Oct 24

Wise Cracking Women

War Nurse (Edgar Selwyn, 1930)

Anita Loos

Clara Bow

 

Aug 13

THE HIDDEN MINOTAUR IN J. A. BAYONA´S TRILOGY

Ángeles Martínez-García and Antonio Gomez-Aguilar, University of Seville.  Visiting Scholars at the University of Southampton. July, 2018.

The Spanish director J. A. Bayona´s cinema belongs to that group of productions that has taken the Spanish cinema outside its borders in the new millennium. His three films have beaten box office records and are the reason why their director is known as “universal”. Both The Orphanage (2007), The Impossible (2012) and A Monster Calls (2016) become part of an “improvised trilogy”, baptized by Bayona himself, as they all have a deep symbolic triangle in common: mother – son – death. In all of them the main characters have to face the truth of suffering and this will lead them to a process of personal transformation that will connect with the most intimate spectator´s self. The three main characters of Bayona’s films have something in common: they all start a hard journey that involves self-knowledge and self-improvement. That is the reason why these three films can be related to the myth of the labyrinth, as this is a metaphor of a “path to knowledge”: All of them have lost their most valuable possessions, that is to say, their closest relatives – a mother, a son, an entire family – and through the search process they all go through a “path to knowledge” as they learn a lot from their suffering. Laura (The Orphanage, 2007) has lost her child; Lucas (The Impossible, 2012) has lost his entire family; Conor (A Monster Calls, 2016) is about to lose his mother.

Figure 1. A frame of A Monster Calls. Conor is one of the main characters in Bayona’s films that has to face a hard future.

We have found several identical structures in the myth of the labyrinth and Bayona’s films, as they both refer to a profound change in certain characters after a hard journey:

  • Theseus: An active subject; he starts the self-knowledge journey.
  • Labyrinth: A spiritual and/or physical journey that someone goes through, with an initial loss and full of problems.
  • Minotaur: It features in the centre of the labyrinth and in the most important moment, when Theseus faces himself and his problems. It means a turning point in the journey and since that moment Theseus / the traveller will suffer a profound change.
  • Ariadne: A key character. Without her, Theseus could not have found the exit of the labyrinth despite having beaten the Minotaur.

On the basis of these similarities, we have prepared this figure:

REPRESENTATIONAL STRUCTURES The Orphanage (2007) The Impossible (2012) A monster calls (2016)
Theseus Laura (the mother) Lucas (the son) Conor (the son)
Labyrinth Searching for the lost son (death is not expected) Searching for the lost family (death is possible) Accept sickness and loss (certain death)
Minotaur Facing the truth: her son is dead Facing the truth: the whole family may be dead Facing the truth: the mother will certainly be dead
Ariadne Her son Mary (the mother) The tree
Table 1. Content analysis of Bayona’s films.

There is always a main character (Theseus) in Bayona’s films that has to face a terrible fact (Minotaur) after going through a hard physical and/or mental journey (labyrinth). Different Ariadnes come along with them along this profound personal change. In these three films we can found ordinary characters that turn into heroes as they have to face “giants”, that is to say, big challenges in their lives.

This similarities are remarkable because spectators don’t usually watch films with the idea in mind that there is a much more profound meaning in their stories than is usually discovered. We all should take into account that there might be a lot more “labyrinths” in films, which are similar to those ones that we go through in our own lives.

If you want further information about this case study, you can find it in the paper: “El minotauro escondido en la trilogía de J. A. Bayona.” In the journal Arte, Individuo y Sociedad 29(3) (2017), 555-569. ISSN: 1131-5598. http://dx.doi.org/10.5209/ARIS.56031, pp. 555-569.

Ángeles Martínez-García (angelesmartinez@us.es) is a professor at the University of Seville, Faculty of Communication, with more than ten years of experience in university education. Her goal is to meet standards through students´ engagement. She teaches on Film Studies and Film Image and she is developing current research on myths and cinema, as well as on the analysis of film image.

Antonio Gomez-Aguilar (agomez16@us.es) is a professor with more than ten years of experience in university education and vocational training. He has been working on analysing the Andalusian Audiovisual Sector. He teaches on Studies, Technology and Communication. He is developing current research on a new television concept, as well as on technology of communication.

Jul 30

MYTHOLOGEMS IN FICTION TV SERIES: SONS OF ANARCHY (2008 – 2014)

Ángeles Martínez-García and Antonio Gomez-Aguilar, University of Seville.  Visiting Scholars at the University of Southampton. July, 2018.

Why do people feel so engaged with cinema? One of the main reasons is that cinema often feeds from ancestral stories that can really hit home. Ancient stories can be found everywhere, although we cannot always see them at first glance. We have chosen a TV series, Sons of Anarchy, (2008-2014), in order to explore if there is a mythologema (that is the word used by K. Kerenyi to call the smallest unit in a myth) inside. This American drama TV series created by Kurt Sutter received excellent feedback from the public. It focuses on the story of a band called SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original) and its crimes and dirty business. One of its most important members is Gemma Teller, a woman who is obsessed with power.

When we approach this TV series, we realise that its story is very similar to a true story: of the Roman Empress Agrippina and the turbid relationship with her son Nero. Figure 1 shows Agrippina’s family tree.

Figure 1. Family tree

Agrippina the Younger was an example of getting power at the expense of everything. She killed her own husband and the legitimate heir so that her son, Nero, could become Emperor. Something similar happens in Gemma Teller’s story, a main character in Sons of Anarchy TV series, whose soaring ambition makes her commit atrocities in order to keep her influence over her son. She is a killer, an extortionist and an overprotective mother and grandmother. Gemma wants her son Jax to be the leader of SAMCRO and the moment she achieves it is one of the most important in the TV series. It is very similar in the true story: the moment that Nero is crowned by his mother is crucial (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Sculpture of Nero being crowned by his mother. This is meaningful moment in their relationship.

