Ladies and gentleman, whether you are aware of it or not, we are in a new era of filmmaking. In an industry and art form where the most significant advance in its first hundred years was the addition of sound, the dawn of the proliferation of digital filmmaking into the mainstream is a similarly earthshaking evolution. Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and The World Of Tommorow is a signpost of this new era, being the first film shot entirely in front of a blue screen. Is this capability a positive or a negative influence for both the artistic and commercial viability of today and tommorow’s American cinema?
Digital Cinema, in a very generic sense and for the purposes of this article, can include two clear pools of evolution. On the one hand it can mean the marketplace proliferation and availability of high-quality affordable digital video cameras, advanced editing suites like Avid and Final Cut Pro and digital distribution channels evergrowing on the internet; on the other it is the highly advanced (and more expensive) digital animation/CGI graphics that a select few filmmakers have access to create a new world (like the one created by Conran) that may not necessarily exist in our real one. The immediate pros of both of these pools is the increased access they afford their masters. The availability of digital cameras and editing software literally give the access of opportunity to thousands of amateur filmmakers to tell their stories where none had existed before. The capabilities of CGI mean more advanced filmmakers have greater access to their own imaginations and unleashing whatever stew it has cooked up; boundaries heretofore limited by location/set/early special fx have been pushed and now, thanks to the likes of Sky Captain, seemingly eliminated. Indeed, the advances of Digital Cinema overall seem to have divided the film world into two camps: those “purists” who hold onto celluloid as a sacred living, breathing parchment and those who are welcoming its evolution into bits and bytes.
So is this movement, this newfound access a good thing for artist and audience? Like every new technology there are inherent trade-offs. On one hand there has been an explosion in amateur filmmaking; festivals filled with the short films made on the cheap spring up like Barbara Streisand comeback tours. One could argue, however, that it is not a good thing for any Tom, Dick, Harry or Akbar to be able to tell their stories (or write reviews on their own blog…ouch, me!) much like you don’t need yet another Starbucks to open across the street from the one already open right next door to you. But as long as talent, hard-work and luck cause the cream to rise from an ever-growing crop then it should be no issue. A problem does arise, however, when young directors rely on this technology and never learn the how to use real film. While films shot on DV are creeping into the mainstream (Blair Witch, 28 Days Later, Pieces Of April) the overall quality of the look and feel of the films suffer when compared to traditional film; today’s digital cameras can still not match the amount of color and contrast you can achieve the “old” way. It could, nevertheless, be argued that the lower-fidelity image in those films mentioned above evoked a certain mood the respective directors were shooting for. When digital cameras can one day completely mimic the image a 35mm motion picture camera can create, eliminating the large expense of film purchasing, processing, etc., well then, folks, the use of film may die out with the surviving members of this generation of purists who wrap themselves in it today; much in the way the days of flatbeds, miles of footage and scissors have given over to a flickering screen and a mouse click in editing universe. Shooting on film in that possible future will become something an auteur would do to be “retro,” to make a film like his ancient forbearers. Sad, but probably eventual.
There exists an undeniable “kiss-off” factor by learned film critics and filmgoers in this land towards films saturated CGI. The sentiment goes something along the line that these “products” are heavy on eye-candy and light on the fundamental foundations of good cinema: story and character development. Any fan of those hariy-footed Hobbits could tell you that this is not always the case, that indeed the effects serve to incredibly enhance the world these stories and characters exist in rather than bully the film with their “look-at-me” coolness. Animation is another film genre that has recieved quite an adrenaline shot in the arm thanks to the digital evoultion; as evidenced by the 3D success of the Pixar and the Shrek films. The immediate tradeoff of this new world of animation is the that the hand-drawn 2D Disney-fied animation we grew up on and loved is dying a slow death. Even 2D adventures like last year’s Spirit: Stallion of The Cimarron look downright antiquated to these 27 year-old eyes, you can imagine what a 10 year-old thinks who knows no different. I think that we can, however, agree somewhat with the “kiss-off” critics. There is an undeniable artificiality, even with today’s available technology, to many digital effects and shots in today’s Hollywood films; and anytime you are taken out the film long enought to think “Hmmm…that looks fake” or “Those tech wizards don’t know what a real spaceship looks like,” is a moment any filmmaker dreads. Digital effects can, in post-production, remove any mistake, blemish or happy accident that occurred during the production of a film, shrinking the most vital element that these films and filmmakers have in common with their audience: humanity. It’s analogous to the cliched set of a sci-fi future-world: all the convenient, shiny and flashy exterior hide something much, much worse behind it.
So where does our Sky Captain fit in this digital buffet? Someplace in the middle. First off, it is almost a coup for a studio to end up giving $70 million dollars to a first time filmmaker who had a vision of creating something that had’t quite existed before. It’s seems like the least calculated risk a non-risk taking entity could take. So kudos to Conran. The film is about reckless pilot Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) and a adventurous reporter-dame Polly Perkins (Gwenyth Paltrow) who team up (with help from Angelina Jolie’s Capt. Frank Cook) to remove an army of bent-on-destruction-of-the-world robots (who is their leader? Who Dammit!) in a pre-World War II art deco-looking New York and beyond. The CGI visuals are, at first, stunning…and big. The first sequence of these robots attacking New York can be breathless at times. The problem is that with each successive sequence in the film Conran seems to try to outdue himself and wow us with an even bigger, more outlandish digital set creation. He also tries, somewhat understandably, to squeeze in every exisitng precipitation, eco-system and mode of transportation into the filter of his CGI-created and imagined world. There are some charming pieces fit into that world as it wears its bygone-era Hollywood nostalgia on its sleeve; indeed, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights both can be seen directly quoted in the movie; although I would be hesitant to say I would be happy if I was a descendant of Sir Laurence Olivier, archive footage of whom appears as a character in the film (the morality and future implications of this and John Wayne appearing in beer commercials has been debated before and will again). One thing I took umbrage with is Conran’s portrayal of his two main women characters who fall at the extreme end of the female character spectrum. On one end, Paltrow’s Perkins is the stereo-typical juvenile “girly-girl:” always scheming or whining to get her way; always hitting the wrong button, getting herself into trouble, needing to be rescued, making noise when she should be quiet; and leaving her stuff beyond (namely her trusty camera) at the least opportune time. On the other is Angelina Jolie’s Capt. Cook: an androgenous, barely feminine, desexified (hair up in a cap) militeristic commander of a floating air carrier; she is, in fact, referred to first as “Frank” only. Where is a strong and sexy female character in this made-up world. Where!?
Ultimately, I would side with the “kiss-off” critics stereotyped earlier: Conran’s vision and CGI world are the stars of the film, the story and the characters are just fixtures in its gigantic big-ness. But that bigness is worth seeing on an equally big screen; a movie meant to be seen, well, at the movies.