For the purposes of a progressive discussion it is important to dissolve the largely dysfunctional distinctions in how we describe and refer to cinematic events; in particular those seemingly derived from technological advances and indeed the very notion of the ‘Special Effect’. (It should be noted that in production practice there is a clear distinction between Special effects and Visual effects; the former relates to those effects executed on-set and in the real-world, where as Visual effects refers to those largely conducted in post-production and integrated with the on-set footage. That said, for the purposes of the discussion here I will use the term ‘Special’ in a more layman vein to refer to all effects that allow the presentation of the impossible or improbable as realistic.)
The idea of cinema possessing or engaging in ‘special effects’ has immediate implications for what can, is, or should be considered a visual norm. The term Special implies extraordinary or out of the norm and so the term itself is highly problematic as a way of considering what cinema is as it pre-supposes a particular visual ‘normality’ - that anything outside of that is beyond normal and subsequently ‘special’. For example we may take a scene form a science fiction film such as Terminator 2 - two men engaged in a physical fight. Of itself this is live-action performance captured in real-time by a physical, lens-based camera. When one of those men becomes liquefied metal and melts (the result of carefully constructed 3D animation and CGI we have - in common popular language at least - a ‘special effect’. However it would be an un-useful mistake to consider that the melting man image is ‘special’ because it is not based in ‘reality’ as cinema itself, on virtually every level, defies ‘reality’ by nature without necessarily engaging in what would commonly be thought of as a special effect. For example the simple act of cutting a film sequence to show the same events from different angles is not based in ‘reality’ just as the use of a non-diegetic musical score is not ‘reality’. Defining cinematic special effects on notions of what is or isn’t ‘reality’ is simply dysfunctional. Alternativey the distinction between what is or isn’t visually ‘normal’ is a much more sound and dynamic framework from which to examine the changing nature of what can be considered a ‘special effect’ based on what might be perceived as a ‘normal’ cinematic experience.
That said, this idea of ‘Normal’ and ‘Special’ is enormously awkward and relies in large part on the subjectivity of the time the work was made to define ‘normality’. We need only look back on the evolution of cinema to see such common, simple, even (in hindsight) unremarkable, cinematic constructs as a Zoom (where the camera lens moves the viewer’s perspective in closer on a subject) or Deep-focus (where the image in both the foreground and background is kept in focus), to see examples of what where once ‘Special Effects’; cinematic events outside of the prevailing ‘norm’. Both these examples derived directly from advances in technology (zoom-lenses in the former, more light-sensitive film stock with smaller aperture exposures in the later). Both were visual cinema elements that had never been seen before and were outside of the prevailing ‘norm’ of the time. Both have however become common, everyday cinema language with nothing ‘special’ about them. It’s in this environment that we find contemporary cinema; cinema of the digital age infused with the power, flexibility and hybridisation that digital technology affords. It would be a fundamental (and yet all too common) mistake to categorise 3D CGI, composited layers, transparency and virtual cameras as ‘special effects’. By doing so they are denoted as somehow outside of a visual ‘norm’ and yet the ubiquitous nature of the tools for making these cinematic elements, across all levels and modes of cinema production, defies any categorisation of being ‘special’. When near photo-real 3D graphics can be produced on a domestic home computer by a hobbyist or amateur creator, we can hardly continue to define these elements as ‘special’ when they have such broad democratised accessibility.
By proxy the ever increasing saturation of hybridized forms and of mixed media in traditional cinema (along with a much broader and holistic definition of cinema itself) it cannot be logically argued that such constructs as 3D graphics are exceptional in any way when they function as commonplace mainstream media assets. This process of popularisation and ubiquitous dispersal across cinematic forms simply embeds the visual aesthetics of such things as 3D, CGI and virtual cameras into the common language of viewers. Virtual objects, hybrid animation/live-action sequences, motion-graphics, virtual cameras, blended multiple images, these are all simply part of the milieu of contemporary cinema; they are neither extraordinary nor are they rare. These elements have become not just a commonly understood part of cinematic imagery but rather, more importantly, become part of common visual expectation on the part of the viewer. It’s here that we might return to computer and video gaming to see the impact of Mise en space and an aesthetic paradigm of spatial composition prevailing into the common cinema language discourse. When 3D gaming is among the most popular and widespread screen-based, moving-image entertainments available to a mass audience it is inevitable that the aesthetics of gaming, the visual expectations of those for whom gaming is a common part of their cinematic diet, become part of common cinematic language. What we have is a bi-directional influence towards the same socio-cultural result in the context of cinema aesthetics. At one end, gaming being a cinematic form of mass popularity means invariably the visual expectations of gaming are supplanted onto a broader cinema context. Visual language is simply a set of social, cultural and aesthetic codes by which viewers are able to interpret and de-construct what it is they are seeing. If a significant proportion of viewers of any form of cinema are also Gamers it stands to reason that their expectations for how that moving image will, can or should behave, and be read, will be influenced by games aesthetics. From the other direction we have the exertions of the means of production themselves and the creative production processes they engage. That the tools for making games – for designing 3D CGI spaces, animating characters, generating and controlling virtual cameras – are the same toolsets used to create a huge variety of visual elements in non-game forms, it is inevitable that this cross over and interchange between tools and creative processes results in new shared aesthetics between forms. Similarly the paradigms for the composer of cinematic works, the frameworks by which they construct cinematic experiences, are drawn directly from the tools themselves; so the very act of Composing becomes one deeply embedded in the inherent aesthetics of tools built of spatial rather than framic parameters.
