Back in the day, before the REDone and other digital cinema platforms, Hollywood used to make films on, well, film. In fact, many are still shot on 35mm stock and then later converted to digital for editing and effects purposes. There are, however, certain directors who have adopted either a completely digital workflow, or many aspects of one. Some pull it off successfully, as Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City (it doesn’t hurt that the clean, stylized comic book feel of that movie was tailor-made for HD), but some directors have taken digital cinema and used it poorly. These are the top 5 most guilty directors, and their films, of not just shooting digital, but utilizing it in the wrong ways and not playing to digital cinematography’s strengths.
5. Michael Mann (Public Enemies)
Public Enemies was a film with a strong cast and a strong premise. How can you go wrong with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale fighting each other during the 20’s gangster era? By messing with the tried and true image that film provides. Shot with Sony HD cameras, director Michael Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti (the same team that brought us the excellent movie Heat) wanted to bring the period piece into modern times. Their theory was that if you bring the clean world of HD into the past, it gives the time period a feeling of immediacy and modernity that can’t be evoked with film. Translation: film would’ve made the past seem well, most past-like. It’s the same idea that watching a home movie on VHS or 8mm evokes a certain era.
So what’s the problem then?
It didn’t work. At all. There is a certain expectation in watching a period piece that helps transplant you into that era. Film is one trick that can be used for this. The problem is the same as showing TV clips from the Vietnam war in High-Definition: it just doesn’t look right. Well, Mann and Spinotti ignored this and brought HD cameras back in time and gave the film an awkward stilted feel.
The number one evidence of this is in the gunfight scene in the woods. For this scene, they changed the shutter angle on the Sony cameras to 360 degrees, providing a look and feel that is similar to a 30fps framerate. (For those not familiar, film is shot at 24 frames per second, TV is at 30fps. Often that is why something shot on your home camcorder looks more amateur than “film-like”). The result was, for a trained eye, that it felt more like watching behind-the-scenes scrap footage of the gun-fight instead of the actual footage they shot of it. It was supposed to provide a reality. However, the problem is, that audiences are so attuned to the nuances of film that going against those conventions gives off an apparent fake quality.
The film also suffers from questionable cinematography: there are awkward wide angle close-ups that belong more in a Gilliam movie, but they are inconsistent and ill-placed. There is no purpose for them; it’s gimmicky. I hated this film and for more reasons than just the cinematography. Its a shame that Mann and Spinotti turned out such a disappointing venture, and part of the reason was for their misguided use of the digital medium.
4. David Fincher (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
David Fincher has one of my favorite quotes of all time about filmmaking: “There’s only two ways to shoot a scene and the other way is wrong.” He’s one of the more confident, controlled and compelling filmmakers out there providing a consistent vision and thread through each of his films. His last two films, Zodiac and Benjamin Button, were shot and edited on digital using Final Cut Pro. In fact, Fincher even switched editors during this transition from James Haygood (who worked with Fincher on The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room) to Angus Wall who cut both digital films and the upcoming The Social Network.
So what’s the problem then?
In a word: pacing. I am not sure why Fincher switched editors exactly, but I suspect that Haygood is a film editor and Wall was more familiar with the digital workflow. Seems practical, right? Well it is. And I’m not sure who is more guilty, Wall or Fincher, but either way, since his transition away from Haygood, Fincher has provided us with some bloated, slow-paced films. One of the biggest gripes with Benjamin Button has to do with it’s length. It felt very long. That isn’t to say it was a bad film, in fact, many parts of it were intriguing and quite good. But imagine if he had tightened it up a little bit more.
What I believe happened in Fincher’s transition to the digital medium and subsequently to a new editor, is that the digital NLE (non-linear editing) allowed Fincher to have more options. When you edit on film, the choices are much tinier, and in a way bigger. Film can be edited physically and one second (24 frames) is about a foot and a half long. In digital, one second is a simple click of the arrow. So what does this do? It means that the choices an editor and a director made are not quite as thought out. It’s a bigger deal to measure out 4 seconds or so of film than it is to make a few keystrokes. In simple terms: it makes for lazier editing.
