It seems that every year we’re introduced to some film that proposes itself to display the newest advancements in digital imaging technology. Occasionally these films even use the term revolutionary to describe how forward-moving their implementation of such technology is—not only revolutionary within the history of digital image creation, but revolutionary in its transformative potential of the medium of cinema itself. Such manufactured buzz has, of course, been attached to James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar, and this buzz predictably came to a halt with the release of the film’s trailer. If the trailer had been witnessed by audiences without the context of buzz so thoroughly propagated by Fox—if it were released, for instance, without Comic-Con, “Avatar Day,” or months upon months of non-teasing teaser photographs and footage—the trailer would have came across simply as an ad for an entertaining-looking sci-fi blockbuster popcorn flick from a highly respected and reliable filmmaker. But with hyperbolic language like “revolutionary” attached to the film for quite some time, the seemingly standard—if not sometimes unconvincing—quality digital effects of the trailer could not have made the trailer anything but disappointing.
I think the source of inevitable disappointment with digital imaging technology attempting to move forward, “revolutionize,” or simply be something more has a great deal to do with how permeating such imaging is throughout all forms of cinema today (big-budget and small-budget, mainstream and independent, foreign and domestic), how accustomed audiences have become to seeing such images, and how aware they now are of the processes of such image-creation. Cameron has quite the track record when it comes to digital imaging. He might not be the first director to use such technology in mainstream filmmaking, but he certainly popularized it with the landmark uses of digital imaging in The Abyss (1989) and Terminator 2 (1991). When Cameron says the technology in his film is “revolutionary,” people listen intently, and for good reason. But twenty years of digital imaging have passed since then, so it simply takes a lot more to impress audiences these days, and the expectations from such intended uses of the technology may indeed be impossible to achieve at this point.
The central issue at stake here is that of indexicality. A term with several arguable and often vague definitions in its employment within film analysis, indexicality for me has come to mean either of two things. The first definition is the relationship of an object filmed with its signified object in reality—as in, the way we recognize something as simple as a table to something as iconographic as the Eiffel Tower as it is shown within the framed, constructed image of a film to the way we know and understand it in our real-life experience. The way we perceive objects and beings in cinema, of course, can be deceiving and manipulative (e.g., a repeated trick of zooming out from the landscape of a city to the revelation of that city being a tiny model), which is why this first definition of indexicality takes a pertinent role. The second definition of indexicality pertains to the relationship of what was filmed to the image as it is ultimately projected on screen. Those tangible objects recognized as having been filmed in front of the camera are indexical, as they are rooted in a form of immediate reality captured by the moving image. Those objects not filmed in front of the camera alongside the indexical objects in the same shot that ultimately end up in the finished product are not indexical. Digitally animated creatures, as they are mostly a product of post-production and do not exist in the final product in the same way they initially appear in front of the camera (like motion capture vs. the image ultimately created from this process), are very clearly not indexical.
My first definition of indexicality is particularly pertinent to how audiences receive and interpret the existence of digital creatures onscreen because films often employ objects and creatures, especially in big-budget sci-fi and fantasy, that have absolutely no analogous relationship to our daily, lived reality (e.g., dinosaurs, aliens, Orcs, transforming robots). It is the filmmaker’s job, then, to make these objects and creatures seem to exist alongside tangible signifiers of reality (cars, people) in a way that is believable. Why does such a relationship only sometimes come across successfully onscreen? Why do we get wrapped up in the suspense of an impossible situation like a dinosaur chasing Jeff Goldblum, yet when we see Sam Worthington’s blue-skinned avatar wake up amongst a crew of human doctors, it rings false and unconvincing?
When we watch a Pixar movie, for instance, we allow our suspense of disbelief to act in full force as we observe three-dimensionally digitally animated creatures take on an impossible force of life (i.e., talking, cooking rats) because the digital landscape surrounding these creatures is consistent with the creatures themselves. However, when digital creatures occupy the same living, indexical landscape of tangible objects and humans—especially when they interact with recognizable actors—the level of believability becomes more complicated and problematic.
Audiences seem to have been so inundated with digital imagery in almost every major film released today, and are so aware of the process of creating these images through DVD special features and related press, that while they can be impressed with the level of detail digital creatures possess and the spectacle therein, digital creatures may never be fully believable onscreen in the same way as indexical humans or objects. No matter how impressive these images are, we simply know that digital creatures never existed in front of the camera during the time of filming. No matter how lifelike they are, they will never convincingly possess life (which is why Robert Zemeckis’ attempts at lifelike digital people continually look like creepy dead souls).
Digital imaging also contains a self-defeating temporal quality. While such imaging does possess the ability to revolutionize image creation and even reformulate how we experience cinema, it doesn’t age well. It’s probable that audiences flock to films that contain extensive use of digital imaging not to engage in suspending their disbelief, or expecting some sort of believable interaction between indexical characters and digital ones, but to witness the spectacle of the newest technology on display. Recent popular films like Transformers 2 can be argued as successful in part because of a spectacular lack of believability throughout (as the interaction between humans are just as robotic and lifeless as the interaction between robots). Because showing off the technology may be the goal over believability, what was “revolutionary” in the recent past can look almost silly now, thus taking any potential attempt at timelessness away from such films (look at Cameron’s work twenty years ago or the “revolutionary” bullet-time technology of The Matrix ten years ago). Such films only survive their retrospective technological limitations through another enduring factor, like the resonance of the story.
This beings me to the Yoda factor. Yoda is a character evident of the many changes in how filmmakers have used special effects technology, moving from puppet in the first Star Wars trilogy to digital creature in the second. Besides the nostalgia and superior storytelling of the original trilogy, puppet Yoda remains more convincing for many because he contains an indexical relationship with what was originally filmed. Despite that he was a lifeless puppet, he existed in some tangible form in front of the camera similar to how he ultimately showed up on film. Digital Yoda, however, doesn’t exist in the material world. While digital Yoda could move and do more than puppet Yoda, he simply didn’t seem as real. This I think rings true of most well-executed animatronics and puppetry vs. digital special effects. To this day we are still equally impressed and fixated by the many incarnations of “the thing” in The Thing (1982), the animatronic space creatures of the first two Alien films, and the selective use of animatronics in Jurassic Park (1993), yet many more recent digital creatures are nowhere near as convincing. Sure, animatronics and puppetry have their limits, but they forced a different kind of creativity (like only seeing parts of the creature in Alien, which made its horror that much more effective) than the imagination-only-limited-by-money of digital special effects, and isn’t restraint the true mark of a great artist? Limitless imagination needs limitation.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems by the trailer of Where the Wild Things Are that Spike Jonze’s film uses a combination of digital effects, animatronics, and puppetry, making the fictitious creatures featured in that trailer seem far more believable than the fully digital ones in Avatar. I long for a return to the believability of animatronics and puppetry, or at least a realization by filmmakers that if they are going to implement digital technology in the creation of their fantastic creatures, realism and believability should not be a tenable goal. The façade is all too apparent.