The expectations of viewers, what they expect from the moving image, how they expect it to behave, is fundamentally linked to the cinematic language they have been immersed in, that they have been trained to read. Never before has that language been so diverse, and thus making a distinction about what is and is not a ‘special effect’ is an arbitrary and largely useless distinction to make. Instead what we have constructed is a new relationship between the viewer and cinematic form, one built on very different and diverse set of expectations. Where once cinema was singular and unified, it is now largely hybridised multifaceted with very different connections forged between viewer and creator; between composition and experience. The link that has underpinned cinema to this point has been the tightly connected, even shared, relationship between the act of ‘composing’ by the filmmaker and the act of ‘viewing’ by the viewer. The idea that the filmmaker composed in frames and the viewer, likewise, experienced the work in frames; the act of making the moving image drawn on a shared axis with the act of viewing the moving image. But this connection is arguably a purely techno-cultural one. The tool for acquiring the moving image is traditionally a camera (even in drawn animation) and the camera is little more than an inverted viewing screen; a projector or TV working backwards - framed light in rather than framed light out. Subsequently the tightly wrought relationship between the act of composing cinema and the act of watching cinema, where both are reliant on the frame and the pre-determined position of reception, is one largely derived from the tool itself and its mechanics rather than any aesthetic impetuous. When we change the tool of composition, and therefore the process of making cinema, we unavoidably break this consistency between ‘making’ and ‘watching’. The paradigm for making the moving image is now no longer a shared modality to that of viewing the moving image. Manovich again points astutely at this shift:
“while the term “moving image” can be still used as an appropriate description for how the output of a design process is experienced by the viewers, it no longer captures how the designers think about what they create…. frame based representation did not disappear - but it became simply recoded. An output format rather than the space the actual design is taking place.” (2003)
What is asserted here is that the role of the frame has significantly altered; it is certainly still how the cinematic work is received, movies are watched on screens and screens (no matter how large or small) have frames, finite edge limits. But for the creator, the composer of a cinematic work, the frame is no longer the dominant paradigm for composition because the tools of making cinema no longer hold the frame as the primary compositional axiom. Cinema, by its new found Cartesian framework, inclusive of a z-axis, has become much more akin to architecture than it has to the photograph; the artistic processes of composing cinema now draws upon a new cannon of aesthetic language constructs; constructs which are built on dynamic spatiality and variable perspectives. How we might understand this new aesthetic platform comes, as it so often does, from looking back through the wreckage of past art movements to draw parallels and pre-cursors to the environment we now find ourselves in; precedents by which to measure our current state of affairs. In this regard, some observers have drawn connection between the spatial, layered, technological-derived and visually verbose aesthetics of contemporary cinema and the Baroque art movements of 17th century. The term Baroque has been used to describe an art movement that was built on “extravagance, impetuousness and virtuosity, all of which were concerned with stirring the affections and senses of the individual… considered a chaotic and exuberant form”. (Ndalianis. 2004, p7-8) Indeed there’s much that may be taken from this description to aptly be applied to cinematic form in the digital age of virtual cameras, multiple blended layers, interactivity and 3D animation. Baroque has also been referred to as “possessing traits that were unusual… and beyond the norm” (Ndalianis. 2004, p7) and this idea of a ‘norm’ and of exceeding that normality is particularly useful for defining the impact of what Angela Ndalianis has termed the “Neo-Baroque” (2004). Ndalianis observes that “The baroque’s difference from classical systems lies in the refusal to respect the limits of the frame.” (2004, p360) In the context of the idea of a Mise en space compositional paradigm this would appear to hold a great deal of weight. That the aesthetic impact of 3D tools, CGI and Z-space composition is not simply to work outside of the traditional cinematic frame but rather to more disrespectfully re-position the significance of the frame itself. Gibbs, in his very traditional assessment of the Mise en scene, takes some steps to include spatiality beyond the frame stating that;
“what is in the frame is only a selective view of a wider fictional world and the act of framing an action presents the filmmaker with a whole range of choices including those concerning what is revealed and withheld from the audience.” (2002, p26)
But this perspective is still fiercely adherent to the frame itself, to what we might contend is “the order and reason of neoclassicism” (Ndalianis, 2004, p8) The Gibbs perspective – which is certainly the long established pillar that has informed most cinema thinking over the past century – invokes spatiality, invites it into the discourse, allows it to be part of the frame, but keeps it reigned in, not allowing it to become the infinitely variable parameter of endless view that the Baroque implies. Instead Ndalianis draws upon Deluze to reclassify the role of the frame itself.