Fincher’s past two films have been so much longer than they needed to be and had they been paceful pieces like Fight Club, may have ended up exponentially better. It’s usually the case that if you can make something shorter without diluting the message it has, it’ll be much more powerful. Think about a poem. A 50 page poem is full of endless metaphors and diction, but a 5 line poem forces the reader to invest so much more in each word. It’s message has a more focused impact. It’s too bad David Fincher hasn’t realized this yet. Also, sorry to Angus Wall as a by-product of this list.
Update: After The Social Network, I retract almost everything I said in this section of the post. Fincher and Wall both blew me away with a film that was beautifully filmed, paced, and constructed — though Sorkin-style dialogue certainly helped.
3. Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland)
Tim Burton gets ridiculed a lot for his “Gothic formula” and tendency to use the same crew and cast over and over (ahem, Elfman and Depp). Let it be known: I am a Tim Burton fan. The original Batman films were awesomely dark, Beetlejuice is a movie that is incredibly unique, and Edward Scissorhands is somehow creepy and touching at the same time. However, towards some of his more recent efforts, Burton began using what is called a “virtual camera.” That is, he uses computers to visualize a point-of-view of a camera sweeping through computer generated worlds. There is a lot of it in Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and judging from the trailers, the upcoming Alice in Wonderland.
So what’s the problem then?
It doesn’t look good. In fact, the CGI (computer generated imagery) that Burton often employs doesn’t even look real. It’s an utter red flag to the viewer telling them they’re watching a movie when, instead, they should be sucked into the world of the characters. Now, many filmmakers are guilty of this, true, but Tim Burton is a filmmaker that is working backwards. He proved that he could make excellent films, like the ones I mentioned above, without using this virtual camera. The shots seem so entirely unnecessary as well. He achieved much of these same shots in Batman using practical cranes.
The fact of the matter is, Tim Burton isn’t very crafty when it comes to computer visual effects. Can you imagine if he had had access to these tools when he was making Beetlejuice? Part of what makes Beetlejuice so strange and compelling is that it uses a combination of practical tricks, stop-motion animation and tangible sets that are crafted carefully, but most importantly, are tangible. Audiences know when something is there and when something exists in the world of a computer and one provides a certain realism while the other breaks through the thin veil that is their suspension of disbelief. Beetlejuice with CGI would’ve been a disgusting mess and wouldn’t have held the same charm that watching Michael Keaton actually interact with a real giant blade of grass would.
I just don’t think Burton employs his CGI in a well-mannered way and uses it as a lazy “get out of jail free” card for when a shot he wants is too complex to do practically. I understand he is an artist and I can sympathize with his yearning to turn his films into better manifestations of his artistic brush stroke, but he was in his prime when the filter of actually producing it tangibly forced him into making brilliant creative decisions. It’s disappointing to me as a Burton fan to see such a former talent ease into the digital world with no concern for the mess it causes of his films.
*I should also note that Burton’s use of color grading/correction also plays a heavy role in the downturn of his films. He has replaced practical cinematography with a penchant to use the computer to manipulate his colors and tones.
2. Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol)
Robert Zemeckis was at one time poised to be a rival to Spielberg in his ability to bring thoughtful, crafted pieces of cinema to a mainstream audience. He had made such wonderful films as Forrest Gump, the Back to the Future trilogy, Cast Away and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? As a live-action director, Zemeckis was at the top of his game and at the top of Hollywood. Then he became obsessed with what is known as “performance capture,” where you capture an actor’s performance (funny huh?) and render it on a digital character. This resulted in films like The Polar Express with Tom Hanks and A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey.
So what’s the problem then?
Besides the obvious problem that Zemeckis has just been beaten to a pulp at his own game by James Cameron and Avatar, Zemeckis was never able to provide a film that matched his live-action efforts. All three of Zemeckis’ performance capture features have been panned by critics, and largely by audiences (save for A Christmas Carol, which did alright). He hasn’t found the same success.
Much of the problem is the same with Burton’s use of the virtual camera, but on a much larger scale since Zemeckis’ worlds are completely computer generated. The biggest technological hurdle, however, was the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is a term used in robotics to describe the effect of making something look human, at some point there is a sharp drop off where it looks too human and is creepy. See the chart to the right.
Avatar has jumped this obstacle, I believe, but Zemeckis was never able to. His characters often seemed stiff, lifeless, and as a result, eerie, despite the fact that strong actors such as Hanks were behind the hollow eyes. One of the MAJOR reasons Forrest Gump is so monumentally successful is Tom Hanks. Watch his eyes, his body, his nuances. Those can’t be replicated inside a computer. Forrest is a sympathetic character because we can see into his soul. We understand him. He exists.
