More After Effects fun, this time with the theme “Colours”.
Click to watch (you’ll need QuickTime):
Of late I’ve been playing around with Adobe After Effects, which would seem an odd sort of thing to get involved with for a documentary filmmaker, but as all filmmakers trade in visual information, I’m eager to explore the fancier side of visual storytelling. And as I have slowly increased my mastery of Final Cut in the last year, I have also had a parallel increase in frustration over some of the more lacklustre design effects packaged with the software. How many times have I gone into the video filters control panel to manipulate colour, speed, framing, or size, and said ‘why oh why don’t they marry Final Cut and PhotoShop?’
Unbeknownst to me until recently, they apparently have. After Effects allows complex layered manipulation of images, video, and sound files on a timeline. One can prepare images in Photoshop, port them to After Effects, animate them by introducing the fourth dimension, and then seamlessly fuse them with filmed footage in Final Cut, which is exactly how I made my first attempt at using the software, a little film called ‘Soup’.
With the help of online tutorials, Google maps, and NASA satellite images, I constructed a sequence in After Effects that began with a bird’s-eye shot of a single house in East London, then zoomed out dramatically from London to the earth, moving through space and beyond. I then fused this sequence in Final Cut with footage of my housemate Scarlet enjoying a nice bowl of soup. The result is a quite unintentionally funny homage to the theory that the matter of the universe is infinitely contained within itself, like an endless collection of petrushka dolls, revealed through a zoom travelling along a continuously looping timeline. Or, perhaps more realistically, the limits of the universe are reached, digested in the belly of the cosmos along with the rest of lunch.
Click to watch the experiment (you’ll need QuickTime):
The end of Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates an important philosophy in cinema: if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Indiana and Marion avoid complete annihilation by simply averting their gaze from the erupting ark, while the Nazi invaders, drunk with scopophilia (note how the first spirits out of the ark are beautiful, sensuous women), are so overcome with the sight in front of them that they are literally blinded before disintegrating into puddles of oozing gunk. No doubt Spielberg uses his directorial authority to exact a kind of revenge on the Nazis for attempting to look into the inscrutable face of God; perhaps he even implies an oblique criticism of American ignorance-cum-denial of the Holocaust in the early stages of the war.
Currently in cinemas, Waltz with Bashir returns us to the analyst’s chair by suggesting that you don’t need to see it for it to exist: the mind can bring it into existence through the power of suggestion, association, and presumption. The form of the film triumphs this point: what would seem a completely incompatible format for documentary – animation – contains some of the most evocative and ostensibly realistic scenes in recent memory (and I generally avoid animation as a rule), yet we are always a further stage removed from the reality of the thing because we are not witnessing filmed events and interviews, but instead illustrations of them. Ari Folman, who stars and directs, suggests at one point a connection between his inability to remember his role in the pillaging of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and his parents’ experience in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Was he there when the atrocities unfolded inside the Lebanese camps? Did he participate in a slaughter of innocents? Does it matter? The film suggests it doesn’t, that seeing is not always essential for believing. Atrocities are absorbed and stored in the collective psyche, archived like the ark at the end of Spielberg’s film, lost yet liable to be stumbled upon and opened in subsequent generations by a gesture as simple as a dream.
It’s a powerful notion and one that reminds us that the most important equation in understanding history – cause equals effect – isn’t enough to understand the story: perception, perspective, and remembrance, as fallible as they may be, cannot be discounted. It’s a shame Waltz with Bashir ends with ‘real’ news footage of the aftermath of the massacre, a final coda that feels like the meddling of a producer who wanted to heighten the emotional impact of the finale by showing actual images of bloated corpses and rubble. Far from grounding us in the real, the footage actually has the opposite effect: it makes us question the validity of the experience of the rest of the film, the authority of which we had hitherto accepted without doubt. It is an unnecessarily sensationalist diversion from an otherwise masterful psychological journey. After all, sometimes it is more interesting to contemplate the things we haven’t seen.
