In the CG animated Brave, lighting, depth of field, and a high level of detail in textures and fabrics are indicative of ‘photographic envy,’ even though the design of the character is cartoonish.

In Jurassic Park, the astonished gaze of the characters establishes the CG creatures as spectacle and sets up an alignment of looks between characters and viewers which position the creature as object and other.

Mixed imaging technologies juxtaposed and held in tension – ready to ‘explode’, as perhaps implied by the photograph of J. Robert Oppenheimer, in both a demonstration of new technological power and in an inevitable ‘destruction’ of one or the other.

Jurassic Park: A computer coded DNA sequence is projected on a raptor, bringing its genetic data to the surface and imposing it on this animatronic model.

Lex’s ability with computers, not masculine brawn, saves the day. She accesses the system via the experimental Silicon Graphics 3D File System Navigator, which organizes information as graphical objects in space.

For Avatar, James Cameron chose not to use body paint and shoot in a forest, but a number of other productions did.

The sensuousness of the digital; while Cameron’s digital world is presented as a natural setting, the heavy extra-textual discourse on the ubiquity and virtuosity of CG effects in Avatar situates Pandora and the Na’vi in a position similar to that of Spielberg’s dinosaurs, in which the digital element is, at some level at least, inseparable from the diegetic bodies and setting.


Native images: the otherness
and affectivity of the digital body

by Adam Davis

“Wherefore, photography actually contributes something to the order of natural creation instead of providing a substitute for it.”
– André Bazin

In marked contrast with the unruliness, plasticity, and gravity-defying antics of traditional animation, CG imagery tends more toward the simulation of objects as they might exist in physical reality – or, more precisely, the way that they would be captured photographically. Even when the bodies, objects, and spaces digitally depicted are fantastic or cartoonish, as they frequently are, their dimensional presence in space tends to be realistically depicted. It seems, then, that while traditional animation unabashedly resists the physics and appearance of the profilmic world, CG harbors an unsubtle photographic envy. At the same time, as Hollywood cinema has marched steadily into the realm of the digital, photography takes on added materiality relative to digital imagery, its “contribution to the order of natural creation” more pronounced. The more substantial CG effects become, the more photographic cinema partakes in the substance of the material world.

In films that combine live-action and CG elements (as with films that combine live-action with other forms of animation), the imaging processes exist in tension with one another. And these tensions frequently bleed over into diegetic conflicts – often between human protagonists and digital creatures. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) remains quintessentially demonstrative of the myth of the digital, in which photorealistic digital creatures are replicated from the “DNA” of their photographic counterparts, positioned for maximum ogling by both characters and audiences – and ultimately destroyed, I suggest, in a reassertion of the dominance of the photographic.

Some aspect of this is practical, as human actors are available to be photographed, while fantasy creatures are not. However, the production of CG cinema has been marked with the otherness of animation, in the distinction between that which is “natural” and that which is a “substitute” – which connects to the real world, and which is a construction. This difference often plays out in diegetic otherness, in which characters and fantasy figures are aligned according to hierarchical modes of production, and in this essay I will explore the ways in which the production of images – photographic, animated, and digital – tends to fall within orders of difference in which otherness is both technologically driven in the difference between privileged and marginalized forms, and culturally driven in discourses of race and class. In particular, I examine ways in which the otherness and secondary status of implicitly raced or classed characters is superimposed on the otherness of animated and digital images.

Spielberg initially intended to use the more traditional stop-motion animation, but switched to CG. In Jurassic Park an instructional video explaining how the dinosaurs were created uses both CG and traditional animation. It highlights the contrast between them and alludes to the transition occurring with the film. The animated creature is situated as ‘intruding’ on photographic space. The spectacle is more than simply seeing a dinosaur, but also seeing it as if it were photographed.
3D computer graphics feature prominently in Jurassic Park, exulting in the capability of computers to both replicate DNA strands and generate dimensional, photorealistic images. “If there’s one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, it breaks through barriers.” The capacity for computers to create digital ‘life’ is an implicit theme in Jurassic Park, and more abundantly so in Avatar.

