Media Heterotopias: Digital Effects and Material Labor in Global Film Production

Media Heterotopias: Digital Effects and Material Labor in Global Film Production

by Hye Jean Chung

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In Media Heterotopias Hye Jean Chung challenges the widespread tendency among audiences and critics to disregard the material conditions of digital film production. Drawing on interviews with directors, producers, special effects supervisors, and other film industry workers, Chung traces how the rhetorical and visual emphasis on seamlessness masks the social, political, and economic realities of global filmmaking and digital labor. In films such as Avatar (2009), Interstellar (2014), and The Host (2006)—which combine live action footage with CGI to create new hybrid environments—filmmaking techniques and "seamless" digital effects allow the globally dispersed labor involved to go unnoticed by audiences. Chung adapts Foucault's notion of heterotopic spaces to foreground this labor and to theorize cinematic space as a textured, multilayered assemblage in which filmmaking occurs in transnational collaborations that depend upon the global movement of bodies, resources, images, and commodities. Acknowledging cinema's increasingly digitized and globalized workflow, Chung reconnects digitally constructed and composited imagery with the reality of production spaces and laboring bodies to highlight the political, social, ethical, and aesthetic stakes in recognizing the materiality of collaborative filmmaking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372158
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/22/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 22 MB
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About the Author

Hye Jean Chung is Assistant Professor in the School of Global Communication at Kyung Hee University.

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Assembling the Global in Digital Cinema

Spatial concerns are reemerging across various disciplines to map geopolitical relations, economic exchange, and cross-cultural encounters. A rising consciousness of transnational networks and virtual environments changes our perceptions of the world and our experience of navigating within it. Global flows and virtual spaces are often described in scholarly and popular discourse as actualizing aspirations of fluidity, mobility, and transcendence over symbolic, technological, physical, and geographical borders. Themes, narratives, images, and virtual sensations of mobility that are articulated and idealized in contemporary media often reinforce a rhetorical and aesthetic emphasis on the ease of crossing borders. This prompts a continuous renewal of conceptions of territory, national identity, and the transnational imaginary. What is singular about this particular global moment is that the transnational circulation of images is enabled and facilitated by digital modes of production, distribution, and mediation.

Discourses on globalization and digitization often overemphasize the seamless integration of heterogeneous elements. Pervasive claims of seamlessness are generated by and circulated among industry practitioners, film audiences, critics, and scholars. These claims, however, are erroneous. In order to obtain a nuanced understanding of the real conditions and lived realities of transnational film production workflows that increasingly combine site-specific labor and digital technologies, we need to question this popular yet problematic tendency to consider seamless integration as an apt description of digital and global media. Traces of the material conditions of media production become perceptible when we study how contemporary films are created through a complex collaborative process that deploys digital technologies and takes place in geographically dispersed locations in multiple stages of production and postproduction.

While seamlessness can be effective as a trope for describing the effects of digital and global media, it presents a misleading conception of the material topography of transnational filmmaking by disregarding economic, geopolitical, social, and cultural concerns. Its rhetorical enthusiasm falsely suggests an idealized state that is built on assumptions of effortless labor and frictionless collaboration. This erasure, however, is a disingenuous ruse that dehistoricizes, deracinates, and manipulates attention away from the inherent violence of ignoring the realities of a territorial materiality, conflating specificities of different regions and cultures, and erasing fractures that arise amid cross-cultural interactions. This fetishizing of a seamless integrity conceals the actual living bodies and physical sites of labor and idealizes effortless mobility and disembodied flight. This misrepresentation conceals the fact that these physical bodies and geographical locations are often firmly anchored to their respective national territories and regional infrastructures — with cultural and geopolitical significance still intact.


