copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

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.

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.

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 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.

Restless natives

Animated characters, in their origins within and ontological attachment to the filmic and digital media which construct them, might be thought of as in certain ways native. With their profilmic existence instantiated on paper, glass, and screen, they are formed in the media of their production but are not in the conventional sense mediated, for they come to life in the very process of mediation. Spatially, they are residents of screens, confined to its borders – always elsewhere, but always in their place.[2]Temporally, they are products of the movement of film in a way distinct from that of live-action filmmaking, as cinematic motion produces their respiring anima – not captured images reinvigorated after the passing of the original moment, but each time a birth, a nativity.

In their location and movement, animated images are other – unlike the photographic, separate from the real. And in that they are other, they are often othered in ways that produce cultural difference in tandem with, and even concealing or subsuming, the difference in imaging practices. This othering can happen diegetically and performatively in the way that animation has historically employed caricatures of race, class, and gender, but this is a case of one otherness coinciding with another, the difference of race and gender superimposed on the difference of animated and photographic images.[3] Animated characters, these native bodies, are othered lest they encroach too far into the realm of the photographic. The “looniness” typical of many cartoons, and indeed the most iconic ones, can be associated with a racial or classist quality in that it typifies the manner, appearance, and hierarchical place of bodies that fall into a certain category of images.

The plastic cartoon body (or “plasmatic,” in Sergei Eisenstein’s term) becomes a repository for this otherness; it is compelled to accept and endure certain abuse as it is mashed, battered, and stretched to capacity. Through looniness, the othered image performs its otherness within familiar discourses of difference (as in minstrelsy, in which black people were made to look buffoonish and dim-witted) and is comically punished for being other. Even the naturalistic “illusion of life” aesthetic which came to dominate in Disney animated features almost invariably included elements of the monstrous, the grotesque, the gigantic and the miniature, in addition to the animation of inanimate objects, as embodiments of difference. Hence even when animated films strived for realism, the otherness of animation has often been preserved in the bodies of figures that more clearly manifest or avow their otherness.

Films that mix animation and live action underscore the way that the native figures of animation have generally been contained within the visual and narrative strategies that form their otherness. J.P Telotte shows how these films, which combine the imaging technologies of cel animation and photographic cinema, often reflect difference and separation diegetically. For instance, Disney’s The Three Caballeros (1945), featuring Donald Duck and live actors in South American locales, and Song of the South (1946), with Uncle Remus (James Baskett) and Br’er Rabbit, play with borders and fences, cultural difference and racial prejudice, in ways that draw from and problematize the difference and separation between humans and cartoons. Similarly, if rather innocuously, in Warner Bros.’ You Ought to Be in Pictures (1940), Porky Pig, having had a difficult time on the Warners lot, “seems to find [its] reality a bit too much for him and rushes back to the relative safety – and visual simplicity – of his cartoon world” (Telotte, 164). The contrast between animation and photographic cinema brings the differences between classes of images into starker relief, and their juxtaposition in the same frame provides opportunities for an analysis of the tensions between them. When the screen borders that keep these worlds are breached, the defining differences between images are troubled.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis, 1988), the photographic and animated worlds are literally separated by brick and mortar. Although human and “Toon” characters interact, there exists an enduring tension between the two worlds. There’s also a certain amount of prejudice toward the Toons, who are rarely taken seriously and are often undone by their own looniness. Telotte notes that the Toons are cast as a racial underclass: ghettoized in the human-owned Toontown, performing in the segregated Ink and Paint Club, and subject to an unfair disciplinary system that grants them fewer rights than humans. Telotte connects the lower social status of the Toons to their nature as animated images, borrowing Jessica Rabbit’s line to suggest that they are all “drawn that way” in the sense that they are created to serve and entertain humans – their raison d’etre.

However, while the Toons serve the human characters in the story, their creation and existence seem to have occurred somewhat independently of humans, as the humans are unable to “erase” them before Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) invents the “dip.” Rather, the characters belong much more to the audience and to our world more than the world of the film. Their mistreatment there, which they largely accept, cannot simply be limited to the racial or classist discourse evident in the world of the film. That is, a similar discourse informs the production of animated characters in general, as if these figures were created as an underclass of images subservient and other to photographic realism. Telotte attributes the difference to the lowly place of animation within studio production. However, we must also consider the intra-diegetic tensions between production technologies as they are personified and embodied. More than simply drawings, the Toons are characters who share space and narrative attention with the humans and draw their share of viewer sympathy. In this we find an ethics of the cartoon character and the animated body as oppressed and othered images with implicit desires of their own, and hear echoes of W. J. T. Mitchell’s question, “What do pictures want?’

Mitchell writes: “If pictures are persons, then, they are colored or marked persons” (75).[4] If pictures in general are secondary to unmediated reality, then the irreferential animated image, which does not have the same connection to the material world that a photograph does, is further marginalized. The “colored’ or “marked’ nature of its painted glass and plastic body position the animated image as subaltern, or of lower status – that which Mitchell invites to speak. Who Framed Roger Rabbit narrativizes the desire of animated images in the often unrealized wants and emotions of the characters. Roger’s pining over Jessica is one example, or their desire to avoid the “dip’, though the more salient desire is a broader and more universal one – that Toontown be deeded to the Toons, that they might have more claim on legitimacy within the world of the story. The liberatory celebration that follows the discovery of the will that gives them Toontown and the puncturing of the Berlin-like wall that encloses it underscore the sense of self-determination as a basic “right”of pictures.

However, although they secure their place, it is still a Toon place, a loony place, and they have not gained a status equal to that of the photographic humans. Toons, as animated characters, seem designated to be imagistically subservient, and the fall of the Toontown wall does not resolve the cultural differences that separate the two worlds. What would these animated characters say if they were allowed to “speak,” as Mitchell invites pictures to do? The thought recalls the humorous “outtakes” during the closing credits of Pixar movies, or Nick Park’s animated series Creature Comforts (2003-2005), in which audio from unrehearsed interviews with members of the British public is given the form of stop-motion zoo animals. The allure of these scenes is the opportunity to see animated characters behave like humans – to throw off the performance of character as an actor would.

This same idea is parodied in the opening of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which briefly explores the conceit that Toons “act” in cartoons, playing roles instead of being themselves. But in each of these cases the humor is drawn from the absurdity of the idea that “character” can be abstracted from “cartoon character.” In animation, body and character are inextricable – another defining aspect of native figures which posits them as excessively close to themselves and their milieu, unable to achieve an intellectual distance from their embodiment and the loony world they inhabit (and a correlation with Mitchell’s theory that pictures are also gendered female, as women are often theorized as being overly tied to their bodies). Ultimately, it is human (photographic) rationalism that they are incompatible with, and which holds them in comic otherness.

When animated figures breach the boundaries of their native spaces and enter the photographic world, they also often take monstrous form, and particularly as monsters existing to be slain by live actors. A cursory review of visual effects creator Ray Harryhausen’s filmography is illuminating. In his fairy tale works which are entirely animated, such as The Story of King Midas (1953), the sympathetic animated characters exhibit human qualities; in his work creating visual effects for live-action films, such as Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963) and Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davis, 1981), his creations are mostly monstrous creatures who threaten and are eventually destroyed by the humans. Not by coincidence, the voyage to mysterious lands is a common trope in these films, diegetically preserving the sense of separate spaces for the photographic and the animated, and the place of native images beyond the vitreous boundaries of sea, air, space – and screen.

