Robert Paul’s famous 1901 film The Countryman and the Cinematograph features a now famous self-reflexive scene: a countryman stands and stares at a moving train on a cinema screen, reeling in amazement until the moment at which he believes the train is almost upon him. Running from the screen, the countryman acts out the popular myth of the time, since described by Steven Bottomore as the “train effect” in which audiences supposedly ran hysterically from early cinema projections of oncoming trains. Crucially, Bottomore’s argument is not only that the train effect was little more than a telling, self-reflexive myth, but that the myth functioned as a useful vehicle for the promotion of the early film spectacle. Bound up in this, Bottomore asserts, is a process that has characterised image culture for many centuries: the ever developing achievement of greater levels of verisimilitude. Bottomore does not seek to lay out a discussion of what constitutes verisimilitude or realism, but to consider the way in which amazement, shock and even the craving for ever new visual stimuli has often characterised the process of cinematic spectatorship and the myths that have surrounded it.
As Bottomore asserts, his work does not run contrary to Tom Gunning’s theory of the cinema of attractions. (1) Instead, he suggests, amazement has long functioned within spectacular attractions as a promotional vehicle, both for specific movies and the cinematic apparatus in general. In response to this I have argued that early cinema and its attractions frequently served an explicit promotional function. (2) From the outset of cinema’s history, industrial interests realised the advertising potential of cinematic attractions that captivated the public. Audiences accepted the commercial messages of early cinematic content, so desperate were they for a spectacle that (to paraphrase Gunning) was of interest in its own right. This combination of cinematic attraction and promotional function is a feature of early cinema that, I have argued, binds the history of the attraction to that of the advertisement. In this framework, historical and contemporary audiovisual material can be articulated as constituting a ‘cinemas of transactions’ made up of a complex of digital attractions that function within the texts they are created for and as a single currency that can operate for promotional value across multiple audiovisual economies. In this framework, ‘cinemas’ are neither a singular, unitary entity nor are their ‘transactions’ confined to being a strictly traditional economic process. The cinemas of transactions constitutes a complex and multiply interrelated system of textual, technological, aesthetic, and economic developments. Most importantly, however, I have argued that the cinemas of transactions does not represent a radical break from past configurations of cinematic and audiovisual promotional history; rather the continuation of a relationship initiated at the inception of cinema history. An example of this can be found in the way contemporary CGI sequences function in Hollywood film production as effectively as they do in the news stories, television trailers and YouTube clips that also promote the film. In this article I wish to return to the way in which the digital attraction moves across these textual forms and expand it to take account of the central role computer gaming has played, and is playing, in shaping the direction of contemporary cinematics.
In his work on the train effect, Bottomore asserts that audience amazement at the simplest of moving images characterised early cinematic spectacle, arguing that, “what often impressed audiences most (or at any rate the reviewers who wrote about the screenings) was the uncanny realism of certain film and their ability to reproduce complex, natural movement: in portraying the undulations of smoke and water, for example, or the movements of crowds of people.” (3) Amazement at such spectacle and self-reflexive discussion of such amazement that frequently made its way into news media was, he argues, a key feature of the promotional function of the train effect. By the same token, we can understand contemporary digital attraction functioning in similar ways. Interest in ever newly emerging digital attractions allows films, television shows and even adverts to increase their promotional potential through the distribution channels opened up by the internet. Internet based distribution channels with their viral capacities and database and algorithmic structures lend themselves to an exponential rerun of the conditions of media publicity and mass consumption that surrounded early cinematic spectacles.
The release of Avatar in 2009 was, like all of James Cameron’s films, an excellent example of this process. Like the attractions of the early twentieth century, Avatar gained a great deal of attention for the way in which CG effects and the stereoscopic exhibition created a cinematic experience which, in common with the train effect (and to paraphrase Bottomore) felt real no matter how unreal they knew it to be. (4) This led in turn to much media coverage which, together with a carefully orchestrated online trailer, maintained a promotional rhetoric uncannily similar to that which Bottomore asserts surrounded early film spectacles. Most revealing are the stories that surfaced in the news about viewers who had been so dazzled by Avatar’s immersive world that they had been reduced afterwards to seeking the help of their doctors. So ‘real’ and immersive was the stereoscopic fantasy world that Cameron’s animators had built that these viewers had allegedly fallen victim to depression when faced with the reality that the world of Pandora did not and would never exist. Whether these stories were true or not (5) is less relevant than the fact that they have a parallel in Bottomore’s early train effect viewers. Describing an account of early cinema spectatorship, Bottomore describes audience members who apparently fainted after witnessing the overwhelming realism of the moving image. After this, it was arranged that an ambulance be stationed at the entrance of the cinema: a precaution that Bottomore suggests had more to do with shrewd marketing than the necessity to involve the medical profession. (6) There was no danger of the newly emerging cinematic image actually overwhelming the cinema viewer, but stories of viewers so overcome with the realism of what they saw that they required medical help was indeed a powerful publicity draw.