In Bong Joon-ho's The Host, a slimy, disfigured monster clambers out of a river and lumbers through a crowded metropolitan area of Seoul, attacking terrified citizens. A shot of a man's deviously smiling visage slowly morphs into a visually corresponding image of a barren desert landscape in Tarsem's The Fall. A blue alien figure bumps into humans and awkwardly knocks over objects in a laboratory setting in James Cameron's Avatar. Even though contemporary spectators recognize that these situations are impossible in the real world, the photorealistic aspect of CGI makes it easy to suspend disbelief and give in to the visual seductions afforded by these spectacles. Such digital assemblages that integrate profilmic elements (i.e., what is physically present in front of the camera) and CGI created in postproduction are common in contemporary modes of filmmaking that increasingly deploy digital technologies in the domains of visual effects, computer animation, cinematography, and compositing.

The rapid emergence and development of digital cinema has raised much discussion in popular and scholarly contexts to identify its distinctive qualities and consequences. The sequences just described particularly exemplify the seamless effect that is produced when computer-generated figures and environments are smoothly integrated with real actors, actual landscapes, and practical sets, and when digital technologies simulate a fluid sensation of movement across a virtual environment. Based on utopian imaginings of cross-border mobility and dissolving spatiotemporal boundaries, this rhetoric of seamlessness is often invoked when industry specialists and media scholars describe the effects of digital cinema.

This chapter maps the discourse of seamlessness in professional and scholarly contexts to highlight the discursive strategies attached to this concept and to examine its rhetorical power. Industry specialists regularly use the word to refer to the practical necessity of integrating the work of visual effects artists and the work of special effects artists. First, a clarification of terms is necessary. The general audience and film scholars frequently interchange the technical terms "visual effects" and "special effects." In fact, knowing how to differentiate the two has been an important criterion for separating the uninitiated from industry insiders. In the industry, "special effects" refers to "effects that can be done while the scene is being captured," or effects that are physically created on practical sets in front of the camera during the production stage (e.g., pyrotechnics, animatronics, physical stunts). In contrast, "visual effects" refers to "any imagery created, altered, or enhanced for a film or other moving media that cannot be accomplished during live-action shooting," or effects that are added during postproduction, including CGI. Because the multiple stages of preproduction, production, and postproduction are temporally and spatially dispersed, much effort and planning goes into creating "seamless, realistic, and cost-effective" visual effects that collaborate with other departments, in order to "ultimately realize the director's vision."

Hannes Ricklefs, head of pipeline for the global film division at Moving Picture Company (MPC), similarly accentuates the need for a unified creative vision — which is usually credited to the filmmaker — when he says, "The primary aspect of our work is to deliver a director's vision." Meanwhile, filmmaker James Cameron notes the central role of the visual effects supervisor in managing the complex production pipeline, which he describes as "a vast and almost incomprehensible system by which money and dreams are fed into one end and shots pour out the other." He makes the observation that the cultures of each visual effects facility and of each movie project are "an extension of the philosophy and personality of the effects supervisor." Even so, Cameron maintains that the main task performed by the supervisor is "bringing to life" the vision of the filmmaker. The observations of these industry insiders indicate that such identifiable specificities as a visual effects company's proprietary software or individual style are erased and subsumed in these collaborative production pipelines, from which "shots pour out."

This rhetorical emphasis on the director's vision reflects not only a disproportionate attribution to the creative genius of one person but also an inequity in the accruement and distribution of economic and cultural capital. In reality, the visual effects pipeline entails a long, laborious process that spans preproduction to postproduction and includes stages of previsualization, modeling, rigging, texturing and surfacing, lighting, matte painting, and digital compositing, to name only a few. The role of digital compositing, which merges the multiple elements of live action and CGI, is crucial in creating this seamless vision, that is, to make the final product look flawless and natural. The idea of seamlessness is embedded in the very definition of digital compositing, which is the "digitally manipulated combination of at least two source images to produce an integrated result," according to Ron Brinkmann, a visual effects supervisor and founding member of Sony Pictures Imageworks. He describes digital compositing as a "process of integrating images from multiple sources into a single, seamless whole" and explains the challenges of integrating diverse material from multiple sources:

By far the most difficult part of this digital compositing process is producing the integrated result — an image that doesn't betray that its creation was owed to multiple source elements. In particular, we are usually attempting to produce (sequences of) images that could have been believably photographed without the use of any postprocessing. Colloquially, they should look "real." Even if the elements in the scene are obviously not real (huge talking insects standing atop a giant peach, for example), one must be able to believe that everything in the scene was photographed at the same time, by the same camera.

