Lord Puttnam Lecture: Technology

Technology

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One of Lord Puttnam’s final lectures focused on technology and, in particular, the importance of innovation in the history of cinema. After looking extensively at innovations of the past such as animation, surround sound and computer-generated imagery, he moved on to some of the possible advancements in our future. One of those advancements was “Virtual Reality”, a relatively new area of technology that seems to be improving exponentially year after year. Lord Puttnam remarked on the many ways in which this technology could change the face of cinematic storytelling as we know it, but he returned to his previous, and seemingly most important point about how, “cinema, at its heart, is all about identity”.

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If virtual reality cannot make us identify with what we are seeing on anything more than an immediate, visceral level, then it will be forever seen as a theme park attraction instead of an artistic one. Lord Puttnam mentioned both Life of Pi (Ang Lee, 2012) and Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) as examples of immersive filmmaking. Not only were these films physically immersive, with the use of 3-D technology, but also emotionally immersive with sympathetic protagonists and stories of human struggle and survival. Virtual Reality can achieve a sense of physical immersivity that goes far beyond what was shown to us by Ang Lee or Alfonso Cuarón. The technology can allow you to feel like you are swimming with sharks or flying through the clouds or even floating out in space. However, the question that surrounds virtual reality is whether or not it can replicate the emotional connection that an audience has when the lights go down in a cinema and the screen comes to life.

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One way to cultivate this much needed emotional connection between an audience and the content they are consuming is to have them guided by creative voice that is able to highlight the human in something so modern and technological. A lot of the current crop of “VR” practitioners come from a technical background and their output tends to reflect that. I believe, as the technology becomes more user-friendly and gets employed by a more natural set of storytellers, virtual reality will become much more than just physically immersive.

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At a visual effects summit in Beverly Hills, Oscar-winning cinematographer, Wally Pfister remarked on virtual reality, “When somebody like Danny Boyle cracks it with emotional content, it will be cool.” (Indiewire). Danny Boyle, in many ways, would be the perfect pioneer for virtual reality. I’d have faith that he wouldn’t get bogged down in the endless cycle of technical innovation like James Cameron did with his efforts promoting 3-D technology for his 2009 film, Avatar. Boyle is the type of director who uses technology, first and foremost, as a tool to tell a story. You see this daring, innovative use of technology on 28 Days Later (2002), where he chose to film on cheap, handheld digital cameras to achieve a post-apocalyptic naturalism that, so far, has never been bettered. Boyle possesses an ability to connect an audience with characters from all walks of life, whether they be the slums of Mumbai or the streets of Edinburgh. I believe this ability, coupled with his comfort in collaboration, makes him an ideal candidate to bring identity to virtual reality.

VR Ted Talk

Gravity FX

28 Days Later Making Of

 

 

 

Lord Puttnam Lecture: Animation

Animation and Effects

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I thought it would be interesting to move from, Local Hero, one of David Puttnam’s favourite films of his own, to Memphis Belle (Michael Caton-Jones, 1990) a film which he appears to regard as a complete failure. Lord Puttnam first made mention of Memphis Belle in his lecture on animation, which widened in scope as he went on and ended up focusing on the use of computer generated imagery in today’s films. He didn’t go into too much detail on the film’s failings but alluded to the fact that it came out during a period of technological innovation which meant that its traditional use of practical effects as well as its period setting made it look out of date and antiquated.

In his lecture, Lord Puttnam consistently reinforced the need for innovation in filmmaking. He used the example of Walt Disney films in the 70s and 80s to show how audiences can quickly become disenchanted when the films they are seeing no longer overawe or inspire them. I believe Memphis Belle was a victim of this same disenchantment as audiences had grown accustomed to the same old practical effects that had been in use since the 1970s. They recognised when something was taking place on a set, or when an actor would swap out for his stunt double. In short, the magic of the movies was fading.

