Pixel Visions: Digital Intermediates and Micromanipulations of the Image

By Wood, Aylish | Film Criticism, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Pixel Visions: Digital Intermediates and Micromanipulations of the Image


Wood, Aylish, Film Criticism


Sin City (Robert Rodriguez, 2005) tells the story of a brutal place, where violent action is the only means through which vengeful justice is meted out to extraordinarily evil villains. Both the comic book and cinematic versions are visually striking, their stark black and white aesthetic creating a limited tonal palette appropriate for a world in which effective action is restricted to acts of violence. The decision by Robert Rodriguez to maintain the aesthetic of Frank Miller's imagery in moving form poses a number of questions for thinking about visual effects, both in terms of image construction and the expressive control of filmmakers. The technological choices made for Sin City by Rodriguez pushed the limits of digital post-production, making the image accessible to manipulation at increasingly micro-levels. A character's tie or glasses, or the patches of bandages covering a wounded body, can be picked out separately from all the other elements of the image. Such a degree of control not only demonstrates the capacity of digital technologies to manipulate at the level of the pixel, but also the extent to which effects are increasingly deployed for expressive reasons.

As a consequence, this essay will argue for a distinct way of framing effects, paying particular attention to how elements of an image can be expressively grouped and ungrouped by digital practices. Thinking about images as composed of separable elements makes it possible to ask questions about the choices behind the expressive use of digital visual effects and the meanings they contribute to a story. The extent to which the deployment of effects creates something distinctive in contemporary cinema depends on the kind of expressive use to which they are put. Expressionistic imagery has long existed within the cinema, from the heightened expressionistic devices of German cinema in the 1920s to their continued presence in Hollywood melodramas and horror films. Accordingly, the films I discuss in detail here--Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003), Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005), and Sin City--reveal both how effects are employed and the extent to which they expand upon and create new possibilities for expressive filmmaking.

Central to my analysis is the shift towards micro-level image manipulation, which is most evident in the emergence of the digital intermediate (DI). Effects of all kinds have, of course, always permeated the cinematic image in both visible and invisible ways, from camera tricks, set designs, lighting and sound effects, stunt and pyrotechnic displays, to more recent digital interventions including mattes, the modelling of figures and architectures, as well as "cleaning and filling" the image to maintain its integrity. However, the relatively new ability to create a DI enables a different degree of access to the image. This increased accessibility continues to evolve as the technologies on which such image manipulation rely become more powerful and sophisticated, and as the capacity to transfer visual material into a digital environment, as well as the ability to manage extremely large amounts of data, expands. For example, the following publicity statement by a post-production house notes,:

   [All] transitions, such as wipes and split-screens, and titles can
   be done digitally rather than optically, and the visual effects can
   be fully integrated into the overall look of the film, without
   standing out as the obvious digital components ... Another major
   advantage is a greater control over color grading. While optical
   color timing allows only basic control of the red, green and blue
   light sources during the duplication process, digital color
   correction can affect aspects like saturation and contrast to an
   infinite degree ... allowing complex visual colour effects to be
   created easily. (the LaB sydney).

This quotation draws attention to the perception of Dis within the film industry as offering new strategies for controlling editing and color management. …

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