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Hollywood’s digital world gets closer

High-tech tools bringing a new aesthetic to filmmaking

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"Time Code," "Hamlet," and, in a different way, "Dinosaur" remind us that we've just begun to write the first few pages of the first chapter of the new book on image delivery. There are technical, psychovisual, aesthetic and political consequences built into this new horizon.

"Time Code" and "Hamlet," both shot digitally, hit the ground running with a new aesthetic arising from the new tools. Both are propulsive in ways that few studio films ever were. Part of the excitement of watching them is seeing this aesthetic take shape before your eyes as they jettison the traditional composed look of classic studio films for the hurtling, provisional open-endedness of breaking TV news coverage.

In each, the action we're watching is resourcefully hitched to the new style.

In "Time Code," Mike Figgis splits the screen in four and runs each of four story lines simultaneously. The characters from each quadrant are connected, but this doesn't become apparent until later. What they have in common is that they're all in crisis and they're all on the move as they breathlessly converge on the Sunset Boulevard office of a production company in which each character is, or wants to be, a player.

An ambitious actress, a jilted lover, an unraveling filmmaker, a tense woman on the verge of divorce, a security guard snorting coke while scoping out a masseur, an auditioning director — even before the characters begin migrating from one quadrant to another, the screen is boiling over with agendas.

While there's nothing new about split screens or, for that matter, digital cameras, Figgis makes us feel the urgency of their overwound lives.

So it is with Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet," starring Ethan Hawke. But it's the kind of star turn not often experienced in a "Hamlet," even in the '60s, when sullen Hamlets were the rule. While it's apparent that Almereyda is working fast and rough, it's equally apparent that he's actually bringing off a solution to the problem of shooting a contemporary "Hamlet" on a shoestring in Manhattan. While each seems chaotic, each is the sum of hundreds of aesthetic decisions — many made on the run.

Hawke is invested in Hamlet's speeches, but he never stands around declaiming them. This is a "Hamlet" that forgoes spoken poetry for an imagistic equivalent. One of the features of the world of this "Hamlet" is its surfeit of images and image delivery systems. The play-within-a-play in which Hamlet nails the usurping king who murdered Hamlet's father is a video Hamlet made — presumably at NYU's film school. The "What a piece of work is man" soliloquy comes from a laptop. And the camcorder-toting Hamlet delivers "to be or not to be" from the action film aisle of a Blockbuster Video store.

Not all of Almereyda's devices work. But he and the convincingly alienated Hawke catch us up in this "Hamlet," persuade us that we're on a chase after the play's existential core.

NEW FRONTIERS — While "Time Code" and "Hamlet" become one with overloaded go-go styles that reinforce a sense of each film being snatched from the raw stuff of life itself, Disney's new "Dinosaur" represents the opposite extreme. It devises new frontiers in artifice. Not just in its way of blending computer-generated dinosaurs with real landscapes from around the world (tweaked with the occasional computer-added river or cloud bank), but in its way of making the big beasts more sophisticatedly lifelike than in previous incarnations. When the herbivorous dinosaur protagonists open their mouths to bellow at a ravaging carnosaur, we see their cheeks vibrate with the sound. When they lumber across a desert, the flesh sways on their massive bones (a move borrowed from elephants the animators studied).

Also, the eyes are more lifelike than ever before. To see how far dinosaur-crafting has come in just a few years, check out the eyes on the T-Rex in "Jurassic Park." This is a different order of artifice than that of "Toy Story" and its sequel, where part of the fun was seeing that entire computer-generated world goof on itself with details like obviously programmed nicks and mars on what would have been the otherwise sterile and perfectly flat baseboards in the toys' room.

"Dinosaur" was a movie Disney had to make to renew itself and keep up, or at least not be perceived as having fallen behind.

Not that the digital world is coming immediately. There still are kinks to be worked out. Something like 10 million pixels are needed to capture a film image. Current digital cameras are nowhere near this.

Nor are theaters nearly ready to begin projecting the new digital imagery to any great degree. Last year, when he released "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace," George Lucas complained that most theaters were unequipped to adequately project his film. Prototype digital screens exist, but the necessary massive investments in projection and screen equipment have not yet been rolled out in any significant way by theater chains.

GEARING UP — So there must be an extensive refinement and changeover of equipment. This will take at least a few years. The digital world comes closer and closer. But it hasn't taken over yet. This may play into the most exciting possibility attached to the new world of image-making and image delivery, namely the increasing democratization it will foster. Lighter, faster, cheaper digital videocams have only just begun to democratize filmmaking and expand its possibilities.

A few years ago, when I asked Francis Ford Coppola who he thought the interesting filmmakers of the next generation might be, he thought a moment, then said that he didn't know, that it would probably be a girl filming something in her garage in Ohio that very moment, or a boy using a camcorder in his backyard in a California suburb.

The great thing about "The Blair Witch Project," the thing that shook up Hollywood, was the way it came out of nowhere and made $200 million and the studios not only weren't in control of it, but didn't even know about it until it was heading toward its first $100 million.

Where the Internet fits into the new equation, nobody is prepared to say, but everybody knows it's in there somewhere. Already, the Internet is shaping up as a calling card for filmmakers. It has created new visibility for short films. People aren't likely to watch feature films on the Internet, but they may use it to download them and put video rental stores out of business.

Hollywood isn't going away. It's going to control the big-bucks aspect of what we call film for some time to come. But no longer do you have to max out a credit card to make a film. Anybody can do it. Cheap new equipment and the Internet are all that are needed for a new populism. The interesting battle in the next few decades will be between the new digital guerrillas and the new giant media agglomerates. Hollywood and the new media barons have lost control of the image-making business and it's driving them nuts.