Exploring Digital Light with Stephen Prince

Prince begins his article, titled “Painting with Visual Light” by discussing the evolution of cinema and the prediction of modern cinema by cinematographer Leon Shamroy. As new technology emerged,visual effects seemed to be a lot less special to the viewer.

Cinematographer Marvin Rush was set on expanding creative opportunities by taking digital out of the bubble of visual effects and making it more of a concept than anything. He advocated separating visual effects from “fantasy effects”, as he believed they were much more than that. Digital effects can be seamless and reminiscent of real-life as well. They don’t have to be crazy fight scenes, explosions, or evil creatures. The film Forrest Gump is a great example, where visual effects are primarily used to enhance reality, such as the ping pong match or Lieutenant Dan’s missing legs. Which is easier? Recreating reality or developing a fantasy world?

Prince also discusses composting, where two effects in film are layered to create a final image. Before the digital explosion, composting was done with an optical printer. According to Prince, Citizen Kane, on of the feature films, had over 50% optical composting. It can also be seen in Star Wars films such as The Empire Strikes Back, which I have linked a Vimeo clip of here: https://vimeo.com/78956520. Digital composting, on the other hand, allows for finer detail and more precise manipulation of the shot. It is a process that now requires many members of a film’s team and goes into postproduction as well.

The picture in the article from King Kong in 2005 demonstrates how digital composting uses matte paintings, mini models, the digitally created gorilla, and lighting on the actress to create a more realistic visual image.

Digital lighting is achieved through local or global illumination methods. Local uses key light, back light, fill and rim lighting, etc. Global, on the other hand, does not require individual light sources. Digital lighting can be performed on anything, such as the food in Ratatouille, to make it stand out or appear more real. In addition to realism, digital lighting can also help tell a narrative.

Is it possible that the digital image goes too far in terms of manipulation? Does this threaten the integrity of film?







Subtle Digital Effects

When I look at my favorite movies, in general they focus on practical effects. These effects have aged much better than movies using digital effects even five years ago, In addition, movies like The Assassin or The Hateful Eight have opted to use real (70mm) film for much of the production and the beautiful shots from those movies affirms that choice. Whether or not I enjoy these movies more because of their “real” aspect, or because of the type of director that would choose to use these “real” techniques, I have developed a bias towards “real” effects and methods. However, the reading explored some uses of digital effects that changed my view, at least on a little, on their use in films.

For one, there is a very obvious utility in having an incorruptible master copy of a shot via a digital file. Many different effects can be tried out with no risk to prior work done (unlike in the older methods, e.g. optical compositing) . Someone posted a short video of Wes Anderson trying out different fonts and signs in the lobby of the Grand Budapest Hotel through digital editing. I think we have seen directors take more risks in set design and the more subtle effects knowing that they could “fix it in post” and it wouldn’t look bad.

The digital toolkit has also opened up new possibilities of what can be filmed effectively. The reading brought up a very weird but interesting example of this in Ratatouille’s food. Onscreen food has always looked strange and fake to me, which I didn’t even realize until the reading brought it up. Digital techniques have allowed a very fine tuning of minor details like this; I’m sure there are many more examples of completely minor details that were throwing my subconscious off, that we can now fix through digital editing. Even as the large scale effects become outdated and obvious with time, I think the low-key examples of digital effects remain immersive and unseen as a new tool in the director’s kit.

Digital Realism in a Modern World

Film has, from its outset, included the manipulation of the captured image.  Extensive techniques for manipulating the visual elements of a frame have been a continually evolving and ever-present aspect of cinematography.  The digital image has brought about the introduction of image manipulation rather than image creation.  Where a filmmaker would have previously been stuck with the elements made present in a shot as it was taken, digital imaging offers total control and manipulation of what is shown even after it is captured.  Prior to digital imaging, there were tricks implemented to alter the images shown, but these tricks carried with them a loss of quality and significant amount of labor to achieve.  The author points out that though many argue for the more honest and accurate nature of film’s depiction of reality, there has always been an inherent loss in the transition of the originally captured image due to the internegative media that is used to mass-produce film for theaters.  The author further illustrates points for digital cinematography as an opportunity for a filmmaker’s artistic preference to be given free reign.  With digital images, components can be added to the frame, details can be selectively enhanced or removed, the nature of the shot can be largely redeveloped with ease.  Interestingly, as film has transitioned towards digital imaging, the inherent “perfection” of a digitally generated image has frequently been manipulated to maintain the viewer’s expectation of how a movie should look.  The author references a quote from Wall-E’s director, Andrew Stanton, where he says “’Life is nothing but imperfection and the computer likes perfection, so we spent probably 90% of our time putting in all of the imperfections.’”  As the film industry transitions to a heavily digital age, the balance between the capturing and manipulation of reality remains an ongoing conversation between filmmakers and audiences about the nature of what we will choose to find believable.

