Within Europe (for which read the European Commission), new technology has long been identified, if admittedly in a somewhat vague fashion, as a potential means of reversing a century of US dominance of global screens. From its inception as a pilot project in 1987, the European Union’s MEDIA programme has devoted a significant proportion of its funding to training media professionals in the use of new media production (i.e. digital) technologies to enable them to leapfrog over their US counterparts. It remains a key focus of the current Media 2007 programme which stresses the importance of supporting projects which aid European audiovisual professionals in “adapting their technical skills to digital technologies”.1
To its credit the EU has also recognised the need to address structural deficiences in European film-making which are less amenable to a “technological fix”. However, there remains a remarkable faith in the power of technology to “solve” the problem of European cinema. One study on Spanish cinema published in Convergence identified digital technologies as a universal panacea for that industry:
Digital technologies offer the opportunity to modernise the industry, bringing with it financial savings and easier distribution, which in turn offer the possibility of not only increasing revenues, but also widening the reach of Spanish cinema.2
Though somewhat less breathless in its identification of the potential of digital media, Screen Training Ireland has also long been convinced of the critical need for investment in digital training. When the national training body commissioned McIver Consulting in 2000 to report on the future training needs of the industry, the resulting document repeatedly stressed the importance of digital media, going so far as to recommend that Digital Media Sector Training be treated as a stand-alone strand in FAS’s operations and recommended devoting a third of all screen-training expenditure to the area:
FÁS/Screen Training Ireland should undertake a new initiative to provide the business, creative and technical training that individuals and companies in the film, television and animation sectors need to take advantage of opportunities available in new markets for digital media (emphasis in original).3
Although the opportunities deriving from the exploitation of digital technologies identified by these institutions relate to digital distribution and exhibition as well as production, it is the manner in which Irish film-makers have adopted digital effects/computer generated imagery which prompts this contribution to this year’s review.
In theory, this discussion could have begun several years ago, most notably with the completion of the short film Prey Alone (of which more anon) in 2004. However, since then it has become obvious that there is a cluster of Irish film-makers — James Mather, Stephen St. Ledger, Ruairi Robinson and Nick Ryan — who are deploying CGI in a consistent pattern and with apparently similar objectives. Between them, they have produced and released five or six digital effects-laden short films since 2004 including Prey Alone (2004), Silent City (2006), A Lonely Sky (2006), The German (2008) andBad Robot (2010). And, appropriately given their digital nature, most are available on Youtube in HD format.
Although all the individuals above have been working in aspects of film and commercials production since the mid-1990s, the founding text of the “movement” is unquestionably the Film Board supported Prey Alone. Anyone who has seen it in the context of a screening of a series of Irish shorts must have been startled by it: the narrative follows an unnamed figure pursued by shadowy elements of the US government, but who persistently evades capture. But though toying with a combination of blockbuster film/computer games conventions, the story is of secondary importance to the stunning visuals. The film is constructed around a set-piece chase sequence where a pair of fighter jets pursue a high performance auto along on a dark urban highway and then, in a physics-defying turn, into an underground tunnel. Themise-en-scène draws from a variety of influences including Frank Miller’s Sin City comics, ID Games Doom and Quake series and The Matrix trilogy, even down to exclusive use of American accents by the exclusively Irish cast.
By coincidence, James Mather was the cinematographer on the 2006 short A Lonely Sky directed by Nick Ryan, who usually works with Zanita Films as a commercials director. Written as an (unsuccessful) entry for the 2002 round of the Film Board’s now defunct Short Cuts scheme, A Lonely Sky feels like a fantasy prequel to Philip Kaufman’s take on The Right Stuff. Set in 1947, the film is set in a ramshackle bar where test pilots from a nearby airbase (Edwards?) debate whether breaking the sound barrier is possible, watched by an older, silent observer. The young America pilots are all played by Irish actors (including The Wind That Shakes the Barley’s Padraic Delaney), although — in a nod to the fantasy genre — the older man is played by Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyessy (an opportunistic piece of casting exploiting Dullea’s 2005 performances in Red Kettle Theatre’s production of Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap” on stages around Ireland). Once again, however, the real star of the movie of the short is the effects — Ryan has speculated that the Film Board’s was reluctant to fund the film because it couldn’t be done within the confines of a Short Cuts budget. His solution was to generate whole swathes of the film through digital effects: there are 80 effects shots in the 10 minute film, 60 of which are entirely computer-generated. So we watch a film which features extensive sequences of B-29s, the Bell X-1 and a Lockheed P-80 shot against what appears to be the Mojave Desert, knowing that it was entirely created in Ireland.
