Digital Faith: Visual Effects and Religion in ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ‘Life of Pi,’ and ‘Prometheus’

Equipped with ever-improving technology and visual effects, filmmakers have often used new tools to turn back time. As Svetlana Boym notes in The Future of Nostalgia, filmmakers used developments in computer-generated imagery to recreate the past: the titular sinker in Titanic, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the Colosseum in Gladiator. Faced by a perceived acceleration of time in the age of modernity, progress “didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it,” Boym says. As I have previously explored, David Fincher has also employed cutting-edge digital technology to revive the San Francisco of the past and literally reverse the life cycle of one Benjamin Button.

In 2012, a different trend emerged. If a desire to turn back time is implicitly rooted in a fear of impending death, then last year’s visual effects–driven cinema offered an alternative: transcending time and death. All released within months of each other, the big-budget features Cloud Atlas, Life of Pi, and Prometheus explored issues of faith and religion and asked questions about our existence. Continue reading “Digital Faith: Visual Effects and Religion in ‘Cloud Atlas,’ ‘Life of Pi,’ and ‘Prometheus’” »

An Unprecedented Journey: A Format Critique of ‘The Hobbit’

When preparing for Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg made a reluctant decision to abandon the highly advanced stop-motion technology that had been developed for full-body movement shots of the dinosaurs, opting instead for a still-imperfect and experimental computer-generated effects technology. The reason for Spielberg’s decision, circulated in movie geek lore ever since, was that the stop-motion animation developed for the film had never solved the technique’s historical quandary of adding motion blur to the image. Onscreen, the dinosaurs would move differently from the live human characters, disrupting the continuity of the film’s narrative world. For the greatest verisimilitude, Spielberg backed a technology that could conform to the limitations of the celluloid medium of the time.

When watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I was struck by the resonances between Spielberg’s decision and the one made by Peter Jackson and his creative team to shoot at 48 frames per second (fps), rejecting the 24 fps standard that has held almost universally true since the earliest days of commercial sound cinema. Overall, I enjoyed the film, though I admit that the experience was not as transporting as the Lord of the Rings trilogy was for me a decade ago. The movie raised many issues in my mind, from the creative revisions that Peter Jackson and his screenwriting partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, made to Tolkein’s narrative, to the obvious concern of narrative stuffing (a 300-page novel turning into a projected trilogy of eight-to-nine hours in length). The challenge of expanding a slim narrative into three substantial narratives, the diametric opposite challenge that the team faced in paring down Tolkein’s hefty Rings saga 10 years ago, would provide an opportunity for another sizeable essay. The fact that I haven’t read The Hobbit in more than ten years aside, I was instead attracted to the premiere of the 48 fps format, or HFR (High Frame Rate), as it has been termed, and the host of new aesthetic possibilities and problems that it introduces. Jackson’s choice in this regard bucks a fundamental property of film production and exhibition, and I find that the issues inherent in viewing this movie provide some insights to the many possible futures for the cinematic experience. Continue reading “An Unprecedented Journey: A Format Critique of ‘The Hobbit’” »