Saturday, April 2, 2011

Dear James addendum to my article

I was watching Jurassic Park tonight for the umpteenth time, something far more entertaining than anything you've managed to create in the last decade. It has its problems, several of them if you're really paying attention, but it's still a blast to watch. I remember seeing this one in the theater when I was younger. It was one of those theaters with only three screens, the kind of theater that rarely continues to exist today. The movie was so wildly popular at the time that tickets were selling out like mad. I was happy just to get an aisle seat, but nowadays there are so many screens at an average theater that getting a good seat is hardly ever an issue. Times sure have changed, but has it been for the better? Does a more comfortable audience make a better audience? Or does it make an audience which is only more lazy, lacking the willingness to put just as much effort into understanding the film as the filmmaker put into creating it? Is technology really our best friend, or is it all just an illusion?

Well, if we're going by what Jurassic Park tells us, I guess technology isn't always our best friend. However, that's not really why I mentioned the movie. I mentioned it because there was one scene in particular which seemed to stick out like a sore thumb this time around. Now, I don't proclaim to be the first one to notice this particular moment in the film and I'm not going to say that my personal take on this scene is the end all be all, but stick with me on this: remember the scene where Hammond is talking to Ellie while eating the melting ice cream? He describes his first attraction, a flea circus of some sort. Here's the scene in its entirety:

Ellie Sattler: Malcom's okay for now. I gave him a shot of morphine.

John Hammond: They'll be fine. Who better to get the children through Jurassic Park than a dinosaur expert? You know the first attraction I built when I came down from Scotland … was a flea circus. Petticoat Lane. Really … quite wonderful. We had, uh … a wee trapeze, a merry-go…carousel. Heh. And a see-saw. They all moved, motorized, of course, but people would say they could see the fleas. "No, I can see the fleas. Mummy, can't you see the fleas?" Clown fleas, highwire fleas and fleas on parade. But with this place … I wanted to give them something that wasn't an illusion. Something that was real. Something they could see, and touch. An aim not devoid of merit.

Ellie Sattler: But you can't think through this one, John. You have to feel it.

John Hammond: You're right, you're absolutely right. Hiring Nedry was a mistake, that's obvious. We're over-dependent on automation, I can see that now. Now, the next time everything's correctable. Creation is an act of sheer will. Next time it'll be flawless.

Ellie Sattler: It's still the flea circus. It's all an illusion.

John Hammond: When we have control again –

Ellie Sattler: You never had control! That's the illusion! I was overwhelmed by the power of this place. But I made a mistake, too. I didn't have enough respect for that power and it's out now. The only thing that matters now are the people we love. Alan and Lex and Tim … John, they're out there where people are dying. So … [takes a spoonful of ice cream] it's good.

Now, think of this scene in the context of the movie as a special effects spectacle. Think of it as a comment by the filmmakers about the new technology for special effects which made the very creation of this movie a possibility. Think of it as meta-commentary, an ironic statement on and about itself. The filmmaker, someone like Steven Spielberg, wanted to create something more than the "flea circus" that people were used to. Movie goers would say they could see the strings and complain about the realism. With movies like this and the technology that made them possible, filmmakers wanted to give the audience "something they could feel and touch." Well, maybe not touch, but definitely something ultra realistic and believable.

Fast forward almost 20 years and what do we see? We see James Cameron doing what he does best, playing the role of John Hammond. He's head strong and full of himself, he believes that technology can and will save him and everything he loves, that making a film that people will love is a matter of sheer "will" power. He believes that he can single handedly change the industry and the standards under which it has survived for about a century. In the article I wrote the other day, I discussed Cameron's attempt to convince the film industry to change from the time tested and honored standard of 24 fps to either 48 or 60 fps. Just as with his push for digital 3D, this move is based solely on the fact that the technology supports it with little or no thought about whether or not it is necessary or really adds anything to a film. Most audiences would probably tell you that a film run at anything other than 24 fps just looks like a home video with nothing professional about it.

As I stated in my article, 24 fps has become the standard not because it is based on old technology but because it is the rate which the public audience has deemed to be an acceptably "filmic" frame rate. Anything more or less simply doesn't look the way people expect it to, leading audiences to compare it to whatever they would expect to see at that frame rate. In this case it could be compared to anything from an amateur independent release to a television show, because these are the visual mediums which have become known for using higher frame rates. To take another quote from Jurassic Park entirely out of context, people like Cameron are "too busy thinking about if they could that they never stopped to think about whether or not they should." This kind of behavior is not exactly new for Cameron, as evidenced by his similar push for 3D in the past. I'd just like to once more take a moment to reflect on how well that plan worked out. Just because the industry bowed to his every demand does not mean that the viewing public took the "3D revolution" very well. In fact, most audiences are so tired of 3D films that they spend more time complaining about them than watching them.

