If you can’t find it, fake it

December 21, 2009

“If I did Titanic today, I’d do it very differently. There wouldn’t be a 750-foot-long set. There would be small set pieces integrated into a large CGI set. I wouldn’t have to wait seven days to get the perfect sunset for the kiss scene. We’d shoot it in front of a green screen, and we’d choose our sunset.” –James Cameron

“Reading those comments by James Cameron just makes me feel sad for movie making today.” —afscot

Why is my buddy sad? Because he thinks it’s weird to fabricate something that exists in the real world for the sake of convenience. Film makers are relying more and more on technology to substitute for the real when the real isn’t readily available or would be more expensive to procure or create. Forget shooting on location in some remote jungle for weeks when you can set up a green screen and do the same work in a few days. Don’t worry about building some elaborate contraption to make your actor appear to be missing limbs, or setting an actual stunt person on fire, or blowing up the Statue of Liberty in miniature; computers can handle everything. Depressing, isn’t it?
Not really. Movies are fictional, after all, and they always have been. Anyone yearning for some mythical good old days seems to have forgotten that once upon a time, movies were filmed on sound stages with staged lighting and painted backgrounds that were swapped out as soon as the director said, “That’s a wrap!” It wasn’t until the 1960’s that one could say most films were shot on location, and that didn’t mean they were bereft of the various trappings of the studio stuff. Even Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité required specialized technology and careful setup, not to mention the eventual manipulation of the raw footage through editing. No movie can truly said to be “real,” only a more or less realistic representation of reality as we know it. Why, then, cannot “as we know it” become “as we wish it to be”?
Still, is there something to be said for shooting “practical” instead of digital? Naturally; until recently, and arguably still today, technology had not sufficiently advanced to be able to trick the audiences’ brains into accepting the animated as something that actually exists. However, movies like Avatar push the boundaries of the impossible back to make room for a few more possibilities. Does it matter whether the enormous eyes and blue fur of a character are digital or pasted on and sewn together? Does it matter whether the spaceship flying through an alien jungle is a miniature or a computer model? Both are equally unreal, and yet can be equally satisfying.
In time–perhaps now!–it may very well be easier and more cost effective to simply fabricate a sunset than to have a film crew standing by every day for a week to capture an hour or so of footage in the hopes that it yields the perfect shot. If anything, the film makers of the distant past would probably find it sad that anyone would wait on that sort of thing when they could just have an artist paint a backdrop and be done with it.
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