Special Feature: How ‘lo’ can you go?

Is it possible to hypothesise that the introduction 3D film providing a new lease of life for the ‘dying’ industry of cinema? In some respects this certainly seems the case, especially in terms of how it’s not (yet) possible to download pirate versions of films in all their three-dimensional glory. Arguably, 3D technology encourages us to actually leave the comfort of our homes, go to the cinema, and pay to see a film (how very old-fashioned of us).

But what does the future hold for more ‘traditional’ techniques and effects that have served filmmaking so loyally for the past 100 years? Are they to be completely erased from contemporary cinema? Since the origins of filmmaking itself, the cinematic world has often strayed from portrayals of realism, using fantasy as escapism and utilizing the frame for the exploration of the humanity’s ability for creativity. As early as the 1900s, the French filmmaker Georges Méliès (Voyage to the Moon [1902]) pioneered primitive special effects and techniques to create dreamlike mise-en-scene. Such films combined the practice of early animation and live-action techniques, allowing them to inhabit a very specific aesthetic, one of impossibility and imagination.

As spectators, we are repeatedly drawn to cinematic techniques that evade the mundane aesthetics of day-to-day life (Britain’s recurring penchant for social realism aside). So is there still a valid place for a ‘cinema of the handmade’? Certainly, many contemporary filmmakers have continued the lo-fi practices evident in the very earliest of cinematic productions; Michel Gondry, with his love of all things cardboard; Spike Jonze and the furry-costumed characters of Where the Wild Things Are (2009) and Wes Anderson, with his recent display of stop-motion animation in Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). All display a similar desire – to pursue ‘old-fashioned’ techniques and propel them into modern, ‘technologically-swamped’ cinema.

Claire Tennant, a model maker and set designer whose back catalogue includes Adam Elliot’s moving ‘claymation’ Mary and Max (2009) and Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, believes these films achieve a different quality to their CG counterparts. “I love the way one has to be creative when trying to create effects without the assistance of digital additions. In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the explosions are cotton wool and the fire is pieces of carved translucent soap. It always adds an extra element of interest when you know that it’s a hand-made effect. I love trying to figure out how each thing is done. Hitchcock was the king of in-camera effects. It’s amazing to watch his films and think, ‘There was no post-production in this’.”

Such a traditional, hands-on approach allows for a more timeless aesthetic, particularly when compared with CG techniques that seem to have a very short lifespan. Tennant feels there is a true ‘art’ to lo-fi effects: “It’s a skill that will never be forgotten. It’s always possible that we won’t be able to turn on a computer; but you can always take a piece of material and shape it with your hands. There is something really beautiful about re-creating a piece of life. Stop motion appeals to our sense of humanity and what it means to exist.”

So what are the strengths of lo-fi, and what can it add to both the aesthetics and storytelling of a film? As Tennant believes, “real models will always add a tangibility to film; people will always have a greater believe in a story if they can picture themselves in that situation or holding that thing. CG just hasn’t quite mastered that yet. It could well happen soon, but I believe in the Japanese idea of the ‘Uncanny Valley’ – a human will always recognise a ‘representation’ of a human as a fake.”

Therefore, the obvious but endearing ‘fakery’ of techniques such as stop motion allow for a different spectatorial digestion. Ultimately, there will always be a place for lo-fi: “Stop motion is engaging, charismatic and tactile. These practical models will never be completely replaced by CG for the same reasons that plastic can never fully replace wood. It’s just a different quality, and perhaps the two serve different purposes.”

And so it seems there is hope for the future of a ‘traditional cinema’. With too many CGI productions tainting human creativity by providing clean-cut constructions of the imagined, there’s never been a more pertinent time to embrace the art of the handmade. Go on, get your hands dirty.

Laura J. Smith