In the order of images, traditional animation has served as “cinema’s bastard relative, its supplement and shadow,” as film and new media theorist Lev Manovich writes (298). The subordinate status of animated images – and especially animated characters, in whom otherness is embodied – serves to reinforce the vaulted place of photographic cinema. This becomes particularly evident in films that combine live-action and animation, anchored by human protagonists to whom animated figures play secondary or antagonistic roles.

Animatronic dinosaurs share profilmic space and can be touched. CG dinosaurs invade it and are subject to the gaze. Childlike wonder – a common Spielbergian theme – helps situate digital imagery in photographic cinema via childhood imagination ... ... where fantasy and reality are more closely integrated. Many shots through windows suggest the glass of computer screens (T-Rex literally smashes his way through in a later scene).

With the evolution of digital effects, however, as well as in the cultural place they have assumed within cinema and other media, the position of animated figures relative to human characters and photographic images appears to be changing. While Jurassic Park preserved the impulse to cast animated figures as other, recent advances in motion-capture and 3D modeling have been accompanied by a perceptual shift in the place of digitally constructed characters. In this respect, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) tips the scales in the contest of imaging technologies. With a protagonist who leaves a photographic body and a dying Earth (a dying “real”) to enter a lithe Na’vi body and the digital realm of Pandora, Cameron’s film engages the affectivity of the digital. The love story between CG characters in an (ostensibly) live-action film further cements the way the digital is positioned for audience sympathy and emotional connection, in ways atypical of CG-driven cinema.

Avatar assaults photographic cinema on multiple fronts — from the emotionality of the relationship between its motion-captured leads, to the virtuosity and scale of its digital effects, to the battle between photographic and digital worlds. This battle symbolically extends far beyond the film to the emerging status of cinematic production. The sensuousness and sheer scale of the digital world of Pandora, which has arguably presented the most conspicuous challenge to the “order of natural creation’ in recent years, contributes significantly to this assault. Ultimately, however, it is a matter of bodies – what kinds of bodies inhabit screens, which bodies are interlopers there, and how bodies imaged differently coexist.

The mystique surrounding the anticipated release of Avatar was in part due to its long incubation; slated to follow Titanic (1997), Cameron pushed the film back because he didn’t feel that the technology was available to tell the story. As has been demonstrated by fan-produced homages and parodies, along with several porn knockoffs, painting people blue and filming in a forest is certainly one way to do it. What Cameron felt he couldn’t do with make-up, prosthetics, matte paintings and digital backgrounds, not to mention the visual effects capabilities he had just used to recreate the Titanic, implies that the story, as he conceived it, was not simply one with high technological demands (ground which had been well-traversed in the analog era with Star Wars and Blade Runner) or requiring elaborate fantasy elements (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its many technical achievements, would have been contemporary with Avatar had the latter not been delayed). Cameron seems to have had in mind a new era of filmmaking, which he indeed has helped usher in – an era that is to an extent opposed to the photographic image.

As D. N. Rodowick observes, from Jurassic Park onward

“the major creative forces in the industry began to think of the photographic process as an obstacle to creativity, as something to be overcome, rather than as the very medium of cinematic creation. In a previous era of cinematic creation, the physical world both inspired and resisted the imagination; in the age of digital synthesis, physical reality has entirely yielded to the imagination.” (28)

Avatar, perhaps more than any other recent film, embodies the logic Rodowick puts forward, creating antagonism between the photographic and digital on multiple levels. In what amounts to an allegory of competing imaging technologies, the conflict between the humans and the Na’vi pits one world against another: the photographic humans from a dying planet, who come with machines to plunder the resources of the digitally proliferative Pandora, which offers unlimited possibilities – including, it would seem, the creation of life itself. Besides improving 3D technology, developing a virtual camera system, and advancing motion-capture and digital rendering techniques, Cameron and his many collaborators also meticulously developed a world of flora and fauna designed to be as biologically rich as their visual production – and indeed, the two seem to go hand in hand, as Cameron seems not so much focused on producing films about an imaginary world, but rather on creating an imaginary world in which films can then be made. 

