Reinventing Cinema: An Interview with Chuck Tryon (Part One)

I first discovered the gifted film and digital media scholar, Chuck Tryon, through his blog, The Chutry Experiment. Tyron was an early adapter of blogs as a vehicle for academics to comment on contemporary developments in media and has made the relationship of digital technologies and film production a particular area of emphasis in his work. As I am writing this header, his blog is engaging actively with the debates about the artistic merits of computer games, sparked by the latest set of comments by Roger Ebert, while other recent posts have dealt with transmedia entertainment (in response to Jonathan Gray) and Do It Yourself Filmmaking (in conversation with filmmaker Chris Hansen). His book, Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence, is ground-breaking in its attention to the many different forms of “digital cinema,” from the use of digital technologies for production, distribution and exhibition to the ways DVD commentary tracks are reshaping the public’s appreciation of cinema and the ways that film-related blogs are reconfiguring the nature of film criticism. He has so much to say there that is of interest to the readers of this blog that it was inevitable that I would do an interview with him for this site. If you are not reading his blog or his book yet, you need to do something about that right away.

Throughout the book, you address a range of “crisis scenarios,” predictions that in one way or another digital media is going to bring about the “death” of cinema as we know it. Why are such scenarios so persistent? What do they tell us about the ways that the film community is responding to technological change?

I’m fascinated by the crisis narratives about the “death” of cinema, in part because they are so deeply interlinked with debates about the nature of the film industry and about the definition of film as a medium. I think these narratives are so persistent, in part, because these definitional questions are important for both scholars and filmmakers alike. They also speak to debates about the role of technological change in everyday life. These questions have become even more acute with the introduction of digital media. After all, what is film when you no longer use digital technologies to record, produce, and project movies? And what happens when these tools become democratized so that “anyone” has access to tools that allow them to make professional-quality films?

Within the broader film industry, I think the response has been a perpetual cycle of adjustment and innovation. Studios have succeeded by promoting new films in terms of spectacle and visual novelty, as we saw with the success of James Cameron’s Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, while also seeking to exploit all of the new platforms where films can be viewed. These moments of crisis have been treated in a variety of ways and have been the subject of intense debate within the independent film community. Most famously, at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, Mark Gill, a former president of Miramax, worried that digital cinema was leading to a glut of “flat-out awful” films competing for limited screen space, while adding that social media tools have the potential to sabotage a studio’s marketing efforts, arguing that in an age of texting, “good buzz spreads quickly, bad buzz even faster.” Others, however, including indie film producer Ted Hope, have celebrated the democratizing potential of digital tools by defining cinema as an experience. Some studios and entertainment journalists have expressed concern about the power of social media in spreading “bad buzz” about a film. In particular, there was a brief discussion of a “Twitter effect” that was helping to amplify negative word-of-mouth about some poorly-performing films. But for the most part, there seems to be widespread acceptance of the role of social media in shaping how audiences consume films.

Your book title talks of “Reinventing Cinema.” In what ways is cinema reinventing itself to take advantage of the affordances of digital media? How will cinema be different a decade from now than it was ten years ago?

When I first coined the book’s title, I’d hoped to inflect it with a grain of skepticism. In many ways, I think there are a number of continuities between past and present. After all, movie theaters still play a vital cultural role, with teens and young adults continuing to see movies in significant numbers. The excitement over the Twilight films, to focus on the most recent example, shows that audiences still crave the opportunity to share in a significant experience with a wider moviegoing public.

But there is a clear sense that some things are changing. Although I am reluctant to predict all of the changes, I think a few of the following are likely: we will continue to see the window of time between the theatrical debut and the DVD (or streaming video) release of a movie, with the dual hope of curtailing piracy and of increasing DVD sales. Within a few years, Hollywood films may even follow the logic of many independent filmmakers in releasing their films available theatrically and online simultaneously. DVD sales will likely continue to decline as consumers become more selective about the movies they buy, in part due to the cheap availability of streaming video. And we will continue to see cases of filmmakers and studios experimenting with versions of transmedia storytelling. We will see occasional cases of crowdsourced or crowdfunded films break through into theatrical distribution, even if those instances are relatively rare. And this is probably obvious, but I think we will continue to see an incredibly vibrant fan culture expressed via blogs, YouTube, and other social media tools.

You speak of DVDs as producing “new regimes of cinematic knowledge.” What do you mean? Can you give us some examples?

