InTrans / Aug 17, 2015

Creating passages to new worlds: The role of transportation in film

Go! Magazine

Film sceneposted on August 17, 2015

Just like the film-making process itself, the world film studies minor offered at Iowa State University (ISU) is interdisciplinary—connecting with a number of departments across campus. Looking beyond just North America’s “Hollywood,” the Department of World Languages and Culture (WLC) mas made the study of film more global.

Dr. Stacey Weber-Fève, associate professor of French, teaches some of the classes offered in the program. With a background in French and Francophone cinemas, she is particularly interested in the constructions and performances of gender, subjectivity, identity, and more recently “nation” on screen and in print.

To better understand the role of transportation in film and film-making around the world, I spoke with her about the cinematic traditions that make these films come to life.

A conversation with Dr. Stacey Weber-Féve

What connects transportation with film?

One reason that transportation is dominant in film is because it is so key to the vitality of humanity. It allows for the circulation of people and goods, which is so critical for today’s globalized society. I believe that this circulation of people, which is inherent to transportation, effects our psyche (inner-spirit) and allows us to connect with others. Transportation is such a part of our daily existence that I think it seeps subconsciously into the storylines of a good many films.

Transportation as a theme is very dominant in many world films. For instance, many of the spectacular scenes in the 1938 French film La Bête Humaine (“Human Beast”) take place on a train. In fact, the train is so predominant that it almost becomes a main character. Another example is The Fifth Element from 1997, where the protagonist is introduced by falling into a taxicab. The main character in the film, played by Bruce Willis, is a taxicab driver himself. And there is the famous French film, Subway, the majority of which is filmed in the underground Paris Métro system. Transportation in film can create passages to new worlds.

You can also see the role of transportation in many recently popular Hollywood films. In the Divergent series, trains are used to transport people to take the infamous “aptitude test.” In this way, one role the subway and elevated trains play is to network people together. In the Hunger Games films, we see the same motif with the train that runs through the various districts toward the Capitol and back.

What about the use of transportation in the actual filming process?

When you think about modern filmmaking, these films, as well as most mainstream films today, wouldn’t even be possible without vehicles. For example, a regular technique called “tracking shots” are captured by using a camera placed on a moving vehicle. Even very simple tracking shots require “transportation,” because often cameras are mounted on a platform with a cameraman while another member of the filmmaking crew is pulling or pushing the platform. There are many types of tracking shots, but all are made possible thanks to vehicles of different types. While film takes inspiration from and has been shaped by other forms of performing and fine arts, in essence, the ability to capture a moving image is what separates film from photography and these other forms.

Think of any action film you’ve seen (especially chase scenes), it was likely captured by cameras mounted on a moving vehicle (for example, cars or motorcycles) or, more recently, drones. In traditional filmmaking practice, the mounting of cameras on vehicles requires often elaborate “rigging systems,” which are the support systems designed to mount or attach the camera to the moving vehicle. This type of elaborate tracking shot not only captures but also recreates or enhances dynamic movement in the film. In turn, this makes the action sequence more spectacular and more enjoyable for the viewer.

Now, in the 21st century, we’ve even been able to utilize drones for filmmaking. This is actually quite common for international films, however, there is a standing ban on the use of drones in the US (See “’Drone’ on: the rise of the unmanned aircraft”). But this soon might be changing for the Hollywood film industry, when shooting in the US, as some of these restrictions on the use of drones are now being revisited.

Let’s talk a little bit about cinematic traditions. What are some of these traditions and in what films did they originate?

That is a very difficult question that many people studying the history of film today spend their entire careers trying to answer. The reason it’s difficult is because it is nearly impossible to trace the origins of many traditions back to the actual source. Film is ultimately the result of a group of various people (often in different countries) working together or independently from shared ideas and visions.

Thomas Edison played a big role in early filmmaking, because he helped create the “Kinetoscope” in 1891, which allowed for one person at a time to view a film through a small hole. However, I give a lot of credit to the Lumière Brothers working in France at the end of the 19th/ beginning of the 20th centuries for modern filmmaking and the public film viewing experience as we know it today, because they took film a step further than Edison and focused on ways to project the film with their invention of the Cinématographe. There was also Eadweard Muybridge working in the UK, a predecessor to both Edison and the Lumière Brothers, who pioneered photographic studies of motion (both human and animal locomotion). So, as you can see, from cinema’s earliest origins, a great deal of collaboration was already present. At times throughout cinema’s history, we can certainly trace the invention of a particular cinematic technique or style to a particular filmmaker (e.g., Alfred Hitchcock’s “vertigo shot” or Sergei Eisenstein’s “Soviet Montage”), but generally speaking, it’s usually risky to attempt to say who exactly was the first to create what and when.

What or who are some of the biggest influencers of film today?