Over the last year I’ve watched with a slight tinge of bewilderment as the Westfield London Shopping Centre has materialised out of the wastelands around BBC Television Centre. Built in a style that is horrifically fashionable these days (see any recent Tube station, bus terminal, or cheap office block), an architecture clearly based on the notion that burnished sheet metal, polyurethane resin, and oblique angles equals contemporary, there is nothing decorated about this shed: it’s a minimalist cathedral to consumerism, the flying buttresses having been replaced by whitewashed steel supports, the naves multiplied and covered with coffered Plexiglas vaults offering stingy glimpses of the unruly heavens just beyond the protective skin of the building. Yet there is nothing inspiring, interesting, or even remotely ironic about the structure: it is, without question, the quintessence of drab, entirely devoid of even a hint of post-apocalyptic bleakness that would at least redeem it by triggering a visceral reaction. It is almost the physical incarnation of an online shopping experience, a collection of stores aggregated and ordered against the stark white page of a Google search. But none of this is what gives me incredible unease about the place. After all, a mall is a mall, and I’m almost willing to trade a little character for a well-stocked Waitrose ten walking minutes away. What stresses me out more than anything else is the ease with which a suburban experience born out of the accessibility afforded by the automobile, the most evil thing going, has flourished within an urban space.
In Dawn of the Dead, the post-apocalyptic vision par excellence of suburban America fuelled by (predominantly white) flight from urban centres, George Romero showed us where we’re going, and a quick stroll through the Westfield shows us that we’ve already arrived. Dazed shoppers bobble about in search of fleshy brands, ravenous hordes foraging for material goods driven by a now primordial urge to stoke the engines of commerce. Why do they come here? “Some kind of instinct,” our hero Stephen tells us. Like the Monroeville Mall, the Westfield is its own village; it’s a vision of the perfect capitalist utopia, where even the architecture has become invisible to allow brands to compete for attention. It’s public space inverted, a private space made to appear public, and it cannot conceive of anything outside of itself. Like the intrepid colonists in Dawn of the Dead, we barricade ourselves against the chaotic world without, unsavoury and improperly socialised characters clawing mindlessly against panes of glass offering tantalising glimpses of a lifestyle that, for them, is just beyond reach. But there is hope for these tired, poor, huddled masses: the mall is a sign of the engines of indoctrination into the capitalist machine, through which one can attain any status one desires based purely on the ability to pay.
I recently gave a presentation to a gathering of BBC business stakeholders on the relative merits of cross-divisional content sharing and to open the discussion I compared the BBC website to the cityscape of London. The site has grown organically over the last decade, often reflecting internal corporate divisions and political structure rather than audience goals. It is a mass of cyber-communities, many of them isolated and autonomous, making it confusing and difficult to navigate. London developed in much the same way. Seen from overhead, London’s slow organic growth over centuries is vividly apparent. Villages, neighbourhoods, and even streets developed independently of each other, often with little interconnecting logic except vague attempts at joining up to major avenues. Dead ends abound. These villages were constructed either to keep people in or to keep people out; they were (and still are to a great extent) communities built around exclusivity and the tension between public and private ownership. Because of this patchwork quilt, I have often referred to London not as a metropolis (Modern New York City wins that title with its easily navigable grid comfortably tying together different neighbourhoods) but as a cosmopolis, a collection of self-contained villages, each with its own character (or, as can be the case, lack of character), each possessing an internal navigational logic, and each existing independently yet depending on the others, like organs in the body of the city. Proof is in the fact that one needs a map in London any time one steps out of a familiar zone; hostility towards the pedestrian is painfully apparent in the number of violent flyovers, disorienting roundabouts, and de-humanising subterranean crosswalks smelling of urine and dank earth. And only in a city that’s less a city and more a collection of villages could such a closed, exclusive community like the Westfield develop within the fabric of the urban space, a space that should intend to integrate rather than segregate. I think I may take my chances with the zombies outside.
