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Monday, 28 January 2013


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This is one of those posts where I can't tell if I made my point too strongly or not strongly enough. It happens sometimes, in the hinterlands between "appropriate blogging material" and "academic essay." Gah.


Interesting post--this gets at much that has bothered me about "competitive realism," as you put it. I wonder, though, if Cloverfield is the best example to use here. If memory serves, there's an actual diegetic camera involved in that film, which would account for the shakiness, as someone is actually trying to film while also hauling ass.


You're right. I chose it because it's the only film that's had shows cancelled on account of the shakiness, but it's diegetic shakiness. Like I said, this is halfway between a tossed off blog post and an academic article, and if it turns into the latter, I'm definitely going with a different example.


Dagnabbit... This post really got me thinking, and I wrote a pretty in-depth response trying to tease out the genealogy of shaky cam and linking the problem of competitive realism back to Oscar Wilde.

And it looks like it disappeared into the internet aether. Or is it just not up yet? I was going to show this whole thing to my wife, but if I need to rewrite it, I'll get cracking.


I didn't comment because I was waiting to see if somebody else would step in with something smart, but a couple disjointed thoughts:

1) I think there's a connection to be drawn between this argument and your previous post about Jackson playing with genre conventions. There are incentives in Hollywood which reward both experimentation _and_ (in other shows) the ability to reliably match audience expectations and genre conventions (e.g., the reliability of "Hill Street Blues" from that post).

I'm not sure which category I'd place 48fps effects into, but it seems like part of what you're talking about is the tension between those two compass points -- the desire to be able to experiment without giving anything up ("realism" in this case), which is always going to be fraught.

2) David Bordwell's post on the Paranormal Activity series was wonderful -- even though I have no interest in the movies themselves, and has interesting things to say about camera conventions.

3) I'm not sure what you mean when you say, "I tend to think George Lucas ruined this fantastical acceptance of the specialness of “special” effects when he married recognizably modernist styles with space stations and star ships." Looking backwards, I think one of the stylistic aspects of Star Wars (and Star Trek) which makes people nostalgic is the ships which are obviously plastic models. They are emotionally communicative.

4) It just seemed a little harsh when you said, "It looked like Jackson had decided to avoid the uncanny valley by introducing its monstrous child to an actual human being and hoping the audience wouldn’t be able to tell the difference." I haven't seen the scene in question, but you seem to be arguing that not only was the execution flawed, his very conception of how to film the scene was mistaken. Without any basis for this belief, I'd want to keep open the space of, "the impulse could be used productively in some cases, but it failed in this one."


I'm still bouncing off (or around) the post a bit, but I'm taking your comments as license to do so in writing, rather than just in my own head (in other words, preemptive apologies for rambling).

If the audience notices the limitations of the camera, it becomes aware that there’s a camera between it and the world depicted on-screen.

The more I think about this post, the more I keep coming up against two questions which are somewhat outside of it's scope:

1) What are the circumstances in which cinema asks us, as the audience, to forget the presence of the camera (or computer, or other intermediary), and what are the circumstances in which the audience is invited to consider that camera.

2) What exactly defines a special effect?

I realize that you are talking specifically about "realism" as a cinematic style in the sentence quoted above, but it still seems to me that there are lots of circumstances (including shakey-cam shots) where the movie foregrounds it's own nature as cinema.

As one example, as soon as you started talking about 3d, I immediately thought about Avatar but, for all the people who praised Avatar as convincingly immersive, I would argue that it highlights its own technical virtuosity. In that case "realism" is clearly an (artificial) technical achievement, not an unmediated experience.

As another example, consider the movie Primer. It too highlights a certain sort of technical virtuosity -- not in its special effects, but in its ability to create a convincing narrative on a micro-budget. The audience is at least potentially conscious of the ways in which the requirements of the process affect the finished product and that awareness is a virtue not a flaw.

Secondly, what is a special effect? I remember my brother talking at one point about Seijun Suzuki, and marveling at his ability to produce impressive results with extremely low-tech effects. In White Tiger Tatoo (the only film I've seen) my brother talked about one shot, near the climax of the movie, when the protagonist is fighting a number of thugs and there's a sudden cut to a shot in which the action is captured from below the floor looking up.

In a major fight scene it directs our attention on his footwork -- making the fight more abstract and less visceral, but it works, somehow, fitting into the emotional flow of the movie rather than distracting.

Is that a special effect?

I have a bunch of other examples I've been thinking about -- When Fred Astaire films an extended dance sequence as a single take is that "realism" or is that highlighting craft for the audience? What does it say about Star Wars that it has a variety of characters who are obviously guys in costumes but that the shot of the Death Star exploding* is clearly meant to raise the bar for special effects, not only compared to the other effects in the movie but to the state of the art?

But I should probably stop there.

* One last footnote, appropriate to this blog, I was thinking about the Death Star because there's a Spiderman comic in which the super-villain ("The Blaze", IIRC) is created by a couple of film school effects students who just wanted to see if they could pull it off, and one of them references the Death Star as an iconic special effect.


Me again, still babbling but hopefully getting closer to the point of the post.

What would you say is the competition in "competitive realism?"

If it's competition to follow most slavishly the conventions of "realism" or to apply the conventions of realism to the widest range of possible stories then it is, by definition a foolish project of attacking every problem with the same hammer -- the post provides examples of how that goes awry, but the premise contains it's own flaws.

If the competition is to either (a) heighten the elements which the typical viewer will respond to as "realism" or (b) developing special effects to be able to show the widest possible range of imaginary images in a camera style that matches "realism" then it's easy to see how that competition would often lead to bad results, but why people could be motivated to compete on those grounds.

(a) almost guarantees that the resulting film will date badly -- as conventions evolve and shift an exaggerated version of those conventions will be even more out of place.

(b) is a natural part of the development of special effects -- there will be times when the impulse of "can we pull off this effect" will get ahead of, "how can this effect serve the story?"

But do any of those descriptions sound to you like what you were writing about in the post?


I've been paying too much attention to my field of vision when running over the last few days and I think you made a factual error on this. I think it's a big mistake to use biomechanics as a proxy for the felt experience of running/walking when it's an experience it isn't that hard to check for oneself.

Now it might be just me (and if so disregard all the following), but my field of vision looked more jittery to me when I was running than walking. In both cases there's a distinct shake at every footfall; I'm willing to believe it's of smaller amplitude when running but the difference was barely perceptible to me. At first I thought the shake was more violent when running because you hit the ground harder but that difference was barely perceptible too. But footfalls are a lot more frequent when running, hence more shakes per second, hence more subjective jitters.

I don't think that detracts too much from your overall analysis because those shakes are extremely regular and unlike shakycam but there it is. Don't base an argument on Science! if the scientific fact in question isn't actually that relevant. Note also that shakycam in found-footage movies like Cloverfield (which I haven't watched so correct me if I'm wrong) aren't meant to simulate the shaking of the head, but the shaking of an amateur camera in one's hands. This makes shakycam while running or emotionally tense situations much more reasonable, not that I have much experience with filming things.

It also occurred to me that in emotionally stressful situations shakycam might not simulate the shaking of the head so much as quick movements of the eyes but next time I'm in an emotionally stressful situation I'll probably be too emotionally stressed to check. (of course even if it were the case that our eyes dart around more when stressed it wouldn't make shakycam in this situation realistic because our brain tracks those movements in a way it can't when it's the camera moving, which is why shakycam makes people want to throw up)


I buy the argument about shakycam being a manifestation of competitive realism but I'm not so sure about 48fps. What's so great about 24fps anyways?

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