One of the Lakitu Brothers

The Virtual Camera

Reference Part 2.7 ‘Digital Cinema of the Book’
Seth Giddings, University of the West of England, Bristol

One of the Lakitu Brothers: once enemies of Mario, in Super Mario 64 one of them personifies the game's virtual camera, introducing its controls and floating in the gameworld.

In the book we introduce assertions that contemporary blockbuster action and science fiction films can no longer be thought of as ‘photographic’. These movies are thorough hybrids of long-established cinematography and the more recent synthetic creations of computer-generated imagery. As a number of theorists of digital cinema have noted, these films are hybrid cinema — a fusion of live action and animation. Yet the conventions, aesthetics, techniques and technics of live action cinema photography have not been jettisoned. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case: much effort in recent years has been directed toward sustaining the look of the photographic image in cinema. That is, to render synthetic imagery photorealistic.

The widespread simulation of lens flare in computer generated animation and videogames is one example of the curious aesthetic and conventional interplay between analogue cinematography and computer-generated imagery. These points of animated light spreading across the screen lend to their virtual worlds a sense that these worlds are physically dynamic and complex, that we might actually experience them. The irony — or joke — is of course that lens flare in photographed television and cinema is the product of a technological not human lens, of the camera not the eye. We see lens flare only in the moving image, but read it as actual. As CGI removes the need for cameras and cinematic photography, it simultaneously replicates the camera's technical shortcomings in the name of realism.

Whereas the early use of CGI in special effects strove for photorealism through improving the detail and sophistication of their images, more recent movies have had to reverse this. The synthesis of motion blur is a good example of photorealism exceeding its referent. The clarity of CGI, especially in its depiction of fast moving objects and action, now show up the weaknesses of traditional photography. Recording a dynamic world at 24 or 25 fps can only capture fast-moving objects as a blur, but it is indicative of the hold photography has over our way of seeing the world that this technical failing seems instead, like lens flare, to be an aspect of the phenomenal world around us and our perception of it. Watch a live action film with analogue animation stop motion sequences, for example the ED-209 robots in Robocop (Verhoeven 1987). As each frame is a shot of a still object, the object being moved only between shots, the resulting sequence has a clarity quite different from live action footage. It is precisely this effect that innovations in CGI have sought to remove. A famous example of this is the ping-pong scene in Forrest Gump, in which a CGI ball was composited with the live action scene, but with synthetic motion blur added. As Stephen Prince noted:

“The CGI ball seemed credible because, amongst other reasons, the animators were careful to add motion blur, which a real, rapidly moving object passing in front of the game […] The CGI ball seemed credible because, amongst other reasons, the animators were careful to add motion blur, which a real, rapidly moving object passing in front of a camera will possess […] but which a key-framed computer animated object does not.”
Prince 1996: 30

More recently, in making Prey Alone (billed as the “first digital home movie”), director James Mather clearly indicates the extent to which CGI remediates analogue cinematography. This short film features live action performances against computer generated backgrounds, vehicles and action:

“I felt that the camera should always be trying to catch up with the action. In real life the camera operator would be struggling to shoot what is happening so that should be reflected in the 3D generated camera moves. Camera shake, camera focussing up, crash zooming into the action.”

Prey Alone can be downloaded here

Early criticism of digital cinema often concentrated on the ‘look’ of CGI, its perceived failure to capture texture, or the play of light, the texture and grain of the projected photographic image itself. CGI allows a depth of field difficult or impossible to achieve photographically that is often read as hyperrealist (see illustrations of Cyberworld 3D and Final Fantasy: the spirits within in the book). As many commentators have noted, CGI aspired to photorealism to suture effects sequences into live action films and to ground it, via the conventions of photography, in the perception of an external reality. Prey Alone makes it clear that today it is not the photographic image as such that is the object of remediation and simulation, but rather the camera. The virtual camera as reality effect in CGI clinging to reassuring inadequacy of the analogue.

At times the virtual camera has been fore grounded to display new techniques in compositing synthetic and photographic imagery. The time-slice technique in The Matrix famously assembled a virtual camera from a bank of stills cameras and two moving images cameras. In a sequence early in the live action thriller Panic Room (Fincher 2002) the camera swoops through a kitchen, the technical difficulty of the camera movement is suddenly revealed to be physically impossible as the ‘camera’ passes through the handle of a kettle. This is only one example of the well-established play between naturalism and technological spectacle that characterises spectacular cinema, we mention it here because it is the camera itself, an impossible camera that is in play.

The simulation of the analogue camera in the name of realism extends beyond narrative cinema. Documentaries such as the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs series mix live action with synthetic imagery and frequently construct sequences or moments in which a non-existent camera is fore grounded. Lens flare of course, but also a Utahraptor's breath apparently condensing on the glass of the lens, fogging its image. There is a game being played here between a convincing diegesis and the insistent reference to its artifice. The camera is virtual but can be fogged or sprayed with saliva from virtual dinosaurs. The apparent physical relationship between these two virtual objects lends them both an actuality within the television programme; if the camera is so close that it is spattered with T-Rex saliva then the action must be real, and if it is covered with saliva then it must be an actual camera. Yet this conceit simultaneously draws the viewers' attention to the synthetic nature of the whole assemblage:

“Then, immediately, viewers are forced to rethink these representations of close encounters with dinosaurs, and to recognise them as a juxtaposition created by digital manipulation. For, paradoxically, the moment that seemingly promises viewers the kind of authenticity they most desire in a wildlife programme is, in fact, the moment at which they are forced to acknowledge its status as mere fabrication…”
Scott & White 2003: 323

It might be short-sighted to see the virtual camera as some ideological residue of the waning yet still dominant aesthetic and technological codes of both Hollywood cinema and television documentary. The play between artifice and reality precedes all these technocultural forms and there are signs that it will supercede them. Take videogames for example. With 3D game engines the virtual camera has become a key gameplay element. Though some games consciously draw on cinematographic camera angles (most famously perhaps Resident Evil), whether the game controls the player's point of view is generally more to do with gameplay dynamics than with the remediation of film. In many games, Super Mario 64 and Legend of Zelda: the windwaker to name just two, the camera is freely controllable by the player and swoops around the avatar at will. Thus, the virtual cameras of gameworlds tend to be weightless, immaterial, no longer a remediation of cinematography or a photorealist reality effect.

Though sometimes, in Mario's world, personified as the Lakitu Brothers.