This week I saw a 5-minute film that would seem to herald the death of cinema.
There’s been talk recently about the convergence of television and film at a formal level: some half a century after television consumption began its meteoric post-WWII rise (to the apparent detriment of cinema attendance), television production values, script quality, and visual complexity may have finally caught up with film. Oft-cited shows which appear to have matched their cinematic relatives include ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’.
But this argument only holds if we compare the formal presentation of the media irrespective of the mode of consumption. Comparing a DVD of, say, any film featuring Will Ferrell to an episode of ‘The Sopranos’ does indeed indicate a disparity, and Monsieur Ferrell’s enterprise fares notably unwell. But this disparity is not so convincing when we take into account the socio-psychological differences between watching films in a cinema and on a television. The former is an epically public, visceral event during which one enters a dark womb of collective individual experience; the latter is a mundanely domestic, distracted experience through which one creates and enhances social bonds. The cinema-going experience is inherently raw: we permit ourselves to be made vulnerable by sitting defencelessly in a darkened room surrounded by strangers while allowing our emotions to be manipulated. Television feels safe, the action confined to a small box ten or so feet away in the sanctity of the home, the controlling remote within easy reach. Yes, television programme makers are now able to construct a cinematic narrative and weave a complex visual fabric, but the apparatus governing its consumption precludes any assertion that it can truly make me feel the way I do when I go to the moving pictures.
But what if we were to transcend the technical limitations of television? This week I went to a presentation in the BBC Media Centre given jointly by the BBC Research & Innovation lab and the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) called ‘Beyond HD’, a demonstration of the latest iteration of Super Hi-Vision, also known as Ultra-High Definition Television. Hitherto I’ve ignored high definition as a viable contender in the battle to replicate the look of traditional film, and as we watched the footage, I was struck by the inescapable digital feel of it all – it still looks like video. But what made this different was the inescapable detail of the image, as 33 megapixels of resolution made this high definition on steroids (sixteen times the resolution of ‘standard’ high def, in fact), while a screen as wide as the room coupled with twenty-two channels of audio yanked us out of our seats and threw us into a post-cinematic world.
This was no television experience, and this was beyond the tenuous comfort afforded by the theatre; the closest correlate I can think of is an amusement park ride. The first image on the omni-screen was an epic NASA-like view of the earth rolling in the gelatine of the cosmos, and when it appeared I was immediately overcome with a sense of unsettledness, a vertiginous unease like I had peered over the edge of an abyss. Was this real? No. But why did it feel real? Why was it all around me, invading my periphery, resplendent in all its gory detail, why couldn’t I escape it? Image after image spilled out of the frame and into my visual sphere: sunflowers teetering in the breeze, insects emerging moist and glistening from their cocoons, landscapes of sand pulsing and vomiting forth waveswept turtles; all in incredible, crisp, seemingly three-dimensional detail. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I was reminded of Maxim Gorky’s description of his first cinema-going experience: ‘Last night, I was in the kingdom of the shadows… Not life, but the shadow of life. Not life’s movement, but a sort of mute spectre… It is terrible to see, this movement of shadows, nothing but shadows, the spectres, these phantoms.’ Over a century later, are the spectres finally dead, the shadows having been obliterated by an all-consuming ambient digital light? I had to turn my head for a visual respite, unaccustomed to having life presented to me as hyper-reality, and I pondered one of the bullet points from the presentation before the film that had asserted ‘camera technology is now exceeding the resolution of the eye’. Indeed this was an understatement!