Darkness and the grotesque characterize the chaotic, semi-animated locales of Cool World (Ralph Bakshi, 1992). The Cool World is presented as a sort of dismal underside of Las Vegas (as if it needed one), but it seems more a droll nightmare from a troubled unconscious. Where the Toons were preoccupied with their looniness, the grotesque “Doodles” that inhabit the Cool World are consumed with relentless, senseless violence. With comic brutality and pratfalls inspired by the antics of Wiley E. Coyote and Tom and Jerry (minus Jerry’s charm and the Roadrunner’s casual bemusement), the barbarism of the Doodles removes any sympathy for the characters and overemphasizes the plasticity of the indestructible cartoon body through its continued abuse.

The contempt for the Doodle body in general is countered by the fetishizing of Holli Would, voiced by Kim Basinger. Her constant, sensual dancing draws the drooling, eye-popping gazes of everyone around her, and she is clearly a Doodle of a different stripe. Her rotoscoped[5] movement and realistic stylization set her apart from the other denizens of the Cool World, in an “ill-fitting conglomeration of images that consistently proves both fascinating and puzzling, attractive and even repulsive” (Telotte, 195). Even within the Cool World, characters are othered differently, from Holli’s smooth gyrations that render her close to human, to the pliable grotesque of the other characters, to the crude charcoal “ghosts” that float periodically across the screen, situated still in the realm of drawing, outside of character.

Telotte notes that Holli’s desire “to be real” is an appropriate one, given her realistic styling. We also can go further and note that the style of her animation not only expresses a desire to become human, but positions her uniquely to “pass” as human, as her naturalistic look, rotoscoped movements, and confident sense of her own body make her more akin with the bodies of the Real World. With the exception of some curiosity from the similarly-styled Lonette, she is the only character who desires to enter the photographic “real.” She seems keenly aware of her otherness, of the social position Doodles inhabit relative to the Real World, and aspires to upward mobilization. This desire is manifest in an interesting reversal of conventional spectatorship, as film footage of Marilyn Monroe is projected on the wall of her apartment – the fantasy, for the native figure, of the photographic world (not necessarily the real one, as Marilyn Monroe was in many ways the fantasized imagistic counterpart to the real world Norma Jeane).

The “oldest law of Cool World” – no sex between Doodles and Noids (humans) – is a prevention against a certain miscegenation, notably enforced by noirish human detective Frank Harris (Brad Pitt). The unthinkable result of such an affair is a breakdown of the boundaries that separate Doodles and Noids, allowing Doodles to enter the Real World and become human. (Although humans are somewhat out of place in the Cool World, there is no equivalent prohibition against their entry, which further establishes the lower class status of animated characters.) Holli seduces Jack (Gabriel Byrne), the artist she has summoned into the Cool World, into having sex with her, and she transforms into a human (that is, into Kim Basinger). They travel back to the Real World, but soon find themselves to be images still, in a curse of bastardization that disallows them from entering the photographic world. Jack's hands turn into puffy cartoon hands, nearly causing him to crash his car, and Holli flashes with increasing frequency into a buffoonish clown – a very different image from her original form, which conveys the sense that while she may have been nearly human, she is a Doodle still, and among humans her Doodle-nature is manifest in the grotesque body.

Holli seeks to obtain the Spike of Power in order to fully join the real world, placing her hope for an improvement in status in an overdetermined phallic image. Instead it releases the Doodles into the human world en masse, turning Holli, Jack, and a number of casino denizens into Doodles, infecting the photographic world with baser behavior and bodies (though perhaps not much of a step down for the barely sentient beings at the slot machines). Once the Spike is returned, forcing the Doodles back to the Cool World, forbidden desires that once crossed imaging technologies are resolved by downgrading the status of the Cool World humans (Frank and Jack both become Doodles), while returning the rest of the Doodles to their place.

That the characters of the Cool World, despite its apparently independent existence (at least before 1945, when the movie begins), consider the human world the Real World demonstrates their acceptance of their othered status in a sort of false consciousness drawn directly into their character-bodies. Their abjection positions the animated Cool World as the other that the photographic Real World needs to constitute its place as subject and center of the imagistic universe.[6] The comic book store that sells the “Cool World” comic books, appropriately named Real World Comics, is complicit in this segregation as the site for geek culture – a space outside the prestige of the gallery and museum for the consumption of images that are the back alley reflections of their upscale counterparts.

The otherness of animated characters relative to the photographic helps conceal the fact that it is in actuality the human actors who are interlopers in the world of the screen – the native territory of animated figures – rather than the other way around, with animated characters intruding in various ways on the physical world, as is often depicted in films. This otherness is taken to extremes in Cool World, and in this the film works as a parody of the need to keep the two realms separate and unequal (even as the film returns to such a separation as its status quo). Parodic elements are embodied in Harris, the Noid detective who keeps the Doodles in line and preserves the division between the two worlds. As an authority figure, Harris is above the Doodles. His mannerisms support his status, as he eschews the looniness and irresponsibility that characterize the Doodles. However, he’s in love with a Doodle, and this motivates his transformation into a Doodle in the end.

In addition to their containment on screens, the rubbery bodies of cartoon characters have from their inception been subjected to a continual barrage of violence. Although the cartoon character is only one form of animated images, it is probably the most visible and well known, and certainly the most prolific. Notable cartoon characters hold iconic positions within popular culture, but in animation’s history remain beleaguered figures that take their licks and keep smiling. Characters and bodies of a certain disposition and plasticity are required to fulfill the call to bear the violence of images – that is, the violence directed toward images for being images. These whipping boys (or ducks, coyotes, dogs, cats, mice, bears, hunters, and sailors – though almost always “boys”) of the golden age of cartoons – and their contemporary counterparts in SpongeBob, Ren and Stimpy, and the like – seem positioned as the dark shadow of photographic imagery, and indeed of other, more vaulted animation as well, such as the Disney “illusion of life,” which seeks to pass amidst its photographic counterparts.

“The image is usually spoiled of its own existence as image, devoted to a shameful complicity with the real,” writes Jean Baudrillard in his essay “The Violence of the Image” (n.p.). Animated characters, and cartoon characters in particular, can be seen as the scapegoats for this complicity of photographic images that both too nearly touch the real and simultaneously threaten to replace it. That photographic images might themselves avoid being other and threatening to the “reality” they represent, the status of the other shifts to animation and the cartoon characters that are bashed, blasted through, and dropped from cliffs. Confined within the otherness of the screen, as ink-dipped ghosts with no earthly referent, they are available for this violence, and their bodies designed for the violence they are called to sustain – violence that brings pain and elicits stars, bumps, and disarticulation, but which always fails to kill, that the bodies might sustain an endless amount of punishment. The second class status of animated images not only protects the privileged status of the photographic, but also masks or tempers anxieties surrounding the photographic replacement of the real by offering up living images less real and more natively imagistic – a relation that helps preserve notions of the photographic as part of reality, rather than its replacement.

