Back in camera?

Although we’ve resolutely “gone digital”, in terms of video production and post-processing for features (regardless of the medium that captured the original footage), there is still mileage in techniques executed in-camera at the time of filming.

There are benefits and disadvantages to be had whether the camera is treated as a creative tool, or merely a recording device, although the complicated, practical truth would place it somewhere between those two simplistic extremes. It rapidly became apparent with the advent of CG post-processing that something in the finished product was amiss. Rather than being heralded as the all encompassing panacea for any creative ill, there has been (and still is) a distinct backlash against the use of CG.

George Lucas’ Star Wars: The Phantom Menace perhaps still epitomises, for some, all that is wrong with the wholehearted embrace of new technology. The unexpected backlash had been hinted at with his earlier attempts at polishing his original trilogy - ostensibly to realise the full extent of his original vision. Before that, there was some discontent at Steven Spielberg’s foray into similar territory when he revisited E.T. to add more motion to the alien character and replace the guns of government forces, bizarrely, with walkie talkies. It’s good to talk! Perhaps there is some value in the adage “don’t mess with the classics!” -even if they are your own!

There are complaints about a strange sense of disconnection, between the actors and the digital backdrops that they are unceremoniously glued onto, or the equally ‘adhesive' CG characters that they attempt to simulate interactions with. “Fake" is a word that frequently recurs when such issues are discussed. How can actors interact convincingly with characters and environments that don’t exist? The extent of the problem is summed up on Rocketstock:

“CGI is paralyzing the film industry. It’s taking over production time, budgets, story, and even replacing real characters. It’s making films worse. If we allocated the amount of resources we spend on CGI toward hiring better writers, creating cooler set designs, and minimizing post production, we’d have better cinema. Because of the damage done by CGI, Hollywood can only finance CGI-fest films with bloated budgets. The people demand CGI and the only way to keep the demand up is to increase the dose of CGI.”

A solution is to have actor stand-ins for the fantastical beings concerned, optionally motion-capture their performance and then overwrite them in post-production with CG counterparts. This worked to great acclaim with Andy Serkis’ role as Gollum in

The Lord of The Rings series. Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 also successfully employed a similar technique, as have many others.

Okay, so that’s digital compositing, motion capture, more live actors, more time, more expense. The results can be very effective with a decent lighting model applied in digital post-production. The actors have something tangible to work with ‘on the day’ and the fantastical is rendered at least semi-real. ‘Great if you have the resources to hand.

At the other end of the production scale, the means are not likely available for such excesses, and the members of the production may have no recourse other than to think their way out of their creative problems. Creative solutions for certain issues are still available though and have been so throughout the history of film and video; in the form of in-camera effects.

For decades they were the established means to achieve the seemingly impossible and part of the very craft of filmmaking itself. Even today they can still provide a few of the basic effects now easily simulated in post’, and all for a minimum outlay. You have to be good enough to wield them effectively of course, and once on film (or video), the effect is effectively ‘committed', but again, that’s part of the art.

Shooting through a gauze, or other material can add texture or diffusion to the image, stretching fishing line across the lens can catch the light to simulate linear lens flares, then there is the old favourite of shooting through glass smeared with Vasoline to generate the classic ‘soft-focus' effect. There’s a great DIY ethic to all of this, and that’s before we utilise the myriad of  physical filters designed for conventional photography.

Alongside the bar-raising digital work on The Lord of The Rings was one of the oldest of all practical techniques: forced perspective, where actors portraying hobbits were shot at a distance to appear smaller whilst still in the same frame as their ‘human' counterparts. Changing the shutter speed can invoke a lethargic dream-like quality to the action, or alternatively render the motion jerky and brutal, making violent scenes appear more violent. “In camera” is something to consider before investing hundreds (or more) into digital effects.