The Manipulation of Realism and Concept of Real in Cinematography
Films, from the beginning of their invention, have been based around the manipulation of the captured image. Over the years this has only been made easier with the introduction of new technologies, giving visual elements an ever-evolving aspect in cinematography. In this way, digital cinema has brought about a new era in film production and reception. Previously, directors would have been limited to the actuality in which a shot was taken, however digital technologies offered a new range of manipulation and control over what was presented to the audience, with films able to be totally ‘faked’. Some elements of manipulation have always been available to directors, with tricks of the camera often however creating a loss of quality or a significant amount of time and labour to produce. Thus, digital cinema technologies offered an opportunity of free reign, with new elements able to be selected and either enhanced, removed, or totally created. By transitioning towards more digitalized creations of films the idea of perfection is brought to the forefront through perception of how a film ‘should’ look. By looking at the case study of Life of Pi (Lee, 2012), authors such as Giralt (2017) have commentated heavily on the balance of the creation, capturing, and manipulation of images and what that means for reality and ‘the real’. Consequently, directors and audiences are left to constantly be asking the question of films – what is reality in the age of digital realism?
Within such films as Life of Pi (2012), realism is used in an almost abstract form through depiction, or distortion of the subject matter, for the representation of something recognisable but not altogether realistic. Giralt (2017, p3) notes this to “simulate or imitate ordinary reality”, with realism being seen as either “fundamental objective reality” or “complemental subjective reality” (p5). In much the same way, Prince (1996) states that realism is thus more a ‘matter of perception’ rather than a reference point. Thus, realism should be seen as a filmmaking style, as well as an art form. For this reason, Manovich (2001) believes that cinema has turned into a form of painting, by the creation of digitized worlds through effects. With elements often adhering to laws of reality, flexibility is given to the context in which it is expressed, so that digital imagery can simulate a measure of reality (Giralt, 2017; Bode, 2018). While some elements may not be seen to exist in the real world as the audience knows it, through a realistic style of directorship, a cohesive narrative of cause-and-effect makes sense relative to the world that it depicts through perceived realism (Prince, 1996). As Life of Pi (2012) is almost constructivist of a particular type of reality, these forms of realism requires active engagement from the audience, while similarly being noted to function as ‘art’, as well as entertainment, through ‘photo-real’ digitalization (Giralt, 2017; Bode, 2018). With the audience often forgetting that they are viewing a constructed world, the realist style is seen to be invisible due to its immersive nature. Thus, the photographic luminescence quality of the magic realism genre supports what is considered ‘real’ in context, while, according to Giralt (2017, p10), also being able to present more unusual aspects in “total credibility”. For this reason, Prince (1996) further states that film theory needs closer attention to what viewers see on the screen, and the ways in which they see it, with the idea of personal perception essential. Manovich (2001) goes on to note that digital realism brings images further into the subjective by transforming elements into abstract forms, such as in Life of Pi and the analogy of themes through representation. Through conventional theory, realism was once thought of as a way of simply recording real life. Prince (1996) however notes that this theory is no longer applicable, with realism to now be seen as a matter of personal perception, and not representation. This has resulted in the credibility of films often going underappreciated. By presenting an illusionist narrative, Life of Pi moves into experimental realms of the ‘unfilmable’, with the digital aspects becoming central as time appears ‘spatialized’ (Manovich, 2001). Thus, Giralt (2017) notes that by using digital realism manipulation, previously subjective film narratives are now made viable to more experimental directors such as Lee, who use digital devices to represent a particular way of seeing reality. In a similar way, Prince (1996) writes that there is a problem with how film theory of realism is understood. With the introduction of new technologies to cinema, audiences are now confused with what reality actually is. Consequently, Prince (1996, p31) calls for a “correspondence-based model” of representation for the audience when viewing realism as a cinematic ‘effect’. Giralt (2017, p12) states this to place it temporally and spatially into illusion, but however noting that perceptual realism cannot fully bypass reality as a reference point. Similarly, films should be aimed to be understood as a sense of the real when it fits into a wider perception of realism. Prince (1996) notes this is to designate a relationship between what is real and what is referentially realistic. By being able to classify realism by what is referentially and perceptually real, digital realism must then be viewed in a unique version of reality, whether in actuality or not.