Bodies colonized

The threat to the real resurfaces, however, with the prevalence of CG imagery in contemporary filmmaking – manifest specifically in the threat to the photographic image, which, relative to digital imaging technologies, has taken on a renewed consanguinity with the real. In the digital age it is the materiality or “body” of celluloid film that is imperiled. This body, which in a certain way stood in for human bodies as it imaged them, now faces an obsolescence of its own. Lamenting the replacement of photography by digital images (and reality television), Baudrillard opines,

“Maybe it is, in this symbolic murder of the image, an ironical revenge for the murder of the real by the image” (n.p.).

In the face of overwhelming digital imaging and manipulation, the photographic image finds deathbed redemption – a further irony, given Bazin’s association of photography with death (as that which embalms time), and the “living’ images of animation.

Animation has tended to remain in its own sphere, separate from photographic cinema, and even in those cases where they are combined, the novelty of this hybridity is highlighted – from Disney’s early experiments with the “Alice” series of shorts, in which young actress Virginia Davis appeared in an animated environment, to the films discussed above. CG, however, while coming to dominate animation, was quickly established as a key visual effects component of live-action filmmaking, which moved away from the experimental nature that characterized early attempts to blend photographic and non-photographic images into the forefront of Hollywood blockbuster entertainment. CG effects are now heavily used “invisibly” to produce backgrounds, remove unwanted elements, and enhance visual style. It is the capacity to integrate smoothly with photographic content that has made CG appealing to filmmakers. However, it is the spectacle of their visible presence that sells tickets and most saliently pertains to issues of contemporary representation. As with the prehistoric creatures on view in Jurassic Park, the appeal of the integration between animated and photographic content continues to rely at least in part on its (diminishing) novelty, as well as on displays of artistry and technological virtuosity. However, this is not the strangeness of seeing animated and photographic content together, but the fantasy of seeing animated content as if it were photographed.

CG animation is othered differently than traditional animation. Because of its capacity for realism and its frequent mimesis of photographic imaging, CG can much more easily pass as photographic; however, because of its more direct threat to a photographic reality, it must be kept subordinate to it. This tension plays out along familiar lines in Jurassic Park, where digital creatures are tantalizing in their spectacular realism, but ultimately shown to be a threat to the human world, and for the most part kept in their place. In many other films, CG figures fulfill the role of Harryhausen’s monstrous creations, as creatures to be destroyed by humans in a symbolic preservation of the photographic index and its connection to the material world. At other times, they serve as fantastic helpers, or simply as unreal wonders to behold – benign, but yet assigned a subordinate status to human protagonists.[7] However, when CG figures assume the role of nuanced characters, conventional divisions become fuzzy. CG characters are exciting and problematic in their fusion of technology, character elements, actor contributions, and visual styling, as these figures in many ways embody the anxiety and fantasy surrounding our fascination and identification with imageness, so neatly reproducing the (human) body as an image within the (technological) body of the image.

In Gollum (Andy Serkis), from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), we find a palpable figure of the other, but one for whom otherness – both diegetic and technological – grows increasingly complicated. Multiple tensions and conflicts exist within his emaciated body. In addition to his troubled psyche and his existence on the margins, he is a hybrid figure existing between the photographic and digital worlds, a character who ties the two spheres of production together even as he is left divided against himself. It is the One Ring that holds him together, that forms his identity within the structure of his single-minded desire for it (a ring of power that has, ironically, rendered him powerless). And the influence of the Ring is strong: those upon whom it has exacted the greatest toll become CG figures (e.g. Gollum and the disembodied digital Sauron, as well as the effects-laden Ringwraiths), while those whom it begins to influence are implicitly threatened with the same fate. Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) attempts to resist the power of the Ring are, in a sense, attempts to keep the digital at bay, lest he himself be infected as well (as Wikus is in District 9, discussed below).[8]

Tom Gunning, in his insightful comparison of Gollum and the Golem, sees the runes on the Ring as a parallel to the combination of letters and numbers that bring the Golem into existence, and the equivalent of modern computer code in “an allegory for the ultimate in technological control … equating magic with previously unseen degrees of technological development” (340). It is the Ring that disembodied Sauron, and which he seeks for the formation of a new body. The flaming vaginal eye – all that is left of him – makes visually potent the look within his lack, the privileging of the eye (the spectacle of the digital) relative to the absence of the body (the non-indexical medium).

As CG imagery has become capable of producing photorealistic bodies, the “presence of an absence” dichotomy that characterizes the film image is inverted. Gollum, a fantasy creature produced using motion-capture technology, marks the presence of something that never was, hung on a body we can’t see. Rather than the conventional theoretical arrangement of a presence (of an actor before the camera) that became an absence (but present in the image), Gollum is an absence (an unreal creature, a missing actor) manifest in a presence (the photorealistic body that was never filmed). Presence and absence play out on the screen as a drama of competing image forms. CG is used to visually create diegetic transformations of a drastic sort – not only from one appearance to a very different one, but from one image state to another.

Ultimately these narratives are a dramatization of the transformative capacity of digital effects, to not only transform bodies, but also filmmaking or the film image as a whole. Gollum’s transformation from photographic to digital takes place in a flashback at the beginning of The Return of the King (2003). In an idyllic scene we find Andy Serkis (photographically) as Sméagol, who kills his cousin Déagol and retreats into seclusion, becoming increasingly malformed and greyish before finally turning into the digital figure of Gollum we have come to know. The sequence of transformation is accomplished mostly with make-up effects, which are distinctly unimpressive relative to the striking visual image of the CG Gollum. The final stage in the transformation is accomplished with a morph effect, in a close-up of his face, which transitions him into his final form. The close shot on the face makes the change that much more personal and intimate – both for Gollum in his becoming, and for us in our experience of this transformation. Dan North discusses the authenticity associated with the close-up, which conveys “real” information and emotion, as a defining aspect facilitated by “synthespians,” or digital characters, in comparison with the long shot, which is more often the domain of special effects in a CG-driven film. If close-ups are “dramatic revelations of what is really happening under the surface of appearances,” as Béla Balász describes them, then the close shot on the face of a CG character (Gollum has many throughout the films) has a very different depth to reveal (315).

The brevity of the transformation sequence (compared especially to the hundreds of years implied in the books) emphasizes visual alteration over character transformation, with the latter here reduced to a minimum. The gap between make-up and digital effects is also notably bridged by a morph effect, which was one of the most visible early manifestations of CG technology, and which itself visualized the transformative power of digital effects. For the few moments that Gollum is a product of latex and paint, he is part of a history of visual effects that echoes back through the annals of cinema, and which still constitutes the primary method for producing Orcs in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (at least in close and medium shots; in the battle sequences they are mostly digital). Gollum's cadaverous body provides a point of comparison that makes the actors in make-up appear as, well, actors in make-up. As Mark Wolf writes:

“When we see the orc characters, we know that they are just actors in costume; but when we see Gollum, or the Balrog, it is just the character we are seeing, not an actor playing a character. The digital character exists on a separate plane, but it exists wholly on that plane, rather than being one kind of being attempting to be another, as in the case of the costumed actor. “(56-7)

There is a reflection here of the cartoon character, inseparable from its body, but we know that Gollum’s body is something more than the work of artists, for beneath the pallid digital flesh lie both the performance of an actor and a complex web of algorithms – there is indeed something “alive” in him. The difference between Gollum’s body and those of the Orcs and Uruk-hai engenders the threat of replacement in the particular way that his body is a point-for-point replacement of a human body, but at the same time sustains a particular fantasy of replacement in the superiority of CG over traditional make-up effects in its transformation of the body – in merging body and character, creating the body digital.