This public discourse of overwhelmed and amazed cinema spectators is likely to have been the genesis of the Countryman and the Cinematograph and its demonstration of cinemas potential for self-reflexive deconstruction of its own exhibition and consumption processes at the very earliest of stages. With this in mind, a scene in Avatar bears uncanny parallels. When Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) first meets his avatar (a term that fittingly has its roots in cyberculture of the 1990s) (7) he sits gazing at the glowing amniotic tank. Immobile in his wheelchair staring at the radiant scene of spectacular possibility (an avatar that will literally take him to a fantasy world through means of mental transference) Sully resembles a cinema viewer. Likewise, when Sully is transported into the avatar for the first time the audience is treated to the spectacle of his clumsy, erratic and unsocialised behaviour, like the bumpkin of the Countryman and other popular figures in the press at that time. (8) Like the Countryman scene, the Avatar scene is profoundly self-referential, speaking deeply of cinema’s long standing relationship between new attractions, audience socialisation and its place in this process of socialisation. (9) 1
While the similarities with the Countryman film are apparent, the differences are equally as telling. Jake is not looking at an audiovisual screen (though they do make frequent appearances elsewhere in the film) but at the avatar that will act as the gateway to a new sensory and scopic dimension. In this sense the scene stands as a metaphor for the audiences encounter with the 3D CG space that is the film, rather than as a lateralisation that the countryman and the cinematograph did. (10) The most apparent difference between Countryman and Avatar however, is that of textual form. The Countryman is a short attraction, in common with the early films of cinema’s emergence, while Avatar is long, expanding out the narrative attraction of the CG image to three hours. This stretching of the attraction will be one of the focuses of this article, for it says much that is fundamental about notions of the cinematic in contemporary audiovisual culture.
In this article I shall approach two previously unexplored points, the first being Gunning’s assertion that with the coming of narrative cinema, the attraction did not disappear but went ‘underground’ surfacing “as a component of narrative films, more evident in some genres (e.g. the musical) than others.” (11) The second is Bottomore’s assertion that increasingly audiovisually literate audiences of the attraction have generally demanded ever increasing spectacle. To take the first point first, I wish to turn Gunning’s notion that narrative cinema necessitates the driving underground of the attraction on its head to ask if we are now seeing the reverse: the emergence of a new mode of audiovisual content creation that extends the potential of the attraction as it operated in early cinema to feature length.
In his original article Gunning acknowledged contemporary Hollywood’s ambiguous heritage:
A film like The Great Train Robbery (1903) does point in both directions, towards a direct assault on the spectator (the spectacularly enlarged outlaw unloading his pistol in our faces), and towards a linear narrative continuity…Clearly in some sense recent spectacle cinema has reaffirmed its roots in stimulus and carnival rides, in what might be called the Spielberg-Lucas-Coppola cinema of effects. (12)
Gunning’s description of this cinema of effects was a prescient identification of what was to come with the full fledged onset of photorealistic digital imaging. While the cinema of effects marked a reaffirmation of cinemas roots in the visceral stimuli, contemporary digital effects takes us beyond mere affirmation. Digital attractions mark a rebalancing in which narrative and attraction should not be seen as battling it out and/or dominating one and other – this is a reductive dichotomy that both Gunning and subsequently Geoff King have been rightly careful to avoid. Instead, it seems clear that with the emergence of digital attractions, narrative and spectacle are both reconfigured in new and unexpected ways. This demands a refocusing of attention upon the ontology of the CG image in order to articulate a theoretical response to cinematic content in the age of the digital attraction.
The Auteur of the Digital Attraction
Cameron’s Avatar simply marks the explicit materialisation of what has been increasingly apparent in Hollywood over the last decade: that film production now has as much in common with Walt Disney’s approach to rotoscoping feature length animation from the 1930s as it does with traditional, single referent imprint based cinematography. Avatar marks the moment at which CG animation and traditional cinematography have merged for the full duration of a feature length film and with it the potential of the image as attraction is restored as an endless, exponential consequence of Moore’s Law. In this context the promotional function of the attraction returns with a vengeance. With Ridley Scott, David Fincher and Baz Lurhmann, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay and Ron Howard all deploying digital attractions first developed in the advertising industry as promotional, industrial pre-visualisations to ‘sell’ their audiences and financial backers on the spectacular value of a film, the advertising potential of various digital spectacles has become a prerequisite of making a film. However, such directors, unlike the animators on their CG teams, are products of an industry that functioned until recently without the digital imaging practices that now dominate. Of course, the production processes of Hollywood run far deeper than the directors: the rise of digital animation processes in Hollywood film has emphasised the degree to which directors who traditionally emerged through the ranks of celluloid cinematography now increasingly fulfil a production role, coordinating ever growing CG animation teams. In recent years however a number of directors have started to rise from within the digital imaging production nodes that, since the ‘cinema of effect’ production of the 1980s and 1990s have been gradually complicating and replacing traditional celluloid cinematography. Perhaps the best example of this is Neill Blomkamp.
