Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Grim Future for the Blockbuster?

Science fiction author and liberalising copyright evangelist, Cory Doctorow, has written a piece for Locus in which he argues that the future of mega-budget blockbusters is threatened by the new generation of high-definition televisions.

Doctorow's thesis is that making blockbuster movies is expensive. The amount $200 million is used repeatedly in the article. Whilst some films cost this much and perhaps more, many films that have all the trappings of blockbusters are made for a fraction of this. Much of this $200 million budget, Doctorow suggests, is spent on "special effects". I think he means visual effects, i.e. those created in post-production rather than special effects, those created on set but let us not quibble:

Special effects have come to define each season's new hotness at the box-office. Since the days of morphing, we've gone to the big screen in order to see what impossibility was wrought by the new crop of computer wizarding tools. Whether it's flying Yodas, morphing Terminators, or lumbering Ents, nothing is so memorable about a movie than the impossible things we see on the screen. And no genre is more amenable to visual impossibilities than science fiction.

Every year, the effects are more impressive, the impossible more daring. That's because today's special effects are almost universally generated on computers, and computers get better every year.

There is no denying that the increase in the power of computing has enabled artists to create effects which were previously too computationally expensive but this only tells half the story. There has also been a comensurate increase in the knowledge base of these artists and the techniques used to create the majority of effects have become streamlined whilst production pipelines became more efficient. If you give a group of graduates in computer graphics access to the most powerful render-farm in the world they will not produce work of the quality of experienced artists. The technology assists, but it is the brains that use the technology that make the magic; the tools do nothing by themselves, however new-fangled they may be. Having acknowledged that CGI can be pretty, Doctorow continues:

It's a good reason to go to the box-office, but it's also the source of an awful paradox: yesterday's jaw-dropping movies are today's kitschy crap. By next year, the custom tools that filmmakers develop for this year's blockbuster will be available to every hack commercial director making a Coke ad. What's more, the Coke ads and crummy sitcoms will run on faster, cheaper hardware and be available to a huge pool of creators, who will actually push the technology further, producing work that is in many cases visually superior to the big studio product from last summer.

Not only is this rather insulting to the directors of commercials but there are also some factual inaccuracies that need addressing. Most of the cutting edge work done in film visual effects is created using proprietary software written in-house to address the needs of a specific project. These are closely guarded secrets and because the livelihood of every CG studio depends upon the the skills of the artists and the tools which are created to enhance the way they work these new techniques are not widely disseminated.

There is a trickle down of technology into the public sector to be sure, but it is watered down and made more generic by necessity. The manufacturer of 3D software wants to be all things to all people in order to maximise the potential customer base. The software must be able to produce reasonable quality results in a huge number of creative situations. Bespoke software, written by CG studios is designed to solve one specific problem that a particular project has and solve it utterly. This is why no matter how much an individual may spend on off-the-shelf software they will not have access to the quality of tools used to create film visual effects.

I can think of no circumstance where "a large pool of creators" has pushed the technology created for feature films further than their predecessors in a year. An example of the opposite argument: The best dinosaurs yet seen on television are probably those from the "Walking With Dinosaurs" series, the latest installment of which was made within the last 12 months. There is a very talented team working on these shows using for the most part off-the-shelf technology because the production schedules and budgets of TV do not allow for the creation and use of bespoke technology. Their achievement is impressive and yet can still not compete in terms of quality with "The Lost World" which is now nearly a decade old. Therefore to say that which is the pinnacle of visual effects one summer is trash by the next is manifestly untrue.

Doctorow believes that the next nail in the coffin of the blockbuster comes from high-definition televisions:

HD is poison for special-effects movies. Whatever sins are hidden in a standard-definition 12-inch TV set are thrown into stark relief by big, crisp displays. Whatever longevity can be wrung from a movie by releasing it to smaller, more forgiving screens is cut short by the living-room behemoths that are being pushed on us today.

High-definition screens offer pictures which can be more than 4 times sharper than standard televisions. The maximum resolution these devices can run at is a whopping 1920x1080 pixels. Compare that with a regular PAL television's paltry 720x576 pixels. If movie visual effects were produced with the standard television in mind Doctorow would have a point, these new high-def screens will show a lot more detail and that would be a problem. The difficulty in arguing this is that the minimum resolution at which visual effects are produced is 2048x1556 pixels and 4096x3112 pixels is not unknown. The lowest quality which is acceptable for cinema release is already better than the very best that a high-definition television can display. In terms of accutance, high-definition holds no fear for the visual effects industry. In fact all the detail the artists labour for months or years to put into every frame of these films will perhaps at last be appreciated as home viewers can see the films at a quality almost as good as that at which they were created. Further if a film has poor effects these will generally be apparent even on a standard definition television. Effects which appear lower in quality generally have fundamental problems such as poor shading models, lighting choices and bad compositing rather than lacklustre fine detailing. Films with shoddy effects will, 9 times out of 10, look poor on a normal TV, no high-def required. Those that sing will look even better with the extra pixels.

So high-def does not place any extra demands on visual effects that they are not already designed to cater for, but what of Doctorow's assertion that better looking pictures will make films appear older sooner and thus drive down the effective lifespan of a movie? If this were true then the transition from VHS to DVD should have driven down sales of movies and shortened the time the general public were interested in them. This could not be further from the truth; more DVDs are sold than VHSs ever were, partly due to their higher quality content. That high-definition television sales have now outstripped standard sets for the first time in the US shows that this preference for higher quality, with no lessening in demand over time, would look set to continue.

Doctorow offers us an alternative future. He cites the small screens of devices such as the iPod as potential breeding grounds for new talent and new ideas where the relatively low cost of production allow for greater creative freedom away from the claws of Hollywood. The risk of losing on a $200 million film is too frightening to contemplate and thus no creative chances are taken in mainstream filmmaking, accoring to Doctorow. There is some truth to this; there is indeed much good work on youTube, or video podcasts from the likes of Channel Frederator but they will not attain the sheer spectacle of the blockbuster for the reasons I outlined above. In the 1950s when television arrived in force and began making smaller-scale dramas, previously the bread and butter of Hollywood, and putting them into the living rooms of the nation, Hollywood reacted with colour and widescreen: spectacular technologies with which the fledgling television industry could not compete. The same is happening now. Television can make "Walking With Dinosaurs" but it cannot hope to rival the visual splendour of a "Pirates of the Caribbean" or a "Star Wars". The future as I see it features both the large and the small. There has always been an audience for visual spectacle and Hollywood will supply that as only it has the funds to pay the enormous costs of production. Similarly at the lower end of the scale it is possible for anyone with a high level of artistic and technical competence to make CG films that are of an acceptable professional standard. Neither of these markets infringes the territory of the other as they each supply a different product. It is not a competition, the one complements the other giving the viewing public more choice and a wider selection of entertainment and art than has ever been possible before. We could even be approaching a new golden age of visual art.

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