Cynthia Fuchs writes that “Gollum is Gollum,” without self-knowledge and with no place to be:

“Although other races are visibly marked, and certainly Gollum’s transformation is visible, he has passed into no known community, no point of comparison, no status except himself” (252, 259).

Cast out of the Shire, eschewing alliances, and, in his obsession with the Ring, incapable of forming relationships, Gollum is certainly isolated. However, as a (partially) animated figure and a digital body he is communal with other native images, not only within the Lord of the Rings universe, but also in the community of creatures and characters built up over many films that form our reading of native figures. His otherness is theirs, and this association with animation others him even before the racial qualities of speech, manner, and dress that Fuchs points out in her essay.

However, the trajectory of Gollum’s character seems as grounded in the question of how his image status will play out (will he ally with the photographic or animated worlds?) as much as what will befall his character – an allegory of the changing nature of the image that Jackson’s film version of the story provides. Gollum’s proximity to the human-like Hobbits, his sustained presence on the screen, the (ambiguously) sympathetic nature of his character, and his frequent appearance in close-ups position him as an animated figure potentially poised to enter the photographic – or at least to pass within it. This positioning, in large part due to the digital animation and motion-capture technologies that create him on the screen, is supported diegetically by the oscillatory, liminal, and unstable nature of his character.

Gollum straddles the two positions typically available to animated figures in live-action films, the monstrous other and fantastic helper, in his personas as the creature Gollum and the erstwhile hobbit Sméagol. In the scenes when he converses with himself (or his “un-self,” as Fuchs puts it) in watery reflection or in different shots separated by cuts, these two variations are closely juxtaposed, instantiating the bifurcation that defines his character into quarrelsome moments from which emerge a certain sense of humanity. As I argue above, the monstrous and the fantastic not only characterize the animated characters in live-action, but these designations make their existence permissible within the photographic. Gollum shifts between these two positions, further resisting easy classification, and this resistance seems to accentuate his forays into the photographic human world by problematizing his particular otherness. That is, if he cannot be easily classified as other, he moves toward the center, closer to the human protagonists that anchor the film.

Of course, Gollum is more than simply an animated character, for the motion-captured performance of Andy Serkis roots the figure of Gollum in both the profilmic “real,” where Serkis performed his movements, as well as in the photographic realm, in which the performance was captured by cameras on its way to being converted to performance data. This data was supplied to the digital artists that fashioned and animated the models and skins that produced the body of Gollum as we see it, linked to the voice track also provided by Serkis. Thus if we read Gollum’s more sympathetic moments in the film (in his Sméagol persona and the possibility that he will overcome the hold which the Ring has on him and become again hobbit-like) as the possibility of being inducted into the photographic world, we find an inversion of his transformation from (pre-)photographic human to digital creature in his implicit desire to leave the digital and enter the photographic – as if to return to his roots. His inability to become photographic – in the residue of the digital that accompanies his photorealistic appearance, the ambiguity of the quasi-indexical relation to the motion-captured performance, and in his appearance as a body impossible in the real world – is mirrored in his destruction at the end of the film. Failing to return to a photographically human state, he must bear the monster’s fate at last. Gollum the other, who masquerades as photographic, becomes strangely “fixed’ by the gaze of the camera (which does not actually see him) and the actors in the scene (who pretend they do, but don’t, seeing another). Gollum’s multiply raced status recalls a passage from Fanon:

“I move slowly in the world, accustomed now to seek no longer for upheaval. I progress by crawling. And already I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real eyes. I am fixed. Having adjusted their microtomes, they objectively cut away a slice of my reality. I am laid bare. I feel, I see in those white faces that it is not a new man who has come in, but a new kind of man, a new genus. (Why, it’s a Negro!)” (116)

Though Gollum doesn’t sense it the way Fanon does, he is caught up in spectatorial and technological gazes that converge upon his body, that produce this body that is not, in spaces where it was not. In addition to being a character, he is also a visual production, exuding an only-to-be-looked-at-ness, to appropriate Mulvey – never held or touched. He exists only within the pseudo-gazes of the camera, computer, and actors, which gives the audience a privileged gazing position, for we are the only ones to “see’ him, and he exists for our gaze. Gollum “belongs” to us, for he does not, cannot, belong to himself.

In one sense, then, he is fixed by our gaze; Fuchs offers a counterpoint, however, for she finds Gollum

“most strangely, unfixed . . . [which] has to do with his literal construction as hybrid human-CGI, and with his narrative and thematic uses, at once mythic and mundane, the repository for protagonists’ and viewers’ fears and judgments. Gollum is Gollum, but he is also, always, not. This conflict, which the filmmakers refer to as Gollum’s “schizophrenia,’ forms and unforms his race” (252).

Animated and CG characters thus also function as screens for viewer projection, and in the juxtaposition of photographic and animated bodies, the native figure is often called upon to bear the difference. Like the cartoon body, Gollum can absorb certain anxieties, such as those surrounding CG technology and its encroachment on the indexical image. Lisa Nakamura observes that in the disembodying places of cyberspace, racial images and stereotypes serve as a stabilizing force for white identity. Fuchs finds evidence of racial stereotyping in the character and appearance of Gollum, but we can also take a broader view and identify the CG character as part of a new sociality between a profilmic reality and the native figure, as they now frequently mix (in photographic worlds that are increasingly digital). At the points in the film in which Gollum becomes a nuanced, sympathetic character, he begins to transcend his “race” by sharing in the audience identification that allows Elijah Wood to be Frodo – that is, to be seen outside the discourses that other the animated figure. However, Gollum’s place in the photographic world remains troubled and ultimately untenable (later films, especially District 9 and Avatar, would tackle issues of hybridity, transformation, and transition head-on).

Gollum is Gollum, but he is also Andy Serkis and Weta Digital. The motion-captured movements and facial performances of Serkis that were converted to data, as well as rotoscoped scenes from which Serkis was “painted out,” imply a referential relation in which the “trace” of Serkis’ performance can be seen in the movement of Gollum. While this might comprise an indexical relation of a sort, it should be remembered that motion-capture is never purely or simply indexical. Dan North points out that motion-captured figures “are frequently pieced together from attributes gleaned from a variety of human referents – the motion capture data of one performer, the voice of another, facial features based on aggregates of beauty or anatomical studies, for example,” in addition to the ways in which the original motion-capture data is manipulated by the animators in the final digital “performance’ (156). The “stick figure” produced by motion-capture becomes the skeleton for the animated figure, but, following the digital aesthetic, this “trace” can be easily molded and reworked into altered performances, existing as it does as data no longer tied to the body that produced it or the images that captured it.

In any case the trace is hidden, masked by layers of digital frameworks and textural skin, and often augmented with key frame animation (as Gollum’s face was, drawing from facial reference material from Serkis). Serkis’ invisibility in a sense undermined the work of the studio to promote him as a performer, for Gollum was not only a hybrid of digital and performative techniques, but Serkis effectively disappears within Gollum through the ambiguity of the indexical connection – he is there somewhere, but where does he begin and end? North writes,

“What is more interesting [than how Serkis was taken out of the frame] is what remains of Serkis in the finished film, and the lengths taken to ensure that the horrors of a digital character are tempered by an injection of “humanity’” (175).