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The shortcomings of the film are even more transparent today as we are well aware of the massive boom in computer generated imagery that was right around the corner. It is almost hard to believe when you are watching the jarringly apparent effects work in Memphis Belle that films like Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991) or Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) are only a year or two away. It is films like these which led to the resurgence of blockbuster filmmaking which fostered a competitive atmosphere in Hollywood with each film trying to outdo the previous one in terms of computer generated, lifelike effects. Lord Puttnam commented that the film would fare much better in today’s market as the effects work would be seamless, with digitally rendered imagery being used to create dazzlingly realistic dogfights in the sky.

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However, the film not only falls short on a technical level, but it rings surprisingly hollow when it comes to the human element. I’d suspect that a lot of the character work that is traditionally well served in most of Puttnam’s films was deemed second fiddle to the action set pieces at the heart of the picture. As a result, neither element works and they come together in an awkward, paper-thin excuse for a film. It really is a shame as Puttnam had proved so adept with bringing stories of human struggle and triumph to the screen in the past. Had they acknowledged that the technology simply was not there for the film they wanted to make, they could have narrowed their focus to the inner lives of these heroic pilots and explored what exactly it was they were going through.

Memphis Belle Trailer

T2 Special FX

Lord Puttnam Lecture: Local Hero

Local Hero

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David Puttnam’s lecture on Local Hero (Bill Forsyth, 1983) was enlightening in the ways in which he narrowed down the reasons why an audience would connect with a film. He states, “there are three key elements to making a successful film and they are; the words, the visuals and the music.” He goes on to say that, “at different times and in different films, one of those key elements dominates, and sometimes the music can dominate.” I think that, in the case of Local Hero, the music can certainly dominate. As a matter of fact, it’s probably fair to say that more people are familiar with Mark Knopfler’s score than they are with the film itself. I don’t mean to undervalue Bill Forsythe’s brilliantly observed dialogue and direction or Chris Menges’ idyllic images either, I just feel like Knopfler’s score is so well-integrated yet transcendent that it can’t help but become the defining aspect of the film.

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I think that one of the main reasons why the score is so effective is because it breaks the rules of traditional scoring that audiences had become accustomed to. It’s no mistake that David Puttnam suggested Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits when it came time to choose a composer. Puttnam had a niggling feeling that music had been, “badly served”, in film for too long and had grown somewhat, “antiquated.” Knopfler, having never scored a film before, viewed Local Hero as a spectator and a composer in equal measure. Whereas an established composer may have come to the film with preconceived notions of the narrative and the traditional music it would require, Knopfler had a more instinctive, introspective approach.

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In his review of the score, William Ruhlmann wrote that Knopfler’s, “fingerpicked guitar stylings make a perfect musical complement to the wistful tones of Bill Forsyth’s comedy film.” I too felt this sense of perfection when I was first watching the film. The music never feels preconceived or packaged, it plays somewhat as an accompaniment inside the minds of the audience, reflecting the emotions being evoked by what’s happening onscreen. This feeling of the music operating as a spectator instead of some all-knowing conductor may come from Knopfler’s unique way of scoring in which he would sit with his guitar and strum along as he watched the film play out before him on a screen. I think this unconventional approach helps underscore the film’s bittersweet nature as the music oscillates between wanting what’s best for the characters but feeling conflicted at the nature of MacIntyre’s visit.

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During my research into this topic it became clear that Puttnam’s unique choice of composer was not an isolated incident, but instead part of a wider trend in his work where he would always try to do something innovative with the music. We see this innovation again in his previous film Chariots Of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981), which has an anachronistic, electronic score playing over a story set in the 1920’s. This choice, yet again, serves as a way to strengthen the audience’s connection with the film. The modern fusion of electronic music allows an audience to engage with the story in a more immediate way, whereas a traditional, old-fashioned orchestral score would have put the audience at arm’s length and situated the story firmly in the past.

Puttnam Local Hero Interview

Mark Knopfler Making Of Local Hero

Vangelis – Chariots Of Fire

Moroder – Midnight Express