Lord Puttnam Lecture: Technology

Technology

cinema

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