Along with other values that persist in digital cinema, such as authenticity, verisimilitude, or malleability, the need to emphasize the value of seamlessness as the ultimate aesthetic goal is apparent because it is important for visual effects artists to demonstrate their professional skills: artistry and technical dexterity. This is evidenced by the fact that the word "seamless" is often used interchangeably with another word: "flawless." As Brinkmann states, the main objective is to efface traces, or visible joins and seams, of the various stages of postproduction digital processing. Although this effacement is explicable when one considers the practical purpose of creating a finished product for a discerning audience, it is problematic when it upholds the ideological agenda of the film industry to hide and disavow the multiple source elements and processes of labor.

This propensity toward the illusion of seamlessness has historically been associated with self-effacing editing techniques of mainstream cinema. Such techniques include continuity editing, which creates the sensation of smooth transitions of time and space, and the 180-degree rule and unidirectional chronology, which uphold the illusion of narrative cohesion based on spatial contiguity and temporal continuity. These strategies have been criticized by such film theorists as Jean-Louis Baudry and Jean-Louis Comolli (and defamiliarized by such avant-garde filmmakers as Sergei Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard) for hiding the labor of film production in order to naturalize the illusionary unity of Hollywood narratives, thereby sustaining the ideological power of the cinematic apparatus. The rhetoric of seams, stitching, and sewing also holds particular significance for film scholars, thanks to the concept of "suture" in film theory. The idea that the spectator is "stitched" into the folds of the cinematic text through technical devices and filmic codes, such as shot/reverse-shot editing techniques, can also be considered from a critical perspective for performing the hegemonic task of inscribing the subject into an imaginary unity with the filmic image, thereby suggesting that nothing exists outside the frame. This rhetoric makes invisible not only the signifying practices and ideological effects in cinematic texts and discourses but also the laboring bodies in production spaces. Therefore, the stakes doubly reside in the symbolic domain of signification and the material domain of production. It is not necessarily the aesthetic of seamlessness that is problematic but rather the rhetoric of seamlessness. It becomes a problem when the aesthetic practices of filmmaking that collude to create an illusory effect are translated into a naive political rhetoric of globalization. The political, economic, and ethical stakes of colluding with this rhetorical strategy have implications in the discursive practices of scholarly, trade, and popular publications.

Another point of interest in Brinkmann's definition is the importance of sustaining the illusion that "real" and "not real" elements share the same time-space. Lev Manovich likewise describes how the process of digital compositing hides the fact that the various elements in "a single seamless image, sound, space, or scene" are "from diverse sources" and "created by different people at different times," indicating that this seamless effect is dependent on both temporal compression and spatial compositing:

In the course of production, some elements are created specifically for the project; others are selected from databases of stock material. Once all the elements are ready, they are composited together into a single object; that is, they are fitted together and adjusted in such a way that their separate identities become invisible. The fact that they come from diverse sources and were created by different people at different times is hidden. The result is a single seamless image, sound, space, or scene. As used in the field of new media, the term "digital compositing" has a particular and well-defined meaning. It refers to the process of combining a number of moving image sequences, and possibly stills, into a single sequence with the help of special compositing software.

