Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Analogue reaches the parts that digital can never reach

An interesting post on the excellent 'Touching from a Distance' blog. Wael Khairy expresses a...
...preference of actual physical books over e-books, letters over emails, photo albums on a shelf over digitalized photo albums on Facebook. There is something unique about the physicality of them all, something that will always be absent from their digital replacements.

The smell of a book as you turn a soft page, or the excitement of checking the mailbox for snail mail is something many of us will always prefer over clicking a ‘Next Page’ icon in an e-book or checking an inbox full of emails.

He goes on to make the point that movies that used physicial props to create their special effects appear to be dating better than ones that employed the more modern CGI. And the models, maquettes and puppets also have more dramatic impact: their physicality, even when viewed through a screen, makes them feel more real:
The full model mechanical shark in ‘Jaws’ will always be scarier than the CGI sharks in ‘Deep Blue Sea’.

But the prime example is the cult sci-fi film 'Silent Running', which...
...looks great twenty-eight years after its making simply because of the physicality of every prop and set featured in the film. Everything from giant interiors to miniatures, to large models, to suits and props looks and feels real. After doing some research, I learned that the main freighter in the film aka the Valley Forge Space Freighter was 28 feet long (8 meters) and took six months to build from close to 800 aircraft and tank kits. The three little drones (Huey, Dewey, and Louie) also known as the three cutest robots in film history (up till ‘Wall-E’ came along) are actually suits worn by double-amputees. The little CGI used back in those days was to enhance scenes not replace them. Duncan Jones recently revisited this vintage sci-fi world with his directional debut, ‘Moon‘. In a year with CGI infested movies (’Avatar‘, ‘District 9‘, ‘Star Trek‘, ‘Transformers 2‘), ‘Moon‘, the film with the least effects and most miniatures was without doubt the most impressive.

A good observation, I think, but one that's only really hit home with me since I started thinking a bit more about why the magnificent productions of Smallfilms still exert such an emotional pull (why I've been watching them again and some observations on their sounds can be found here).

I'm appreciating now that the affection I feel for these classic animations - Ivor the Engine, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog - must arise in good part from their being so obviously hand made. On one level this is obvious. But why exactly is this quality in the work so affecting?

Even without knowing about the particular hands that made them and the very particular enthusiasm of Postgate and Firmin - it's probably not too much to talk about love - you still sense how much went into their creation. It's somehow entirely manifest when you watch the films: the materials carry the mark of the hands, and thereby communicate the efforts and emotions of the makers. And then when you learn about Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin - working in their garden shed, imagining, fiddling, improvising, sticking, painting, twiddling, putting on funny voices, all born from an almost obsessive desire to create and communicate their personal and quirky visions - you begin to understand. We somehow perceive this individual and distinctive warmth in the creation of their hands and it moves us. I'm not sure digital can ever do this.

8 comments:

worm said...

too true! Thats why I love 70's noir sci-fi (alien, solaris, silent running, outland etc) -because the sets look amazing and the lighting is dark. CGI has this bright plastic sheen that makes everything far less realistic.

Barendina Smedley said...

The other great thing about low-tech enterprises such as the'Ivor the Engine' is that, lacking the luxury of some technologically-induced 'wow' factor, the creators are forced back on strong writing, humour and unfeigned quirkiness. If Mrs Porty remains one of my favourite characters in post-war British literature - my 'what it means to be a conservative' would inevitably cite her attitudes towards her donkey and her railway - this has a lot to do with the very fully-developed characterisation, perhaps necessary when the figure on screen could do nothing more expressive than occasionally swinging her parasol from a very stiff arm, her face immobile, the rest of her body rigid. Ditto the subtleties of the relationship between Jones the Steam and Dai Station. And every single time I hear Idris the Dragon asking 'can you sing "Land of my Fathers"?' I get goosebumps. Actually, I am getting goosebumps right now even thinking of that line ...

Not that all CGI is evil, exactly. E.g. those Lord of the Rings films weren't bad, were they? But technology is, clearly, conducive to a sort of slapdash laziness. Trying to cobble together a blog post, I sometimes gaze with despair poast my old copies of 'Horizon', for which the copy was presumably hand-written or typed on a manual typewriter, edited, set, proof-read and eventually printed. Now, in contrast, all I have to do to publish an essay is to press the 'publish' button. And while this is great from the point of view of speed, simplicity and offering a great diversity of voices, there's clearly something lost when it comes to concentration, deep thinking, careful editing, critical rigour and selectivity. In short, techological determinism may, at some higher level, be a bit silly, but one can certainly see why it appeals.

Barendina Smedley said...

PS what a rich crop of typos in that last comment of mine - rather nicely proving the point about slapdash laziness! More coffee please ....

Brit said...

While I agree with the general thrust re loveliness of the handmade animation; I refute the claim that digital can never move us with the first 20 mins of 'Up' (amongst others).

Gaw said...

Worm: I'm not so up on '70s sci-fi apart from Silent Running as well as Space 1999 - which is very analogue!

Barendina: Oliver Postgate was an old-fashioned socialist I gather. I suspect he was in the Ruskin/Morris tradition, which is indeed sometimes indistinguishable from some forms of Toryism. Hence, I suspect the wonderful Mrs Porty.

BTW LotR is a total mixture of technologies, with a lot of puppets and maquettes being used.

Brit: I'm sorry if I left the impression that digital can never move us. I meant it can't move us through this awareness of its makers' personal input. Despite this I've been moist-eyed whilst watching Toy Story 1 & 2.

Vern said...

Re: your last comment, I once read a clever essay in a film anthology edited by Gilbert (Yawn) Adair in which the author argued that it was the fact that we could see where the hinges are on models etc. that made them so much better than CGI. Clearly unreal, the closer these things thus get to the real, the more real they seem, especially as they are in fact 'real'. I'd phrase that better but I'm knackered.

Gaw said...

Vern: I know what you're getting at. Take it easy.

Wael Khairy said...

Dear Gaw,

It's Wael Khairy. I'm moved by your selection here. You are absolutely correct in saying the physicality of these props, sets, etc moves us in ways digital CGI almost always fails.

The process of creating these aspects takes up time, and one thing studio don't have is well..time. Everything is rushed nowadays.

As you said the makers put their soul into making them. They work hard to transform a vision in their head into physical objects. Therefore, once it becomes something people can actually hold and feel, it becomes timeless.

This explains why CGI doesn't date well in most cases.

Best Regards,
Wael Khairy