Source: Carlos Delgado; CC-BY-SA

In this case, we find that the TV series reconstructs a specific mythologema: the contempt of the paternal / maternal figure towards the son, which has been expressed many times through the myths of Tantalus, Saturn devouring his children, Hera and Medea, among others. The main topic in the TV series is a mother’s obsession with his son and her final matricide. There are certain parallels between the true story and the fictional one depicted in the drama TV series, as it is represented in the table below.

HISTORICAL CHARACTER TV SERIES CHARACTER
Agrippina the Younger Gemma Teller
Nero (Agrippina’s son) Jax Teller (Gemma Teller’s son)
Claudio (Agrippina’s third husband) Clay Morrow (Gemma Teller’s second husband)
Enobardo + Pasieno Crispo (Agrippina’s first and second husbands) John Teller (Gemma Teller’s first husband)
Claudia Octavia (Nero’s first wife) Wendy Case (Jax’ s first wife)
Popea Sabina (Nero’s second wife) Tara Knowles (Jax’ s second wife)

Table 1. Parallels between the true story of Agrippina and the fictional story of Gemma Teller.

This table shows that there is a deeper meaning in this case study, as usually happens in other audiovisual products. In unravelling the architecture of the myth, we find out that the existential concerns of the human being find in the art, in this case the cinema, an appropriate channel to update and adapt to contemporaneity. There are also a lot of parallels between the two sons depicted in the two stories: both of them kill their mothers (and none of them offer resistance to death) and both of them kill themselves. Both Agrippina and Gemma go beyond Ethics and are an example of veiled power inside a patriarchal system. Eventually, the same stories once and again…

If you want further information about this case study, you can find it in the book Hernández de Santaolalla, V. y Cobo Durán, S. (comps.) (2017): Sons of Anarchy: Estudio ideológico, narrativo y mitológico. Barcelona, Editorial Laertes, pp. 159-170. ISBN 978-84-16783-33-5.

Ángeles Martínez-García (angelesmartinez@us.es) is a professor at the University of Seville, Faculty of Communication, with more than ten years of experience in university education. Her goal is to meet standards through students´ engagement. She teaches on Film Studies and Film Image and she is developing current research on myths and cinema, as well as on the analysis of film image.

Antonio Gomez-Aguilar (agomez16@us.es) is a professor with more than ten years of experience in university education and vocational training. He has been working on analysing the Andalusian Audiovisual Sector. He teaches on Studies, Technology and Communication. He is developing current research on a new television concept, as well as on technology of communication.

 

Feb 13

The Guns of Loos

90 years ago, on 9 February 1928, the remarkable First World War drama, The Guns of Loos, received its press screening in London. Trade journal, The Bioscope, declared the film to be ‘as convincing a picture of modern warfare as has yet been shown on the screen’.

Coinciding with this anniversary, and as part of the University of Southampton’s Great War: Unknown War centenary events, the film was screened again at Turner Sims, accompanied by world renowned composer and pianist Stephen Horne, performing his original score, with percussionist Martin Pyne. I had the pleasure of introducing the film.

This British silent film portrays events surrounding the calamitous 1915 Battle of Loos, and features spectacular battle scenes and high drama on all fronts, as a munitions strike endangers supplies for soldiers at the front.

The film focuses on two soldiers, John Grimlaw (Henry Victor) and Clive (Donald McArdle), who find their mental and physical fortitude tested on the battlefield. The men are also fighting to win the love and respect of a Red Cross nurse, Diana, played by Madeleine Carroll, here making her screen debut. The ensuing events expose the impact of the war on all involved.

Two qualities were prominent in the film’s promotion: spectacle and authenticity, with some of the events based on director Sinclair Hill’s own war experience. Four guns were loaned to the production by the War Office including actually used in the Battle itself. Of the 250 men reported to have taken part in the re-enactment – filmed in West Thurrock – many were unemployed ex-soldiers supplied by the Ex-Service Men’s Association. Much was made of the appearance of Daniel Laidlaw, the almost mythical ‘Piper of Loos’, who played himself in the film. Laidlaw had won the VC and the Croix de Guerre for playing his regiment ‘over the top’, and Horne’s score includes an actual recording of Laidlaw playing his pipes, adding an eerie and poignant note to this moment in the film.

To literally magnify the film’s impact, on some screens in Britain, the film was screened using the Magnascope process, where a special lens was placed in front of the projector to suddenly enlarge the image across the cinema auditorium, immersing the audience into the spectacle.

When shown a print of the film, David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions at the time of the Battle, was reported to have exclaimed to its director: ‘In wartime this film would have been worth a division’. While the film might have had propaganda value, its 1928 audience, looking back on the war through the lens of the 1926 General Strike, would have been well aware of its topicality. While men had been dying at the Front in 1915, many were ill or dying at home due to poverty and poor housing conditions. War injuries were visible and commonplace in the 1920s, meanwhile, and awareness was growing of ‘shell shock’ – Piper Laidlaw even endorsed the nerve tonic ‘Phosferine’ during the film’s release. The film tells us as much about the post-war context as about the war itself.

The manager of Stoll Studios, which made the film was clear on the film’s ambition: ‘with the advance of the art of cinematography we may expect to see something which will not only vie with foreign productions, but which will outstrip them, in story value, in acting, in direction and in photography’.

On 11 February, the large audience at Turner Sims were clearly moved by the powerful live score which really brought to life the film’s remarkable imagery and performances. Present in the audience were relatives of men who had fought at the Battle, who offered their own insight into the legacy of the battle. Joining me in a Q&A session afterwards were the Film department’s Dr Michael Hammond, an expert on cinema and WWI, plus the musicians. The many questions explored the film’s reception and the extraordinary effect of the music, with several audience members conveying the impact of viewing what was evidently the first silent film they had seen with live music.