Namechecked for thanks on A Lonely Sky is Ruairi Robinson, an NCAD graduate, who may be familiar to some as director of the 2004 Oscar-nominated animated short Fifty Per Cent Grey (although inevitably, he mainly makes commercials) On his witty website, Robinson bemoans the fact that the critical kudos which followed “Grey” did not lead to any significant professional interest in him as a potential feature director. Undeterred he wrote The Leveller, which emerged in 2006 as the Nick Ryan produced-shortSilent City. And — guess what? — Silent City is another CGI-reliant narrative, following three soldiers (Cillian Murphy, Don Wycherley and Garvan McGrath) on patrol across a geographically unspecific but post-apocalyptic landscape straight out of The Terminator quadrology.
At a visual level these films constitute a highly impressive body of work. The aesthetic self-consciously echoes the hyper-reality of CGI-dependent Hollywood blockbusters from Titanic (1997) through to the Star Warsprequels. And the production values appear to confirm the faith of the MEDIA programmes in the potential of digital technology to allow film-makers working with European-scale budgets to match their financially better-endowed Hollywood counterparts. In truth, the Irish films don’t always quite match Hollywood levels of hyper-verisimilitude: the aircraft in A Lonely Skyare a little too perfect, too clean whilst the pre-credits sequence from Silent City feels more like a computer game, cut-scene than a piece of cinema. But the “wow” factor is still there. And in point of fact, CGI is most successfully deployed in these films when recourse to it is not obvious. Aircraft flying through a tunnel screams “effect” but a distant city landscape on fire achieves greater verisimilitude.
But though the use of CGI permits the directors to create environments which completely disguise any associations with an Irish setting (going so far in Prey Alone as to opt for a virtual world), it remains the case that the presence of like Don Wycherley, Ger Casey and Padraic Delaney in the context of these filmic worlds is not merely unsettling for an Irish audience: it’s positively disruptive, akin to the jolt experienced when Apres Match’s Risteard Cooper suddenly popped up as a Gotham police captain in Batman Begins (2005) (along with a phalanx of other faces previously seen on Fair City).
Over the past decade or so there have been a number of Irish shorts which have paid homage to Hollywood genres (without resorting to CGI).Coolockland (2000), Eireville (2002), and Nun More Deadly (2005) almost constitute a sub-genre in themselves, playing on audience familiarity with the conventions of film noir even whilst subverting them by transferring their narratives and characters to an Irish setting. However these films maintain a distance from their subject, adopting an ironic, if affectionate, stance towards film noir.
The same is not true of the CGI-ed work described above. These are not films commenting on the manner in which digital effects are deployed in Hollywood. Instead they unashamedly internalize the conventions of contemporary blockbuster film-making — emphasis on spectacle, de-emphasising (though not abandoning) narrative — to produce films which do not pay tribute to mainstream US cinema but actually seek to become such cinema. This is arguably true even of Nick Ryan’s more recent production The German which did the rounds of international festivals in 2009. Even if apparently set in (or more accurately over) England during the Battle of Britain, the CGI-ed Spitfire/Messerschimdt dogfight which constitutes its centerpiece recalls nothing so much as Michael Bay’s depiction of the attack at the centre of his 2001 film Pearl Harbour. And even if some of the these films prominently feature an Irish cast (although this is not true of either The German of Bad Robot), the film-makers have clearly made a conscious decision to denude the films of any other cultural signifiers that would denote Irishness. Certainly the — generally enthusiastic — comments about the films online convey no sense that a Youtube audience identifies these films as Irish.