It will likely take several years for Super Hi-Vision to make its way into the consumer market, but it will, and quite possibly in the next decade one will have the option to turn one’s living room into a cinematic showplace. The unique paradox of cinema as an anti-social social activity will be further challenged, as it is absorbed into the personal domestic space. But television such as this is in truth no longer domestic, as it demands completely submissive attention, to the detriment of the social interaction inherent in the cultural act of watching television. As the film came to a close, a group of Japanese children sang a song reminiscent of ‘We Are the World’. I paid little attention to the song and its underlying suggestion that technology is making the world smaller and more accessible – the only thing I could concentrate on was the cuff of a young girl’s pant leg, curled up under the tongue of her shoe in a most annoying way, and she being there, right in front of me, I wished more than anything else to reach out and correct it. It took all my willpower not to try.
I woke this morning with a pair of dilemmas brewing: how to spend the better part of day in the sunshine and on what film to write my inaugural musing? Last week I saw Julian Schnabel’s ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ at the Roxy Bar and Screen (a nice little venue near London Bridge), and at the time I thought I’d found the subject of my first review. Visually it was a very nice film indeed, but I didn’t realise it was directed by Schnabel until afterwards, and what at first appeared an intriguing French film became a superficial reasoning of what a French film should look like – some PoMo pastiche anyone? – and frankly one can only write so much about various eye twitchings and recurring prenatal images of a man in a diving bell floating in a thick sea of semiotic sludge.
Instead, I decided to spend the morning walking from Shepherd’s Bush to Mile End, assuming the sunshine and a twelve-mile walk would offer some inspiration. Armed with my iPod and J.G. Ballard’s ‘Kingdom Come’ (for periods of rest), I left the house and headed east, past the Shepherd’s Bush Market (a place if one stands in the middle of which one can easily imagine having been transported to a Turkish bazaar), over the top of Shepherd’s Bush Green (a kind of Tompkins Square Park sans the alphabet and teeming with gaggles of perpetually under-dressed Antipodeans), and under the vaguely unsettling unshadow of the gleaming new Westfield mall (welcome to the sub-urbanisation of London). Shepherd’s Bush is sharply quarantined from the affluence of more desirable western postcodes by the Holland Park Roundabout; emerging on the other side of it, I was suddenly in a different city: the decaying Edwardian charm of the Bush gave way to imposing neo-classical facades and giant trees drooping over the chugging traffic of Holland Park Road.
By this time, I had walked my way through Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’, a few cheesy trance numbers, and a considerable amount of Pet Shop Boys top 40 hits. Over the next six hours I would work my way through a generous catalogue of music ranging from classical to pop, each flavour and genre becoming a kind of soundtrack for that leg of my journey. Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ saw me nostalgically through the American invasion in Notting Hill; Ben Watt’s ‘Buzzin’ Fly’ urged me across Hyde Park and then contrasted oddly with the oil-rich abayat spilling out of Harrods; the sophisticated tragedy of Billie Holiday made the unfathomable wealth of Belgravia seem a tad bit excessive. Onwards I marched toward the East End, passing from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, from village to village, like chapters of a screenplay, each containing scenes comprising an epic narrative, this journey from the West.
During the time I lived in New York City I must have walked a distance the length of Manhattan hundreds of times, and I’ve walked the width of London dozens. When alone, I almost always have my private soundtrack playing, and today I realised how cinematic these walks have been, all of them a collection of experiences bound together seamlessly by music. In New York I passed from one neighbourhood to the next in the way that makes New York the ultimate metropolitan experience: through the streamlined Modernist grid, the barriers to commerce having been straightened and cleared, the neo-flâneur able to choose his or her adventure unobstructed. But as much as New York feels like the most cinematic of all cities – the backdrop of a million movies – London is even more so when taken in over the course of a long walk. Out of private estates, farms, and settlements its collection of villages has grown organically and uncomfortably into a patchwork of loosely related plots and cosmopolitan dialogues. Based principally on privacy, exclusion, and inaccessibility, London’s neighbourhoods enforce the narrative journey instead of allowing the journey to be forced upon them. One can easily get lost in London (and one does, even with an ‘A to Z’), but this is part of the fun, isn’t it, in the same way one enjoys losing oneself for two hours in front of the big screen.
| Map of my route |