Through performances such as this, The Guns of Loos can be appreciated as a classic that we should all know about.

The Great War: Unknown War’s ‘Silent Film Fortnight’ continues at Turner Sims, and promises to be an illuminating and highly engaging exploration of both the events of the war and the experience of cinema itself.

Picture Courtesy of Kevin Appleby

Feb 09

Animation, racial stereotypes, and jazz in the work of Len Lye

The recent critical acclaim and commercial success of the video game Cuphead (2017) has not only drawn new attention to the 1920s and 1930s animated cartoons the game’s visual style is inspired by, but has also provoked new scrutiny of the ‘Racist spectre’ of the imagery it uses. By mimicking the style of animation seen in the work of the Disney and Fleischer studios, among others, the game also evokes racial caricatures based in both appearance and behaviour of characters. As Nicholas Sammond has discussed, American animated cartoons of that period were heavily derived from blackface minstrelsy traditions and relied on a number of racial stereotypes. How should we deal with old films like these, which reflect the values of their time but are today considered derogatory and offensive? For many fans, including the makers of Cuphead, the visual style and appeal of these cartoons can be separated from their social context and still enjoyed. For others these films must be condemned outright if progress and equality are to be achieved.

These debates affect not only popular mainstream cartoons, but also celebrated works of animation artists. In researching the work of Len Lye for a recent publication I found similar concerns arose. The New Zealand artist moved to London in the 1920s and produced a series of animated films, including some for the British Government funded General Post Office (GPO) film unit. His first film Tusalava (1929) draws on Lye’s experience of Maori art in his home country of New Zealand, Aboriginal art from Australia and his time in the South Pacific, when Lye may have had firsthand, though limited, exposure to indigenous arts in Samoa. As Figure 1 suggests, this could be considered an ‘appropriation’ of these other cultures by a white artist working in London.

Figure 1: Tusalava (Len Lye, 1929)

Lye’s second film, known as Experimental Animation or Peanut Vendor adopts a very different technique and style, but may also be considered to rely on derogatory stereotypes. In this 1933 film a stop-motion puppet of a monkey sings the popular jazz hit “The Peanut Vendor”. With his large, bulging eyes, protruding lips, gleaming teeth, enlarged hands and feet, and elongated limbs (see Figure 2), Lye’s monkey protagonist clearly shares similarities with the depiction of African-American stars in animated cartoons, and the carefree and flamboyant attitude he projects has both ethnic and class implications.

Figure 2: Experimental Animation (Len Lye, 1933)

While Lye’s later films became more visually abstract and abandoned this problematic imagery, his use of music derived from African-American and Latin jazz traditions suggests a continuation of the ‘primitivism’ of his earlier work. Lye’s most famous film, A Colour Box from 1935 was very widely seen thanks to its sponsorship from the GPO Film Unit. The film used experimental techniques of painting and scratching directly onto the film strip (see Figure 3) and was accompanied by ‘La Belle Créole’ by Don Baretto and His Cuban Orchestra.

Figure 3: A Colour Box (Len Lye, 1935)

Like Hollywood cartoons of the same period, critical reflection on Lye’s work becomes caught between celebrating their experimentalism and exuberance or condemning the films for their appropriations and stereotypes. Researching their use of jazz offers one way to navigate these binaries and move beyond them. This music was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which might be understood as a primarily African-American movement, yet Caribbean artists, especially musicians, played an important role in it. For instance, ‘The Peanut Vendor’ started life as ‘El Manicero’ written by Moisés Simons, a Cuban musician of Basque descent, and became a popular hit in Cuba in the 1920s. Don Azpiazú and his Havana Casino Orchestra travelled from Cuba to New York in 1930 and presented the song successfully in its original Spanish language, but the song achieved lasting success when translated into English. It became something of a craze (it was the ‘Gangnam Style’ of its day with an associated dance!) and was recorded by numerous Harlem musical stars, including African-Americans Louis Armstrong in 1930 and Duke Ellington in 1931, as well as the white jazz bandleader Red Nichols, who produced the recording used by Lye.

Born out of a colonial melding of African and Spanish cultures due to the circumstances of the slave trade in the Caribbean, transported to New York where it was absorbed into a primarily African-American movement and Anglicised before becoming a part of widespread American popular culture and then exported internationally, ‘The Peanut Vendor’, and Latin jazz generally, were thus products of a complex international gestation, just like Lye himself. Lye was a white colonial subject, having been born in 1901 when New Zealand was still a colony, before it became a Dominion in 1907. He subsequently lived in Samoa and Australia, before arriving in London. While we may feel uneasy about aspects of Lye’s appropriation of other cultures, we might also see strong parallels in these complex histories, which challenge any easy notion of cultural specificity or authenticity in which an art work wholly and unequivocally expresses the single culture it derives from. Neither Lye’s work nor the jazz it incorporates can be considered to meet such a standard.

As well as adding new insight into Lye’s own work, this approach also suggests a way to negotiate other problematic works of the past. Through detailed research we can fully acknowledge the values of the time that underpin them, recognising their derogatory and offensive implications, while also appreciating the complexities and nuances involved, rather than relying on simplistic binary judgements.

 

Malcolm Cook’s chapter ‘A Primitivism of the Senses: The Role of Music in Len Lye’s Experimental Animation’ appears in Holly Rogers and Jeremy Barham (eds) The Music and Sound of Experimental Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)

Jan 15

Podcast: Film Stardom and the Ancient Past

Dr Michael Williams is an Associate Professor and Head of Film Studies at the University of Southampton.

Figure 1: Gloria Swanson’s Venus Image, Pictureplay, September 1922

Figure 2: Regina Cannon, ‘Who Wants New Faces?’, Picture Play, April 1934, 29.

