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Ionic Column      in exile

by David Parry

Englishman David Parry lived in Tokyo from 1980 to 1994 and was a member of TPC from 1986. Currently based in Düsseldorf and working as a translator, he returns to Japan electronically via the BBS and the Internet. A frequent contributor to this publication, he was Newsletter Publisher from late 1988 to early 1990 and began the Ionic Column in 1992. This column even won a prize and an honorable mention back in 1992.

For this month the Ionic Column returns to a more computer-related topic with a look at computer graphics on the silver screen. Yes, Hollywood and the cinema. And the accidents and oversights during the making of various films.

Oh, really
Two months ago I referred to, which is essentially a list of bloopers from the film world. There are the classics from the past; the Roman centurion in "Ben Hur" who had the remarkable foresight to equip himself with a wristwatch and a pair of basketball boots. TV aerials and asphalt roads in films supposedly set a century or two ago. The endless World War Two epics where the German Panzer corps is equipped with Russian or American tanks, occasionally tricked out with rather wobbly sheet steel or cardboard superstructures. Elderly Gypsy Moth trainers doing duty as World World One biplane fighters. The amazing marksmanship of Colt-wielding pistoleros in the Westerns, or films like "Rob Roy" where the soldiers pick off their opponents at long distances with smooth-bore muskets. The totally unconvincing accident at the beginning of "Cliffhanger", where a climbing harness buckle undoes itself in slow-motion to give the actors time to emote. And for computer nerds, an endless chorus of "oh, really" during any film involving computers and the Internet. And the camera crew still manages to gets itself into the action by a reflection off a window or some other shiny surface; you would think that they could catch this sort of thing with an instant replay on video, but no, "Men in Black" also includes "men behind camera".

The sci-fi epics also have their problems. "Matrix" and "Star Wars" attracted so many nitpicks that I leave it to you to visit the site yourself to read in detail. Just one example: the melding of two dinosaurs in one of the Jurassic Park films, when one of them runs straight through another. Viewers are recommended not to try that sort of thing themselves. And somewhere on the Net I saw an amusing discussion as to how the light sabres in "Star Wars" managed to function despite the laws of physics.

Historical epics are frequently prone to anachronisms, and I don't just mean gross ones such as a pair of Roman Nikes. Blame them on inadequate research. Or is it that that nobody in Hollywood cares, figuring that 99.9% of the audience would not notice anyway? The remaining 0.1% log into and scan the lists, or gleefully make additions of their own. For some reason the mostly heavily nitpicked are recent films, with "Titanic", "Matrix", "Saving Private Ryan" and "Gladiator" taking the honors. I have not seen all of them, but many of the complaints relate to careless oversights and lapses in continuity. There was a general comment somewhere to the effect that this sort of thing has been more common recently, but then plenty of older films had their moments of unintentional humour. That just proves the old computer adage of GIGO, or Garbage In, Garbage Out. It also shows that the majority of computer problems are not due to the hardware or the software, but the wetware.

A miracle!
Given the widespread use of video film so that you can see the results quickly, you would think that the mistakes of all kinds could be spotted quickly. With computers to handle all the tedious chores, you would have thought that it is easier to keep track of all kinds of details and avoid slips in continuity. Things like burning cigarettes that lengthen again, drinks that magically refill themselves, and car hubcaps that miraculously grow back (take a close look at the car chase scenes in "Bullitt").

Digitized actors
CGI has got better and cheaper in the past decade. The massive efforts required for the sci-fi epics of the past, up to the first "Jurassic Park", look tame by modern standards. That kind of thing is used routinely even in relatively low-budget TV fodder. TV advertizing for cars relies on CGI to a very large extent, and is by and large amazingly realistic. But whether or not this technical progress makes for better viewing depends on how it is used. A few years ago we all ooh-ed and ah-ed at the seamless integration of studio film and historical footage in "Forrest Gump", but this is commonplace now and many TV comedy shows do this kind of thing routinely. Taking a trip back in time, "Gladiator" digitally restored the ragged outline of the Coliseum to its latter-day glory. The director of the film had to go one better after Oliver Reed inconveniently died in the middle of filming, bringing him back to digital life with computer wizardry. I have heard that work is under way to digitize actors, both living and dead, so that you could in theory put together the equivalent of an All-Time All-Stars sports team. The most recent Star Wars epic had characters who only existed in the computer, and from what I have seen of Jar Jar Binks, they could have saved the disk space.

A look back
Compare that with the sci-fi classics of the past; the man in the thick rubber suit trampling a model of Tokyo in yet another filming of Godzilla. The very tall and thin Nigerian squeezed into the "Alien" costume. The campy gold mannequin in the first Star Wars episode 20 years ago was a real actor with a real voice. Some of the results were cheesy, but they had a certain quaint charm missing in the slick digital wizardry of today. Nor does it always look convincing. The monumental Hollywood stage sets for Biblical and Roman epics always look suspiciously smooth and two-dimensional, but at least they were real. Real plywood?

Digital posing
These days the actors just pose in front of a blue or green background and the rest is filled in by the computer. It is perhaps a great way to save on personnel costs, since you don't need so many actors. And evidently good actors are hard to come by; a nitpicker commented that some of the Roman soldiers in "Gladiator" were waving their swords in a very unmartial way. As it is, crowd scenes are often done now by computer, and convincingly too. But consider the recent film "Enemy at the Gates", the story of a duel between two snipers on opposite sides at Stalingrad. This film ate up most of its very large budget on CGI, but it was criticized for unconvincing backgrounds. And a story line that was weakened by an irrelevant love interest; maybe the computer put that in because it had figured out that sex sells more cinema seats.

