The Actor Who Wasn’t There: Economies of Absence in Virtual Ecologiesby Judith Roof

University of Toronto Quarterly

About

Year
2014
DOI
10.3138/utq.83.3.625
Subject
Arts and Humanities (all)

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Text

J U D I T H R O O F

The Actor Who Wasn’t There:

Economies of Absence in

Virtual Ecologies

ABSTRACT

Cinema machines have striven in increasingly elaborate ways to eliminate any sense of the foundational absence of the cinematographic apparatus that underwrites the wonder of its spectacle. Recent digital media technologies play out the hoaxic economy of virtual lures offered by layered sound and imaging apparatuses. The last fifteen years of filmic present absence or absent presence result from a series of attempts to produce cinematically the illusion of spatiotemporal presence when, by definition, nothing in the cinema is actually “there” except resurrected light and sound wave patterns. Deploying the spatial geometries of 3D mapping combined with mechanisms of human sensory perception, these digital machines displace physiological mechanisms of perception into the modes by which images and sound are captured and transmitted.

KEYWORDS: Cinema, 3D, hoax, digital, absence

The quarrel over realism in art stems from a misunderstanding, from a confusion between the aesthetic and the psychological; between true realism, the need that is to give significant expression to the world both concretely and its essence, and the pseudorealism of a deception aimed at fooling the eye (or for that matter the mind). —André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”

Andy Serkis, the British actor who recently re-emerged in the public eye for his parts in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and The Hobbit: An

Unexpected Journey (2012), has always been absent. His screen manifestations have been so mediated that even his role in producing his roles has been the mere ghosting of a ghosting. Using computer animation technologies, filmmakers traced the wireframe marks on his body while it moved as the key points upon which to mount a computer-generated character – Gollum in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit, and

UNIVERS ITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY , VOLUME 83, NUMBER 3, SUMMER 2014 © UNIVERS ITY OF TORONTO PRESS DOI : 10.3138/UTQ.83.3 .625

Caesar in The Planet of the Apes.1 Serkis later dubbed his voice to the computer-animated characters, producing the illusion of a presence through multiple layers of absence so successfully that he has been nominated for numerous industry kudos and won an award for “Outstanding Character Animation in a Live Action Motion Picture.” And yet, while always seeming to be present, Serkis exemplifies an aesthetic of absence as a series of marked deferrals. His literally absent body plays out the hoaxic economy of virtual lures offered by layered sound and imaging apparatuses.

Serkis’s present absence or absent presence are one result of a series of attempts to produce cinematically the illusion of spatiotemporal presence when, by definition, nothing in the cinema is actually “there” except resurrected light and sound wave patterns. Increasing a sense of cinematic “thereness” as the spectacle that keeps on giving began not so much with animation (which always announced itself as that which never existed) but with synchronized sound, special effects that played with scale (science fiction monsters), the superimposition of animation on live action (An American in Paris [1951], Bye Bye Birdie [1963], Mary Poppins [1964]), blue screen and travelling matte technologies, and perhaps the most aggressive attempt to produce the illusion of three-dimensional space: the continued development of 3D illusions that began in the mid-nineteenth century with the development of stereoscopic magic lantern effects.2 As

Floyd Ramsdell observes, “When stereo pictures are accurately made, properly projected, and viewed with image-selecting spectacles, our flat screen takes on the effect of an opening. Action now can seem, not only to recede into the distance beyond the opening, but to come forward through the opening” (qtd. in Zone 50). 1 There is ample documentation of the CGI processes deployed to create the character

Gollum as well as actor Serkis’s kudos for having done so. See, for example, Serkis. 2 Attempts to produce images derived from special arrangements of proto-cinematic material began almost as soon as cinema began with the work of Georges Méliès. Blue screen (called chroma-key compositing) and matte technologies took advantage of the ability to make a color range transparent in order to layer another film behind. Using chroma-key, scenes could be set against a different background. Mattes were necessary to block the second layer from showing through the transparent film of the first layer.

Traveling mattes and computer-controlled cameras enabled these composited scenes (such as the Star Wars crew on the distant bridge of a moving spaceship) to move.

Motion picture 3D began at the same time as cinema itself with a series of experiments involving two cameras, stereoscopic viewers, and anaglyph technologies. All of these required multiple cameras that imitated human parallax, dual projection systems, and usually some kind of left/right glasses. The early 1920s saw a series of 3D projects, which then died down during the depression. Edwin Land’s invention of the polarized lens initiated another small spate of inventive 3D techniques using polarizing glasses. The early 1950s began a new interest in 3D, which again died away. For the history of 3D, see Zone. 626 JUDITH ROOF

UNIVERS ITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY , VOLUME 83, NUMBER 3, SUMMER 2014 © UNIVERS ITY OF TORONTO PRESS DOI : 10.3138/UTQ.83.3 .625

All of these apparatuses attempt to produce an increasingly multifarious hoax of spatiotemporal presence via aural and optical simulacra.

Deploying the spatial geometries of 3D mapping combined with mechanisms of human sensory perception, these machines displace physiological mechanisms of perception into the modes by which images and sound are captured and transmitted.3 Producing an illusion of depth (and hence solidity) by tricking the brain’s reception of ocular parallax so that images appear to extend forward and back within a film’s flatscreen terrain, 3D technologies have attempted to fool the eyes into perceiving solid presence through a species of perceptual contagion. If certain gestures could appear to move in a plane perpendicular to the screen, then the entire screen must occupy three-dimensional space.