like, ” What color do you want the sky ?” from the Director of Photography. Let us consider the implications of this question for a moment. Is the director visualizing the scene and setting it up based on adding multiple layers of digitally composed visuals to complete it in post, or is the director placing the actors and various other elements within the camera frame to make the scene they are looking at shooting in front of them ? These points represent two fundamentally different ways of approaching story telling within a commercial feature film.
* It is interesting to note film director Christopher Nolan is using large format 65 mm based motion picture cameras to place his stories under the largest possible proscenium arch, yet he approaches his craft from very a different artistic reference. It is also noteworthy to point out director Christopher Nolan is committed to using 35 mm and 65 mm motion picture film formats only as his chosen medium for story telling – even though he knows his movies will most likely be projected digitally in the grand majority of cinemas around the world. (IMAX Theatres being one possible exception, where actual 15 perf 70 mm prints will be projected for some sequences in the movie). Increasingly, Hollywood feature film productions may also use both digital and 35 mm motion picture film negative for original image acquisition. In one sense, we have entered an era of Hybrid film making, where major commercial productions are created in a painterly – like way. In many feature films being shot today very little of the action is filmed live in front of the camera. If you will, there simply is no Mis en Scene ! Actors are wearing dotted outfits and digitally recorded against giant green screens, while the scene, even the actor’s faces and costumes are painted in later in post production. In such types of productions the director is not setting up a scene based on what is in front of the camera, so much as they are for what is not yet there. The majority of the missing visuals are literally digitally painted in later at the visual effects company by a digital animator-compositor, who’s sitting at a workstation in a room full of 30 or more other digital animators and compositors.
So where does this leave the industry today ? Can film makers who are interested in making mainly story driven pictures with actors interacting with each other on live sets and locations in front of the camera still get their pictures made at a Hollywood studio ? These are relevant questions worth pondering, since the implications for film financing, technical resources, and artistic approach is enormous ! Who really is directing the new painterly – like feature films ? Who is in charge ? Is it the director ? The Producer (The Studio) ? The Visual Effects Company ? All three ? I have to wonder if there still is what we used to refer to in feature film making as the single vision of the director, or is the whole idea of the auteur director simply become an obsolete concept ? To be honest, I used to laugh when I heard of directors like Spielberg and Scorsese being reluctant to edit a picture on computer, or work on projects which were heavy laden in expensive visual effects, but as I move along in my career, and begin to direct more productions I can now understand their concerns over keeping everything under a single vision. The impact on performing talent, where a director must coax an essential performance out of an actor who has no one, or no other thing in the scene to play off of, must not easily facilitate good acting for camera ?
This ? There certainly are big differences to consider. There are movies driven by story, which can easily be told using the artful applications of tried and true artistic disciplines of mis en scene,
while there are other stories which cannot really be portrayed effectively on the screen without using visual effects. I’ve noticed that many Academy Award wining directors are those who employ a unique and persistent single vision over the story telling and performances in their movies, while many heavy laden effects blockbusters will win Academy Awards only for their visual effects and not for their directors or for best picture. – MJ