James Cameron, like Hammond in the film, is so preoccupied with his own desire to give the audience something new and special that he ends up showing little if any reverence for the power of what he's created. As Ellie tells us, he "never had control," "that's the illusion." Taken in the context of the scene being a form of meta-commentary on film and the recent advances in technology that film has seen over the past few decades, what is the power? What is the illusion? The power is the ability of the filmmaker to give the audience something more lifelike and real that they can believe in. The illusion is that somehow the technology they use to attempt this is the tool that makes the film realistic and believable. Technology and special effects don't make a film any better or worse, they don't make it more or less believable either. You know what makes a film more or less realistic or believable? The actual aspects of filmmaking that make telling a story visually possible. You know, things like good acting or writing, cinematography, proper musical score, a plot without too many holes, and in this case even the frame rate.

But wait, is the frame rate really that important? Well, what have I been telling you this whole time? Audiences think of a visual medium differently based on the rate at which the frames are traveling by on the screen. If a change in this formula can cause an effect which might take them out of the film world and make it less believable or respectable to the audience, you'd better believe it's an important part of what makes a film what it is. How many times have you ever seen a film in 3D that was somehow better, more realistic, or more believable because it was in 3D? Forget the fact that I quite literally just tore Cameron's theory to shreds by making the higher frame rate out for what it was, just focus on the fact that his attempts to use new technology to create a better world for film in the past have met almost exclusively with failure. This guy claims that he knows what's best for the world of film, he claims that these new technologies will change the way that films are made and viewed. However, I think that his claims are baseless and founded on nothing. I think that Cameron has run out of juice to the point where he's desperately seeking for something to save him and make his films more enjoyable and believable without him having to actually put any effort into the making of the film.

Okay, so maybe it takes a lot of work to utilize new technologies like these, but that doesn't mean that this technology will be nearly as important to the world of film as he proclaims it to be. Cameron once said that 3D was a tool which added to the depth and meaning of the film. To be honest, I've never seen him use 3D as a tool for anything but the gimmick which it has become well known and accepted for. The only time I saw 3D used in a way that could be considered artful was when I saw Tron: Legacy. With Tron: Legacy, the filmmakers chose to show only the moments within the world of the computer in 3D, the rest of the world in 2D. However small and insignificant of a difference this made, it was something that differentiated between the two different worlds on display in the film. This is the use of a visual medium and technology like 3D to actually do something with the story of the film that tells something to the audience visually. As such, it could easily be considered the use of 3D as a tool, as Cameron suggested would not only be possible but practically insisted would be commonplace. If it's so commonplace, why are audiences fed up with it? Because it's meaningless and adds nothing to the film in almost every situation in which it is used. In the situations where it does add something, whatever it adds is so negligible that it goes almost entirely unnoticed.

Even if Cameron's plot to convince the industry to change from 24 fps to 48 or 60 does pull through, chances are it won't change a god damn thing. Just as most audiences have decried the use of 3D in films, chances are they won't be too happy with this one either. Maybe they won't care nearly as much, or maybe they'll be even more pissed off. The point is, they already see a higher frame rate as being entirely non-filmic, so why would their point of view change at all unless they were just really big Cameron fanboys, idiots, or both? As Cameron has said, even though you shoot a film at 48 or 60 fps, you don't necessarily have to show it that way. In other words, when this whole thing blows over it might change the way that they film the movie, but somehow I doubt that audiences will be dying to see more movies at a higher frame rate as a result of it. As usual, James Cameron is trying to change the way we see films and as usual he will most likely meet with a modicum of success so infinitesimal that it's not even worth mentioning. He needs to stop trying to force technology to change the way we see movies and start using the technology that is already there to create something new and awesome artistically. After all, that is what every call for change he has ever made has lacked -- style, substance, discipline, and every other aspect of an artful and respectful creator.


  1. Excellent. Quite excellent. These kinds of articles should be printed, or discussed on television shows. I'm tired of people shoving "change is for the better" down my throat. Maybe it is sometimes, but not always.

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