Starting his career producing 3D photorealistic renderings of cars and aeroplanes for popular science magazines before moving onto Embassy Visual Effect and Rainmaker Digital Effects, Blomkamp moved rapidly into directing adverts and short films that lead onto the three Halo shorts he produced to promote Microsoft’s Halo 3 game. Following the collapse of the Halo film project he went on to direct District 9 (2009). Blomkamp can be said to embody the spirit of the cinemas of transactions. His earliest adverts and short films not only operated as YouTube attractions, but were consumed and discussed by online fans as legitimate examples of his oeuvre. A quick look at his films and adverts on YouTube reveal not only that they register hits in the hundreds of thousands but also that his fans frequently refer to him first and foremost as the man who directed the “Citroën transformer ad”. (13)
Not only can we say that the digital attractions deployed in Blomkamp’s adverts are the product of his extensive experience of CG imaging, we can also see that fans themselves approach his work on the basis of its unique aesthetic as a digital attraction rather than the basis of its textual specificity. This is symptomatic of the cinemas of transactions: both production and consumption of the image as digital attraction. Equally, the digital attraction operates as an interchangeable promotional object. A YouTube advert promotes Blomkamp as a newly emerging director of digital image culture. Equally, Blomkamp’s short films, most of which took the telling form of a mock promotional video or documentary, served (literally in the case of Alive in Joberg) as a calling card and promotion for the concept of the District 9 movie.
In a sign of how such digital attractions are also central in Hollywood film we can compare the digital attractions deployed in Blomkamp’s largely internet-based work with moments from Michael Bay movies. As I have argued elsewhere, the direction of influence between film and advertising attractions is less important than the fact that their shared aesthetics symptomatise the cinemas of transactions. In the cinemas of transactions the digital attraction is paramount and the specificity of the textual forms across which it migrates is secondary.
Interestingly, District 9 was made after the project to bring Microsoft’s highest selling game Halo to the cinema screen collapsed. While Blompkamp’s attempts to realise the Halo movie stalled, his output both before and after says much about the way in which digital attractions and gaming interact with contemporary cinematics. Not only is District 9 an amalgamation of advertising, televisual documentary aesthetic and Hollywood CGI, it is also deeply indebted to contemporary gaming. In particular the final third of the film is as reminiscent of a high action game finale as it is of a cinematic text. What is most sticking about District 9’s finale is the way in which gaming aesthetic, complete with the isometric perspective of an action packed, alien robot battle scene is welded with cinéma vérité aesthetic featuring hand held camera and live documentary style voice over.
Gunning’s work became seminal because it affected a paradigm shift in the way cinema was historicised. Its importance lay not just in its historical reappraisal of cinema but also in its implications for scholarly understandings of both contemporary film and the nature of film studies’ very approach to cinema. Where Gunning argued that the origins of film theory in literary theory led to a distorting over-emphasis upon cinema as a narrative form, we might now argue that film scholarship approaches its object of study textually while its modes of production and consumption have gradually fallen under the exponential development of computer software and hardware. Such an assertion is, of course, problematically reductive. Not only has there always been much work conducted on film as a social, cultural, economic and industrial force but the assertion that “software takes command” (14) of all levels of culture risks self defeating technological totalisation.
Nevertheless, it is apparent that the boundaries of cinematic production, consumption and study have been greatly expanded with the rapid changes brought about by the emergence of digital technologies and production practices. To this end, Gunning’s questioning of film theory’s tendency to approach cinema from the direction of narrative privilege has been followed in recent years by a broader meta-critique of scholarly boundary setting that theorists such as Jenkins, (15) Caldwell, (16) Everett, (17) Miller (18) and Boddy (19) have argued is increasingly overtaken by industrial, technological and economic events. It is with this in mind that we come to gaming.
