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The technological impact on film theory Essay

Films are one of the most popular media in the modern world, watched by hundreds of millions of people all around the world. Films began in the late 19th century as a technological novelty, transferring to a new means of presentation and distribution an older tradition of “entertainment, offering stories, spectacles, music, drama, humour and technical tricks for popular consumption.” (McQuail, 1983) And, as with any popular media, people began to talk and write about it, and film theory arose from these writings.

Why the need for film theory? Because in watching a film, the spectator is not merely a passive receptacle being filled with the film’s meaning, but is engaged in a series of interpretations which depend on a whole set of background beliefs and without which the film would not make sense. On the basis of such beliefs or theories, the spectator sees faces, telephones, desert landscapes rather than patches of colours, ascribes motives to characters, judges certain actions as good and others as bad, decides that this film is realistic and that one is not; distinguishes the happy from the unhappy ending, and so on.

The need to understand the factors of perspective and interpretation gave rise to film theory. Film theory is a study of the essence and the meaning of films, as opposed to film critics, who evaluate films based on their feelings towards the films. Film theory, by its very nature, focuses on the meanings behind the film itself, and has provided us with several conceptual frameworks from which to analyse the film’s narrative structure, the role of actors in films, the role of audiences or spectators in films and the element of reality and fiction in films just to name a few. Autuerism, feminism, surrealism, deconstruction and formalism are just some of the theories and categories of which film theory comprises.

There have been varied responses to the subject of film theory, as Robert Lapsley (1998) puts it: ‘Bring in theory, the assumption goes, and you can say goodbye to the magic of the movies. For some twenty years, serious writing on film has operated on the diametrically opposite principle that theory is inescapable, that far from being an intruder, it is already there.’However, technological advances in many fields relating to cinema, for example cinematography, technical equipment, photography, digital imaging, computer graphics and film editing, have had a very profound effect on traditional film theory. Stam (2000) theorises that ‘changing audio-visual technologies dramatically impact on virtually all the perennial issues engaged by film theory: specificity, autuerism, apparatus theory, spectatorship, realism, aesthetics.’

Jenkins (1999) goes into specifics about the different technologies, stating that ‘e-mail poses questions about virtual community; digital photography about the authenticity and reliability of visual documentation; virtual reality about embodiment and its epistemological functions; hypertext about readership and authorial authority; computer games about spatial narrative; MUDs about identity formation; webcams about voyeurism and exhibitionism.’New developments due to technology have given rise to a whole new wave of modern processes in the films business. One of these is the induction of computer graphics into films. The robots and futuristic battle sequences of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), the monstrous dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993), the breathtaking fight sequences in The Matrix (1999) and the lifelike squid tentacles of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), were all computer generated images incorporated into the film.

The ever first fully computer generated feature film was Toy Story (1995), which was a resounding success at the box office. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was the first attempt to create a lifelike fully computer generated feature film, while The Polar Express (2004) was the first movie ever which was fully CGI but used motion capture for all the actors. Other examples of such films include Toy Story 2 (2000), Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001), Shrek (2002) and Final Fantasy: Advent Children (2006)An ironic side effect of the digital invasion is that films no longer have as great an emphasis on film – the material on which the film is shot.

The work of the camera or the film stock are no longer as essential in determining the end product, or the way films eventually look Digital technologies such as computer enhancement, imaging and editing have shifted the production balance increasingly towards the postproduction phase, thus further reducing the need for photographic accuracy. Not only can mistakes made during shooting be corrected, and recording effects be maximized, live action images and sounds can be generated independently of the outside world.

The advent of the digital age has affected not only the production and postproduction of the films, but also the cinema and post-cinema aspects as well. Cinemas now have features like THX or Dolby surround sound, enhancing the cinematic experience, and the IMAX 3D projection system, which has two camera lenses to project two different images simultaneously, simulating a 3d effect, which results in an extremely immersive and engaging experience for the viewer.

In post-cinema, new digital formats like the laser disc, video compact disc and the digital video disc, known as the LD, VCD and DVD allowed for higher quality home releases of films. That, coupled with increasingly advanced technology in the fields of televisions, home sound systems and recordable media readers means that people no longer have to go to the cinema to engage in the cinematic experience, since, with the right amount of money, you are able to replicate that same experience in the comfort of your own home, without having to jostle with the crowds in a public cinema.

The internet and advances in peer to peer technology, where people all over the world are able to share programs, software, sound and video files, are also another aspect in which films have been affected. All over the world, people are downloading movies in order to watch them free of charge. This means that more people than ever are able to watch movies.

However, there are disadvantages as well to the influx of digital technology. Cinema purists decry the digital editing of films, saying that the process takes away the soul of the cinema, leaving a perfectly manufactured product, without the flaws that endear the film to the viewers. The increase in people watching films at other locations than cinemas, for example on airplanes, on television and on computers, means lesser revenue from the box office for filmmakers. Being able to download movies off the internet is slowly coming to mean that the artistic integrity of the makers of films is becoming less and less respected, in that people no longer have to pay money for the privilege of watching these films. While many people would not feel that this is a disadvantage, consider the thoughts of filmmakers upon receiving news that their latest box office release did not garner as much money as it should have due to people staying at home and watching it for free. Continued violation of this artistic code could result in filmmakers either demanding a higher percentage of the profits or refusing to make shows completely.

The disadvantages do not outweigh the advantages, however, and advances in technology will only mean that the cinematic experience can only get more immersive. On the flip side, Films are already being lumped together with television as being part of the visual aspect of entertainment, and whether or not films will continue to be considered the biggest of popular media after the influence of technology cannot be predicted.

In conclusion, film began as a technological innovation, and it makes sense that technological advances should continuously shape and mould the theories and practices associated with it. The popularity of films ensures that it will not die out for the foreseeable future, especially if it can adjust and adapt to the ever changing conditions – good and bad – of the digital age. In the end, whether it embraces, resists or endures the effects of the digital age, films were still the dominant media of this past century.

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1445ReferencesLapsley, R (1988). Film Theory: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave.

McQuail, D (1983). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory. London: Sage.

Stam, R (2000). Film Theory: An Introduction. London: Blackwell Publishers.

Stam, R. (2003). Film Theory and Spectatorship in the Age of the ‘Posts’. In: Gledhill, C. and Williams, L. Reinventing Film Studies. London: Arnold.

FilmographyTerminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)Jurassic Park (1993)Toy Story (1995)The Matrix (1999)Toy Story 2 (2000)Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)Shrek (2002)The Polar Express
(2004)Final Fantasy: Advent Children (2006)Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)


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