In today’s digital age of filmmaking, traditional filmmaking has been eclipsed by computer-generated imagery (CGI), digital film recording, and all manner of other filmmaking tools used to bring the impossible to life. With digital cinema, production styles have become innovated and advanced to a turning point, in which the future of cinema is in a state of flux – does digital cinema overtake traditional filmmaking, or can it be used to underline unique thematic content and as a valuable tool for filmmakers? Perhaps the most apropos way to examine digital cinema and its applications to film is to explore how they are used within two films about the intersection between the real and digital worlds – 1999’s The Matrix (dirs. Lana and Andy Wachowski) and 2004’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (dir. Mamoru Oshii). By demonstrating how these two films juggle the traditional and digital forms of their respective forms of filmmaking, the unique struggle of digital cinema to fit into the history and tradition of filmmaking can be better elucidated.
The Arguments For Digital Cinema
Because (or perhaps in spite of) these economic and industrial concerns, digital cinema still has its proponents and detractors as an industry. Some believe that digital cinema is the wave of the future, allowing audiences to see photorealistic situations and characters that that may not otherwise be able to be created on screen. Manovich notes that “digital media is understood as something which will let cinema tell its stories in a new way,” and that it “redefines the very identity of cinema” (1). Cinema being the “art of motion,” it has had a long history of animation, which is what CGI can be generously referred to – its use in live-action films effectively being a combination of live action and animated techniques (Manovich 2). While cinema has its origins in creating this artificiality, digital cinema returns it to this same tradition after decades of focusing on realism and the “aura of reality” being photographed that has been the focus of film for much of the mid-to-late 20th century (Manovich 4).
Digital filmmaking fundamentally alters the principles of filmmaking in many unique ways. First, physical reality can be augmented with digital scenes that are film-like in nature, displacing live-action as the only means by which you can construct a film (Manovich 4). Furthermore, digital cinema equalizes these disparate elements, thus making live-action’s privileged position as being filmed reality somewhat compromised; instead, it becomes the canvas upon which CG and other digital technologies can be overlaid on top of it. Consequently, “film obtains the plasticity which was previously only possible in painting or animation” (Manovich 4). With the rise of CG technology being overlaid over live-action or hand-animated elements, digital cinema becomes “a particular case of animation which uses live action footage as one of its many elements” (Manovich 5). Previously, when traditional filmmaking aspired collectively to a goal of capturing reality, digital cinema has led to a greater feeling of openness and creativity, as “cinematic realism is being displaced from being its dominant mode to become only one option among many” (Manovich 12).
On the subject of animation, the use of digital cinema has helped to innovate animation in much the same way as it has enhanced live-action films. Previously, animated movement in cel animation was accomplished by creating both “drawing movements and moving drawings,” photographing a number of images in sequence to create the illusion of movement, or creating a single scene with different planes and layers, which allows camera movement to create relative motion between all of these layers (Lamarre 330). In many ways, movement in animation helps to inform the genre, narrative and spectatorship of a work, in particular anime, the Japanese style of animation that is indicative of films like Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and which was a major influence on The Matrix.
However, the method of facilitating movement in animation has changed with the advent of digital filmmaking, which has helped make this movement more fluid and plastic in its artificiality (Lamarre 332). At the same time, unlike in live-action film, digital technology is used in animation deliberately to enhance and facilitate the shutter-like frame rate of animation that is typically present in anime; the sense of weightlessness and fluidity that is present in a lot of anime (particularly the works of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki) is often due to the utilization of digital technology and anime-like effects (Lamarre 341). For these reasons and more, there is every reason to believe that digital cinema is simply an expansion of the tools and techniques available in cinema, as per Deleuze’s notion that cinema is an “interdisciplinary, intermedial practice of concepts that bears less on the aesthetics and practice of cinema itself, more on the concepts of cinema” (Monnet 228).
The Economic and Artistic Concerns Regarding Digital Cinema
Ever since the explosion of computer technology in the world of electronics, its applications to film have been increasingly prevalent. From a socioeconomic perspective, the proliferation of digital cinema in the film industry has been part of a long-standing tradition between Hollywood, industry, and the US military-industrial complex (Hozic 289). In essence, with the collapse of the studio system in the mid-late 20th century, Hollywood has turned to technology as a means to gain money and support from the US military, appropriating government and military industry in order to facilitate its newfound focus on digital technology (Hozic 291).
At the same time, digital cinema has its detractors, many of whom credit the rise of digital cinema for a feeling of artificiality in films as a result of this push toward spectacle and CG finesse. The increased acceptance of digital technology has forced the film industry to repurpose technology as a way to improve the chances of its success and provide the audience with the spectacle and imagination it wants to pay for. This was facilitated further in the late 1970s with the innovation of directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whose creation of the ‘blockbuster’ special-effects film event irrevocably changed studio film production into focusing more on special effects and spectacle as the draw for their films (Hozic 294).