North identifies these remains in a list of Serkis’ contributions, but, interestingly, in a way that disarticulates Serkis in terms of his “input” into Gollum: “providing motion capture information, lending Gollum some of his motile inflections, leaving traces of some of his features” (175). Serkis himself becomes the input, the raw data then recombined into a new body, a new entity comprised partially of pieces of Serkis. The “humanity” which Serkis injects into Gollum is not a person or performance per se, but an abstract human element that is the product of the human as information. 

The “horrors” of the digital character are partly located in the consuming aspect of motion-capture, in the swallowing up of an actor into the character so that we get a hint that the actor was once there and might be vaguely discerned, but has been replaced to the extent that the actor disappears. We know that Serkis is the basis for Gollum, but this knowledge fails to fully account for either the body of Gollum or the character tied to this body (another way in which Gollum is Gollum). Gollum as a native figure is a body colonized, moved from the inside and outside by a now invisible body and its ambiguous, even ghostly, trace. On the one hand this is not so different from the hand of the animator in the creation and movement of any animated figure (especially in rotoscoping), but on the other hand, motion-capture more acutely typifies an anxiety of bodies replaced by images because of its closeness to the human body that animates it. Whereas the traditional animator keeps the native body at a distance, the body in motion-capture is subsumed – not simply “captured” after all (for only its motions are, its place on a grid), but extracted, processed, composited, manipulated, painted over, animated, degraded with film grain and blur, and finally presented as a photograph that isn’t one.

The horror of the image body

In films that mix animation and live-action, most characters fall orderly on either side of the line, but there are also those who exist unstably between or attempt to cross over. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Judge Doom is a Toon masquerading as a human, who seeks to exterminate his own kind and run a concrete freeway through ToonTown. His betweenness positions him as dangerous, and of a sort similar to that of the black slaver – of no community, and ultimately a menace to all. Clash of the Titans has a hybrid character in Calibos, who in close-up appears as an actor (Neil McCarthy) in make-up, and in long shot as a stop-motion effect. A son of deity, he was cursed by Zeus to become a hideous creature; while certainly grotesque in appearance, however, Calibos’ hideousness is particularly driven by his instability as an image (he is an actor, then an animation), and in this he even becomes a bit of a pathetic figure, an image with no place.

Cool World’s Holli Would is punished for crossing boundary lines and aspiring to be human. Her crossing is more than spatial, as it necessitated a transformation – the assumption of a human body – in order to exist in photographic space. While her transformation goes awry, other transformations are acceptable, provided they go the right “direction,” The Cool World’s human enforcer Frank becomes a happy Doodle (united with his Doodle girl Lonette), and Jack, a blissfully ignorant one, as the downgrade in the implicitly racial status is acceptable. Eddie Valiant manages to save Roger, Jessica, and all of ToonTown by finally regaining his affection for the Toons and coming to terms with his own “Toon nature,” slaying the weasels with loony antics. His transformation is a performative change in character rather than an imagistic shift, however, which allows him to be associated with the Toons without becoming one of them – a sympathizer rather than a mulatto. 

Gollum’s oscillations and transformation also occur at the level of character, but are additionally inflected by his unique image status. Having once been (a small) human, but morphed into a visual effect, he seems to have no place among the photographic world; unable to return, he is finally destroyed in the (CG) lava that originally produced the One Ring (the one technology) to “rule them all.” Gollum’s troubling of the demarcation between the photographic and digital worlds can be contrasted with Jar Jar Binks, the CG character in the Star Wars prequels (George Lucas, 1999, 2002, 2005). Jar Jar never challenges the divide between imaging technologies, as does Gollum with his photographic past, split personality, and attempts to cross over from isolated digital creature to acceptance by the photographic hobbits. Rather, Jar Jar is a more static character, without the consuming obsession and repressed past that drive Gollum, as he is more content with his raced and hybrid status. Instead of a crisis of being that leads to destruction, Jar Jar receives a superficial ending in obtaining the improbable position (because of his bumbling nature) of general and senator; subject to neither ostracism nor destruction, he fades into irrelevance and has all but disappeared by the last film.

Transformation – the horror of it, as well as the fantasy – are central to two recent films that combine live-action with digital characters, District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) and Avatar. The interspecies transformation depicted in District 9 presents the horror of trans-image mutation couched in an alien invasion film. Released four months before Avatar, Blomkamp’s sci-fi allegory of xenophobia and apartheid depicts a refugee alien population confined to a shantytown in South Africa. Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), an Afrikaner administrator, is charged with facilitating the relocation of the aliens to a government camp further from the city. While serving eviction notices he becomes infected with an alien substance, which begins his transformation into an alien – or “prawn,” as the aliens are derisively called in the film. Blomkamp uses a documentary style that begins with interviews and a camera crew and continues with handheld camerawork and a realist style after the more formal documentary elements are removed. The aesthetics of the film sustain its agenda as a parable of apartheid South Africa, while at the same time producing a particular tension between the hyper-realistic filming style and the CG aliens that populate the film. 

Wikus’s transformation begins with illness and black fluid leaking from his nose, then is manifest in his hand, which had sustained a previous injury. The change is isolated to his hand until the latter part of the film, when his body begins transitioning further, and in the final shot we see that Wikus has become a prawn. The alien appendage marks him as hybrid, while also serving as a metaphor of sorts for our interaction with other digital bodies that stand in for our own, in the form of avatars and videogame characters for which the hand is the point of connection at the keyboard or game controller. In the film, the hand enables Wikus to operate alien technology that is only compatible with alien DNA, making him very valuable to both the corporation that has been exploiting the aliens and the Nigerian gang that operates a crime ring in District 9. Wikus’s alien hand is thus both enabling and stigmatizing, though for most of the film he is focused on the latter aspect – the rejection by his wife, the corporeal transformation into the thing he hates, and his mulatto status (which, in a smear campaign, is attributed to infection from interspecies sex). 

The isolation of the mutation to the hand allows Wikus, and the audience, to keep it at somewhat of a distance, as self but not self (“If thy hand offend thee, cut it off,” goes the Biblical refrain – which Wikus attempts, but only manages to remove the tip of what seems to be his thumb). His mental faculties remain human; it is the body that threatens him, the body of the other, of the visual effect, which has begun overtaking him. At the end of the film he is shown making small flowers for his wife out of junk as an indication of some lingering humanity, but it is not exactly clear what is left of Wikus. This final shot of him semi-hunched amidst the garbage and refuse, exhibiting the vaguely animalistic quality that characterizes the aliens, is ominous in its indeterminable association of the colonized body and the embodied consciousness that is produced in the body colonized. It’s as if this chapter in the life of the organism formerly known as Wikus is too dark and inaccessible to show because he is now an alien, an other, and no longer a character.