With Giralt (2017) commentating on the way in which digital realism can position the audience, true digital technology in films should be credited as not just digital gymnastics, but for real emotional power. Seen as almost the seduction of reality through illusion (Prince, 1996), digital reality creates a textural experience that allows viewers to surrender to it. This is very much true in the case of Life of Pi, where digital technologies have been used to fuse elements of fantasy to a realistic subject matter (Giralt, 2017: Bode, 2018). By choosing one of the animals to symbolize each person that was in the lifeboat, elements of the unreal combine with reality, with Pi explaining the narrative as a unique but not altogether impossible occurrence. With the film techniques allowing the audience to gain a deeper understanding of reality through such symbolism (as Pi becomes dehumanized and comes to represent the tiger more and more), Giralt (2010, p5) states this type of subjective narration becomes “introverted” both “mentally and psychically”. In the way, implausibility must be accepted as reality in order for the realism of the film to fully make an impact on audience experience (Manovich, 2001; Bode, 2018). With the narrative being noted by some as almost ‘unfilmable’, Lee’s use of visual mastery set standards for realism in the digital age. By using real animals as a reference point, most were digitized and fused together with reality in post-production (Giralt, 2017), or as Casetti and Leisawitz (2011, p106) state, by ‘suturing’ “the digital to the realm of reality”. The film is consequently set on location, when possible, with recreation of events and sets enhanced with digital imagery (Giralt, 2017). This is much the case with the ‘Storm of God’ scene, where graphics have largely been used to give as much depth and emotional realism to the sequence as possible. For this reason, Manovich (2001, p155) states that sequences such as this, while “hyperreal…is completely realistic”. It is therefore further noted that by appearing perhaps more perfect to the human eye, the film is thus offering the audience an impression of reality (Casetti & Leisawitz, 2011). As elements of the film may feel slightly over-the-top by the use of slow motion and overall film colouring, the bioluminescence is unmatched in digital creation, with the lines of reality becoming seamless (Prince, 1996: Bode, 2018). This form of digital ‘art’ is carried on throughout the whole film, from the sinking of the ship to the poison island at night, with these “stylish deviations from reference” (Prince, 1996, p36) allowing for a deeper subjectivity to be expressed through the symbolic layers of reality (Giralt, 2010; Bode, 2018). However, it is these very same elements which give the film a slightly artificial quality – the magical realist narrative combined with the luminous, colour-saturated, almost glossy cinematography gives the film a kind of story book, “idealist” look (Manovich, 2001, p146). This is most evident in the awareness of distance between the restricted lifeboat space compared to the open ocean. In this way, Giralt (2010) draws a parallel between the perceptual and the conceptual, with the appearance of hyperrealism displaying greater illusion. Using a form of stereoscopic CGI, Life of Pi has been claimed by many as almost visual poetry through the absolute wonder and brutality of the reality which is presented. Giralt (2010) thus notes the film as greatly used as symbolism, with Casetti and Leisawitz (2011) stating that through this impression of reality, the ‘reality’ of the director is taken into account by the acknowledgment of such.
While in the age of digital realism the presence of technology can have profound effects, the idea of excess and spectacle have been noted as great challenges to balance. For this reason, may have claimed that the use of digital realism technologies and the idea of the ‘hyperreal’ have gotten in the way of traditional narrative methods by being free of camera and human limits (Manovich, 2001). As many of the elements in Life of Pi appeal to the viewer in a visual sense, the more traditional modes of cinema are not however lost in this particular film. Similarly, it should be noted that digital attraction and narrative structure should not be thought of as two separate elements of film, but as having a relationship between them. Giralt (2017) claims this to place perceptual reality as the basis of realism, while often staying distant in what is presented. Thus, Life of Pi can almost be seen as a “tailored reality” (Giralt, 2017, p6), with it adhering more to the director’s own imagination of a projected reality (Prince, 1996). By Life of Pi’s luminescent imagery, Casetti and Leisawitz (2011) note this to push it closer to impression, rather than the recreation of reality, due to its overall smoothness of imagery. As digital images in the film may appear indistinguishable from actuality, these virtual worlds very much adhere to real-world standards (Manovich, 2001). Thus, the greater the realism, “the greater the illusion displayed” (Giralt, 2010, p12). Giralt (2010) goes on to note that this form of subjective illusionist reality complements objective known reality, with the director of Life of Pi taking his own world view. This can lead to audience issues as both reality and the representation of such are given equal space within the film (Casetti & Leisawitz, 2011), with the conclusion of which was Pi’s true story inconclusive. Thus, digital images blur the line between that which can be seen in the real world and photographed, and that which is unseen in actuality but can be ‘photographed’ digitally (Prince, 1996). With Life of Pi being impossible to determine what is digital manipulation and what is actuality, it was only through technology that the ‘unfilmable’ nature narrative is overcome. Thus, Giralt (2017, p11) states that Life of Pi “simulates an ultra-realistic encounter with nature, a storm in the sea of extraordinary proportions. The ocean is presented as incommensurable and unpredictable with an implacable overwhelming might. Lee’s presentation of the sea storm is made of CG rain, dark CG skies, and gigantic CG waves. Here, credibility is not predicated upon a true experience but on a wide range of calculated and constrained visual variables”
Deeply showing the spontaneity of nature through the ocean and tiger, Life of Pi can be seen to place commentary on life, with digital style revealing an almost wonder-filled perception of reality (Prince, 1996). With this illusionist magical realist form, synthetic realism, while not altogether true representation of reality, has been noted by Manovich (2011, p155) to simply be a “realistic representation of a different reality”. By being able to balance referentially and perceptual realism, reality in film is both a “precondition and a construct” (Casetti & Leisawitz, 2011, p97), with audiences viewing subjective presented reality (Giralt, 2010). Providing a technological solution to visuality issues, the film has been ‘sutured’ together into one relatively “seamless, temporally and spatially unified imperceptible illusion” (Giralt, 2017, p11; Bode, 2018), which in turn provides a sense of an almost flawless reality. Even if it is all illusorily (Casetti & Leisawitz, 2011), the film does not present either fully digital constructs or realistic events, with the audience left to evaluate not only the presented narrative but their own unique subjectivities in the era of digitality (Prince, 1996).
In conclusion, directors and audiences must constantly be aware of the digital technologies that are used when creating film, with many highly aware of the controversies which surround ‘the real’. As the manipulation of film is only getting more advanced with time, it is often hard to distinguish what perceptually real and what is referentially real. In this way, films such as Life of Pi, are prime examples of this, with the line between reality and digital realism blurred to be nearly indistinguishable. With main theorists commenting on the problems around total free reign in film creation, it is thus something which must constantly be considered, along with how liberally it should be applied to modern directorship and film creation. Either way, realism in the digital age is a wonder for the senses, with Life of Pi’s luminescent qualities fully drawing the audience in the digital world. With the narrative promising to make us believe in God, while it may not do exactly this, it does however make us perhaps wonder and believe in the possibility of the impossible.
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