Furthermore, the economic realities of digital technology and digital cinema do complicate the industry’s future. In the industry, there is a constant push and pull between effects merchants and movie producers, as more and more money gets invested in technology whose direction is somewhat unknown (Hozic 296). Since Hollywood is such an economic powerhouse, and lies at the center of a number of industries, including electronics and digital technology, “Hollywood increasingly finds itself at the center of debates about America’s political and economic future” (Hozic 296). This can lead to some resistance regarding the future and utility of digital cinema – whether it is enhancing the number of tools that are available for filmmakers, or whether they provide a shortcut to entertainment by creating things that are less realistic for the sake of empty spectacle. In these instances, it is safe to say that they are a matter of taste – whether or not realism and verisimilitude is the goal of filmmaking, or if filmmakers aspire to create new worlds and experiences heretofore impossible in other techniques, embracing the artificiality of these worlds for greater narrative storytelling.
Thematically, cyberspace “reflects the American obsession with technology the hope that technologically produced places – unlike those in the ‘real’ world – can resolveour innermost problems” (Hozic 305). At the same time, cyberspace in fiction can also be a double-edged sword, as the solace that comes from technology can also bring about our deepest fears of loss of humanity, memory, physical form, and the inherent hollowness of investing too much in the digital world (Hozic 306). While these ideas are conceptually present in the entirety of the debate between film and digital cinema, filmmakers have also literalized these issues in the form of films about cyberspace that themselves use digital cinema as a tool for filmmaking. One of these films is 1999’s The Matrix, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, an action-sci-fi film which takes from a variety of influences, including kung fu movies, anime, and cyberpunk novels, to tell the story of a group of rebels fighting against a robotic menace that has subjugated humanity and placed them in an artificial world called the Matrix (Monnet 226). By using these genre elements in many different ways, as well as integrating elements of animation and digital cinema into the live-action elements of the film, The Matrix creates a heightened comic-book world that plays with the integration of humanity into the digital world.
The action-film blockbuster architecture of The Matrix allows the special effects in the film to themselves become a commentary on special effects and the digitalization of human beings. According to Monnet, both The Matrix and Ghost and the Shell (its inspiration) ”identify special effects scenes as privileged sites for a critical exploration of the crisis of representation provoked by the transition to a global culture of computer-generated images” (Monnet 226). The world of the Matrix is one of uncanny simulations of reality imposing themselves onto real people, who are themselves projections of their real selves. To that end, the Matrix itself s made creepy and unsettling through its strict hewing to reality as long as the simulation is not affected; the intervention of the rebels leads to things like CG-warped mirrors, ‘déjà vu’ black cats, and the impossible wire-fu acrobatics that the rebels (aware of the Matrix’s nature and able to bend the rules of reality) demonstrate in their fight against the machines. These elements are part and parcel of the film’s dedication to its cyberpunk origins, as well as its homage to other films about cyberspace and artificiality such as the original Ghost in the Shell (Monnet 233).
Just as the film uses CG and digital effects in innovative ways, the characters reflect on the digital nature of their lives. Shots of people scanning over the cryptic green code of the Matrix on a series of monitors personifies humanity relationship with digital technology – looking through millions of lines of code, understanding that it is not real, and yet trying to make sense of it. The Agents are themselves digital creatures, able to use CG morphing effects to do and be anyone they want, resulting in dizzying action sequences that are, superficially, the goal of the special effects in The Matrix. In their use, however, the work becomes more symbolically indicative of the desire for humanity to overcome the limitations of digital technology and assert their own humanity, identity and agency, which the ‘machines’ have robbed from them.
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence
As previously mentioned, anime and animation can often make great use of digital technology to enhance and create another unique element to a film’s look, while maintaining the weightiness and fluidity of animation (or lack thereof). This is also evident in Mamoru Oshii’s 2004 animated film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, a cyberpunk film of a similar vein to The Matrix (and whose predecessor, Ghost in the Shell, served as an inspiration for the filmmakers of The Matrix). Ghost in the Shell 2 follows the travails of Batou, the former partner of the first film’s protagonist, Major Kusanagi, in a world in which humans are constantly upgraded and enhanced with cybernetic technology – to the point where some humans are uploaded into cybernetic movies called ‘shells.’ The film itself follows the attempts by Batou to solve the murder of a human by a series of female sex-bots called ‘gynoids,’ leading him down a rabbit hole involving child prostitution, the possible reunion between him and Kusanagi, and more.