Whereas Gollum is presented mainly post-transformation, with the character transition and CG morph shown only in brief flashback, Wikus’ metamorphosis is diegetically central to District 9. The horror of the transformation is intensified by the fact that Wikus can only find refuge in the alien slum, further establishing his status as an outsider even as the alterations to his body only affect a small percentage of it, and evoking historical formulas for determining the status of mixed-race individuals. While hiding in the slum, Wikus comes to sympathize with a certain alien, Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope), who is the rare parent of an alien child and is presented as smarter and more capable than the other aliens. The irony of the name “Christopher Johnson” applied to an inhuman creature clearly recalls colonial and slaveholder naming practices, which work to remove history and culture from the colonial subject in the application of a name that itself becomes ahistorical and generic in the process. In a sense, the name brings to light the CG body’s lack of history and culture, or even perhaps an unconscious, in contrast with the implicit cultural and psychological aspects of character.[9] The CG character speaks with a human voice, often moves in the way that humans move, and perhaps resembles humans in many ways (with great attention to mimicking their capacity to be photographed), but it exists outside of the historical, spatiotemporal, and biological structures into which people are placed. Like the slave, it is given a new culture to replace the one missing, but one it only holds superficially, which never fully attaches to the body.

As with Gollum, however, humanizing the character also humanizes the visual effect in its instantiation as a body. But as the other nears or comes to resemble the viewing subject, distinctions fade and subjectivity is threatened, and thus difference must be reinstated. Wikus and Christopher Johnson come to understand one another, but never quite converge at the point of shared embodiment. When Christopher Johnson’s child, seeing Wikus’s arm, says, “We are the same,” Wikus replies sharply, “We’re not the fucking same,” insisting that the difference between them persists. But when Wikus later risks his life to give Christopher Johnson a chance to get to the mother ship, he does so in a mechanical exo-suit designed in the form of an alien body. In an outward expression of the alien DNA that has become a part of his bodily system, Wikus becomes the internal mechanism that guides the external alien-shaped body, which foreshadows his eventual transformation.

Thus Wikus takes on the image of the alien, but the problem of images remains. Confined to the hand, the exo-suit, and the unseen internal reconfiguration that has altered his DNA, Wikus’ “alienation” from himself is threatening but marginalized, kept from his human consciousness and for the most part from his human image. His loss of fingernails and teeth present a disintegration of the body that elicits grimaces from the audience but preserves the photographic image, as does the alien hand held “at arm’s length.” Wikus’ social alienation is portrayed as unfair as he is condemned despite the fact that his human psyche apparently remains intact – socially he gives off the wrong “image,” and hence is presented by the film as unjustly ostracized. The aliens, however, are not given this same consideration – their (CG) images are intrinsic to their characters. Christopher Johnson generates pathos in his plight and sympathy for his worthy objectives (to get his son to safety, to get back to his home planet, to rescue his people), but doesn’t quite become a sympathetic character. Like Gollum when channeling Sméagol, he approaches the racial boundary but can’t cross it, hindered by the barrier that not only separates the animated and photographic worlds, but also prohibits a CG or animated protagonist in a live action film.

Wikus’ transformation threatens to depersonalize him as a character and disfigure him as an image, and finally removes him from the narrative altogether; with the exception of the final shot (which may or may not actually be Wikus, or Copley), the film concludes with a return to the interviewees, who speculate on the fate of the absent Wikus. Christopher Johnson, while humanized in a way that the other aliens aren’t allowed to be, experiences little transformation, character or otherwise. He manages to escape Earth, but not his otherness.

James Zborowski notes that the aliens, while certainly mistreated, are more social problem than society, characterized as uneducated slum-dwellers of the xenophobic imagination for whom “progress and integration are rendered unimaginable” (n.p.). They are not positioned as potentially transformable or even assimilable, but are contained within the impoverished fixedness integral to the colonial construction of otherness. As Homi Bhabha writes,

“fixity . . . is a paradoxical mode of representation: it connotes rigidity and an unchanging order as well as disorder, degeneracy and daemonic repetition” (94).

Both the aliens and Wikus in his final state are kept by the film within certain bounds; no alien finds acceptance or status of any kind in the human world, and Bhabha’s statement can be applied as an acute descriptor of the shot of Wikus in full alien form, having entered a rigid racial discourse that highlights his degeneracy into the new body/image, while at the same time becoming an ambiguous figure, a “disorder” that will have to be dealt with in some way. However, Blomkamp doesn’t expand on the ambiguity inherent in this complex and problematic shot, which itself implies and even demands narrativization. By ending the film here, Blomkamp fixes Wikus in a disturbing political, social, and psychological uncertainty – fixed in unfixedness, in the terror of the body of the other, of the irreferential image.[10]

Fantasizing the other

The prominent role of race in the mythopoeia of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, written between 1937 and 1949, and the influential role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, first published in 1974, can today be found not only in Jackson’s film versions of the books, but flourishing online in contemporary role-playing games such as the Warcraft series, which includes the popular MMO World of Warcraft.[11] The displacement of race into fictional categories such as dwarves, elves, and orcs forms an image of race divorced from real bodies and social problems, an image without referent that permits the play of bodies and cultures within racial discourse. In the film and books, idealized human and humanlike characters emerge as central figures (i.e. the tranquil Eastern discipline of the Elves, the miniaturization of Merrie Ole England in the Hobbits, and [the white] Man at the center), while the monstrous orcs represent the antagonistic evil force. Unenlightened and warlike, often conscripted in the service of more powerful beings, orcs represent a human darkness clearly associable with colonial attitudes toward black Africa. Fictional races permit the classification of bodies according to qualities considered essential and inherent, while the persistence of “human” as a racial category within these fantasy spaces perpetuates a default whiteness vis-à-vis the otherness of the other races.[12]

Playing with images of race – and race as an image – on the one hand lays bare the imagistic and constructed nature of racial designations, but on the other, it reifies race as a socially stabilizing force, in this case by channeling it into culturally acceptable forms where it then structures the film or game world. Playing with race divests it of its history, making it an ahistorical phenomenon naturalized by its own existence. In virtual worlds and fantasy films this is closely tied to the irreferential nature of digital images themselves. Sean Cubitt argues that digital effects-driven films tend to be ahistorical, depoliticized, self-contained worlds, not only eschewing photographic reference but no longer reflecting reality or society at all – and that in fact it is this shift away from the real and political that has driven the popularity of digital films.

Within an imagistic culture, the search for self largely takes the form of a search for self-image; digital technologies enable a previously unavailable expressivity in the form of production, manipulation, and distribution of self-images, and while these media can be used to reflect aspects (or, pessimistically, produce semblances) of a unique self, they first of all constitute visual presence. Vis-à-vis the demise of the photographic body (the body of the photograph, the body in photographs), the otherness of the digital image, and its status as a ghostly non-image, is sloughed off in an assertion of self-existence in its native status. In the avatarial switch, we become the ghosts – rather than understanding ourselves as the bodies that produce spectral images, we deign to inhabit and possess the images that constitute presence in our wired, image-driven world.

Avatar is a text particularly intriguing for its superimposition of racial otherness and image otherness within a narrative of (positive) transformation. At a time when digital effects have become commonplace in cinema and the spectacle has given way to the simulation, Cameron’s film manages to impress and awe with its plenitude, as a sort of all-consuming digital effect that envelops the viewer, takes over the space of the film, and either consumes its photographic bodies or diegetically expels them. In a blog entry on the film Jeffrey Sconce writes that Avatar is most interesting as an allegory of the cinema, “in the warring production paradigms the film so conveniently spatializes within its diegesis.”[13] This “conflict” is a particularly salient aspect of the film, even to the point, I argue, of being central to its cultural mythos. This begins with Cameron’s efforts to naturalize the CG body as a viable protagonist within a live-action film.