Examples of Gaming’s increasing influence and significance as a primary cultural form are manifest across audiovisual industries. As more and more directors announce that they are moving into game production (Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson being recent examples) the structure of gaming studios and production methods are increasingly reminiscent of film and television production. At the end of Heavy Rain the gamer/viewer is treated to behind the scenes footage of the production process which looks more like the DVD extras on a Hollywood film as the rotoscoping of actors faces for game characters is described and explained. At the other end of the scale, it appears that Heavy Rain is now influencing film and television production as Hollywood directors praise it (20) and television shows reference its aesthetics. As Paul Govan points out:
It’s not often that TV copies a videogame for its aesthetic, in fact gamers are usually busy trying to claim that games are like TV and film. But Sherlock puts Heavy Rain PS3 to excellent use. As well as the general art style, the short focal length of the cityscapes and origami killer of episode 2, Sherlock [A Study in Pink] makes frequent use of Heavy Rain’s publishing of emotions and thoughts to the screen via text…as if to disclose the source of their inspiration for those in the know, as the show reaches for the words-on-the-screen technique Sherlock says, “It’s obvious isn’t it? She’s been in heavy rain in the last few hours… where has there been heavy rain and strong wind in that time?” (21)
All of this serves to demonstrate the way in which these texts increasingly function across interrelated media ecosystems. At first glance the film and game industries are clearly separate and distinct entities. Not only do they involve different production practices and business models but they also produce separate and distinct products. However, there are also now more and more overlaps. While Hollywood has edged closer to a system of ‘transmedia storytelling’ (22) with an audiovisual form that is increasingly computer generated, the emergent global gaming industry has continued to develop a photorealistic aesthetic that in turn places ever more demands upon the quality and nature of the narrative form which accompanies it. One need only note the multiplicity of reviews written in the last year that debate the efficacy of linear narrative that has accompanied the photorealistic graphics of both Heavy Rain (23) and Final Fantasy 13 to see this. (24) Over the past three decades gaming has not been exempt from the drive toward ever new forms of the spectacular audiovisual stimuli that Bottomore argues always drove cinema. Despite this, very little work has been undertaken in film studies to join the dots of what have, in the last few years, emerged as both a major cultural force and a major player in the development of contemporary digital cinematic aesthetics.
Early CG Attractions and the Transaction: From Television Advertising to Feature Films
The history of the emergence of CG attractions bears many revealing parallels with that of early cinematic attractions. Originally deployed as a means of simulating radiation dispersal for the US government and military during the 1960s, MAGI (Mathematical Applications Group, Inc) commercialised raytracing animation in the early 1970s. Forming Synthavision in 1972, MAGI quickly found civilian commercial applications for CGI in television advertising, making the first CGI advert for IBM. Like the attractions of early cinema, this new form of digital attraction was supported by industrial interests keen to capitalise on the advertising potential of a new form of image that would attract public attention because it was interesting for its illusory powers alone. (25)
From making adverts, MAGI’s product was identified for its potential to help sell films as well and was hired (along with Robert Able and Associates, Digital Effects and Information International Inc.) by Disney in 1980 to contribute the bulk of the graphics for Tron. A quick analysis of CG adverts made by these companies next to scenes they made for Tron reveals just how transferably these digital attractions were deployed across the two forms.
Thus, the history of the emergence of the digital attraction was similar in nature to the history of the emergence of the cinematic attraction itself. Both developed as attractions and both were deployed as promotional objects. Similarities run deeper than shared promotional function however. Like early films, early CG sequences frequently functioned as train effects. Like the Lumière Brothers who placed a camera beside the track of a train in order to open up the new spaces, experiences and machinery that industrial modernity afforded, CG production houses like MAGI likewise placed the digital “camera” in the new spaces opened up by the emerging postmodernity. An early MAGI show reel from 1982 contains a telling and familiar shot of an animated train and a MAGI made Norelco shaver advert from the same year sees a CG shaver replace the train as we follow it along a fret board-like track. It is in Tron itself however, that we see the true transposition of the train effect as it would reappear countless times since in the form of a spaceship. A quick analysis of any contemporary science fiction film (and many other genres too) reveals a similar CG train effect (see plate 6).