Formalism and Realism

I thought the reading for this week was super interesting because of the the contrasting views between formalistic and realistic film theories. Before I took this class, I would often say that my favorite types of movies were the ones with very linear, grounded plots which kind of falls in line with the realism theory of film. When we read André Bizan’s “Myth of Total Cinema,” it made me wonder about the point of film and what we’re supposed to get out of it. I would always claim that movies were simply for enjoyment, and a lot of prepubescent young girls, I thought my life would play out like a romantic comedy where the meet cute with my soul mate would be told at our wedding. I would use the film as a “model” of my own life because that’s what I could easily get out of it.

However, as I continue to learn more about film and what it should or should not do for viewers, I’m beginning to appreciate a formalistic theory of film. I think what’s really appealing about film now through this perspective is what was mentioned in the reading where we can “look at Romeo through Juliet’s eyes” and vice verse. I think that is super worth noting in film because getting to see those up close details really helps sell a story in a more convincing way. When you pay attention to the nitty gritty details of a film instead of just the story, you can notice how much more story is told than just through the dialogue/narrative.

I’m not 100%  sold on either view, and I think they both have some merit. I wonder what theories we (unknowingly?) used viewing the different films we’ve watched throughout the semester. Do you think you know which you’ve used when watching things like The Grand Budapest Hotel or Batman Begins? Do you think you’ve used the same theories through the semester? Do you think it’s movie contingent? Follow up: do you think any movie can be viewed through only one of the film theories or do you think that’s not doable?


Auteur Theory

From this week’s textbook reading, the concept that struck me the most was the idea of auteur theory. I think the idea of authorship within cinema is important and allows us to view cinematic works as both an expression of the director and as an artistic venture. The textbook references Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author”, which seems to run counter to the trend of auteur theory. An interesting application of this thought in my opinion would be in the case of Alfred Hitchcock. When we watched Rear Window, we learned that Hitchcock has ties towards the “#MeToo” movement with allegations to his misconduct being brought public recently. However, we were also able to discuss how Rear Window could be viewed through a feminist lens. The film sees Lisa transform from a seemingly powerless socialite to an empowered detective as she risks her life to find the ring. If we view the film in the context of Hitchcock’s authorship, this interpretation seems weaker given the allegations regarding his conduct around women. However, if we detach the film from Hitchcock and instead view it as an independent art-form, it becomes easier to interpret it as a feminist film.

I think this is analogous to the process of “queering” that we observed in Scorpio Rising. By taking the film and perhaps interpreting it within a different framework, we are going counter to auteur theory and breaking with the notion of universal authorship. I’m curious with regards to “Do the Right Thing” how Spike Lee’s background and intentions inform our viewing of the film. Judging by the selected excerpt from Film Art, I anticipate the film style to be atypical from the traditional Hollywood form. I’m curious if Spike Lee intended to break from these traditional institutions that he may perceive as being exclusionary. In order to make these analyses, however, it’s important to have a conception of authorship and whether or not we want view the meaning in the film as being strictly tied to the director’s vision and goals.

A Structural Approach to “Do the Right Thing”

In David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson’s discussion of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, I was surprised to find a very different kind of film analysis than I was used to reading. Where usually we read analyses intent on decoding or evaluating a movie, Thompson and Bordwell look to evaluate where Lee’s film stands in the grand scheme of film movements – how formally conventional is it compared to classical Hollywood cinema? Where does it depart from convention and why? What genre of film does it conform to?

To these questions, Bordwell and Thompson seem to explore how Do the Right Thing experiments with some of the theories discussed in The Film Experience chapter on critical theories – namely formalism and structuralism (if I am understanding each theory correctly). According to Bordwell and Thompson, Lee’s film is a “social problem” film, and they arrive at this conclusion through a structural and formal analysis of Do the Right Thing in relation to traditional Hollywood fare.