With the indigenous Na’vi, native figures are cast as native people. The representation of race in, and as, a technology of images dilutes the disruptive presence of the raced body by recasting it in fantasy terms and stereotypical imagery, and at the same time substitutes the otherness of images for the otherness of race, creating bodies that cannot be accessed or known outside of their images. The Na’vi greeting “I see you” implies a seeing that goes beyond the surface, but what we see are surfaces – the performance-captured bodies that seductively conceal the black and Native American bodies beneath them, and the allusion to real indigenous populations that we typically only encounter in images. In contrast with films, such as those discussed above, which link diegetic otherness with the otherness of animated and CG images, Cameron shifts audience sympathy toward the digital figures in Avatar.

The Na’vi bodies were designed and modified to make them more sympathetic, eliminating alien protuberances to create a more humanoid form mixed with familiar animal elements, privileging the exotic over the alien. This can be notably seen in Neytiri’s (Zoe Saldana) feline qualities, which evoke both the domesticated cat and a vixenish panther, in a combination of animal features and the human body (also popular, for instance, among the “furries” of Second Life – therianthropic avatar personas and the communities of fans who associate themselves with them). The narrative of the film, in a reversal of more typical alien narratives, positions the (photographic) humans as the alien intruders within a (digital) alien landscape. The anti-colonialist fantasy aligns Western imperialism with photographic realism, and (without any sense of irony from Cameron) digital image production with nature and a prelapsarian idyll. The conflict of imaging technologies is also a conflict of images in which the native figures must endure the “trespass” of the photographic, which has long claimed the space of the screen as its own. 

The Na’vi bodies are integrated into the film in a way that reduces or eliminates the otherness often present in first appearances of special effects creatures. By the time we first see Neytiri, the lithe blue Na’vi bodies have already been introduced through the avatars that Jake (Sam Worthington), Grace (Sigourney Weaver), and Norm (Joel David Moore) “drive” – seen first in laboratories, then on a training ground that includes trainees playing basketball, and continuing in the mission to collect samples, during which Jake becomes separated from the others and ends up meeting Neytiri. The contemporary clothing worn by the avatars, the trash talk on the basketball court, and Jake’s exuberant acclimation to his new body (and the capabilities it affords him in giving him legs) serve as a prelude to the Na’vi form – the body of the other minus the otherness of the person. A similar strategy, used by minstrel performers in blackface, served to other the Negro; however, in Avatar it is used to the opposite effect, naturalizing the other (the alien Na’vi, the CG body) so that the natives are more acceptable as objects of sympathy. Thus the first time we see Neytiri, the strangeness of her digital blue body is downplayed, and her character foregrounded.

Vivian Sobchack writes that science fiction films “present us with a confrontation between and mixture of those images to which we respond as ‘alien’ and those we know to be familiar” – a confrontation that is only partly dependent on content, as style and representational forms also construe visual objects as familiar or strange (87). Relative to digital filmmaking, Cubitt sees this conflict hinging on the incompatibility of familiar-analog and alien-digital. Introductory scenes for aliens and CG creatures often emphasize the menace of the other, as in Gollum’s spider-like descent toward Frodo in The Two Towers, and the alienating news footage of the prawns in District 9, shot from a distance with a long lens to emphasize danger and otherness. Neytiri’s otherness is tempered both by the safe introduction of the (avatarial) Na’vi body before her appearance, and her role in her first scene as Jake’s (reluctant) savior – the alien other introduced as noble savage.

Neytiri inducts Jake into Na’vi society where he is skeptically received, again inverting the conventional role of the alien or other who must gain acceptance in human society. Jake meanwhile divides his time between the two spaces, cultures, and imaging technologies of the humans and Na’vi. The digital avatar as a general or metaphorical figure offers a correlative to the motion-captured CG body, and avatar and digital character come together in the technological and diegetic place of the surrogate body in Avatar. The blue bodies in the film have been often discussed in terms of Hindu avatars, but the film draws heavily upon many aspects of the digital avatar, including the technological interface, consciousness oscillating between bodies (rather than incarnation), and immersion in a world only accessible through an avatar. Cameron’s use of the avatar as a device diegetically central to the film eases and facilitates the transfer of audience sympathy toward the CG body. While Neytiri and the other Na’vi were preceded by the human avatar-drivers, the digital Jake emerges slowly and carefully in a gradual transition that shifts between his two bodies as the humans are progressively demonized and the Na’vi naturalized. The element of the monstrous is eliminated, and the role of the Na’vi as fantasy creatures ancillary to the human protagonists gives way to the concerns of the Na’vi taking a central place in the film.

The device of the avatar makes this shift possible by making explicit and visual the connection between (photographic) actor and the digital body he or she performs. As Jake learns to use and accept his new body, the audience comes along for the ride, moving from the difference between Jake and his avatar, to Jake’s enjoyment of and preference for the new body, to Jake as the new body, cemented by his permanent transition at the end of the film. The fictional Na’vi culture comes along with the body, and the film spends more and more time in the digital realm of Pandora, so that the world to which the body belongs (the world of digital image-making, as well as Na’vi society) becomes the world of the film. Just before Jake leaves his photographic body behind, Pandora reclaims the space of the screen for those native figures, characters, and images for whom screens are their sole territory, while the photographic invaders are driven out, off-screen.

The avatar device permits the colonization of the body to be positioned antithetically to the colonization of the planet, even as it evokes the colonial White Messiah. Jake’s assimilation into Na’vi culture is facilitated by his avatar body, which affords him both a visual fit into their society and a functional compatibility in being able to form the “bond.” Although he is immediately perceived to be one of the “sky people,” he is marked by the digital world (in the sign from Eywa) as different from the other humans, which allows his entry and enculturation. Unlike the others whom the Na’vi have tried to teach, he is pliable and teachable exactly because he has given up on the “reality” of his own world and seeks an escape into an alternate (or virtual) reality. Jake’s inhabitation of the avatar is distinguished from the human presence in Pandora – the former an acceptable colonization, the latter an atrocity. Avatar bodies are “empty,” and hence available for and even needing to be filled. The Na’vi are initially presented as being “full,” receiving no benefit from the education and road-building of the humans, not to mention their exploitative colonialism.

The Na’vi don’t need human intervention, but they do need Jake – his military skills, his rationalism and empiricism – to save them from the human invasion and fill the hole in their own society that makes them vulnerable. The White Messiah comes in blue skin, and the digital is here inhabited by the photographic, which disappears in it, re-emerging periodically as a reminder of the consciousness that drives the digital body before the final transition into the rather paradoxical figure of the permanent avatar. Jake’s inhabitation of the digital body gives narrative form to the way that animated and effects images can be “filled,” with human qualities that reduce their otherness as images and help endear them to audiences (in notable contrast to the cartoon body). This also reaffirms the need for difference, however, and thus in most productions animated characters are confined to fairy tales, subject to constant cartoon punishment, or cast as monstrous creatures lest they become too human and elide distance and difference. Avatar works to overcome difference, and punishes the humans instead.

