Even the most casual observer of Hollywood filmmaking can recognise the dramatic impact of CGI (Computer Generating Images) technologies upon movie-making over the last ten years, particularly in the ‘blockbuster’ film. CGI can create the illusion that we are watching something that never existed – for example, a giant gorilla – or perhaps recreate something that existed in the past – for example, 1920s New York. Curiously a large part of the promotional material for such a film is devoted to exposingthese illusions – to showing the public ‘how it is done’. But the discourse of CGI generally puts its emphasis on the construction of virtual characters (or figures) and virtual environments (or grounds). Both figure and ground constitute what is in front of the camera – what was called (past tense?) the mise-en-scene. However, for the audience what is equally important is the relationship of figure to ground that is modulated by the position and framing of the camera – the cinematography – and the relationship of one space to another modulated by different kinds of transitions – the editing. In point of fact, when the mise-en-scene is de-coupled from a physical reality then the cinematography and editing also become, in some sense, ‘virtual’.
The question is, ‘what, if anything, is new here?’ Does the substitution of the physical camera and physical editing for their virtual equivalents merely reproduce those options already available to filmmakers, do they extend those techniques, or do they constitute something quite new. Since what is ‘new’ is rarely without precedent, let us firstly consider four variations in the aesthetic history of the cinema, concerning especially spatial transitions:
Variation 1: The Cut
Within the early decades of cinema the ‘cut’ emerges as the pre-eminent means of creating spatial transitions. This is true of both continuity editing and Soviet montage – both of which are dominated by mechanistic metaphors. In cutting between two or more spaces (or within one space) the cut establishes a temporal continuity or sequentiality on the one hand and a spatial discontinuity on the other. The cut fragments the world, which is then re-assembled in continuous time. The use of sound in most cases enhances this effect of continuity, ‘smoothing’ the transition across the cut. Variations of the cut such as fades, dissolves and wipes are alike insofar as they all present space in a sequential arrangement – one space after the after. The jump cut is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. In a jump cut it is not space which is dislocated but rather there is a dislocation, a gap, within continuous time.
Variation 2: Deep Focus
Our second variation emerges as a filmmaking practice in the thirties and forties. As theorised after WWII by Andre Bazin, the combination of deep focus and a long take is said to guarantee the continuity, the transparency and the authenticity of life ‘as it really is’. Thus a deep focus style may be said to partially displace the mechanistic metaphors of earlier filmmaking. Deep focus presents two or more spaces simultaneously – that is, in a continuum from foreground to background within a single frame. Movement is registered in distinct focal planes but the camera itself is mainly static. The long take goes hand in hand with deep focus as a contemplative act of viewing.
Variation 3: Split Screen
Our third variation is associated with certain films from the sixties and seventies. This is the split-screen or frame-within-frame technique. While each frame is presentedsimultaneously (as in deep focus) the frames themselves are spatially discontinuous from each other. For whatever reason, this technique has rarely been used in any systemic way. (In narrative film it is mainly associated with the seventies psycho-thrillers of Brian De Palma, who uses split-screen to dramatise the divided psyche). Split-screens might be regarded (alongside experiments with different aspect ratios) as attempts to halt declining audiences for the cinema in the face of competition from television.
Variation 4: The Steadicam
Our final variation, the Steadicam, is a product of the late 1970s and the 1980s. The Steadicam offers a counter-argument to the common assumption of spatio-temporal fragmentation in eighties cinema. I refer here to the advent of ‘MTV-style’ editing. However, translated to cinematic narratives, music video aesthetics are as much about speed and kinetic movement within the frame as they are about rapid editing. Whereas deep focus favours static compositions, the Steadicam responds to the desire for movement while also effecting transitions between and around multiple spaces.
The unsurprising conclusion of this survey is that digital editing techniques and virtual cameras are closest in their orientation (and emerge from) the form which immediately preceded them – that is the Steadicam style and its logic of fluid, often fast, continuous movement through space. Remote control cameras could be considered as something of a middle ground in this transition, removing the necessity for the camera-operator. CGI goes one step further by removing the physical camera altogether. I should stress that these technical considerations do not have any significance in themselves but do create a field of possibilities in which the Steadicam aesthetic may be extended.