While Lee employs mostly conventional continuity editing techniques to build his narrative, Bordwell and Thompson note how Lee’s narrative structure is striking. Where a conventional movie focuses on one or two characters attempting to fulfill some defined goal, Do the Right Thing centers on a community of characters, each with vague goals of their own, none of which are necessarily fulfilled by the film’s end. It seems as if, while Mookie’s character moors the narrative, the film treats the Bed-Stuy community as its central character, exploring the conflicts that its constituents incite with each other.

As Bordwell and Thompson suggest, it is possible to find meaning in these structural departures that Lee makes. Lee likely wanted to work within the stylistic and narrative confines of traditional cinema to make his social commentary as accessible to viewers as possible. The lack of a clear resolution to any of the communal conflicts then twists convention from within. Lee seeds in his soundtrack and cinematography an emphasis on community to subtly apply traditional narrative arcs to a community rather than a single character. In doing so, he can leverage viewers’ natural engagement in a conventional character arc to the development of this Bed-Stuy community.

Through Bordwell and Thompson’s dissection of the film, I feel as if I have a more considered and defined structural understanding of what makes a “social problem” film. By their comparative analysis of how Do the Right Thing toes the line between the radical and the comfortable, it becomes much easier to see how a successful “social problem film” can become a template for future works. While I obviously have not yet seen Do the Right Thing, Bordwell and Thompson’s description leads me to see structural parallels in recent films like Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri which also attempt to tackle social commentary (perhaps less successfully) through an examination of a community’s interactions.

Relating an Interview with the Holy Motors (2012)’s director Leos Carax with David Bordwell’s essay “The Art of Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”

Summary of Bordwell’s “The Art of Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice”

Bordwell’s essay makes the assertion that “art cinema” is a “mode of film practice” and should be considered a category of film (716). He means that nontraditional films, despite having a seemingly different style and being more artistic,  often follow certain guidelines. They do not focus on cause and effect narrative, but instead they focus on human reaction. Bordwell uses Bicycle Thieves, a film we watched a clip of in class, as an example because the film never reveals the consequences of the father and son face.  Bordwell claims that art cinema aims to be more realistic and psychological. It often does not abide by cinema guidelines, and the character’s have intricate motivations (718). These motivations might not be immediately clear. Art films are also more ambiguous and filled with uncertainty (721).

Also, there is a difference in production. The art cinema director has more control and is considered more of an author of the film (720). Style is more important than the structure, and the viewership of the film is lower. However, there is still an industry around art films (720).


Relating Leos Carax’s interview to the Essay. 

One of the  first questions asked by the interviewer to the director is whether motors or machines are related to the theme of the film.  Carax responds with “there’s never any initial idea or intention behind a film, but rather
a couple of images and feelings that I splice together.” Then he goes on to intelligently explain the purpose of motors in his film. (This part seemed contradictory to me because he seems nonchalant in the first statement but then explains a lot about motors and their relation to the film.) However, the first quote reminded me the essay because intention would imply structure and many art films do not have concrete structure. Also, Carax mentions he was inspired by feelings, rather than a specific event or narrative idea. When the interviewer asks who a character is, Carax responds by describing him as “fear and phobia.” The character is more psychology and not just a plot device.


Bordwell mentions that art cinema is often opposed to modern cinema. Carax demonstrates this with  his disdain for “digital cameras, which I despise (they are imposing themselves or being imposed on us), but which seem to reassure everyone.” Digital cameras are becoming standard in modern day cinema, he seems opposed. Perhaps that is why he places such an emphasis on motors.  He views them fondly as a thing of the past, just like traditional film. He seems to fear the modern world becoming too digitized.  The quote below demonstrates this.


The film is therefore a form of science fiction, in which humans, beasts and machines are on the verge of extinction – “sacred motors” linked together by a common fate and solidarity, slaves to an increasingly virtual world. A world from which visible machines, real experiences and actions are gradually disappearing.

(Leos Carax)

Art Cinema Elements in Holy Motors

Without even seeing the movie, the reading alone makes it clear that Holy Motors is an art cinema film. Bordwell describes one of the main features of art cinema is that the narrative features realistic conflicts that are experienced by complex characters. The short synopsis makes it perfectly clear that this film will follow this style of narrative, for the main character is described as a “shadowy character who travels from one life to the next”. The different roles he has to play, including an assassin, monster, beggar and family man, are not too abstract when taken individually, but the fact that the main character plays all these roles creates an incredibly complex character. Another characteristic of art cinema that Bordwell defines is that the director strongly imposes his visions and beliefs onto the viewer. Checking off this characteristic in an almost blatant manner, the director appears in the opening prologue of the film.