Beyond immediate attractions however, the CG sequences that emerged from Tron are particularly revealing for more than pure historical parallel. Tron’s incorporation of CG into its aesthetic reveals the first attempt to conceptualise and materialise a CG attraction to feature film length. This had implications for both filmic cinematics and gaming cinematics alike and it is no accident that Hollywood narrativised game space as a three dimensional, photosynthetially rendered cinematic space long before the computing and programming power existed within the games of the time. Tron marked Hollywood’s first recognition of the potential for computing technology to reshape the nature of the filmic image. To describe the CG image as a disruption however implies, in the frequently asserted but seldom accurate age old rhetorical sleight of hand, that Hollywood is to be an unwitting victim of a new technology. Instead, Tron can be seen as the first of many occasions in which Hollywood would place its stamp upon what it expected to be the future of CG cinematics. In this sense, Tron was Hollywood’s economic power deployed in asserting a manifesto that laid out the future of gaming: fundamentally spectacular in nature and revolving, like celluloid cinema had before it, upon the attraction. The best example of this manifestation from that time lies in a MAGI produced television advert for a game made shortly after Tron called Worm War 1. Using the same raytraced modelling (and in the case of the tank that features in it, even the same model itself) the advert was for a game based on the Atari featuring two types of CG graphics. On the one hand there is the highly rendered (by the standards of the time) raytraced 3D fantasy space in which the game supposedly takes place. On the other hand there is the, what now looks extremely primitive, 2D space of the actual game itself. What is most revealing about the juxtaposition of the two forms of computer graphics in this advert is the gap between what is and what the CG renderers at MAGI knew their audience would want to see in terms of CG attractions. The 3D space of the MAGI animation is distinctly cinematic in the sense that it portrays a perspectival space and a set of rendered objects that, as Jean-Louis Comolli pointed out, recreate the optics of human vision. (26) By contrast, the Worm War 1 game screenshot themselves are flat, 2D and symbiolic. In Comolli’s terms we could compare these images to the iconographic artwork that preceded the European articulation of perspective in 1425.
The question that arises from this is why MAGI was hired to produce an advert with CG images so visually sophisticated that they revealed the poverty of the graphics available in the game on sale? The first and most obvious answer is that the promotional value of the CG attraction was reason enough to deploy MAGI’s graphic capabilities. MAGI’s sequence will have caught the attention of every keen gamer of the time and rather than show up the lack of sophistication of the in-game graphics they would instead have excited the viewer with the possibilities of what may be in the future. The second answer is worth more consideration however for what it reveals about the relationship between gaming and cinema. The advert reveals something that any gamer of the time knew instinctively: from the earliest time in the emergence of computer gaming culture it was a fantasy of gamers and game producers alike to be able to produce and play a game as cinematic in its aesthetic dimensions as possible. The reality of course was much more complex than this and is something that is still in the process of being worked out (questions of narrative, of character control, of the unfettered physics that CG facilitates all combine to dictate that gaming will never equate to the same thing as cinema by any means). Indeed, like film itself, it is likely that game aesthetics will be an ever evolving entity. Nevertheless, MAGI’s 3D raytraced and animated CGI held the promise of a more cinematic gaming future. This is a future that is in the process of being realised today. In the last year reviews of any number of games from Bioshock 2, Final Fantasy 13 and Assassin Creed 2 through to Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption and Prince of Persia reveal the degree to which reviewers prize the capacity of games to match up to cinemas aesthetic capacities.
Contemporary Cinematics and ‘The Game Effect’
There are, of course, many distinctions to be made between cut scenes and in-game sequences. Traditionally, cut scenes throughout most contemporary games have more closely resembled a cinematic style than in-game sequences that have resembled a more crudely rendered, continuous unedited scene. (27) Nevertheless, it is noticeable that where the distinction between cut scenes and in-game aesthetics was previously unmistakable, now they are increasingly blurred. As Jack Arnott stated in a review of Final Fantasy 13 (that reads like a contemporary rerun of the twentieth century train effect reviews):
The graphics are what immediately impress – it doesn’t take long to see that this was the game high-definition was made for. Stunning cut scene after stunning cut scene – both graphically and in terms of action direction – punctuate the intoxicating array of exotic locales you find on your journey… The scenery and character detail in these sections is simply astounding. Never before in a game have I with such frequency stopped to swivel the camera around, simply to marvel at the landscape. (28)
Arnott’s enjoyment of the landscape here is symptomatic of the developing aesthetic of what I shall call the ‘game effect’. The landscape functions as an attraction and gives Arnott pleasure at the possibilities it affords: to marvel at what he looks at. Like a digital sublime equivalent of what the romantic painters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced, Final Fantasy 13 delivers the same kind of awe inspiring backdrops as do films such as Star Wars or Avatar. This is the culmination of what MAGI were aiming at in their Worm War 1 advert. In Final Fantasy 13 the cinematics of the graphics have reached a point in which game play and Hollywood production values begin to converge. The significance of this however, is not simply constricted to gaming, for it marks the point at which gaming can produce aesthetic effects that halt the viewers’ attention, in effect generating their own train effect. In reality games have been producing their own train effects for the last three decades. As Bottomore points out, shock, surprise and/or enjoyment of new visual experiences is relative to the medium through which they have been consumed and game makers have known this. The games industry may have had a very long term aim of producing photorealistic graphics that could challenge Hollywood production values but the reality of the processing and programming limitations of computer hardware up until now has meant that game aesthetics have been measured in the textually specific context of other games and computers. Now this is changing with implications for both film and television content.