Figure 3: Ruth Waterbury, ‘Olympus Moves to Hollywood’, Photoplay, April 1928, 34–36, 92

Figure 4: Michael’s upcoming publication

Many thanks go to the Media History Digital Library

 

Dec 08

The Rise of the Entrepreneur

In 2011 the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke produced an internet-based series of advertisements titled Words of a Journey (2011) for the whiskey manufacturer Johnnie Walker. In these advertisements, the figure of the entrepreneur is prominent.

Figure 1: Jonnie Walker (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EpS_s9-IQU&index=12&list=PLAAAAE4C15D9A2A75)

In the series, the interviewees narrate stories of success through adversity, and stress their determination, independence and self-improvement. These advertisements focus on the positive aspects of economic reforms rather than its failures, which are examined at length in many of Jia’s other works, such as Still Life (2006) and A Touch of Sin (2013). Words of a Journey emphasises that economic liberalism has brought the freedom to follow one’s dreams and gain personal fulfillment through work, and thus promotes neoliberalism in order to solve the problems of neoliberalism. The entrepreneur figure is therefore championed as one who can alleviate the negative effects of economic reforms (such as the growing gap between the rich and the poor), but, unlike its earlier Maoist worker-peasant-soldier predecessors who worked together to build the socialist state, the entrepreneur is not a socialist figure but a capitalist one, who uses neoliberal notions of independence and self-sufficiency to solve these problems. In this shift, the responsibilities of the state have been lessened; instead, capitalism has been evoked to solve the problems of capitalism, which positions the individual as being responsible for solving social problems and contributing to the overall good.

The entrepreneurs are being advanced as inspirational and moralistic models, and that their platitudes emphasise success through independence, hard work, and sacrifice, thus celebrating China’s neoliberalism. Such declarations confirm the morality of their actions, and also connect to the history of moral discourses surrounding the Chinese class figures, by producing a new neoliberal model class figure for the Reform era ‘with Chinese characteristics’. Their narratives not only convey individual success stories, but are part of larger discourses that are currently being promoted in China, including the concept of suzhi (quality / self-improvement) and ‘Harmonious Society’.

If you want to read more about the entrepreneur in Jia Zhangke’s advertisements, and how I connect this to the ideal of the ‘Chinese Dream’ that has been advanced by the Chinese government, which advocates that everyone is benefiting from Reform, you can read it here and here.

Nov 15

How audience research can enhance our understanding of how films work

One of the aims of film scholarship is to understand how films ‘work’ – that is to say, how the different elements we see and hear on screen make us happy, sad, scared, relaxed, enlightened, confused, and so on. Yet few film scholars speak to actual audiences about how they make sense of the films they watch.

This is partly because audience research can be expensive and time-consuming to conduct. Working with human participants also requires a high level of ethics clearance, along with lots of paper work, because of the potential risk of causing psychological harm, especially when dealing with personal or sensitive topics.

Even if you do successfully conduct audience research, the results are not always that enlightening. The average film viewer cannot always put into words what a film means to them in quite the same way as a professional film critic.

Nevertheless, as I argue in a chapter for the recent publication The Routledge Companion to World Cinema (Routledge, 2017), film audience research can enhance our understanding of how films work and even challenge certain assumptions.

Mixing methods

My own research on the audiences for European films has combined three main methods and sources. Firstly, I use cinema admissions figures from sources like the European Audiovisual Observatory’s LUMIERE database to determine how many people watch particular films or types of films (e.g. comedies, dramas, horror films) in different European countries.

Secondly, I draw on large-scale audience surveys such as the European Commission’s (2014) Current and Future Audiovisual Audiences report or the British Film Institute’s (BFI) ‘Cinema Exit Polls’ to profile film audience in terms of age, gender, nationality, social grade or educational qualifications, as well as understand why people are drawn to particular titles.

Finally, when the help of colleagues from across Europe, I’ve conducted audience focus groups with over 140 participants in five European countries (i.e. Britain, Germany, Italy, Poland and Bulgaria), to get a deeper understanding of how audiences make sense of particular films.

Each of these methods has its own flaws – viewing figures for non-theatrical platforms are scarce; survey questions can be reductive and misunderstood; and focus groups are not always representative and the results are often quite difficult to interpret, particularly when discussions are translated from another language and the transcriptions only capture verbal forms of communication.

Nevertheless, combining these qualitative and quantitative sources allows one to build up a fairly robust picture of how audiences engage with European films and can even challenge our assumptions about how such films work.

Challenging assumption

For example, given the emphasis which distributors often place on the director, reviews, festival recognition and awards when marketing European films, it is interesting to note that few survey respondents or focus group participants said they were drawn to these elements. Instead, they were much more likely to be attracted by the film’s story or genre.

Similarly, looking at the way certain European films are a box office success in some countries but a flop in others, one might assume that different countries have radically different tastes in films.

In fact, the focus groups I conducted across Europe showed remarkable similarities in terms of the films people liked and disliked, as well as their reasons why. There was much more difference in terms of age and gender than nationality.

None of this is to suggest film scholars should abandon their careful analysis of film texts in favour of only listening to what audiences say about films. But combining textual analysis with audience research certainly allows us to test some of our assumptions about how films really work.

Dr Huw Jones is a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Southampton. His research on European film audiences formed part of the HERA-funded ‘Mediating Cultural Encounters through European Screens’ (MeCETES) project (www.mecetes.co.uk). An extended version of this blog is available in Rob Stone, Paul Cooke, Stephanie Dennison and Alex Marlow-Mann (eds.) Routledge Companion to World Cinema (Routledge, 2017).