Director in Opening Scene

By including himself in the opening scene as a character that seems to break the fourth wall by being in a movie theater, the director makes it clear that he is the story teller of this film.  During the interview, he is also incredibly open about what the film means and his point in making it. This surprised me, as I feel like so many artists are purposefully cryptic about the points that they are trying to get across.

Were there any other elements that you picked up from this reading that made Holy Motors seem like an Art Film? Were you also surprised by the openness of the director in this interview? Was there anything you saw that would make this not at Art Film by Bordwell’s standards?

A Brief Overview of David Bordwell’s Elements of the Art Cinema

Art cinema traces its lineage to, among others, the film-making schools of German Expressionism and French Impressionism as well as to modernist literature. The influence of these schools and the innovations within the mode have led to what David Bordwell calls the “art cinema,” which subverts and innovates upon many of the traditions of Hollywood screenplays. In his essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice,” Bordwell discusses some of the major elements which Art Cinema films share, namely subversion of realism as conveyed through traditional means, high degree of authorial influence and direction, and ambiguity.

The realism of the art cinema differs from traditional cinema, which is typically given verisimilitude through its coherent motivations and direct plot course, by lessening the causal linkages in classical cinema, displaying realistic problems in complex characters, and lack of a coherent set of objective and path to achieve those objectives. Bordwell states that in art film, the causal linkages between events are loosened for the purposes of motivating narratives. One of the main purposes is to motivate the narrative of a film through the use of realistic conflicts, often real locations, and what Bordwell terms “’realistic’ – that is, psychologically complex – characters.” These complex characters, Bordwell claims, are driven to their objectives in a less direct way than a typical Hollywood film, further increasing their realism. Finally, art films tend to have several possible readings open to them due to their subversion of linear time and heavy subjectivity through ambiguity.

This subjectivity is driven, in part, by the author of the work whose creativity and freedom in the creation of the film force critics of the film to focus on his or her vision and direction of the film. As Bordwell defines it, “the author is the textual force ‘who’ communicates (what is the film saying?) and ‘who’ express (what is the artist’s personal vision?).” Essentially, any criticism or analysis of the film must attempt to engage with the author’s plan. This idea gave rise to, in part, auteur theory, or the criticism of films based largely on the influence of their director or author. A key element of the criticism of art film is the attempt to discern the motives of the author from the film’s every decision. The author’s influence is key, with criticism centering on each item included in the film as well as items excluded. Most importantly, each decision should be asked the question “why,” specifically why this way and not another. Bordwell does concede that this authorial influence can negatively impact the realism of a film.

The subjectivity created by the author, and even by some of the elements of realism, is typically created through inconsistencies in plot or in time and open-ended narrative. Bordwell states that art films foreground deviations from the normal editing and continuity conventions and that these deviations are purposely placed so that they may be examined. This can be done with innovative structuring, such as the flash-forward. This ambiguity often reaches a crescendo with the lack of any clear ending, aiding the open-ended narrative created by the plots non-direct nature. Bordwell cites several examples of this, often with endings that symbolically tie together the narrative without directly resolving the plot itself.

Human Motors in “Holy Motors”

One of the underlying themes in Leos Carax’s 2012 film “Holy Motors” is, as described in the Official Cannes Selection reading assigned this week, “The idea of motors, motorization and the importance of machines”. While reading the text, I continuously found parallels between the cinematic theme of motors and their parts with the actors and humans who made up the film itself. When describing the actors of the movie, it seemed almost as if they were describing mere parts of a bigger machine. The famous actors were not emphasized any more than the unknowns, each actor being an equally important component in the movie-making engine. Leos Carax, throughout the interview, even made the actors seem replaceable, just like machine parts would be if they broke. For example, when describing Eva Mendes, he admits that he dreamt her role as being for Kate Moss, but decided after meeting Eva that she would be better for the role. Another example is when the interviewer asks Carax if he thought that anyone else could play the part of Monsieur Oscar. Carax immediately lists a few more actors that would have been offered this role, again showing that the actors were just the pieces chosen for the movie, but that they could have just as well chosen another.

How important are the actors when making a movie? How different would a film be if a different actor/actress was cast? Are actors replaceable? Is celebrity the main factor of selling an performer or movie? Are the actors used more important to the viewer than the overall theme/message of the film? Are the pieces more important than the whole?