Some examples from recent cinema help to illustrate the process by which digital cinema extends the logic of the Steadicam. In Doom (2005, Andrzej Bartkowiak) the film begins with the famous studio logo ‘Universal’ circling a planet. However, the logo has been varied so that it is now incorporated into the diegesis of the film; the planet is not Earth but some other planet. This has implications both for the narrative ‘frame’ and the status of the logo as the signature of multinational capital. Whilst the logo usually announces ‘what comes after is a film’, here it is integrated into the diegesis as if to extend the reach of the corporation to all worlds, both real and imagined. (Though I do not pursue the theme of visual domination in any detail here, I do attend to the status of the visual frame in my subsequent discussion of The Matrix Revolutions). The (virtual) camera then begins to rapidly descend from ‘outer’ space, down onto the surface of the planet, then further through a series of tunnels, and finally into a space of total darkness where the sound of screaming warns of some unimaginable horror. While each of the spaces is coherent unto itself, the eye has difficulty maintaining this coherence through all the different shifts of scale – largest to smallest. Given the speed of these scalar transformations, the peculiar effect is one of watching space ‘warp’ as the camera moves through it. Therefore, the digital cinema explores limits that are not simply spatial; it is also invested in extending the limits of human perception. In a scene later in the film, the idea of restricted vision (and restricted knowledge) is exploited in the style of a ‘first-person shooter’ video game (a mode wholly concerned with the anticipation of an unknown enemy lurking behind every corner). Not only is the entire scene, lasting over five minutes, digitally edited together to give the appearance of one continuous take but the role given to the audience, of inhabiting the restricted perspective of the ‘shooter’, is underlined by not cutting away: we move as he moves, we see what he sees. Therefore the digital cinema can successfully extend both the exterior space of omniscient narration and the interior space of individual consciousness and furthermoreit can move seamlessly between them (the entry into this long take is a zoom-in onto the eye of the protagonist, the audience is literally and figuratively entering into the mind’s eye).
To reiterate: a long Steadicam take can be extended simply by attaching additional footage and digitally removing or hiding the cut. Transitions between spaces that are infinitely large and infinitely small are handled completely transparently by digital editing and with absolute precision.
Another recent example demonstrates how editing and cinematography are effectively unified in the digital cinema because the camera never ‘needs’ to cut away. A virtual camera can extend into spaces that are impossible or prohibitive for a physical camera. Virtual cameras can go through walls; they are not hindered by gravity or tied to a means of physical propulsion. They also offer unprecedented control over camera movement so that all 360 degrees of rotation are made available at any given speed.
In the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (2005, Andrew Adamson) an important scene transition is achieved using a combination of digital processes. The transition begins with a simple reverse-shot as the elder of the Pevensie children, Peter, prepares for an all-out battle with the forces of the White Witch. Against the dark of night, we see him peer down on a map. Then we cut, across his shoulder, to the object of his stare. In essence, what happens next is the map ‘becomes’ the landscape. A great deal of fluidity between two-dimensional and three-dimensional space is presented here as the camera, first, moves down on to surface of the map (in the manner of a close-up, consistent with the direction of the look), then, moves along it horizontally. This movement, which can no longer be that of the boy’s eye, reveals the minutiae of the map’s surface including those elements which protrude physically from its horizontal axis (markers which, like chess pieces, stand for military units) but also ‘depth’ textures which are digitally created – inscriptions like forests and mountains which are made to rise up from the ‘flatland’ of the map and cast shadows upon it. As the camera-eye winds a path through this imaginary landscape it takes on the weightless character of a bird’s flight. Sure enough, just as the border of the map becomes the edge of a ‘real’ landscape, a hawk swoops over the camera, suggesting that our view is that of a similar bird. (The path that diverges from a singularity is characteristic of the baroque, a theme I will explore later.) The map does not ‘morph’ into the landscape in the manner of a pure continuum. In other words, there is a border clearly marked between map and landscape (although digital colour grading is used to smooth the transition from the yellow of the parchment to the green of the grass). Yet the speed and perceptual seamlessness of the transition create a drama of two opposing states which are also strongly linked: day and night, flatness and depth, map and landscape, the preparation for war and the war itself. Could we suggest that this type of link between two objects has an analogy in the contemporary notion of ‘connectivity’? Just as the hyperlink creates multiple and divergent connections between web pages, the spatial transition I have described in Narnia ‘turns’ upon an object common to two or more different spaces. If there is a common logic of connectivity at work here it of course would mean that what is being presented is more than simply an extension of a previous aesthetic and needs to be considered in its own right.
What I have so far been describing as an extension of the Steadicam ideal – continuous, transparent linear movement and centred framing – has I think become something else: an extension of the power of sight from the scale of the planetary to the scale of the microscopic and beyond, into solid matter itself. This ‘something else’ is reflected not so much in changing technologies as in a changing set of metaphors. The new metaphors are: complexity, virtuosity, permutation, a game between text and audience, a deception that is always revealed, the stretching of a limit without breaking it. How is this revealed in spatial terms? I quote the art historian Henri Focillon who wrote: ‘[It] tends to invade space in every direction, to perforate it, to become as one with all its possibilities’ (1992: 58).