Figure 1. Publicity material for European films often emphasis directors, awards, festival recognition and reviews. Yet audience research suggests viewers are more attracted by the film’s story and genre

Nov 01

How Virtual Reality Revolutionises Filmmaking by Jonny Rogers

How Virtual Reality Revolutionises Filmmaking by Jonny Rogers

Where some have hoped virtual technology would enable us the ability to create for ourselves brand new worlds, others have worried that it would encourage us only to neglect our present one. Little thought, however, has been given to how virtual cinema has thus far best thrived; namely, in its ability to challenge and redefine the user’s relationship with the world. It is my view, in light of this, that virtual reality brings not only an exciting socio-technological revolution, but also a cinematic revolution forced to directly challenge certain conventions and expectations assumed by the contemporary traditional film industry (‘traditional’ meaning ‘non-virtual’ for the purpose of this article). The opportunities provided by virtual cinema facilitate great potential for greater personal and global change.

Fig 1

Figure 1. Frame from La sortie des usines Lumière (1895) (image from Grand Palais)

Before we look too far into the future of filmmaking, however, let’s have a little look at its past. For almost the first twenty years of cinema’s existence, ‘actualities’ dominated the first public scenes: films showing real events and every-day occurrences, such as the Lumière Brothers’ La sortie des usines Lumière (1895), featuring workers leaving a factory, and L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), featuring a train arriving at a station. Unlike documentaries, however, actualities were not structured or edited to form a larger argument or coherent picture, but instead celebrated the pure spectacle of seeing something being captured and reproduced through this new technology. This characterised an era of film history famously described by Tom Gunning as the ‘cinema of attraction’.[1] Although to modern audiences these early films might seem profoundly unremarkable, if often even laughable, a large proportion of popular virtual content appears to be essentially quite similar.

Fig 2

Figure 2. Frame from Mega Coaster: Get Ready for the Drop (2016) (image from YouTube)

The highest viewed non-licenced virtual reality video on YouTube, as of the time of this writing, with a total of over 34 million views, is Mega Coaster: Get Ready for the Drop, featuring, as the name suggests, a omnidirectional camera attached to a roller coaster.[2] Given the lack of given exposition, context or information, this film is in essence a contemporary ‘actuality’; its popularity is no doubt attributable to the novelty of the sensation it captures and reproduces. Other popular videos feature cameras mounted to aeroplanes,[3] surfboards,[4] skydivers[5] and wingsuits:[6] content which, though hardly absent in traditional platforms (especially on popular amateur streaming services such as YouTube), is rarely seen to be an exhibition of the medium’s potential (which is instead almost exclusively associated with the acting, directing, cinematography involved in a traditional film). Although the potential and future of virtual cinema is undoubtedly exciting, I have, perhaps most surprisingly, found that virtual reality has also helped me better understand, interpret and appreciate the emergence of traditional cinema nearly 130 years ago.

Fig 3

Figure 3. Frame from Evolution of Verse (2015) (image from Zach Richter)

Of course, connections and similarities to early and ‘silent’ cinema have been drawn already. Virtual reality filmmaker and entrepreneur Chris Milk even stated, at a TED talk discussing the birth of virtual reality an art form, “we are the equivalent of year one of cinema” as the aforementioned L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat is projected on the screen behind; [7] further alluding to this in his experimental work, Evolution of Verse (2015), which at the beginning features a train rapidly approaching the viewer before dissolving into countless birds. His talk ends with what claims to be the largest collective virtual viewing experience, as each member of the audience watches the same film (a series of scenes taken from various projects showing the potential of virtual filmmaking, beginning with this opening section of Evolution of Verse) through individual devices connected to a shared interface. As the train approaches, a growing hubbub quickly amounts into a brief period of screaming, which abruptly breaks into applause and laughter. The laughibility of the common-held myth that L’Arrivée d’un train sent its audience into a panicked frenzy is rendered silent here as virtual reality provides contemporary filmmaking a reenergised interest in the simple, formalistic, spectacle of seeing a new cinematic medium in action. The novelty of sensationalist virtual cinema might eventually fade into anecdotal mockery by future generations, but the history of cinema suggests that a decade or so of structural and aesthetic ‘simplicity’ could still lie ahead of us. Perhaps, furthermore, we could see a renewed academic or public interest in early cinema in this time.

Fig 4

Figure 4. Samsung’s 2017 Gear VR headset (image from CNET)

Unlike traditional cinema, however, virtual reality is, somewhat paradoxically, birthed through a reliance on both a more accessible and more individualistic platform: namely, mobile technology. As I started researching into virtual reality, I realised that this was not something I could access or experience for myself without a bigger or more powerful phone; it is no wonder that Samsung’s Gear VR, often now packaged with new mobile phones, dominates the virtual headset market (most other headsets of similar quality are more expensive and require powerful gaming systems or computers, and are as such better suited for gaming content). Although a VR-exclusive cinema does exist in Amsterdam,[8] which has expanded more recently to China, Finland and Romania, cinematic virtual content is predominantly produced for mobile platforms. It could hardly be expected that specified locations and services (unless virtual technology is integrated into existing cinemas) could support the establishment, expansion, and exploration of the medium when mobile platforms provide an immediate, universally accessible – and predominantly free – distribution service. From the fact that every filmmaker and production company, professional or amateur, is essentially forced to release content through these same limited services (such as Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Play or Oculus Video), this means a considerably small number of organisations are given complete control over almost all systems of distribution. Perhaps this will put more pressure on film festivals and technological or creative conventions to exhibit the more professional, or even nationalistic, end of original content.

