Star Wars, Russian Ark and Cinema's Digital Revolution

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<I>Star Wars</i>, <i>Russian Ark</i> and Cinema's Digital Revolution

Twenty years ago at the 55th Cannes Film Festival, cinema entered the digital era. Two films present at the festival, not just shot but projected digitally, acted as landmarks for the coming age, both exploring the never-before-possible capabilities of this new cinema technology. One was a Russian arthouse film. The other, an American franchise blockbuster. One reached for the raw, untampered unfolding of time. The other worked on the complete construction of the image from atomized movie bits. Russian Ark and Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones exist on the extreme ends of two wildly different directions that film aesthetics can reach towards. They are part of an argument as old as the medium itself and, wielding the same Sony camera, they launched that dialogue into the 21st century.

Two summers earlier, George Lucas had returned to the deserts of Tunisia familiar to him from his first young and reckless attempt at making a sci-fi fantasy film. He didn’t come with 35mm cameras this time. Now he was armed with something new: A high-definition, cinema-grade digital camera. The Sony HDW-900 was a powerful machine, capable of shooting at 24fps in 1080p, as opposed to the conventional 30fps interlaced images that had been conventional for television and consumer-grade cameras for decades. Gone was the artifacting so specific to analog digital; here was a camera that created images that were directly comparable to that of photochemical film. Their rig was still bulky, however, needing massive, high-performance Panavision lenses to cleanly expose the tiny digital sensor. In a making-of documentary for Clones, Victor Kemper, the then-president of the American Society of Cinematographers, said, “We spent years in the film industry trying to get the camera free. Now suddenly we’re tied to cables again.” But what the rig lost to bulk, the camera system made up for in streamlining.

“When we started doing Star Wars it was very hard to get a spaceship to fly and pan with it. Now you don’t even think about it, it’s so easy. With the new digital technology, pretty much whatever I can imagine I can do. There are very few limits.” Lucas and his effects team at ILM had been early adopters in digital effects in post-production, not just the showy graphics but cleaner ways of compositing images together. One of Lucas’ more infamous tendencies with the Star Wars prequel films was the combining of multiple takes into one shot. Sometimes it’s as simple as grafting different images and characters together to build a scene, and other times it’s a surreal morphing as an actor is digitally altered to splice multiple takes into one. This is exemplified in behind-the-scenes footage of The Phantom Menace. Lucas sits with co-editor Ben Burt as they split one actor’s performance from the others, delaying his actions to line up the mise-en-scène with Lucas’ vision—something that wasn’t totally in sync the day of shooting. “This is cyber-directing,” Burt jokes.

Preferences from viewers aside, the fundamental problem with Lucas’ approach was an incompatibility of formats. To do the digital edits, they had to digitize all of the footage taken on 35mm, master it in digital and then remaster it on 35mm again for exhibition. This was a long and expensive process that could be solved very simply: Just do everything digitally. This is where the Sony HDW comes in, with its cinema-grade digital abilities. The Attack of the Clones production crew felt that the bulky rig, with its massive lenses and miles of wiring, brought them back into the days of classic Hollywood sets where the bulk of the equipment was the crew’s biggest uphill battle. But what they lost on the front-end in efficiency, they more than made up for in the back. With every actor, set, matte painting, miniature and even the odd prop being captured digitally, Lucas and company had a library of information with which to splice their film together. Concept designer Erik Tiemens described it as a “giant sketchbook.”

They had everything from intimate conversations to massive battles where hundreds of space samurai fought flying aliens in a gladiatorial arena. The digital backlot of blue screens became a world of fantasy and pure imagination. They saw themselves as making a classical epic, a digital Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia in a magical electric universe. Or, as Lucas said, “It’s a giant exercise in having a vivid imagination.”

This constructivist approach was essential in the maturation of the medium from being seen as a novelty to a new form of art in the mechanical age. When the Soviet Union founded the first film school in 1919, material circumstances forced their new generation of thinkers to theorize about films more than make them. Their pioneering work on the rhythmic, tonal and, most famously, thematic effects that editing (or montage) has on the film image remains foundational. But what was a style stampeding into the future for one generation became associated with repression and dishonesty towards the past and present for the next. Increasingly—especially in the Soviet sphere in the post-Stalin years—a tendency was forming away from meanings being created through the juxtaposition of editing, and more towards the honesty of time unfolding naturally in the image. Aleksandr Sokurov took this to the logical extreme with Russian Ark.

