"The entire interest of a description [...] no longer resides in the thing described but in the very movement of the description." (Alain Robbe-Grillet)
When we talk about digital imagery within the realm of the moving image, or read books about the use of digital technology in the cinema, we may find ourselves plunged into the same terminological vagueness (1)
we come up against when we talk about documentary cinema. Does Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11
(2004) really belong to the same family as the films produced by National Geographic
It is thus worthwhile to clarify at least one point before continuing: when we talk about digital cinema today, we sometimes refer to the means used to shoot images, to the production and post-production of film sequences, to screening methods and cable distribution (in screening rooms or on the Internet), and sometimes simply to the techniques used to create images. Only one of these conditions needs to be met in order for the association to be made with digital cinema. Still, there are quite a few differences between, on the one hand, images that are made in live-action shoots or with film cameras, or that are processed or projected digitally and, on the other hand, computer-generated images. Here I will be looking at the latter, in other words, at images created in the darkness of a console containing a data processor, at "sunless images," as Chris Marker dubbed them in his film Sans Soleil
(1982), where he made reference to images processed by the image synthesizer, a machine very much in fashion at the time, for art video and film production.
These images, conceived with their own intrinsic qualities, are not traces
of objects captured by a recording device. Still, they bear the hallmarks of learned calculations performed by their creators (who usually work in teams), which enable them to make visible all the ostensible qualities of the objects they represent. Although I intend, in my readings, to approach such images as being neither more nor less abstract than those obtained by filming models — aren’t digital images traces of models, and don’t they exemplify a matheme relationship? — I must point out that most views on images created by digital means place them alongside symbolic language (since they are, all things considered, combinations of 0 and 1...).
Our digital images possess — or seem to possess — a weight and structure and, above all, a texture, density and volume. And these qualities, in accordance with verifiable physical principles, are what determine the behaviour and movements of the objects represented. Such images can also be called "synthetic images": images derived from syntheses. (2)
Quite a lot of animations attest to this descriptive
quality that synthesized images can and indeed must have (cf. The Adventure of Chromie; Crystal Dove; Blue Chair; Demostración GIPO; Faux Pas; Float; Flora
At the time these films were made, such images became the focus of a set of discourses designed to relate them to other images and to highlight what was novel about them. It was a matter of creating an audience (with regard to the discourse proposed by the exhibition Images du Futur
, see also "Some Ideas of the Future"
). This same type of discourse, which underscored what was novel about such images while creating links with what was already known, has often accompanied the emergence of new media.
The 1980s’ discourses on digital animation frequently adopted positions similar to those espoused by the historians of post-war cinema, who, in speaking of the earliest films, said that their images were merely first steps but that they seemed, at the same time, to be full of promise. In 1986, while the event known as Nuits de l’imaginaire numérique
was taking place in Paris, various artists and intellectuals were interviewed for a report to be shown on J.C. Parayre’s TV show Question d’œil
. It was intended to draw together what might conceivably constitute the beginnings of a history of 3D. A small sampling of the personal and quite divergent opinions expressed during the interviews is sufficient to show the double nature of the discourse surrounding the images in question. Anne Sauvageot, a sociologist with Université de Toulouse II, defined their tactility in terms of their plastic qualities. "These images," she said, "tend to set up a new symbolic relationship to the world. They play with form by means of metamorphosis, and experiment with new spaces." Thus she did bring out the epistemological novelty of these images, which could supply new representations of reality. On an entirely different level, Françoise Heltz-Bonneau (INA, Paris) declared that "the drawback of such synthesized images is that they are not made to serve a scenario, story or work; they come about through accumulation, by juxtapositions of meaning, not through sequencing." In passing, it is worthwhile pointing out that such types of discursive dichotomies with respect to the nature of images were already formulated in the history of cinema. (3)
1963 - Charles Csuri makes his first computer-generated artwork
1963 - 1st computer-generated film by Edward Zajac (Bell Labs)
1967 - GE introduces first full-color real time interactive flight simulator for NASA - Rod Rougelet
1969 - 1st use of CGI for commercials - MAGI for IBM
1978 - 1st CGI film title - Superman
1986 - The Great Mouse Detective
was the first animated film to be aided by CGI
1986 - Luxo Jr.
nominated for Oscar (first CGI film to be nominated - Pixar)
1991 - Disney and PIXAR agree to create three films, including the first computer- animated full-length film, Toy Story
Timelines detailing the creation of computer-generated images (CGI) have mushroomed. For the moment, however, we are dealing with a history that is, all things considered, fairly manageable, one tailored, so to speak, to the range of a person’s memory. Histories are often written by setting down a series of events that have garnered the honour of being "firsts," and our digital images are no exception to this rule. It is good to remember, especially with respect to the history of 3D animation, that it is not only history which emphasizes, after the fact, this dubious quality of being the first appearance of something
; for, in the first place, such proud assessments are the work of discourses contemporary with such appearances. We must not forget that, where 3D images are concerned, we are always dealing with a discourse designed to "market a product." The list of firsts can obviously be quite long. Tony de Peltrie
(1985) was the first computer-animated short narrative feature to have a human character. Jurassic Park
(Steven Spielberg, 1993) was the first full-length fictional feature to combine 3D images with others taken in live-action shoots. Toy Story
(John Lasseter, 1991, Pixar/Disney) was the first full-length fictional feature made entirely with 3D images. Often treated like industrial products, these forms of synthesized imagery are meant to impact the market as soon as they are released, and to stand apart from other types.
Reflection on the meaning and relevance of this long sequence of "firsts" represents a good habit passed down to us by inquiries into the criteria of historiography. Before every historical construction, it is essential to question the data we have gathered in order to better understand the paths that a phenomenon or institution may have taken. Should our history be organized according to the creators’ countries of origin? Should it concentrate on one country in particular and, in doing so, inscribe the micro-history of our phenomenon in the history of that country’s productions? Do we follow stylistic changes as so many aesthetic choices? Should we analyze them from the perspective of technical constraints? Or, finally, should we concentrate only on the technological developments? If technology determines change, do not the economy and the market determine, in turn, the conditions governing the development of technology? Moreover, should we want to go back to the source
, we may find ourselves facing an assertion that is, to say the least, awkward, namely, that it is military-industrial research which, by dropping us its rejects from time to time, has furthered technological advances that now allow us to go to the movies and get worked up over the fate of a likeable 3D fish (Finding Nemo
, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, 2003, Pixar/Disney).
Likewise, it is good to keep in mind that the images opposite (and all those mentioned in the text) were selected by myself from the documentary collection of the exhibition Images du Futur
and, more specifically, from among the animations entered in the International Computer Animation Competition
(which was part of Images du Futur
from 1987 to 1996). The sampling provided by the International Computer Animation Competition
has allowed me to look synchronically on what each year presented as a novelty, and in a period exhibiting the kind of richness always found in the early days of a phenomenon.