One potential consequence of relying on mobile technology is that this might force a cultural homogenization of content: the predominant internationality of the Internet could make it more difficult to restrict the distribution of virtual films to specific areas, countries, and demographics. It is, however, perhaps too early to decide whether this will either serve or hinder production and exploration: many artistic revolutions in traditional cinema emerged from domestic movements, which were no doubt informed by the control of international distribution as informed by various political events and international relations. However, where the exhibition of traditional films originated in public spaces and then extended to more private markets through VHS, DVDs, Blu-ray and, more recently, online streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, virtual reality is instead born through mobile technology, and attempts have been made to see its utilisation in public or communal spaces in the future. This shows that the growth of virtual reality almost inversely parallels traditional cinema, implying that the history of traditional cinema might not directly inform the future of virtual content as may first be assumed. Although virtual reality may be in part informed by what has come before, it has in some ways its own future to write: the immediate accessibility and intimacy of virtual content provides a considerably unique paradigm for the birth of a new artistic and creative platform.

Fig 5

Figure 5. Frame from MIYUBI (2017) (image from The Verge)

Where frequent editing is so commonplace in popular traditional cinema that it often even goes unnoticed, any cut between two shots in virtual reality is forced to be reserved almost exclusively for significant changes in time or location in the narrative. It would naturally appear quite jarring for the camera to, for example, frequently alternate between two or three different positions in a conversation, especially if such should involve significant head movement for the viewer; the virtual camera is not solely a means of seeing a location, but also creating the impression of being there. Although there are some virtual films which do more frequently cut between different positions, with Rose Colored (Adam Cosco, 2016), for example, jumping between the perspectives of two people in a bar in one scene, and at other points rapidly flicking through her memories, minimal editing still dominates the professional end of virtual cinema. Perhaps the most impressive long-form fiction narrative produced so far, MIYUBI (Felix Lajeunessse, Paul Raphael, 2017), which puts the viewer in the body of a toy robot given to, played with and eventually rejected by a young boy in the 1980s, at a length of 40 minutes, is composed of 11 different scenes, each featuring a single shot and minimal camera movement. Other well-acclaimed scripted shorts, such as The Invisible Man (Hugo Keijzer, 2016) and Henry (Ramiro Lopez Dau, 2015), likewise each feature both a continuous unbroken take and little-to-no camera movement.

Fig 6

Figure 6. Frame from Henry (2015) (image from VRScout)

The significance of these changes lie in the fact that, at a time in which popular films are becoming increasingly fast-paced and, as some filmgoers are arguing, too illegible for comfort, virtual reality cinema, by virtue of its own structural limitations, is forced to take a step back and reconsider its form and structure. An informal, but notable, report by film editor Vashi Nedomansky suggests action films and blockbusters often now average around 2 seconds per shot,[9] and critics and bloggers are taking to the internet to voice their concern for this trend:[10],[11] Simon Brew, the founder and Editor-In-Chief of Den of Geek, published an open letter to Hollywood to raise attention to how this could impact the accepted quality of storytelling.[12] The question now arises, however: could virtual reality encourage, let alone even demand, a significant trend toward minimalism?

Fig 7

Figure 7. The set of The Invisible Man (2016) (image from VR Reviews)

Considering the fact that nothing can be hidden ‘behind’ the camera, nor ‘out of shot’, the use of naturalistic lighting, on-location filming, and the absence of a crew all seem to be pragmatic obligations, meaning such techniques – often explored more in arthouse or independent productions – are brought to the forefront of a new cinematic revolution. The framing of the shot now involves consideration of all directions and dimensions, and hence the awareness that everything on camera could be seen, even if not directly relevant to the narrative. To discourage motion sickness, Samsung encourage that users use the technology for no longer than twenty minutes at a time, thus seemingly encouraging limitations on the length of films. As someone who tends to prefer these more short-form minimalistic, naturalistic and observational shades of traditional cinema anyway – favouring natural lighting, long takes, minimal editing, etc. – I am quite excited to see what virtual platforms will produce, and now with greater attention given by the growing public interest in the technology.

Fig 8

Figure 8. Entrepreneur and filmmaker Chris Milk delivers a TED talk (image from TED.com)

I am not saying that maximalism – rapid editing, high action or large budgets, etc. – necessarily makes for any inferior a form or quality of story-telling, with Mad Max: Fury Road, for example, having an average shot length of 2.1 seconds, surpassing all critical and financial expectations, but rather that virtual cinema embraces, and hence reenergises, cinema’s potential for capturing the simple, the subtle and, often, the slow. As Chris Milk (whose production company, Here Be Dragons, undoubtedly stands above the rest with regards to quality of content) says, “we are more learning grammar than writing language” at this stage of the game.[13] It will as such have to be a new generation of filmmakers that will find, explore and break the rules of virtual story-telling; there is no guarantee that the skills encouraged in traditional filmmaking will translate to the production of virtual content. Attempts to replicate Hollywood approaches to action sequences in virtual reality often, in my view, reveal only their silliness: the medium, as with any artistic platform, best thrives when it understands and uses its own limitations.

Fig 9

Figure 9. BeAnotherLab exhibiting their technology in the Tribeca Film Festival (image from Tribeca Film)

Although I cannot quite pinpoint my first point of contact with the idea of publically accessible virtual reality, I no doubt came to be aware of it through the general public focus on its use in gaming, but perhaps my first awareness of its cinematic potential came when I stumbled across BeAnotherLab’s early experimental work about five years ago. Their central project, The Machine to Be Another, focuses on the integration of cameras into virtual headsets to allow two individuals – either two participants or a participant and a performance artist – to see the world from the other’s perspective.[14] Either the performance artist will imitate the actions of the participant or both participants will imitate each other as two staff simultaneously touch parts of both individuals’ bodies to stimulate each user to identify with their virtual body. Scientific research, their website claims, has shown that inducing such a perceptual illusion has “great potential in reducing implicit racial bias and promoting altruism”.[15] Their technology is used for, though not limited to, artistic performances and installations, physical and psychological rehabilitation services, and the resolution of personal conflicts (marital, racial, sexual, etc.). This provides an intimate connection with the image otherwise unparalleled by previous cinematic mediums.