“I don’t want to experiment with time,” Sokurov said on his idea to shoot his atemporal journey through the Hermitage Museum in one continuous take. “I need ‘real time’ to be translated directly onto the screen. I don’t want to cut it, and I don’t want to shorten it. It should remain as is.” Unlike Clones’ big, unwieldy rig, Sokurov and his cameraman Tilman Büttner hooked up their HDW-900 to a Steadicam rig with a reasonably-sized Canon zoom lens. Their mobility was key to having the camera’s ghostly eye traverse the museum and its many parades of Russian history, but also to practically pull off the shot in time. They filmed on December 23, 2001, the shortest day of the year, only giving them four hours with enough natural light to pull off the shot. The crew had decided before filming that if anything was to go wrong in the first 20 minutes, they would start over. They failed three times, but by some miracle, with just enough light and battery left, they got the complete film on the fourth take.

The Steadicam’s stabilization technology quickly became popular with Eastern European filmmakers after its invention in 1975. In their search for truthful images, the stable gliding rig provided a mobile camera operation that moved more like the human eye than a mechanical dolly or crane. Now, the camera’s eye and that of the operator blended together more than ever before, and the device itself started to become a witness that resembled something human, or, in Russian Ark’s case, a ghost.

Sokurov himself voices the film’s unnamed narrator, whose eyes we see the movie through. He wakes up disoriented after some accident, asking himself where he is—not necessarily in place, but in time. Looking at the first people he sees arriving out of a carriage, he knows he must be somewhere in the 1800s based on their clothes, the high time of an Imperial Russia that didn’t know its destruction was already in motion. He soon meets another ghost, that of 19th century French aristocrat Marquis de Custine, famous for his Russian travelog (where he claims they are a people without culture, merely imitating the European world they wish to join). They glide around the museum—or the palace, depending on when they are—with the Marquis criticizing all the art and history paraded around them, and with Sokurov often at a loss for words to defend his people. His camera simply witnesses. The unbroken movement through the Hermitage as it threads through time—from the behind-the-scenes dramas of an empress, to the Siege of Leningrad, all the way to present-day guests perusing the museum collection—reveals Sokurov’s thesis: The building is an ark for Russian culture, lost at sea.

Even through its overt and grandiose staging, the form of capture through a single, unbroken long take implies a certain reality impossible elsewhere. Nicholas Rombes points out in his book Cinema in the Digital Age that even though digital cameras’ long-take abilities “suggest it as a tool for capturing reality… Extremely long takes made possible by HD remind us that, as humans, we can never approximate or replicate the camera eye, which does not blink, but rather captures a steady stream of information. Paradoxically, long takes are techniques we can never truly experience as long takes.” This is easily resolved using one of André Bazin’s critiques on cinematic realism, describing film’s ability to reach towards “asymptote[s] of reality” and how “realism in art can only be achieved in one way—through artifice.”

The formal magic trick of Russian Ark is how it is at once completely truthful—it does not construct reality through editing, it preserves time and is upfront about perspective—but in being truthful this way, reveals the dishonesty inherent to the medium: Its staginess, its need for direction. While the camera may feel free-flowing, you will never see the crew walking right behind it. Russian Ark debates its own form the same way the two ghostly figures traversing the museum debate Russian culture; it is caught in a Gordian knot for us to try to untie. On the other hand, Attack of the Clones serves as a proverbial cutting of the knot through its sheer lack of interest in cinematic realism. Where Russian Ark plays in an asymptotic world so close to the real that it becomes more fake, Clones doesn’t concern itself with the real at all. Lucas works around Rombes’ observation that the unblinking digital camera-eye is both closer to the human eye and more machine-like than ever by flipping the argument backwards: The camera is more machine-like than ever and is therefore less like a human eye than before, so it should be used more like the machine that it is. That is ultimately the difference in approach between Sokurov and Lucas: One is approaching film from a human angle, the other from the mechanical.

Sokurov captured his orchestrated reality in its complete, unflinching form, a digital exercise in both the absolute possibilities of cinematic reality and the inherent atemporal artifice that is involved in that search. Lucas used the artificial to create a coherent, spectacular and impossible reality. Russian Ark and Attack of the Clones could not be more different, but the possibilities that one high-definition Sony camera opened up allowed both to bust open the door of the new digital cinema and reach astounding heights right out of the gate.


Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker. Born in Portland, OR, he got a BA in film from Montana State University, and after working in politics for a time relocated to Baltimore. He spends his days working behind bar, endlessly editing old projects, researching new ones, and occasionally putting out writing. Words can usually be found at Frameland, Splice Today, his newsletter CompCin for longer-form writing, and Twitter for things that are barely written at all.

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