A salute to the theatre
A while ago I saw a comment that probably related to amateur dramatics or repertory theatre, and which applies just as much to any film with a military theme. It seems that if you get some actors together and ask them to do a scene, they just about come to blows over the proper way to march, salute or do rifle drill and argue heatedly over how "their" drill sergeant instructed them. Maybe that is a problem that will go away in time with the ending of compulsory military service, but it does emphasize the problems in getting everything right. And for some reason the military mind loves the endless minutiae of equipment and insignia, so films like "Saving Private Ryan" get nitpicked endlessly. But to judge from the reports, there were numerous lapses. Just for starters, a German soldier wearing a pair of jogging shoes.

Ships and aircraft
Films involving ships and aircraft are always a big problem. In many cases they no longer exist, so either you see shots of what are obviously models or else a real example is fixed up to look like something else. Or film clips of the real thing. In this case digital wizardry could come to the rescue. I have only seen the trailer of "Pearl Harbor", but I was struck by the fact that the airplanes look authentic (barring the fact that Japanese Navy aircraft were painted light grey and not green). So authentic that they could only come out of the computer, since I believe that there are no flyable WWII- vintage Japanese aircraft left. A recent series on German TV about cops using helicopters in Berlin was 100% digital fakery, and was still remarkably convincing even when you knew that. It even produced comments of "how did you get permission to fly there?" when the only flying was done in silicon.

The fascination of the forties
As it is, I often wonder how much longer the film-makers can rehash World War II. How many more stories can be cooked up out of that conflict? And how many of the older ones will be the subject of a remake? The recent "Pearl Harbor" is by all accounts much less good than "Tora! Tora! Tora!", which was essentially a workmanlike and accurate depiction of what happened, and skips the irrelevant love interest in favor of suspense as the planes draw closer. The better films made more recently about WWII relate to the human angle, and need little or no special effects. Despite the efforts to digitize actors, I don't think that human beings are going to be replaced on the film sets any time soon.

A matter of attitude
But all too often the problems are in the wetware, not the hardware. Not just incompetent actors, and vacuous scripts sorely in need of a story line, but also directors and researchers who don't have a clue. My pet peeve is seeing historical epics where the actors behave with Californian informality when supposedly portraying a period when such nonchalance would have been unthinkable. Or scenes where the hero talks to a senior military officer in a way that would normally result in several months of latrine duty, or worse, in a real army. Or military officers who talk like, well, garrulous thespians. Strangely, that applies even to films from decades ago, when most of the actors had first-hand experience of the military world.

Faction - neither fact nor fiction
My last point concerns reality. One concern that I have about Hollywood in general, and the increasing use of digital wizardry, is that it blurs the borderline between real and fictional. This is not just things like special effects; we have all seen enough "real" war footage now to know that bombs and shells produce a cloud of dust and dirt but no flame, to give but one example. A whole topic of its own is the question of whether the footage we are seeing is real. One example is a TV documentary I saw recently that tried to prove that the moon landings never took place and the photographs had been faked. No doubt there is a Webpage on this topic for anyone who wants the details. To take another example, the local newspaper reran claims very recently that much of the Gulf War footage of smart bombs had been produced in a computer and was totally bogus. The question that comes to my mind is this; how will our times be remembered? We are sufficiently well-informed and close enough to world events to have at least some idea as to what is fact and what is fiction and what is slanted. But as time passes, and people view our era from an increasing distance, will they be able to do the same?

And will the information remain intact? The Internet is perhaps the best way to preserve information, since it will not be possible to have another "burning of the books" to get rid of unwanted ideas. But a fair amount of what goes round on the Internet--apart from porn--is not necessarily factual, as it could be viewed as a global rumor mill. I note that many publications that end up on the Net request that the author is named and that the text or image is left intact. There must be a lively cottage industry somewhere that specializes in producing modified pictures of all kinds. I am sure that most of my readers will have seen the various visual jokes about Bin Laden and the Taliban, and also--whether or not they admit it--the photos of various celebrities posing nude or doing interesting things. While that may be fun, it can also be rather sinister. Soviet history books provided unintentional amusement as photos were edited and re-edited to remove the unwanted who had fallen out of favour; the famous photo of Lenin giving a speech has versions with and without Trotsky at the side of the podium. Closer to home, I am amused to see that photo-shops offer a service to copy and clean up old photos, and also digitally edit old ones to add chintzy backgrounds or remove unwanted family members and former lovers. Call me old-fashioned, but I don't care for this Soviet-style rewriting of history and remaking of photographs.

And that is the end of another Ionic Column. Next month I may or may not get back onto track with a more computer-oriented edition. The Column and the AJ as a whole go onto the Net, after which one can only guess what happens to them, but I just hope that somebody somewhere finds it informative or amusing. If not, then print out this column on the softest paper you can find.

Last but not least, I would like to wish all my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

© Algorithmica Japonica Copyright Notice: Copyright of material rests with the individual author. Articles may be reprinted by other user groups if the author and original publication are credited. Any other reproduction or use of material herein is prohibited without prior written permission from TPC. The mention of names of products without indication of Trademark or Registered Trademark status in no way implies that these products are not so protected by law.

Algorithmica Japonica

December, 2001

The Newsletter of the Tokyo PC Users Group

Submissions : Editor

Tokyo PC Users Group, Post Office Box 103, Shibuya-Ku, Tokyo 150-8691, JAPAN