Fig 10

Figure 10. Clouds Over Sidra (2015) is shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos (image from Creators Vice)

Although this specific project involves a degree of immersion and performance that some might feel renders it extra-cinematic, the essentially empathetic and educational nature of virtual reality has been more recently brought into public spheres. Perhaps most significantly, Chris Milk worked with Gabo Arora, a Creative Director and Senior Advisor at the United Nations, to produce a series of 3D virtual documentaries directly aimed at promoting particular social causes.[16] One of their films, Clouds Over Sidra (2015), featuring a twelve-year-old Syrian girl guiding us through her day-to-day life in a refugee camp in Jordan, was shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos to a group of influential politicians, economists and journalists whose decisions affect the lives of millions of people such as those shown in the film: people, Milk says, who “might not otherwise be sitting in a refugee camp in Jordan”.[17] The central supposition here is that virtual reality provides a means not just to see a girl in a refugee camp “through a window”, but rather to be “there with her”; when you look at the floor, Milk notes, “you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on”. This is, of course, where virtual reality most significantly moves away from its affinity to early actuality cinema, instead utilising its sensationalist potential as a platform for social and political discussion; and this is where I think virtual cinema proves to be most exciting.

Fig 11

Figure 11. Frame from Waves of Grace (2015) (image from Here Be Dragons)

I think people are both interested in and scared of virtual reality for the same reason: the possibility that it could provide some addictive means of escaping reality – this idea essentially serves the plot of The Matrix (Lana Wachowski, Lilly Watchowski, 1999), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), and the upcoming Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018) – but rest assured, where the medium excels is where it allows people to experience something more of reality: where it allows you to meet – and sometimes even become – other people to experience something of their lives and how they experience the world. A particular favourite film of mine, Waves of Grace (Chris Milk, Gabo Arora, 2015), tells the story of an Ebola survivor who uses her immunity to the disease to work with other victims as she narrates us through a prayer: I could not help but feel a tear come to my eye as children surrounded me in an abandoned swimming pool. It might seem quite ambitious for Milk to claim virtual reality allows one to experience “humanity in a deeper way”, [18] but such an experience cannot be justified without first trying for oneself.

Far from distracting from reality, virtual content shows a focus on utilising the inherent connectivity and sociability of mobile platforms to aid in public education and discussion. Other significant films, for example, show attempts to induce the experience of being an autistic child,[19] a man losing his sight, seeing the world through the eyes of animals and standing inside otherwise inaccessible locations such as the centre of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider[20] or public celebrations in North Korea.[21]

Fig 12

Figure 12. The Horse in Motion (1878), photographed by Eadweard Muybridge (image from Equine Ink)

Although animal life has been captured on film since its pre-natal stage in Eadweard Muybridge’s experiments in motion photography, through which he attempted to reveal the movement of a horse through printing successive frames of motion, virtual reality means that life can finally be experienced through film. A high-end quality 3D virtual production company, Condition One, advertises its award-winning In The Presence of Animals (2016) as a unique encounter with nature, “from inside”, “alongside” and “amid” various groups of endangered animals.[22] The existential experience of feeling the presence of animal life through a virtual film is, at least to me, unparalleled by any traditional counterpart. Other nature and scientific research organisations, such as the National Geographic Society and Discovery have also quickly taken to the production of virtual content, using their wealth of experience and established reputation to produce more exotic and exciting virtual films: encounters with hammerhead sharks[23] and lions,[24] and views of outer space[25] and shipwrecks[26] frequently dominate the ‘featured content’ pages on streaming platforms.

fig 13

Figure 13. Frame from Operation Deathstar (2017) (image from YouTube)

Many of these virtual nature documentaries also attempt to utilise both the opportunities provided by and the excitement surrounding the medium as a platform for the discussion of wider ecological, environmental and ethical issues: even non-profit charitable organisations are producing virtual-specific content to raise awareness for their cause, such as The Nature Conservancy, who through This is Our Future (2017) attempt to show the dangers of overexploitation of the world’s fish stocks. Two films I have found particularly fascinating, Operation Deathstar (Danfung Dennis, 2017) and Operation Aspen (Danfung Dennis, 2017), show attempts by the animal rights activist group Direct Action Everywhere to break into, respectively, pig and chicken factory farms to rescue animals from their subjugation to illegal practises and objectionable conditions. The experience of not merely seeing but feeling the presence of these animals, knowing also the likelihood of their death by the time of your watching, is an undoubtedly haunting experience for many; it may not be too long before virtual production companies produce their own Earthlings (Shaun Monson, 2005) or Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013) to shock and horrify its audience into personal, industrial and political change. The limitations of virtual reality as mentioned earlier – the consideration of motion-sickness, minimalism of editing, etc. – combined with the investment of environmental organisations looking to reach a mass audience, have no doubt facilitated the relatively quick production of these more professional short-form documentaries.

In conclusion, the fact that virtual reality is forced to challenge certain structural and aesthetic conventions assumed by the traditional industry, hence celebrating more naturalistic and minimalistic approaches to filmmaking, provides a framework to better understand early cinematic history, reenergises an interest in the pure sensation of watching and experiencing, is almost exclusively dependant on mobile access to predominantly international online streaming services, and has already been supported by individuals with various ecological, scientific, religious, political, social and educational agendas, I believe it can be safely asserted that virtual reality is – if there was ever any doubt – more than a novel technological experience. More essentially, it provides a cinematic revolution of a magnitude and potential comparable even to the transition of photography to film: photography built on the plastic arts by reproducing light and shadow in a specific area and cinema built on photography by recording and projecting the movement of light and shadow, but now, with virtual reality, the camera is finally able to capture more than any individual can see. Virtual reality reminds us that the world is far bigger and far more exciting than we could ever imagine alone.