The ‘it’ that Focillon described in the 1930s was the historical baroque of the seventeenth century. A contemporary ‘neo-baroque’ has since been described by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, the semiologists Umberto Eco and Omar Calabrese, and within film and moving image studies by Sean Cubitt and Angela Ndalianis. Owing to its beginnings in art-history, the neo-baroque retains a lot of explanatory power in the analysis of space and particularly visual representation. Philosophically, the neo-baroque is neither revolutionary nor irrational with respect to traditions of classical space and order. In fact it is productive with respect to current debates over the status of contemporary Hollywood cinema exactly because it incorporates rather than excludes classicism. Rather, while maintaining coherence in terms of narrative, space and time, neo-baroque cinema seeks to multiply order to the point where it becomes more invested in its own complex movement and patterning than in the desire to explicate the world for the audience. Its limit is the limit of coherence – the neo-baroque goes as far as the audience is willing to engage. This may mean watching a film more than once in order to solve certain narrative puzzles yet the coherence of that puzzle is rarely compromised.
Angela Ndalianis, in particular, has described the pertinence of the neo-baroque in mediating between two positions on contemporary cinema. On one hand there exists a generalised critique of blockbusters – consistent with the post-modern ‘fragmentation’ thesis: genre hybridity is at the expense of coherent plots, special effects and action sequences are at the expense of coherent psychologically motivated characterisation, fast editing is at the expense of coherent space and time. The counter-argument from the ‘classicists’ (such as Kristin Thompson): there is no inverse relationship between the number of explosions or car chases in a film and its overall coherence. In terms of narrative, contemporary blockbusters are essentially similar to their archetypes from the classical period. The neo-baroque suggests that neither argument really applies to the specific character of the blockbuster film or the audience engagement with them. Clearly, the rollercoaster intensity of the blockbuster is an important reason for its success yet this does not necessarily imply a superficial treatment of characterisation, plotting or theme. In fact neo-baroque films compete with each other in terms of plotting, especially in the mixture of genres. This is not simply a case of ‘anything goes’. How much can be re-worked, re-connected and re-ordered is always in relation to an always-evolving totality.
In spatial terms, coherence can be considered as the organization of the frame. The neo-baroque is always open to the outside; always moving, always re-framing. This movement often creates a tension between two and three-dimensional spaces. It often creates a confusion between what is exterior and what is interior. Or, more literally, it creates acentric framing (figures which appear as peripheral to the centre) or polycentric framing (multiple figures moving independently within the frame) in contrast with the closed, static and centred framing associated with classicism.
Obviously, the dynamism apparent in the canonic exemplars of the historical baroque – the quadratura ceilings of the late seventeenth-century Italian painters – is much enhanced by the actual movement in time captured by the cinema. However, an analogy can by made between the technologies of illusionism, used by artists such as Pietro da Cortona, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Andrea Pozzo, and certain digital techniques used in contemporary cinema. Angela Ndalianis has, for instance, taken Pozzo’s famous trompe l’oeil ceiling decoration The Glory of S. Ignazio as her reference point. Considered in relation to the third film of the Matrix trilogy, The Matrix Revolutions(2003, Andy and Larry Wachowski), I would suggest that the battle scene in this film forms an apocalyptic inversion of the utopian vision presented in Pozzo’s masterpiece. Whereas The Glory extends architectural space up into the heavens, the battle scene presents a vision of hell – the human’s underground city (known as Zion) is under attack by ‘the machines’. The Glory obscures the movement of the eye towards the centre of the frame both by distracting the eye with detail on the edge of the frame and using billowing clouds to conceal the lines of perspective. In The Matrix Revolutions this is inverted. The focus of the scene is downward movement; firstly, of a huge drill which breaches the city walls, and then, of the thousands of robot ‘sentinels’ which fly into the dock searching out cavities to burrow further down. The walls themselves form a bare grey background – the detail is formed by the layers upon layers of swarming sentinels. Like Pozzo’s amorphous clouds, constant gunfire flashes and explosions work against the presentation of these solid figures, rendering them fractured and inchoate. The tension which Pozzo develops between the flat pictorial plane and the deceptive ‘breaking’ of that wall is also replicated. On the one hand, the focal length is expanded to allow visual access to the entire dock, a suitably cavernous structure (suitable, that is, to witness the destruction of the human race). Detail is preserved even when distant from the camera’s position. On the other hand, the entire scene is consistently (presumably digitally) colour-graded to a shade of grey-blue. The walls are grey, the machine ‘sentinels’ are grey (with flashes of red detail) and the humans meld into their mechanical and grey frames. The expansion of depth suggested by scale is opposed by the compression suggested by the limited colour palette. Again, as in Pozzo, the overall effect is therefore one of a grasping for an unreachable totality.
