Theory digital images and modal logic

We shall now pursue and extend Bazin's theory of realism in the photographic image by considering the status of realism in the post-photographic (or digital) image. The question we want to focus on is: Can we explain the impact and popularity of Jurassic Park and The Lost World in terms of their 'realism' or, more specifically, their innovative digital effects that create photo-realistic and credible images of unobservable, nonexistent dinosaurs? To answer this question, we need to focus on the difference between the photographic and the digital image, and then introduce the modal theory of possible worlds as a way of explaining the realism of the previously non-observable dinosaurs.

The photograph, as a physical portrayal, is dependent upon the presence of a pre-existing real object, whose appearance is automatically reproduced by means of optics, mechanics, and photochemisty (or electronics, in the case of video). The photographic image is therefore indexically bound to the actual world. The photographic is an analogue of the real. However, the digital (or post-photographic) image is not determined or limited to the actual world in the same way. Whereas the photographic image is an analogue of the preexisting real objects whose appearance it reproduces automatically, the digital image is produced by numerical digital codes, each of which is then realized on screen as a pixel, or point of light. The continuous lines, masses, and contours of the analogue are divided up into discontinuous, discrete fragments of information, or pixels, on a monitor. Lucia Santella Braga points out:

Each pixel corresponds to numerical values that enable the computer to assign it a precise position in the two dimensional space of the screen, within a generally Cartesian co-ordinate system. To those coordinates are added chromatic coordinates. The numerical values [the digital code] transform each fragment into an entirely discontinuous and quantified element, distinct from the other elements, over which full control is exercised.

The crucial phrase here is 'over which full control is exercised'. The 'filmmaker' has the potential to transform each pixel into an entirely different value, for each pixel is defined in terms of a numerical matrix that can be modified and transformed by a mathematical algorithm. 'The result', writes Braga, 'is that the numerical image is under perpetual metamorphosis, oscillating between the image that is actualized on the screen and the virtual image or infinite set of potential images that can be calculated by the computer' (p. 126).

Practitioners of the special effects industry distinguish between invisible and visible special effects. Invisible special effects, which constitute up to 90 per cent of the work of the special effects industry, simulate events in the actual world that are too expensive or inconvenient to produce, such as the waves in James Cameron's Titanic. As their name implies, invisible special effects are not meant to be noticed (as special effects) by film spectators. Visible special effects, on the other hand, simulate events that are impossible in the actual world (but which are possible in an alternative world), such as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and The Lost World. The crucial aesthetic point in relation to the digital special effects in these two films in particular is that, while clearly visible, these effects attempt to hide behind an iconic appearance (or photographic credibility); that is, they are visible special effects masquerading as invisible effects. What we mean is that the digital images in Jurassic Park and The Lost World combine the aesthetics of both visible and invisible special effects, since they have the potential to replicate the realism and illusionism of the photographic image by conferring photographic credibility upon objects that do not exist in the actual world. What this implies is that, while the digital images of the dinosaurs are not produced optically, which means they are not real, observable events in the real world, they nonetheless create the impression that they are produced optically and that, therefore, the dinosaurs are pre-existing referents simply being photographed.

From this discussion we can begin to determine the motivation for the digital special effects in Spielberg's Jurassic Park and The Lost World: namely, to simulate the actuality of dinosaurs living in the present day. This actuality is of course an illusion - or, more accurately, what Richard Allen calls a sensory deception,1 which shows dinosaurs inhabiting a world that otherwise looks like the actual world. In accordance with Allen's term, we see something that does not exist, but this doesn't necessarily lead us to believe that it actually exists. Of course, such deceptions have been created before by optically printing two separately filmed events onto the same strip of film. The result is a composite or layered image. In theory, this optically produced composite fabricates a spatio-temporal unity, giving the impression that the two separate events are taking place at the same diegetic space and time. The first event may be of live actions, and the second event may consist of stop-motion animation. However, the optical and photochemical equipment used in this process has inherent limitations that cannot be disguised - such as loss of resolution, grain, and hard-edge matt lines. Therefore, although optical composites can always give the impression that the two separate events occupy the same screen space, they eventually fall short in convincing the increasingly sophisticated spectator that the separate events occupy the same diegesis. Digital compositing equipment does not have the technical limitations inherent in optical printers, and so it can create a seamless blend of live action and animation, leading to the deception that the composited events do occupy the same diegesis.

In Jurassic Park and The Lost World, this deception is heightened even further in the moments when the digital dinosaurs and live action characters interact. In these shots, George Lucas's special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), has created a seamless fusion of live action and computer-generated dinosaurs. (Of course, the Stan Winston studio also created live action puppet dinosaurs, but these have a pro-filmic reality beyond the film's capacity to generate a sensory deception.) Such a seamless fusion and interaction greatly contributes to the realism of these films. We can even argue that (however paradoxical it may sound), the shots showing the humans and digital dinosaurs interacting are the digital equivalent of the long takes and deep-focus shots praised by André Bazin for their spatial density and surplus of realism, in opposition to the synthetic and unrealistic effects created by montage.