 

FILMOGRAPHY:

Blackfish. Gabriela Cowperthwaite. CNN Films, Manny O. Productions, Magnolia Pictures. United States. 2013

Clouds Over Sidra. Gabo Arora, Barry Pousman. VRSE.works. 2015

Earthlings. Shaun Monson. Nation Earth. United States. 2005

Evolution of Verse. Chris Milk. Annapurna Pictures, Digital Domain, VRSE.works. United States. 2015

Henry. Ramiro Lopez Dau. Occulus Story Studio. United States. 2015

In the Eyes of the Animal. Abandon Normal Devices, Forest Art Works, Forestry Commision England, Marshmallow Laser Feast, The Space. United Kingdom. 2016.

L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière. Société Lumière. 1896

La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon / Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon. Louis Lumière. 1895

Mad Max: Fury Road. George Miller. Kenney Miller Mitchell, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures. Australia, United States. 2015.

MIYUBI. Felix Lajeunessse, Paul Raphael. Felix & Paul Studios, Occulus, Funny or Die. United States. 2017

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness. Archer’s Mark, ARTE France, AudioGamig, Ex Nihilo. 2016

Operation Aspen. Danfung Dennis. Condition One, Direct Action Everywhere. United States. 2017.

Operation Deathstar. Danfung Dennis. Condition One, Direct Action Everywhere. United States. 2017.

Ready Player One. Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, Amblin Partners, De Line Pictures, Fara Films & Management, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Bros. United States. 2018

Rose Colored. Adam Cosco. Invar Studios. United States. 2016

Strange Days. Kathryn Bigelow. 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Lightstorm Entertainment. United States. 1995

The Invisible Man. Hugo Keijzer. Midnight Pictures, The Secret Lab. United States. 2016

The Matrix. Lana Wachowski, Lilly Watchowski. Groucho II Film Partnership, Silver Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Warner Bros., Roadshow Entertainment. Australia, United States. 1999

Waves of Grace. Gabo Arora, Chris Milk. VRSE.works. United States. 2015

[1] Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’, Wide Angle, 8 (3-4), 1986.

[2] Discovery, Mega Coaster: Get Ready for the Drop (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-xNN-bJQ4vI [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[3] Blick, 360° cockpit view / Fighter Jet / Patrouille Suisse (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdZ02-Qenso [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[4] World Surf League, Get Barreled in Tahiti with C.J. Hobgood & Samsung Gear VR 360 (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gjR60TSn8Q [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[5] vr360 pro, SkyDive in 360° Virtual Reality via GoPro (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5XXsRuMPIU [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[6] Making View AS, Wingsuit 360° Experience (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t99N223fqCo [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[7] TED, The birth of virtual reality as an art form (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJg_tPB0Nu0 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[8] Raymond Wong, ‘World’s first permanent VR cinema opens in Amsterdam, and it’s very weird’, Mashable (2016). Available at: http://mashable.com/2016/03/07/vr-cinema-amsterdam/#wGcuq0Tk9gqD [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[9] Vashi Nedomansky, ‘The Fastest Cut: Furious Film Editing’, Vashi Visuals (2016). Available at: http://vashivisuals.com/the-fastest_cut/ [Accessed 27th August 2017].

[10] Anne Billson, ‘Action sequences should stir, not just shake’, The Guardian (2008). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2008/nov/05/action-films-bad-editing [Accessed 8th September 2017]

[11] Graham Winfrey, ‘’Kong: Skull Island’ Scene Slammed for Insanely Fast Editing – Watch’, IndieWire (2017). Available at: http://www.indiewire.com/2017/06/kong-skull-island-criticized-fast-editing-jordan-vogt-roberts-watch-1201847583/ [Accessed 8th September 2017]

[12] Simon Brew, ‘An Open Letter To Action Movie Editors & Directors’, Den of Geek, (2008). Available at: http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/13811/an-open-letter-to-action-movie-editors-directors [Accessed 8th September 2017]

[13] TED, The birth of virtual reality as an art form (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cJg_tPB0Nu0 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[14] The Verge, Using the Oculus Rift to enter the body of another (YouTube, 2014). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOSJETowuik [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[15] ‘Library of Ourselves’, BeAnotherLab. Available at: http://beanotherlab.org [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[16] ‘Gabo Arora’, VR Days. Available at: http://vrdays.co/people/gabo-arora/ [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[17] TED, Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHil1TPxvA&t=384s [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[18] TED, Chris Milk: How virtual reality can create the ultimate empathy machine (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHil1TPxvA&t=384s [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[19] The National Autistic Society, Autism TMI Virtual Reality Experience (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgDR_gYk_a8 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[20] BBC News, Step inside the Large Hadron Collider (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_OeQxoKocU [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[21] ‘Enter North Korea’, CNN (2017). Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/25/vr/north-korea-pyongyang-kim-jong-un-celebration-vr/index.html [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[22] Condition One VR, In the Presence of Animals (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCtWo-yh3F4 [Accessed 27th August 2017]

[23] National Geographic, 360° Great Hammerhead Shark Encounter (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rG4jSz_2HDY [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[24] National Geographic, Lions 360° (YouTube, 2017). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPyAQQklc1s&t=173s [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[25] Seeker VR, Journey To The Edge Of Space (YouTube, 2016). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pCve1w1GFOs [Accessed 28th August 2017]

[26] Discovery VR, MythBusters: Sharks Everywhere! (YouTube, 2015). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WIS6N_9gjA [Accessed 28th August 2017]

Oct 18

Podcast: Calling the Shots

 

Dr Shelley Cobb is an Associate Professor at the University of Southampton. Calling the Shots is an AHRC funded 4 year project.

You can follow the Calling the Shots on Facebook and Twitter.

More information on women’s film can be found at the Women’s Film & Television History Network UK/Ireland,  the Celluloid Ceiling and The F Word.