The question is whether any of this matters? Is there really any moral imperative for Irish creative artists with access to such digital toys to use them to make a contribution to a national cinema, especially given such texts unquestionably do deliver such visceral pleasures in spades? (Furthermore, it’s not like some of them haven’t already made considerable contributions to the national cinema “project”: James Mather is a noted cinematographer, who worked on a number of Irish shorts in the 1990s, before moving onto a number of high profile film and television jobs, including Adam and Paul,Prosperity and Single-Handed.) Nonetheless, consider Paul Willemen’s 2004 article, “Inflating the Narrator: Digital Hype and Allegorical Indexicality”, in which he launched an assault against the manner in which digital effects technology was deployed by mainstream Hollywood productions. Citing the example of “bullet time” in The Matrix, he argues that the use of digital effects technology deliberately reverses realist cinema’s impulse to disguise the existence of an author/director and instead draws attention to the creator’s role in constructing not merely the narrative but the entire mise-en-scène of the film:
its inclusion in a narrative environment thereby also flips the narration into a discursive form that stresses the authority, even the authoritarian control of the narrator as the explicitly designated controller of “the seen” (Willemen 2004: 11).
For Willemen, digital effects technology is applied in this way as a means of differentiating Hollywood’s product from that of other world cinemas by stressing its superior production values thus proclaiming “the power and wealth invested in the production resources themselves.”
The falling cost of the underlying technologies even in the six years since Willemen’s paper was published undermines that argument somewhat. A recurring trope in the online discussions of their work by these Irish directors of CGI-ed material is a stress on how little finance they had available to them and thus how much of the work they did themselves. In other words, they’re demonstrating how much they can achieve with such limited financial resources. Indeed such comments coyly imply “imagine what I could do with a ‘real’ budget behind me.”
And in this respect, another of Willemen’s points has, if anything, taken on greater significance since 2004. Willemen notes that the use of such digital effects
invites us to pay attention to the powers and expensive technology gadgetry at the disposal of the speaker rather than to the stuff that it being narrated…what is being narrated at the time when the device is used is quite simply an ode to the apparently absolute powers of the discourse programmer (Willemen 2004: 11).
Applying this perspective to the Irish films under discussion clarifies their function: they are calling cards, stand-alone show reels, a point made overt by the fact that several of them — Silent City and A Lonely Sky — are accompanied on youtube by “Making of” featurettes which dwell at length on the digital production process. Commenting on Silent City, Robinson notes that it was
a fantastic testbed for me to gear up techwise, and skillwise for anything almost anything that work throws me in the future. Basically I’m set up to shoot/edit and complete a feature film in high def now, without having to rely too much on anyone else.4
In other words, Ruairi Robinson is open for business.
The notion that Irish short films primarily operate as calling cards is far from a new one: as far back as 1968, the Film Industry Committee Report noted that the commercial market for shorts was rapidly evaporating. The same report nonetheless recommended supporting short films as a means of allowing neophyte film-makers to learn their craft on the job. That same logic has clearly informed the decision by successive Irish film boards to put so many resources behind a whole smorgasboard of short film support schemes.
One could lament this narrow focus on shorts as stepping stones to features and point to a different tradition on the continent where established feature directors still occasionally return to the short form because of its intrinsic appeal. Tom Twyker, Patrice Leconte and Lars Von Trier (all of whom feature on DVDs which form part of the “Cinema 16” series) hardly need to establish their directorial chops at this stage in their respective careers. Nonetheless it appears to be the case in Ireland that short film production is a kind of rite of passage that must be completed before getting onto the real business of making features.
This prompts the question, however, as to what the CGI-ed shorts discussed above are stepping stones towards? There is no guarantee that the production of even a well-received Irish short will lead/trap a director into moving on to Irish feature. Six Shooter may have led Martin McDonagh onto In Bruges but John Moore’s next fiction work after He Shoots, He Scores (1995) was Behind Enemy Lines (2001) and there’s little evidence in Moore’s subsequent output to suggest he hankers to return to make an Irish study. However, if calling card shorts are best understood as demonstrations of ability to operate at bigger budgets, exactly what kind of abilities do films like Prey Alone, Silent City or A Lonely Sky suggest? It is not obvious that these films point to a capacity (or even desire) to construct locally specific narratives.