Just as John Caldwell has argued (29) that developments in the production processes of television companies has had far reaching implications for Hollywood aesthetics we could say that the same is increasingly true of the games industry. Where gaming, television and internet content can produce effects that excite or impress the viewer for their illusory powers alone, Hollywood now finds itself no longer the monopoly in spectacular attractions. The initial conclusion to draw here would be that this will weaken Hollywood’s industrial power, but history suggests the opposite is true. Just as the coming of the television, the VHS, Cable, Satellite and the DVD player did not herald the demise of Hollywood that many predicted, it is unlikely that the rise of the CPU will be any different. On the contrary, it is more likely that the rise of spectacular gaming, based upon digital attractions and Hollywood sized production budgets, will strengthen Hollywood’s own position through the tie-ins and cross promotion that the two industries have been engaged in for decades. Indeed, the potential for cross promotion between these industries is written into the DNA of the digital attraction. It is not just that the attractions can be transferred and used in a movie, trailer and television advert, it is that the very architecture of the CG content lends itself to transference as exemplified by the tank that featured in the Worm War 1 advert. The tank was clearly transferred by MAGI from their Tron designs to the game advert – a kind of reverse product placement in which the digital objects (like a brand icon) deployed within specific audiovisual texts are transferable to another text. Thus the digitally rendered tank could be transposed from a Hollywood blockbuster film into the television advert for a game that was not even affiliated with Tron. Thus, the digital attraction as it functions across both film texts and games, more even than the early film attraction, lends itself to promotional purpose.
A similar, contemporary example of the transferability of these digital attractions can be found in the 2001 Final Fantasy film The Spirits Within. Gathering much media attention at the time for its photorealistic rendering, (30) the ‘film’ and its punishing budget was planned on the basis that the virtual actors, sets and software tools developed for the project could be reapplied for future movies. Square films (itself a result of the cut scenes made for an earlier Final Fantasy 7 game) approached the production process as if it were a software development program, reminding us of Manovich’s assertion that cinema becomes a slave of the computer. (31) Thus, the Final Fantasy film was to function, not only as a film but as the source code for future films. In the event, Final Fantasy’s budget spiralled to one hundred and thirty seven million dollars and Square Pictures announced their exit from film making later the same year. Despite their failure however, Square Pictures’ parent company continued to make the Final Fantasy game franchise and less than a decade later it has now made Final Fantasy 13, a game that (oxymoronic title aside) resembles its filmic predecessor and Hollywood blockbusters more generally in its level of photorealistic aesthetic.
Recently Disney Pictures has trailed a number of television and YouTube trailers for the sequel to Tron (Tron Legacy, 2010). At the same time, Disney has also released a trailer for a concurrent game (Tron Evolution). These trailers reveal just how much the complex interplay between film, gaming, advertising and digital attraction has developed since the original film. Like the original film, the new franchise is based upon an explicitly convergent narrative of film, game and digital attraction. What is different however, is the degree to which gaming imaging has developed in the time since the first film and the effects are clear in a comparison between the film trailer with the game trailer. While both trailers are intended to be screened on television, they are actually hybrids that operate as cinematic trailers to be consumed across platforms, not least on YouTube. What is most noticeable is the way in which the trailer for the game so closely resembles the trailer for the movie. Unlike the Worm War 1 advert of three decades before, the Tron Evolution trailer does not make any distinction between in-game graphics and the cinematics of the digital attraction, instead they are presented as one and the same thing.