To some extent, I was building upon an observation by former New York Times film critic, Elvis Mitchell, who provided an early and astute assessment of the ways in which DVDs were being promoted and marketed as offering behind-the-scenes access to how films are produced, a phenomenon he described (favorably) as “the rise of the film geek.” Although DVDs could easily be promoted in terms of superior image quality, audiences also embraced the “extras,” such as commentary tracks and making-of documentaries that offered behind-the-scenes descriptions of how movies were made or what might have motivated a specific decision by a director.

Of course, there is a long history of fans having access to additional knowledge about the films they consume. Criterion pioneered many of the “extras” in the laser disc format in the 1980s and ’90s, but the novelty of the DVD is that this cinematic knowledge is now being mass-marketed, creating the emergence of the “film geek” that Mitchell described.

Certainly the DVDs for the Lord of the Rings films are a tremendous example of the encyclopedic knowledge that fans can gain from watching these supplemental features, as Kristin Thompson details in her book, The Frodo Franchise. But you could also look at the use of commentary tracks by film critics and scholars, including Roger Ebert’s glowing commentary track for Alex Proyas’s tech-noir film, Dark City, which helped turn the film from a box-office disappointment into a critically-appreciated film. Criterion has helped to cultivate a wider culture of film appreciation through its detailed extras, including contributions from film scholars, such as Dana Polan’s commentary track for The Third Man.

There is a persistent anxiety that special effects may blur our perceptions, confusing us about what is real and what isn’t. Yet, as you note, special effects are also always on display, inviting our awareness of the manipulations being performed and our appreciation of how the effects are achieved. Will there be a point when these contemporary digital effects are so “naturalized” and “normalized” that they will start to become an invisible aspect of film production?

I think we will likely continue to be fascinated by how special effects are produced, even while many of those effects are relatively seamlessly integrated into the film. Although some shots use digital effects seamlessly, many films are marketed on the strength of innovative special effects, a contradiction that played out in the promotional materials for James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that itself was billed as “reinventing cinema.” Promotional articles emphasized Cameron’s attempts to create a fully immersive environment not only through digital effects but also through his use of linguists to create the Na’vi language and botanists to help imagine the plant life of Pandora, knowledge that might make us conscious of the sheer amount of labor required to create such a believable “illusion.” Because novelty is one of the strongest marketing hooks a film can have, I think there will continue to be some form of tension between producing seamless effects and promoting those effects in order to cultivate our appreciation of them.

As you note in your book, digital projection has been closely tied to the rise of 3D. This may be the one area where change has been most dramatic since your book was published. What would you want to add about the recent push for 3D if you were revising the chapter now?

I feel like I could write another chapter on 3D based just on what has happened in the last year. When I was writing the book, 3D was really just on the horizon. Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf adaptation had made a minor splash, and it seemed clear that 3D films would play a major role in enticing movie theaters to switch from using film projectors to using digital projection, even though Beowulf itself was a relatively awful film with murky images and cheesy effects, so I’ve been fascinated to follow some of the recent changes in 3D projection and I’m hoping to write about them in a future project. With DVD sales declining, studios seemed to be embracing 3D as a means of attracting audiences back into the theater, and a number of high-profile directors, including James Cameron, saw 3D as potentially offering deeper immersion into cinematic narrative.

Certainly the huge financial success of Avatar initially inspired increased curiosity about digital 3D, with many viewers reportedly seeing the film multiple times so that they could “upgrade” their viewing experience from 2D to 3D or even IMAX 3D, and the initial novelty regarding 3D also likely helped Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which was converted to 3D in post-production, to find a wider-than-expected audience.

More recently, however, there appears to a critical and audience backlash developing against 3D, especially for “fake 3D” movies such as Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender that were converted to 3D in post-production, a backlash that was exacerbated when a number of theaters significantly increased ticket prices for 3D films, making it more expensive for a family of four to go out for a night at the movies.

Chuck Tryon is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Fayetteville State University, where his teaching and research has focused on various aspects of film, television, and convergent media, including digital cinema, documentary studies, political video, and on using technology in the language arts classroom. He is the author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (Rutgers UP, 2009). He has also written several essays on the role of YouTube in the 2008 election, including “Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment (http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2617/2305)” (with Richard L. Edwards) for First Monday, and “Pop Politics: Online Parody Videos, Intertextuality, and Political Participation” for Popular Communication.

He has also written about Twitter for AlterNet and published an early essay on using blogs in the first-year composition classroom for the journal Pedagogy . He frequently writes about film and media at The Chutry Experiment where he has been blogging since 2003.

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