For his part Robinson is refreshingly upfront about this saying of the Film Board-supported Silent City:
This is the film that finally got me an agent in Hollywood, where an Oscar nomination failed, and hopefully might help me secure one of those “career” things I keep hearing people talking about (http://www.ruairirobinson.com/main.htm).
In fact, in Robinson’s case, Silent City not merely won him an agent but in March 2009, the blogosphere was awash with rumours that he was attached to direct a live action version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira for Warner Brothers.
Even if the Akira project appears to be on the shelf for now, others in the group appear to be further down the line to a first feature. In February 2010, it was announced that Mather and were working with French producer/director Luc “The Fifth Element” Besson, on the development ofSection 8, an English-language, feature-length, sci-fi spectacular about an escape from a futuristic prison located in Earth orbit.
All this suggests that the kind of thinking — digital technology would constitute a great leap forward for European cinema — which has informed EU support of digital media training may have been a little naïve. After all, it was never likely to be the case that Hollywood would simply ignore the potential raised by digital technologies: instead companies like Industrial Light and Magic and Lightstorm have been the main drivers of cutting edge research and development into digital production technologies. In practice then, EU and Irish training in the use of such technologies has, at best, merely allowed our film-makers to keep up. And ironically, Hollywood itself, is often the direct beneficiary of such support as the rags to riches of Ballyfermot Senior College animation alumnus Richard “Avatar” Banhame, illustrates.
In any case, at a local level, the focus on the importance of investing in digital skills, tended to stress the needs high-end digital animation demands of commercial production rather than those of the feature production sector. Post-production houses like Windmill Lane and Screenscene have always been at the forefront of investment in leading edge production technologies, responding to the demands of ad agencies for material that will stand out from avalanche of marketing material that constitutes the background noise of contemporary Irish society. CGI has been one way of achieving this.
And all of the film-makers discussed above cut their teeth in the day job: advertising. But, ironically, it is the compromised, commercial world of advertising that one can see some of the best examples of how CGI might be applied to produce material specifically engaged with Irish culture. Even if you haven’t seen James Mather’s work on Adam and Paul or his collaboration with Stephen St. Ledger on Prey Alone, you’ve almost certainly seen examples of their commercials work for H2 Films. One of my favourite ad campaigns in recent years was that series commissioned for Amstel lager where four Irish blokes variously discover America, lay siege to Troy and build an Ark. Remember the casual call to a despairing Columbus? “Chris? Land over there.” That’s arguably Mather and St. Ledger’s most locally-engaged work, appropriate (nay essential) for an international brand seeking access to a specific market. For Paul Willemen, a reliance on digital effects is virtually incompatible with national cinema. He characterises Hollywood cinema since the 1980s as increasingly focused on the action cinema genre, and creating “a better targeted and more frenetically calibrated cinema of attractions” (Willemen 2004: 14). For Willemen “digital gadgetry….came along to buttress and further speed up this dynamic.” By contrast national cinemas (“regions that find it difficult to compete with Hollywood”) have stressed cinema’s indexical qualities, exploiting cinema’s “ability to allow meaning to proliferate and resonate” as means of interrogating reality (rather than supplanting it as occurs in, say Jurassic Park, The Matrix or Avatar). But, contra Willemen, the CGI-ed Amstel ads are almost entirely indexical — their images connected to ideas which are not overtly referred to. Compromised though it may be it does suggest that there’s nothing inherent in digital technology which prevents it from being used to contribute to national cinema.
- http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/audiovisual_and_media/l24224a_en.htm. Accessed 4 March 2010. [↩]
- Kogen, Lauren. 2005. “The Spanish Film Industry: New Technologies, New Opportunities” Convergence, Vol 11, No 1, pp 68-86 [↩]
- McIver Report (2000), http://www.screentrainingireland.ie/uploads/McIver.pdf. Accessed 4 March 2010 p. 7. [↩]
- From http://www.ruairirobinson.com/main.htm. Accessed 7 March 2010. [↩]