“the (neo-)baroque complicates classical spatial relations through the illusion of the collapse of the frame; rather than relying on static, stable viewpoints that are controlled and enclosed by the limits of the frame, (neo-)baroque perceptions of space dynamically engage the audience in what Deluze (1993) as characterized as “architectures of vision”. Neo-baroque vision, especially as explored in the quadratura and science fiction genres, is the product of new optical models of perception that suggest worlds of infinity that lose the sense of a centre.” (2004, p28)
It is this last articulation of infinite worlds without a “sense of a centre” that makes the concept of a neo-baroque aesthetic over contemporary (digital) cinema so applicable. The prospect of the ‘infinite’ is at the heart of 3D CGI and Z-Space – infinite points of view (aka virtual camera positions), infinite perspective, infinite focus in defiance of lens mechanics, and, most significantly, infinite flexibility for all the properties of the cinematic image to remain malleable and variable; indeed multiplicitious. The missing sense of a centre that particularly underpins Baroque ideas of architecture and spatial construction (churches, palaces and landscape gardens) – as Klein observed “Baroque landscaping looks like a video game” (2004, p11) – finds a poignant target in considering the absence, dismissal and dissolving of the ‘frame’ itself. The frame moves from primary ‘facilitator’ of composition to secondary ‘deliverer’ of composition. The ‘frame’ is the centre of traditional Mise en scee cinema, but the Neo-Baroque of the digital age dissolves that centre in favour of the chaos of variability garnered from a frameless compositional world.
“The Renaissance ideal” which we may read as traditional Mise en scene framic sensibilities is “of a perspectively guided representation… replaced by a Baroque concern with complex, dynamic motion and multiple perspectives that are dependant on the position of the viewer in relation to the work” (Ndalianis 2005, p360) The issue this idea raises is the new relationship of perception formed between the Viewer and the cinematic ‘special effects’ that are intrinsically a part of the Neo-Baroque’s dynamic. Neo-Baroque is unable to construct its much desired ‘dynamic motion and multiple perspectives’ without what would otherwise be known as ‘special effects’ and yet since virtually all of the elements that would go into the construction these ‘special effects’ push Neo-Baroque cinema beyond the visual norm, we are left with a very problematic question of what exactly a ‘special effect’ is? The major transgression for Neo-Baroque in regard to special effects is the decidedly tangible move away from the long-standing attempt to hide or disguise the apparatus to the veritable wearing of the apparatus on the cinematic sleeve. Klein picks up this argument discussing Bazin in the context of Baroque theatre;
“For many film theorists like Bazin, special effects are the hoax that makes the cinema feel artificial. The audience can all but smell the effects machinery just outside the frame. In Baroque theatre however sensing the fake was considered a glory. Special effects were designed to suggest a hoax; that enhanced their art. They were sculptural and painterly artifice invading the stage” (2004, p31)
Aylish Wood goes further with the concept of ‘inscribed media’;
“moving image media are becoming increasingly marked, or inscribed, by visible evidence of the technological interventions used in their creation, and that these inscriptions frame or intercede in a viewer’s engagement” (2007, p1-2)
It is this cross-roads intersection between viewer engagement, technology and the cinematic language of visual expectations, that is the fulcrum of any discussion of the contemporary role of the Mise en scene in cinematic form. As the digital age adds ever deepening layers of visual complexity, around a frameless compositional paradigm of spatiality, the artifices of that construction, and the un-reality of digital cinema’s mechanics viewed through an imposed frame, become an overtly apparent property of the cinema experience. Read in more tactile terms, digital elements such as 3D CGI and virtual environments are an unmistakable and obvious ‘hoax’ on the viewer and furthermore do not pretend to be otherwise. When the cinema space can be explored in ways that a physical space cannot, when the viewer can occupy vantage points that a physical camera could not, when images and objects divorced in space, time and context can seamlessly coexist, then we have engaged a new sense of visual ‘norm’ for the act of viewing. A norm that redefines the relationship to what would otherwise be considered a ‘special effect’. Suffice to say that Mise en space, as a form of Neo-Baroque cinema, a composition of ‘Scripted Spaces’, is one that wears the mechanics of contemporary cinema on its sleeve, that doesn’t pretend to be anything but cinematic; a grand, elaborate and extravagant experience which Klein describes as being designed “to make us feel light-headed, anaesthetized - cheerfully disorientated… because we know the confusion is intended” (2004, p97). It is how the technology positions experience in new contexts of cinematic process that defines a new understanding of what it is to ‘compose’.
Manovich, L., 2003. Image Future.
Ndalianis, A., 2004. Architectures of the senses: Neo-Baroque entertainment spectacles. In Cambridge: MIT Press.
Gibbs, J., 2002. Mise-En-Scene: film style and interpretation, London: Wallflower Press.