As the battle is staged across a vast ‘theatre’ of war, the idea emerges that space itself is being ‘invaded’. The robot sentinels literalise this idea in the way they are presented as figures within the frame. The sentinels are fearless, countless in number, devastating in their speed and mobility. They move through the air seeking out and attacking every available ‘node’. When they mass together they are like a force of nature, like clouds or waves, with the speed and flexibility of digital information itself. The sentinels are, in a sense, manifestations of a digital logic of spatial distribution. Though they are responsible to a collective will, a kind of ‘hive mind’, they can also act individually; responding to their own immediate environment and relaying back this perceptual data. The individual sentinels’ cognition is shared by the entire group but they are not encumbered by a reliance on centralised decision-making. This leads individual sentinels to distribute themselves into every available opening in the dock, chasing soldiers down a never-ending series of tunnels. Their ‘bodies’ are composed of tentacles which also ‘invade’ space in every direction. They embody the polycentric logic of the baroque camera-eye, their heads covered with multiple ‘insect’ eyes, blood-red and unflinching.
By contrast, the human faces in the battle scene are demonstrably vulnerable – faces are cut open, expressions reveal pain and fear. In one instance – a spectacular example of a rapid modulation between background and foreground – a soldier, encased in his mechanical frame, is thrown rapidly forward by the force of an explosion. His contorted face momentarily fills the frame, appearing to almost spill out into the space of the audience. While the singularity and uniqueness of the face is rendered in comparatively static, ‘grounded’ compositions, the sentinels exploit the sides of the frame, tumbling through rotations of the camera. As the battle wears on, they begin to dominate the frame, filling it incessantly. Indeed, for the human army, the battle appears ‘unwinnable’. They are armed only with lumbering and antique artillery units which cruelly expose their bodies to enemy fire. In fact, the human figures are presented as leaden corpses, weighed to the ground by their own bodies (and their outdated, mechanical extensions) – they lack the agility to survive in the new virtual world order.
What saves the humans in the end is a kind of baroque paradox: the totality towards which the machines strive – the complete saturation of every possible space within the frame – is, in the end, achievable only at the cost of total immobility. In other words, the logic of spatial conquest will defeat itself if ever fulfilled. This is apparent in the final confrontation between Neo and Agent Smith at the end of the Matrix saga. Neo – the ‘one’ – has by now become a kind of superhuman messiah. Agent Smith, who is nothing more than a program employed by the machines for the purpose of policing the Matrix, has begun to duplicate himself in order to defeat the ever-expanding powers of Neo. Yet by this process of internal division, Agent Smith threatens the coherence of the Matrix – his multiple selves begin to populate the entire world, corrupting the entire network on which the machines rely. The machines turn to Neo, striking a pact with him to destroy Agent Smith in return for the lives of the humans. This is duly accomplished though Neo must of course sacrifice himself in keeping with the barely concealed Christian iconography at work here. Despite a rather conservative finale – the one defeating the many, we might say – there are some interesting analogies to be made. In the seventeenth-century baroque, which Pozzo’s work represents, a triumphal tone is struck with Saint Ignatius symbolising the victory of Jesuit missionaries in the four corners of the Catholic world (God’s light ray divided into four for each of the four continents). In the apocalyptic scenario depicted in the Matrix, humans are placed under the domination of technologies and perhaps also by extension, globalisation, in its bleakest twenty-first century incarnation. If, as I have suggested, the neo-baroque involves the application of contemporary technologies of vision towards the ends of spatial conquest, the self-defeating nature of its domination may offer some hope. Though the neo-baroque blockbuster cinema tends to thematise its own domination of the global marketplace within its own prophetic visions (whether utopian or dystopian), this domination is unlikely to ever be complete. If aesthetic representations of space are to be believed, the space of the political and social will also continue to allow for new movements and new directions to be pursued.
Omar Calabrese (1992). Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times, tr. Charles Lambert (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Sean Cubitt (2004). The Cinema Effect (Cambridge: MIT Press).
Gilles Deleuze (1988). The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque, tr. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993).
Umberto Eco (1962). The Open Work, tr. Anna Cancogni, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
Henri Focillon (1934). The Life of Forms in Art, tr. George Kubler (London: Zone Books, 1992).
Angela Ndalianis (2004). Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment(Cambridge: MIT Press).
Kristin Thompson (1999). Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).