The technology that created Pandora and the Na’vi bodies is rooted in the digital processes Cameron helped develop for Terminator 2. But the results are quite the opposite of the lifeless future and mechanical men portrayed in that film, for in Avatar Cameron’s project is the creation of life, and life in abundance. The final vestiges of the photographic process, seen in the human desperation for Pandora’s “unobtanium,” poses a symbolic threat to the imaginative possibilities and digital vibrancy of the CG world – and the very future of cinema, if we follow Cameron into his mythical floating mountains. Here the dying photographic world makes one last push, “as if cinema were fighting for its very aesthetic existence … wherein cinema struggles to reassert or redefine its identity in the face of a new representational technology that threatens to overwhelm it,” as Rodowick writes (4). He is referring here to films like The Thirteenth Floor (Josef Rusnak, 1999)and The Matrix (Larry and Andy Wachowski, 1999), in which “the digital versus the analog was the heart of narrative conflict.” However, it is important to note that in these films it is the digital that is positioned antagonistically to the photographic, whereas Avatar reverses the tension, making photographic encroachment the menacing element (4).

The final battle waged between the humans and the Na’vi, the photographic and the digital, collapses the geospatial and screen spaces that had for most of the film remained separate, producing the violent confrontation between the two worlds and imaging processes that had formerly been bridged avatarially.[1][open endnotes in new window] Films like Jurassic Park keep the digital contained, as a spectacle in a cage that will thrillingly threaten to escape, but, as we all know, will ultimately be kept in its place as something for the photographic humans in the film (and the real humans in the audience) to subject to a fascinated and curious gaze. The military establishment on Pandora is positioned as the conservative center to the digital otherness of the Na’vi. Furthermore, while we have grown accustomed to seeing digital characters in animation, digital bodies and elements in live-action film are indexically destabilizing. Quaritch and his mercenaries fail to see what Cameron demonstrates for the audience – that the digital can be affective, sensuous, and vital.

The edge of LA drops off into a digital grid in The Thirteenth Floor, as CG is used to visualize a threat to the (photographic) real. In comparison, Terminator 2’s liquid metal man is cold and colorless, leaving a trail of destruction.
In Avatar Cameron’s digital Eden becomes the setting for the creation of CG life.The avatar is a bridge between the photographic and digital... ... Jake gets his first look at his avatar body, which will transition from othered object to sympathetic protagonist as Jake himself transitions from photographic to digital.

The avatar becomes the bridge between the two worlds. It is Cameron’s method for inducting us into a digital that is not simply ancillary to the photographic or an other to be destroyed, but an all-consuming digital that augurs the future of cinematic possibility. CG imagery is “safe,” as a fascination, when it is positioned as other, whether that is in its relation to photographic elements in a live-action film, or in animation, which as a genre has been typically assigned secondary status to live-action filmmaking. When it moves to the forefront, however, with CG characters as protagonists who not only defeat their photographic counterparts but also tumble into a sweeping romance, the digital becomes destabilizing; Cameron’s task is not only to counter the otherness of the digital, but to make it an acceptable and even desirable form of cinematic pleasure relative to the photographic, which Cameron facilitates with the avatar interface and eventually avatarial transformation.

In order to contextualize these moves and establish a theoretical and practical basis for CG characters, it is helpful to briefly examine their role in a few other films that situate animated and CG characters within live-action settings, to one extent or another opposed to live actors. The tensions between these different kinds of images expose the implicit hierarchy of images that posits animated and CG imagery as other to the photographic.

Go to page 2

To topPrint versionJC 55 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.