Much like its predecessor, Ghost in the Shell 2 deals heavily with the issue of the “feminine sublime,” the confluence between women as object and cybernetic object. Just as the first film dealt with Major Kusanagi as a figure of sexual desire (frequently showing her naked), Ghost in the Shell 2 deals with the ‘gynoids’ in much the same way, as they are shown within the text of the film to be objects for customer’s pleasure (Monnet 226). In their treatment of identity within the film itself, the ‘shells’ in the film’s title deal with a tremendous amount of conflict, relating closely to whether or not they are actually human or if they are digital creations. (This effect is compounded when you remember that these figures are, themselves, hand-drawn animated creations even in their realist form.)
Furthermore, the narrative and thematic undercurrent of Ghost in the Shell 2 deals equally with the issue of humanity and how it deals with the artificial as in The Matrix, though it has a bit more of a pluralistic, even-handed approach to machinery and the digital world than the other film in question. While The Matrix deals chiefly with the ‘machines’ as monolithic villains who have little complexity (apart from the self-loathing Agent Smith), Ghost in the Shell presents cybernetics as a complicated issue that the humans are unable to stop, yet also unprepared to deal with fully Major Kusanagi, as a fully-integrated digital being, is neither friend nor foe. Instead, she is simply a titular ‘ghost in the machine’ whose existence is not given to excessive moralizing in the film. Batou, instead, is caught up in the machinations of a society that abuses technology for its own ends (the abuse of the gynoids), extending the narrative to an issue of civil rights rather than outright subjugation. Whereas The Matrix somewhat hypocritically rebels against the machines that threaten to run their lives (while using dazzling CG effects in the process), Ghost in the Shell 2 embraces the digital world for all its faults and decides to live with it and see what the consequences will be.
One of the central tenets of traditional animation, including anime is jitter and weightlessness as potentials of animation which use their limitations to great effect (Lamarre 358). In Ghost in the Shell 2, digital animation is combined with these attributes to create that same sense of limitation that draws in the viewer and makes the world seamlessly interact with the traditional world of animation. The film’s opening scene, in which CG helicopters surround a high tower, is still coded as CG with its eerily plastic appearance and the textureless features of the helicopters; however, that same jitter and weightlessness present in the rest of the animated cel is there, with the filmmakers attempting to attach the same kind of heightened reality to the digital animation as they do with the film itself. Even in these small instances CG is used to create a greater fluidity of movement while maintaining at least an artificial resemblance to the traditional animation that surrounds it through jitter and weightlessness.
In both this film and The Matrix, the visualization of three-dimensional figures in two-dimensional space, enhanced by digital effects, the filmmakers “suggest that he desire to explore higher dimensional space has always haunted the cinema, animation and other media of the moving image, returning periodically in the guise of fantasies of transcendence” (Monnet 227). With The Matrix, this deals both with the path of Neo to achieve his status as ‘The One,’ and conversely Agent Smiths distaste for his digital existence and his desperate need to be free of it. In Ghost in the Shell 2, the transcendence in question lies in Major Kusanagi’s mysterious ascendance to the godlike status of a half-digital being existing solely in cyberspace, as well as the strange revolution that occurs within the gynoids (who are compelled to rebel against their masters by the original victim in the detective story, Jack Walkson.
Digital cinema is almost an inescapable tool of filmmaking now, with CG and digital animation becoming prevalent in a number of films, changing the priority of filmmaking from attaining gritty realism and verisimilitude with embracing the artifice and plasticity of CGI. In the case of Ghost in the Shell 2 and The Matrix, these combinations of live-action/hand-drawn animation and digital technology creates an uncanny effect within these films that personifies these conflicts. The Matrix, in its use of CG to depict the superhero-like powers of the rebels and Agents within the artificial Matrix, showcases the film’s themes of reality, identity and rebellion. Likewise, Ghost in the Shell 2’s use of CG animation in many aspects of the film’s world helps to underscore the real world’s gradual invasion by cybernetic issues and complications, highlighting the different ethical and moral quandaries that arise with the advent of AI and cybernetics. The conflicts within these films anthropomorphize the concerns regarding the rise of cyberspace and digital cinema, which are echoed in the sociological and economic integration of digital technology with Hollywood as a way of facilitating industry and changing the world market.
The rise of the blockbuster and a greater focus on spectacle filmmaking has allowed digital cinema to advance itself as a tool for bringing about that greater sense of unreality, as opposed to grounding filmmaking and storytelling in reality. While some may have concerns about the relegation of live action filmmaking to a mere canvas on which digital toys can be applied to make things less realistic, the advent of digital filmmaking can also, in the case of science fiction films like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell 2, provide a perfect canvas to explore these same issues on a grand, entertaining and thought-provoking scale.
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