Analogous to the scholarly concern of problematizing "post-ness," the film industry is striving to find adequate terms to describe the current situation, in which formerly disparate stages of preproduction, production, and postproduction are fusing with one another in ever-evolving digital pipelines. Dunlop, Malcolm, and Roth note that, in contrast to the assembly-line production model of the classical studio system, this fusion "leads to a far more active and collaborative role for VFX Supervisors and artists across every phase of production." In the early days of digital filmmaking, George Lucas was already anticipating that a new paradigm of "nonlinear 3-D filmmaking" would bring about the development of a synchronized production model that would replace the assembly-line process of film production:

Instead of making film into a sequential assembly-line process where one person does one thing, takes it, and turns it over to the next person, I'm turning it more into the process of a painter or sculptor. You work on it for a bit, then you stand back and look at it and add some more onto it, then stand back and look at it and add some more. You basically end up layering the whole thing. Filmmaking by layering means you write, and direct, and edit all at once. It's much more like what you do when you write a story.

Here he considers layers as an integral part of the whole filmmaking process that encompasses writing, directing, and editing. Although a large number of creative workers collectively produce these layers, Lucas's comparison of the work of filmmaking to painting and sculpting ambiguously glosses over the multiple sources of digital labor. Nonetheless, he makes the point that digital technologies enable a nonlinear form of film production that blends the formerly discrete, sequential stages of making a film.

One of the many stages that are greatly affected by this reconfiguration is the previsualization (or "pre-viz") process, which enables directors and visual effects supervisors to plan and design complex scenes involving visual effects by using computer animation. This is a crucial process that saves considerable amounts of time and money by allowing them to experiment with a variety of options and to fluidly revise creative decisions. These detailed 3-D animation sequences are instrumental in visualizing the mise-en-scène of multiple digital assets, calculating the scale or speed of movement, coordinating complex action scenes, solving technical problems, and experimenting with various camera angles and movement. Euisung Lee — a previsualization artist at Halon whose credits include Speed Racer (Lilly Wachowski and Lana Wachowski, 2008), War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005), and Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002) — describes how "pre-viz" artists are currently making efforts to adapt to the changing aspects of industry in a digital era. Although the "pre-viz" stage traditionally occurs before the shooting of a film, Lee states that previsualization techniques are now deployed throughout the whole filmmaking process, because digital pipelines and virtual production are integrating processes of preproduction, production, and postproduction. This reconfigured process is yet to be properly named even among industry practitioners. This mixing and merging of "pre-" and "post"-production reflect the prevalence of synchronicity found in other aspects of contemporary digital production pipelines: the synchronization of diverse platforms and programs that are utilized in different parts of the world and the simultaneity of various workflows in the filmmaking process.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Heterotopic Media: Assembling the Global in Digital Cinema  37
2. Heterotopic Mapping: The Fall and Ashes of Time Redux  45
3. Heterotopic Modularity: Avatar, Oblivion, and Interstellar 75
4. Heterotopic Monstrosity: The Host and Godzilla  105
5. Heterotopic Materiality: The World and Big Hero 6  141
Conclusion: The Seams of (Post)Digital Media Heterotopias  177
Notes  185
Bibliography  209
Index  219

What People are Saying About This

Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television - John T. Caldwell

"Hye Jean Chung's ambitious and provocative project provides a multilevel account that synthesizes issues of disruptive digital ‘workflows,’ with Foucault's theory, and a prescient account of globalization in order to demonstrate how each works at the close-up level of the composited film text. This is the rare production studies book that avoids the traps of trade-speak, even as it makes theory and culture inextricable from our understanding of industry."

Cinema without Reflection: Jacques Derrida’s Echopoiesis and Narcissism Adrift - Akira Mizuta Lippit

"Following Foucault's notion of 'heterotopia,'of topoi or even utopoi composed of multiple platforms layered and contested that are rendered into a single, phantasmatic whole, Hye Jean Chung proposes 'media heterotopias' as a way to understand the infusion of digital effects in contemporary cinema. At the heart of her analysis lies an affective paradox that transforms complexity, distortion, and incongruity in digital cinemas into the narcotic illusion of 'seamlessness.' At once erudite, rigorous, and highly speculative, Chung's contribution to the scholarship on digital cinemas suggests a frenzy of incoherence driving the soothing surfaces of digital effects and the labor that generates them."

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