The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 109 | The (Bi-)Weekly Digression

Leaving Proof 109 | The (Bi-)Weekly Digression
Published on Monday, April 30, 2012 by

I have to apologize for skipping last week’s edition of The Weekly Digression: I went on a brief holiday and the distractions of Las Vegas have a way of making missing commitments (and parting with one’s money in the process) as easy and as pleasurable as possible.

My three-night, four day sojourn into the American Southwest wasn’t just about the sensual indulgences of America’s premier Sin City, though, and I’ve got the pictures to prove it. Check out some of those images below, as well as my thoughts on the mixed media reactions to the CinemaCon teaser for Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the week’s Vegas-and-desert inspired Mixtape.

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I spent most of the second day of my holiday in Arizona, and my first stop was an abbreviated, guided tour of the Hoover Dam. I’d never been to the Hoover Dam before, but it has been featured prominently in so many recent popular media—films like the first live-action Transformers film and video games such as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West—that I had a most uncanny sensation of déjà vu while looking at the gigantic marvel of engineering.

The afternoon was devoted to a four-hour, self-guided tour of Grand Canyon West, a million-acre territory owned and administered by the native Hualapai tribe. The views of the Grand Canyon at Eagle Point were spectacular, even without the use of the somewhat-controversial Skywalk—I personally felt that the structure clashed with the staggering natural beauty of the surroundings but hey, it’s the Hualapai’s land and if their governing body feels that the economic benefits of the Skywalk outweigh any perceived or imagined drawbacks, more power to them. The overwhelming sensation one gets from viewing the Grand Canyon is its imposing sense of scale. Pictures and videos just don’t do it justice, and standing on the rim edge is an exhilarating experience.

I originally planned on doing the 13 kilometer hike/910 meter descent through Havasu Canyon from Hualapai Hilltop to the village of Supai (the most remote census-designated place in the US’ lower 48 states) but a shortage of time meant I had to settle for walking the short spur trail at the Bat Cave mine. The views from Guano Point are just as impressive as any that can be found at Eagle Point.

On the way back to Vegas, we took a brief break from the road at the Last Stop Restaurant and Saloon along Highway 93, and I happened on the following gem in the parking lot

I’m not sure if the Last Stop’s Chenowth Desert Patrol Vehicle is a decommissioned military vehicle or a very accurate replica, but either way, it’s the closest I’ve come to personally seeing the vehicle famously used by the US Navy SEALs during the first Gulf War.

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As the 737-900 I was on made its descent to Bellingham International yesterday afternoon, our Alaska Airlines flight attendant cheerfully joked over the plane’s PA system, “Welcome back… to reality,” to the laughs and mock groans of those of us returning from the non-stop party that is Las Vegas. It was offered as a wry but nonetheless insightful comment on the appeal and fantasy of the city, but I find that it is also applicable in many ways to popular entertainment. Even with media that is not intended to be deliberately escapist in nature, a sustained suspension of disbelief partially rooted in the consumer buying into the narrative’s “unreality” is essential for novels, comic books, plays, films, and video games to succeed in the task of immersion.

Shallow reasoning based on the above precept would lead one to think that reducing the gap between empirically observed reality and the entertainment article’s “narrative unreality” would invariably make a comic book or film or video game more accessible. That is, the accurate reproduction of visual information (“realism”) in art and entertainment media should give rise to believability. It is in the interest of pursuing a heightened sense of realism that 48p filming technology has been aggressively promoted by directors such as James Cameron, Douglas Trumbull, and Peter Jackson. A film natively shot at 48 frames-per-second has double the frame rate (and by extension, visual information) that a film shot in the standard 24p format has and should look “more real”. But in this case, is more necessarily better?

Not really. The early reactions to the ten-minute preview of Peter Jackson’s 48p-shot The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey presented at CinemaCon (23–26 April 2012) in Las Vegas were mixed at best:

People on Twitter have asked if it has that soap opera look you get from badly calibrated TVs at Best Buy, and the answer is an emphatic YES. The 48 fps footage I saw looked terrible. It looked completely non-cinematic. The sets looked like sets. I’ve been on sets of movies on the scale of The Hobbit, and sets don’t even look like sets when you’re on them live … but these looked like sets. The other comparison I kept coming to, as I was watching the footage, was that it all looked like behind the scenes video. The magical illusion of cinema is stripped away completely.

 – Devin Faraci, BadAssDigest

[48 fps], unfortunately, looks a bit like television.

Josh Dickey, Variety

It didn’t look cinematic.

Peter Sciretta, Slashfilm

[It] looked like a made-for-TV movie.

– anonymous projectionist in attendance as quoted by Amy Kaufman of The L.A. Times

It’s like watching super high-def video… On one level what I saw this morning was fucking fantastic, and on another it removed the artistic scrim or membrane that separates the audience from the performers.

Jeffrey Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere

Thinking about the issues at play here and working off of my experience with viewing films on 120 Hz and 240 Hz HDTVs with active motion interpolation technology, I am not at all surprised at the largely negative reactions from the media present at CinemaCon and their frequent comparison to what videophiles refer to as “The Soap Opera Effect“.

The influential British computational neuroscientist and artificial intelligence researcher David Marr characterized vision as “a process that produces from images of the external world a description that is useful to the viewer and not cluttered with irrelevant information.” The best filmmakers, painters, illustrators, and animators have demonstrated an intuitive grasp of the efficiently reductive nature of visual perception and visual memory that Marr described. The works of these artists are built on the intrinsic understanding that effective viewer immersion in a visual representation is actually the by-product of a subtly idealized depiction that facilitates the extraction of the relevant visual information, and not a slavish, all-encompassing realism that introduces signal noise in the form of extraneous detail.

The negative audience reactions to 48p film will likely be ameliorated over time if the filming technique becomes more widespread and commonly-held beliefs regarding what a film should or should not look like change. But until makers of “hyper-realistic” representational depictions—whether these depictions come in the form of high frame rate digital film or even just photorealistic comics art—recognize that “visual believability” arises not so much from the high-fidelity depiction of things as they are, but instead in portraying objects as the viewer thinks they should look like in context, they will always struggle to a degree to meet viewer expectations solely based on their representational method of choice.

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This week’s ten-track Mixtape is inspired by the sights and sounds of my trip to Nevada and Arizona (song titles link to corresponding audio/video, if available)

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