Another fact becomes apparent when viewing the trailers for both film and game: the degree to which the two texts resemble each other. In the same way that Baz Lurhmann directs adverts to operate as cinematic shorthand for broader tropes that underlie his films, (32) the Tron Evolution trailer operates in the intertextual space between the original Tron film and the more recent Tron Legacy trailer assuming a level of knowledge of these texts on the part of the viewer. Specifically, the Tron Evolution trailer matches the high definition, explicitly digital aesthetic found in the Legacy trailer. Both trailers stand as a testament to the way in which the emerging cinematics of the digital attraction function: deploying the industrial aesthetics that Justin Wyatt identifies as emerging from advertising and promotional material of the eighties and nineties to attract the viewer. (33) The new high definition aesthetic of the contemporary digital attraction (identified by Arnott above) is the inheritor of this industrial aesthetic that can be said to have made its first appearance in 1895. At the same time, distributed as they are through YouTube and other internet channels, the trailers operate outside the traditional realm of cinema. The aim of them is to convince the potential viewer and gamer alike that both texts offer a unique cinematic promise: that each text will deliver pure digital attraction. It is notable that Disney have been careful to stamp their brand on the closing credits of the game trailer and at a recent games expo Disney deployed the female lead star of the film, Olivia Wilde, to introduce the game. In the same manner that actors have been involved in the promotional effort for films for years, in a YouTube video recorded at the 2009 Spike Video Games Awards Wilde sits on stage and states that:
In December you will be entering a digital world you may already know. While I’ll be serving as Kevin Flyn’s laurel guide Quorra in the Tron Legacy film, I’m also excited to be part of the new videogame, which is a key to unlocking the films mythology. Here’s a look at exclusive, world premiere footage of Tron Evolution, the videogame. (34)
This short speech reveals much about Disney’s strategy and attitude toward the newly emergent stage in gaming. It is not just that they have utilised a leading actress from the film to introduce the game at an award ceremony now reminiscent of the Oscars. Nor is it that the tone of her short speech is akin to the promotional rhetoric that is the mainstay of film promotion. It is also that her assertion that the game is ‘key to unlocking the films mythology’ marks the explicit corporate adoption of gaming into what Henry Jenkins has described as transmedia storytelling. (35) With this we can move from an understanding of digital attractions functioning across media space as constituting a cinemas of transactions to also constituting a cinemas of interactions. In this sense I refer to interaction in the broadest sense. Not just the digital text as it is interactive for gamers but also as it is interactive upon the forms of audiovisual culture around it. It has been apparent for some time for example that the narrative structures of many Hollywood films are strongly reminiscent of computer game formats, complete with a series of end-of-level baddies and followed up with a final end-game battle. Indeed a classic example of this would be the film we started with and whose title is more than coincidentally reminiscent of the gaming culture it came from. Avatar not only features a narrative and plot that sees its protagonist progressing from one level to the next but it features a “crossing of worlds” trope that has become a mainstay of game narratives in recent year (Assassin’s Creed 2 is just the latest uncannily similar iteration of this).
From Attraction to Interaction
With the mention of Avatar we come full circle. Before the film had even been released most gamers were already familiar with the narrative of spectacular amazement, audiovisual socialisation and cybernetic incorporation that marked Avatar. Avatar is just the most recent in a string of cinematic, televisual and game texts that carry the narrative trope of the naive spectator (Tron itself, for instance, involved precisely this). While viewers of Avatar and gamers playing Assassin’s Creed 2 may not have been familiar with the Countryman and the Cinematograph they almost certainly will have been acquainted with its most startlingly reminiscent modern iteration.
Over the past year or so internet forums had been filled with discussion of Microsoft’s new Xbox interface project codenamed “project natal”. Announced publicly in July 2010 as the Xbox Kinect, the marketing literature and videos that accompany the new gaming interface system stand as an uncanny reminder that the spectatorial processes of anticipating the attraction and situating oneself in relation to it have changed little over the past century. The various iterations (there are a number of promotional videos) depict individuals or family members in front of a large flat screen television invariably positioned in the same dimensions and space as the cinema screen in the Countryman film. These videos demonstrate that the Kinect/Natal system does away with the controller altogether and maps the users body into the screen as an in game avatar and thus feature people (like the countryman) reacting bodily to the image on screen. Beyond this however the promotional videos operate as a testament to the thrill of the previously un-experienced attraction: so amazing that the elated viewers are only too happy to react physically to image on screen. This is truly a modern iteration of the train effect: an audiovisual form that amazes and engages viewers in a physical and psychical interaction. Beyond this however it also marks both the circularity and the development of our audiovisual cinematic culture: at once reliant on long standing social and cultural clichés of previous encounters with the new audiovisual image form, at the same time demonstrative of what is changing. Where the Countryman could not make a distinction between the real world and that on screen, the Xbox gamer is entered into a process that involves the explicit dissolution of the distinction between the real world and that on screen. From train effect we move to a game effect. From the cinema of attractions we move to the cinemas of interactions.
This article has been peer reviewed
- Steven Bottomore, ‘The Panicking Audience?: Early Cinema and the ‘Train Effect’’, The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1999, p. 191.
- Leon Gurevitch, ‘The Cinemas of Transactions: The Exchangeable Currency of the Digital Attraction’, Television and New Media, published OnlineFirst, 22 March, 2010.
- Bottomore, p. 179
- Drawing on Georges Méliès observations, Bottomore suggests (in a continuation of his theme that ever new visual stimulus provided pleasure for audiences) that what impressed and pleased spectators was a feeling of ‘That’s it exactly!’ in relation to these images. The identification of natural phenomena such as lapping water rendered ‘realistically’ yet impossibly on the space of the cinema screen provided visual pleasure to audiences.
- Likely these stories reflect the devastating reality of post war life for injured and discharged soldiers who found themselves witnessing the spectacle of a broken soldier given the opportunity to entirely start again.
