The Beauty Of Ugly

I’m not going to pretend like you haven’t seen it already but in case you suffer from some kind of internet move hype-induced amnesia or something; here’s the new trailer for that Prometheus film.

Pretty damn impressive, although not quite as brilliant as the last one, for my money. But there was one brief moment in this trailer that caught my eye and while it occurs for less than a second it got me thinking about something I have been meaning to address for a while now. Hop aboard the nitpick-train because it’s leaving station.

Around 1:18 in the clip we get a blink-and-miss-it POV shot from one of the crew’s mounted cameras, which is one of several nice little callbacks to the original Alien which this is totally not a prequel to.

You may notice that not-Tom Hardy up there can be viewed in absolutely crisp high-definition along with all the totally necessary UI surrounding the image. Doesn’t it look beautiful? Remember how this movie takes places decades, it not centuries, before Alien but still in the same universe? So just how will portable camera technology advance in the years after this?

That is a screenshot from the Alien Director’s Cut but you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a picture taken on a ten year old Nokia. You can sort of see a guy with his head in a fishbowl, maybe, and some other guy in a sort of shower cap behind him, or that’s a painting or something, maybe. This insinuates that within the movie’s universe we will technologically de-evolve from using portable 1080i cameras to using recording equipment that is barely higher definition than the Game Boy Camera.

57 years later we have apparently not made much progress in the field as this clip from Aliens demonstrates.

Okay, yes, I obviously understand that this is a result of real life technology advancing over the course of three decades and it is reflected in the later movie, despite that taking place before the original. In 1979 the technology to produce HD footage was barely available to filmmakers, so to create a POV effect they had no choice but to use smaller cameras which produced much grainer film. This helped create a more realistic sequence where we follow the characters through an unknown, hostile landscape while we, like them, can barely make out their surroundings. It makes for an oppressive, dark and deeply intense exploration. When the same technique was used in Aliens the jerky, barely comprehensible video feeds made the initial battle with the monsters that much more exhilarating. Most of the time we can only see the characters sweating as they stare impotently as the video feeds shake, twitch and begin going offline one by one.

That limitation does not exist in a time when we’re all effectively carrying around HD-video cameras to easily document our insanely important lives. But as a result of this I can’t help but feel that the effect achieved in the original movie will not be as replicable when the footage from the shoulder-mounted cameras will be of basically the same quality as the footage in the rest of the film. If you removed all the little graphs and text from the screen it would be nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the trailer because the quality of small handheld cameras are not that much noticeably lower than the big hunkering 3D and IMAX cameras that shot the rest of the film. The immediate closeness and realism that the POV shots in the previous movies managed to create might not be as easily achieved without all that lovely grain and gravel on the lens.

While HD is by no means a negative thing, I sometimes feel that when every film and every game is made with such lush, crisp graphics things have a tendency to becomes a bit too sterile and lifeless. There is a lot of beauty in the imperfect that you lose when you remove the limits of what you can do with an image. Take the recently released Silent Hill HD Collection as a brilliant example. I personally can’t think of anything that is less suitable for an HD remake than Silent Hill, since so much of the atmosphere and tone of the games came from how well the developers used the limitations of the hardware. The fog, the film grain, the darkness – they were all essentially parts in making the games so terrifying. What Konami of today does not seem to understand is that while these were results of limitations at the time, they were not flaws. In the HD Collections both the fog and the grain filter have been taken out entirely, which makes about as much sense as cutting the zombies out of Dawn Of The Dead.

Image from Dualshockers.com

Yeah, that’s the new, supposedly improved version on the left. Somebody at Konami looked at that and thought it was an improvement.. Notice how the graphics, now blown up to HD, look bloody terrible when there is nothing to hide all the imperfections and the horrendous draw distance. The fog hid the player’s surroundings from them so you had no way of knowing if you were standing just a few feet away from an enemy. The town itself seemed to be closing in on you as the disorientation and paranoia grew, creating a sense that the fog itself and the evils therein were smothering you. It was put there to mask a technical limitation but it absolutely served a purpose beyond just masking up the hardware limitations. It was all there for a reason, you idiots.

I guess this annoys me so much because I love both Ridley Scott’s old sci-fi movies and the Silent Hill games and it screws with my head when I realise how neither creator seems to understand what made their original works so good. Alien and Blade Runner were among the last science fiction movies ever made that features no CG but relied entirely on handmade effects. They also happen to be two of the best and most beautiful science fiction movies of all time, not despite of this but because of it.

Yes, it’s tempting to crank the framerate up to eleven and use 3D cameras and make everything crystal clear, and there is certainly a place for it, but I do wish that the beauty of the handmade, imperfect still has its place. Think of how uselessly silly Jaws would have been if Spielberg’s shark hadn’t constantly broken down so they were forced to shot most of the film without it, or how lifeless and dull all the fake environments in the Star Wars prequels look compared to the grimmy real-life locations of the originals.

While I am pretty sure that Prometheus can stand up despite this incredibly insignificant detail, I feel it might be important to recall the wisdom of Marilyn Monroe, and I sincerely hope that Konami are reading this right now.

“Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.”

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