The “purity” of the spiritual, pre-industrial Na’vi mirrors the apparent “purity” of the native image which exists in itself, eschewing the duplicity of the actor and profilmic scene while, in its movement, concealing the labor of its production. The irreferential digital image (though one vaguely “inhabited” by an actor), so terrible in District 9 (in which Wikus is trapped in a digital alien body), becomes in Avatar a salvation from the human world that has lost its meaning and destroyed its home. Here it is the photographic that has been emptied, where every computer monitor in the film displays vibrant, digital 3D visuals in a clear emulation of virtual reality, and whose inhabitants must compensate for their own emptiness with the exaggerated machinery they use to drain richer worlds. The purity of the native image is the absence of the index, the absence of photographic absence, for native images are inherently “present.” Jake’s prayer to Eywa becomes his ultimate bond with the digital realm, taking spiritual form as a profound faith in irreferential images. His resurrection at the film’s conclusion seals the doctrine of CG transfiguration, and brings about the final defeat over the index and the expulsion from the Garden. The physical body, once the dark reflection of God (“in his image”), became primary and original in the serpent’s subtle inversion of the image and the real, so that God became an ephemeral reflection of the human. The simulacral spiritualism of the digital restores the image – and particularly the self as image – to its elevated position, that we might again behold the pure image; it is only fitting that this should take place in the reconstituted Eden of Pandora.

Ultimately, then, Cameron seems to attain the “unobtanium” he seeks in pushing digital effects into a realm that allows them to be characters and bodies available for audience identification. Avatar brings together effects, narrative, performance, avatarism, and cultural signifiers into a body that has become emblematic in the press and among the film’s fans (and detractors). Although the film has received much attention for its story and politics, as well as its other technological accomplishments, the avatar/Na’vi body remains its primary image. In CG effects, which are used in a wide variety of applications both foregrounded and “invisible,” the golden standard remains the human body – not simply for its visual complexity, but for the “humanness” exuded by human bodies and so difficult to capture in CG, and which is most subject to the scrutiny of audiences (from the uncanniness of the human figures in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within [2001], to the current tendency of CG animated films to place cartoonish human figures in realistic settings).[14] It is partly the lack of this ineffable quality that has driven digital figures into the monstrous and the fantastic, and it is this same quality that Cameron seems to capture in the Na’vi bodies. His close attention to detail in appearance and movement, and the technological sophistication of the bodies, are undeniably important aspects in the creation of CG characters that not only inspire audience identification within a live-action film, but also become its protagonists. However, it is arguably Cameron’s manipulation of difference and otherness that allows these hybrid characters to overcome the stigma of animated characters. 

The widely seen Avatar thus represents a key victory for native images. In the conflict between “warring production paradigms,” the violent return of the index is put down not only by the motion-captured Na’vi and the avatarial Jake, but also notably by the digital animals that populate Pandora. Initially constituting a monstrous threat, Jake learns to respect CG fauna, and with the bond joins them in communion with the digital stuff that embodies the evolution of images. The triumph of the digital over the photographic, framed within the libidinal rush of fantasy filmmaking, displaces fears of the disappearance of the real manifest in the threat to the physical body, and its recent ally in the photograph, with digital plentitude and the enviable “imageness” of the new screen natives. The existential implications of this contest are brought into relief at the end of the film, as the photographic humans are driven out of the cinematic space, which has already become increasingly submerged in the proliferative digital overgrowth, and Jake undergoes his final transformation. The last shot of Avatar closely parallels that of District 9 as each of the new image-bodies, the aliens we have come to know, look directly at the camera. In District 9 the look is one of fear and depersonalization in the face of a digital takeover; in Avatar, unabashed acceptance and irrefutable presence. 


1. The production of each space was also separate, almost a world apart, with the Pandora performances captured on an L.A. sound stage and the human base shot on sets in New Zealand. [return to text]

2. For animated characters, the relation between real world object and screen manifestation flows in a direction opposite that of traditional cinematography: rather than a profilmic object mediated on a screen, animated characters begin on screens but proliferate in objects, from stuffed animals and other toys to Mickey Mouse suits worn by Disneyland performers. In this respect, physical manifestations of animated characters are only tangible echoes of the “real” thing – or even their mediation, in the sense that they are instantiated in media different from their essential existence.

3. For discussions of race, class, and sexuality in animation see Eric Loren Smoodin, Animating Culture: Hollywood Cartoons from the Sound Era (Chapel Hill: Rutgers University Press, 1993); Karl F. Cohen, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004).

4. In his essay, Mitchell personifies pictures in an effort to elucidate the ways in which pictures work, putting picture and viewer into conversation about what we want from pictures, and what they “want” from us. He associates pictures with colored and feminine bodies in part to explore their status as secondary to unmediated reality, as subaltern.

5. Rotoscoping is an animation technique in which live-action footage is traced over to produce animated movements.

6. Whereas Toons exist to entertain, Doodles don’t have a clear purpose for their existence. Without a firm diegetic motivation for being, they lack an identity of their own and are thus further othered as the dark reflection of the photographic world and the qualities it refuses to see in itself.

7. Harryhausen’s creatures, while primarily monstrous, also include fantasy creatures such as Pegasus and the mechanical owl that assist Perseus (Harry Hamlin) in Clash of the Titans. However, these native figures must be domesticated: the clockwork construction of Bubo the owl renders it a tool that can be subject to human control, and the wild Pegasus is broken and tamed by Perseus in order shed its monstrous status and usefully enter the world of the photographic humans. 

8. According to the DVD appendices, in an unused scene a character was to have a vision of Frodo becoming like Gollum.

9. Barbara Creed attributes the lack of an unconscious to the failure of audiences to identify with digital characters. Although this statement contains interesting implications for our engagement with CG bodies, it is ultimately overly simplistic, for characters do have humans behind and within them (in written dialogue, spoken voice, motion-captured movements, etc.), who bring their own unconscious impulses to characters. The issue is perhaps more in the way we understand the multiple human and digital elements present within the body of the character. Creed, Barbara. 2000. “The Cyberstar: Digital Pleasures and the End of the Unconscious.” Screen 41 (1, Spring), 79-86.

10. Rumors in early 2010 about a sequel or prequel projected a second film in two years, but Blomkamp has since shifted directions, directing Elysium instead (slated for 2013).

11. World of Warcraft is a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, or MMO for short), in which players choose and customize avatars for socialization and gameplay within a persistent online space.

12. See Lisa Nakamura for an excellent discussion of the default whiteness of cyberspace, as applicable to online spaces such as World of Warcraft. Nakamura, Lisa. 2002. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet. New York: Rutledge.

13. “Avatard,” blog entry by Jeffery Sconce, Ludic Despair, January 2010.

14. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a technological triumph in producing fine detail and ultra-realistic CG bodies, but the many criticisms levied at the animation in the film could be summarily grouped as disparagement for the lack of humanness found in its human characters (largely attributable to the film’s failure to avoid the uncanny valley). The tendency toward cartoonish characters in realistic settings (and with, for the most part, realistic lighting and sound effects) can be seen in any number of CG animated films in the last decade, from The Incredibles (2004) to The Adventures of Tintin (2011), the latter of which largely preserved the look of the original cartoon characters within a highly realistic environment.

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