- Bottomore, p. 181
- Originally the word Avatar is derived from Hindustani meaning “descent of a deity from a heaven” but was compounded as a term used by Neal Stephenson in the 1992 novel Snowcrash.
- Bottomore talks in detail of the ‘Bumpkin’ characters that frequently appeared in the popular press at that time, see p. 184.
- Geoff King describes this process in detail in relation to CG graphical attractions in Hollywood films. He does not refer this back to The Countryman and the Cinematograph but the process is intriguingly cyclical nonetheless. See, Geoffrey King, Spectacular Narratives: Hollywood in the Age of the Blockbuster, London: I. B. Taurus, 2000, pp. 42 – 45.
- It should be noted while we are drawing comparisons that the film was fittingly branded with the alternative title The Countryman’s First Sight of the Animated Pictures for its American release.
- Tom Gunning, ‘The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’, in Thomas Elsaesser and Adam Barker (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: BFI Publishing, 1990, pp.57.
- Gunning in Ellaesser p. 61
- See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNReejO7Zu8&feature=related
- Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command, 20 November, 2008, available online at: www.softwarestudies.com/softbook
- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. London: New York University Press, 2006; and, “The Work of Theory in the Age of Digital Transformation”, in A Companion to Film Theory, Robert Stam and Toby Miller (ed.), Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.
- John T. Caldwell, “Convergence Television: Aggregating Form and Repurposing Content in the Culture of Conglomeration”, in Television after Tv: Essays on a Medium in Transition, Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (ed.), London: Duke University Press, 2004; and, “Modes of Production: The Televisual Apparatus”, in Film Theory: An Anthology, Robert Stam and Toby Miller (ed.), Oxford: Blackwell, 2000; and, John T. Caldwell and Anna Everett (eds.), New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, Afi Film Readers. London: Routledge, 2003.
- ibid. Everett.
- Toby Miller, “Cinema Studies Doesn’t Matter; or, I Know What You Did Last Semester”, in Keyframes: Popular Cinema and Cultural Studies, Matthew Tinkcom and Amy Villarejo (ed.), London: Routledge, 2001, 303-11; and, “Revising Screen Studies.” Television and New Media 2, no. 2 (2001): 91-93.
- William Boddy, “Interactive Television and Advertising Form in Contemporary U.S. Television”, in Television after Tv: Essays on a Medium in Transition, Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson (ed.), London: Duke University Press, 2004; and, New Media and Popular Imagination: Launching Radio, Television, and Digital Media in the United States, Oxford Television Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. London: New York University Press, 2006.
- Stuart, Keith, ‘Heavy Rain: The Most Important Title of the Decade for Game Critics?’’, The Guardian, Wednesday 17th February, 2010; and, Will Freeman, ‘Heavy Rain’ review, The Observer, Sunday 21st February, 2010; and, Steve Boxer, ‘Heavy Rain’ review, The Guardian, Thursday 18th February, 2010.
- Jack Arnott, ‘Final Fantasy XIII’’, The Guardian, Friday 5th March, 2010; and, Jack Arnott, ‘Final Fantasy XIII preview’’, The Guardian, Friday 12th February, 2010.
- Kerry Segrave, Product Placement in Hollywood Films: A History, London: McFarland and Co. Publishers, 2004; and, Leon Gurevitch, ‘Problematic Dichotomies: Narrative and Spectacle in Film and Advertising Scholarship’, The Journal of Popular Narrative Media, Liverpool University Press, 2009.
- Jean-Louis Comolli, “Machines of the Visible”, in The Cinematic Apparatus, Teresa Lauretis and Stephen Heath (ed.), New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 1985.
- See Lev Manovich’s detailed description between different gaming types (narrative action on the one hand and exploration on the other: a distinction that is increasingly blurred) in The Language of New Media. London: The MIT Press, 2001, p. 215.
- Jack Arnott, ‘Final Fantasy XIII preview’’, The Guardian , Friday 12th February, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/2010/mar/05/final-fantasy-xiii-review
- John T. Caldwell, ‘Modes of Production: The Televisual Apparatus’, in Film Theory: An Anthology, Robert Stam and Toby Miller (ed.), Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
- Reminding us again of Bottomore’s point that ever higher levels of definition, image quality and the appearance of realism drives the production and consumption process of audiovisual imaging.
- Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media. London: The MIT Press, 2001.
- Leon Gurevitch, ‘Problematic Dichotomies: Narrative and Spectacle in Film and Advertising Scholarship’, The Journal of Popular Narrative Media, Liverpool University Press, 2009.
- Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Thomas Schatz (ed.), Fourth Edition, Media Studies Series. Austin: University of Texas, 2003.
- See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5PAY39V0Y54
- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, London: New York University Press, 2006.