The reason Zemeckis is number two on this list is because he has robbed movie audiences from whatever live-action endeavors he would’ve embarked on while instead providing us with films that range from poor to average. He is such a craftsman in his earlier films, it’s a shame to wonder what could have been if he had continued to work with actors like Hanks on original stories like Cast Away (A side note: none of his performance capture stories have been original, they’ve all been based on some literature). If anything, Zemeckis has earned his number two slot for his proportion of success and potential to his current affairs thanks to the digital medium.
1. George Lucas (The Star Wars Prequels)
If you’ve made it this far down the list and don’t know who George Lucas is, I’m surprised. The father of technological revolution in cinema, George Lucas brought about or was involved in some way with THX sound, Pixar, NLE editing systems (with the Edit Droid) and yes, HD cameras. That last bit was his holy grail. Lucas wanted to be able to make films with digital images. An admirable goal and one he helped achieve by constantly investing money and pushing the boundaries for it. And yet, the man who gave cinema so many gifts in the form of technology, was stripped of his geek status by using them to film the Star Wars prequels.
So what’s the problem then?
Where do you begin? George Lucas is to sci-fi film fans what Eve is to the Christian believer: he bit the apple and ruined it all for the rest of us. His sins against Star Wars, to some, are so huge that they outweigh every other good thing he has provided (the original trilogy, Indiana Jones). George Lucas’ obsession with computers as a filmmaking medium ultimately lead to the filming of the prequels largely on blue screen or green screen stages. What was once a franchise that pioneered motion controlled cameras to film models for the original trilogy’s fight scenes, now became a franchise that pioneered the use of digital characters that nobody likes (Jar Jar Binks).
What George Lucas seemingly never understood is that people enjoyed the original Star Wars movies first because the story was great, the characters interesting and the plot was serviceable. The fact that it was in space and had laser guns and lightsabers was second and only added to the intrigue. It provided a unique setting for a story that we were already invested in. Lucas decided to switch this around for the prequels and give us a story that sucked but way more lightsabers. The thing is, that’s not at all what we wanted. In Episode IV, you are transported to Tatooine in part because you feel sympathetic to Luke. In no way did I ever care at all about Naboo because if they had blown it up, Jar Jar Binks would’ve gone with it and I was OK with that. You make audiences care about your characters first then they will care what happens in the story.
The reason George Lucas should’ve stayed away from digital is he became so controlling over aspects of the environment and digital ships and creatures, that he forgot to give a hell about what was live-action in front of him. He was trying to show off “oh look what I can make with this!” But nobody cared. People love the Mos Eisley bar scene in Episode IV because the creatures are fascinating, yes, but it was also impressive that they were actually there and not from a computer. Couple that with the fact that those creatures were not there for show, but provided a threat to Luke. They were there to let us know that Luke isn’t going to save the world so easily and that there are dangerous aliens in this foreign galaxy. They served a PURPOSE.
I advise all who are into film criticism to watch this seven-part-review of The Phantom Menace on YouTube. The style of the presentation is goofy and quirky, but the criticisms are real and well-thought out. This was first brought to attention to the public by Damon Lindelof who is one of the head writers and creators of LOST. This review provides many more excellent points than I could ever, especially the part having to do with why lightsaber duels are contingent on the emotional weight of the characters, not how many swords are involved. Watch Part I here.
The digital cinema revolution is exciting and growing ever larger with each subsequent year that a film is shot on RED or the Arri D20 or even an HVX. But filmmakers need to learn not to fall into traps that the digital world provides. I am not against digital cinema, in fact, I am more for it than most would be lead to believe, but there are certain lessons from film that should carry over. Simply because we can swoop a camera down, around, up and through someplace doesn’t mean we should. The easiness to achieve something is not a reason to use it. Treat digital like film and it can be a powerful medium that allows for low-costs, easier work flows and a similar experience to film. If only these five above would learn to stop falling into their same traps and embrace the cinema like we all know they can.
Stay tuned for the Top 5 Directors Who Have Used Digital the Right Way.
What do you think about digital filmmaking? or CGI? or any of these five filmmakers? Is there anybody else working in Hollywood who you think has fallen into the trap of the digital medium? Let me know in the comments.