But we cannot apply Bazin 'straight', of course. His realist ontology of the cinema, restricted to physical portrayal by means of optics, mechanics, and photochemistry, needs to be expanded to include the portrayal of 'possible worlds' in digital images. As we have already seen, the digital special effects in films such as Jurassic Park and The Lost World attempt to combine the aesthetics of both visible and invisible digital special effects - to repeat what we said above, they have the potential to replicate the realism and illusionism of the photographic image by conferring photographic credibility upon-objects that do not exist in the actual world. In other words, digital special effects simulate realism and illusionism as theorized by Bazin and Heath (and the other film theorists mentioned above), whereas in other films visible special effects by themselves are used to create totally synthetic, futuristic worlds. For the moment, we are only concerned with the digital image's simulation of realism and illusionism and, more particularly, in the way spectators react to this simulation. Rather than referring, as one might expect, to Jean Baudrillard's theory of the simulacrum, we shall instead use the theory of possible worlds, because it will enable us to go some way towards explaining the ontology of the digital image.

The theory of possible worlds challenges the philosophy of logical positivism. For logical positivists, the actual world is all there is, and non-actual objects or possible states of affairs are meaningless because they do not correspond to immediate experience. It was only with the rise of modal logic (the study of possibility and necessity) that analytic philosophers broadened their horizons to analyse the possible as well as the actual.

Modal logic studies the range of possible - that is, non-actual - states of affairs that emerge from an actual state of affairs. For a number of philosophers (most notably David Lewis; see Lewis 1979), possible worlds have the same ontological status as the actual world. However, we do not subscribe to this extreme view here, but to a theory of possible worlds called conceptualism, which is represented in possible world literature most forcefully by the philosopher Nicholas Rescher (see Rescher 1969; 1975; 1979). Conceptualism offers a more modest view of possible worlds than a modal realist view. These possible states of affairs have a different ontological status, or mode of being, from the actual state of affairs. Rescher argues that possible worlds are constructs of language and the mind, whereas modal realists such as David Lewis argue that possible worlds are independent of language and the mind.

The following passage clearly and straightforwardly outlines Rescher's mind-dependent, conceptualist approach to possible worlds:

... exactly what can the existential status of the possible-but-unrealized state of affairs be? Clearly - ex hypothesi - the state of affairs or things at issue does not exist as such: only actual things or states of affairs can unqualifiedly be said to exist, not those that are possible but unrealized. By definition, only the actual will ever exist in the world, never the unactualized possible. For the world does not have two existential compartments, one including the actual and another that includes the unactual. Of course, unactualized possibilities can be conceived, entertained, hypothesized, assumed, and so on. That is to say, they can, in a way, exist - or 'subsist' if one prefers - not, of course, unqualifiedly in themselves, but in a relativized manner, as the objects of certain intellectual processes. But it goes without saying that if their ontological footing is to rest on this basis, then they are clearly mind-dependent.

(Rescher 1979:168)

Possible worlds are mind-dependent because they cannot be located in nature, only in the thought processes and language of humans. And possible world-conceptualism does not lead to idealism because it can clearly distinguish between actual objects and states of affairs, which are independent of the mind, and possible worlds, which are inherently mind-dependent.

This is where the link between digital images and possible world theory emerges: the digital image is not bound or limited to the actual world in the same way as the optical image. At first glance it therefore seems that both the digital image and possible worlds have a similar ontological status: both articulate non-actual possibilities - that is, abstract, hypothetical states of affairs, whose ontological status is different from that of the actual world.

The power in the presentation of a possible world is increased when it is actualized on the movie screen with the aid of digital special effects, which create the perceptual illusion that the possible world is actual. The images of the dinosaurs are not produced optically, which means that they are not observable pro-filmic events physically portrayed using the nineteenth-century technologies of optics, mechanics, and photochemistry. This means that a digital image of a dinosaur cannot be compared and contrasted with its pro-filmic model or referent, because its referent does not exist in the real world. (This is a crucial issue, since it is impossible to verify that the dinosaurs have been faithfully 'reproduced', particularly in terms of skin colour, the sounds they make, and their movement; we simply cannot compare them to real dinosaurs in this respect.) The dinosaurs therefore exist in a conceptual possible world, and this conceptual possible world is being realized on screen via digital technology. The possible world cannot be realized via optical technology, because there is nothing for the optical technology to record (or physically portray). Moreover - and crucially - the digital special effects attempt to create the illusion that the images of dinosaurs are caused by pro-filmic referents (i.e. real, observable dinosaurs) - that is, that the dinosaurs are physically portrayed by means of optics, mechanics, and photochemistry. More generally, the possible world inhabited with dinosaurs is presented as if it were mind-independent - that is, the dinosaurs exist in the real world and have simply been recorded by the optical camera. And it is this illusion that seems to explain why Spielberg's Jurassic Park and The Lost World, inhabited by photo-realistic digital dinosaurs, have proved to be so popular.

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