What we see today in filmmaking only exists because of what came before. Every great filmmaker is influenced by his or her predecessors. For instance, Quentin Tarantino, whose famous films include thrillers such as Kill Bill and Django Unchained, has said that he was influenced greatly by the French New Wave filmmakers. But, the same French filmmakers that influenced Tarantino were also influenced by other Hollywood filmmakers of the 1940s and 1950s, who were influenced by German and Russian filmmakers of the 1920s and 1930s. See what I mean? Of course, we can always identify and talk about “important directors” in any given year who push the limits of their cinematic art form, which in turn reinvents, revolutionizes, and keeps film evolving. However, in my view, the biggest influence on cinema–not just today but throughout its history–has always been and I believe will also continue to be improvements made in technology.

Is there any new technology being used in filmmaking that you are particularly excited about?

Absolutely! I think one of the biggest revolutions, at least insofar as contemporary cinema is concerned, has been CGI (computer-generated imagery). This has ultimately made the impossible, possible. Think, for instance, about the film Avatar—the motion-capture stage James Cameron’s team developed to recreate the photorealistic computer-generated characters on screen (i.e., the “real” but “fake” actors/ characters) was a fantastic innovation! Of course, animation for decades has been recreating imagined worlds “realistically” without filming “real” objects or people, but that degree of photorealism was never a concern – well, that is until Pixar revolutionized the animation industry with its development of sophisticated animation software and the animated characters and sets became more “real-looking.”

The influence computers has had on filmmaking is just huge. Films are rarely even made on film anymore—it’s all digital, which has definitely impacted the post-production (i.e., editing) stages of filmmaking – again making the impossible seem possible and heightening the viewer’s experience. The use of digital imagery has made many of today’s films come to life in ways never before possible. It has also streamlined the process of filmmaking, as I was just suggesting in relation to the post-production stage. I wouldn’t go as far as to say CGI is more efficient, but it does have the ability to create film footage more easily and more cost-effectively, especially “green screen” scenes shot in studios but supposedly taking place at far-away or extreme locations that would simply cost too much to shoot there or threaten the lives of the actors and crew. I also wouldn’t say that CGI has made films more imaginative, because there’s always been a history of creating and constructing imagined worlds in cinema. But now it’s no longer concrete, it can be made digitally. So, the options seem more limitless.

Will CGI be able to replace real actors/actresses in the future?

That really depends on the future advances in technology. Perhaps it may never be possible to make CGI look exactly like a real person on screen without first capturing live performance by real people (as in Avatar or Gollum in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy), but it all depends.

Some of this might also depend on the film viewer, him or herself, and a shift in his or her perspectives and expectations. Let me explain. When we prepare to watch a film, we know that what we are about to see is a world of fiction and isn’t truly “believable.” However, because the images on screen seem so “real” and thus so strong, we suspend that knowledge of disbelief and get carried away in the visual and sonorous pleasure of the film viewing experience. We know this isn’t real, but instead of remembering not to believe (i.e., disbelieve) what we are seeing, we usually get sucked into that world and end up believing it (at least temporarily while remaining engrossed in the film). As you watch a film, you can abandon all of your notions of the real world—such as gravity—and instead get wrapped up in that film-viewing experience. It works because the film and its images seem real and authentic, and our reactions and feelings are sincere and genuine. (Think about how many times you’ve gasped or how hard your heart pounds in a horror or suspense film). Some genres don’t exactly suspend our disbelief in the way, like science fiction. We watch science fiction and fantasy films with different expectations as compared to other mainstream film genres like family dramas or biopics. For instance, we watch Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter films knowing that we’re not “really” talking about Earth and England. But, that escapism (escaping from everyday life and reality) is part of the pleasure of watching movies and many would argue the primary reason why we watch movies in the first place.

Right now, I definitely think people notice CGI, and it breaks their suspension of disbelief and makes them view that film differently. I’m not suggesting that it makes you enjoy it less, unless of course you don’t like science fiction, but definitely differently. As long as CGI continues to look different from the real world and you continue to experience that moment of “Oh, this looks fake,” I suspect that it will not produce the same effect on the viewer as if real actors and real settings were being used.

In your opinion, what makes a film good or bad?

My students ask this a lot. For me, I don’t think there is such a thing as a “bad” film, there are just some that I like a lot less! I think the art form, the media of film, is what I love, and I always find something interesting in every “bad” film I see. What I tell my students is that there are generally two ways to judge a film, in my opinion, through an emotional response and an intellectual response.

The emotional response pulls at your heart strings or creates pure unadulterated joy (or dislike) just from watching it. However, there is also the intellectual response, which for most people is secondary and less important than the emotional response. For me, as someone who studies and teaches film, film often elicits more of an intellectual response—a drive to better understand the aesthetic or the motivations of the filmmaker. That’s not to say that I don’t love and enjoy the pure escapism of cheesy click-flicks, romantic comedies, and British literary adaptations of Jane Austen novels! This just means that one of my goals as a professor of film is to push my students beyond their emotional response to help them engage intellectually with the film, or in other words, to help them develop an intellectual response to a film they might not have fully enjoyed.

By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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