This essay will address one of the key themes which accompanies both the evolution of new media technologies during its four decade long history and the current ongoing shift of cinema towards being computer-based in all aspects of its production, post-production and distribution. This theme is “realism.” The introduction of every new modern media technology, from photography in the 1840s to Virtual Reality in the 1980s, has always been accompanied by the claims that the new technology allows to represent reality in a new way. Typically it is argued that the new representations are radically different from the ones made possible by older technologies; that they are superior to the old ones; and that they allow a more direct access to reality. Given this history, it is not surprising that the shift of all moving image industries (cinema, video, television) in the 1980s and 1990s towards computer-based technologies, and the introduction of new computer and network-based moving image technologies during the same decade (for instance, Web cams, digital compositing, motion rides) has been accompanied by similar claims. In this essay I will examine some of these claims by placing them within a historical perspective. How new is the “realism” made possible by DV cameras, digital special effects and computer-driven Web cams?
Instead of thinking of the evolution of modern media technology as a linear march towards more precise or more authentic representation of reality, we may want to think of a number of distinct aesthetics – particular techniques of representing reality – that keep re-emerging throughout the modern media history. I do not want to suggest that there is no change and that these aesthetics have some kind of metaphysic status. In fact, it would be an important project to trace the history of these aesthetics, to see which ones already appeared in the nineteenth century and which ones only made their appearance later. However, for my purposes here, it is sufficient to assume that the major technological shifts in media, such as the present shift towards computer and network based technologies, not only lead to the creation of new aesthetic techniques but also activate certain aesthetic impulses already present in the past.
I will focus on two different aesthetics that at first sight may appear to be unique to the current digital revolution but in fact accompany moving image media throughout the twentieth century. The two aesthetics are opposite of each other. The first treats a film as a sequence of big budget special effects, with may take years to craft during post-production stage. The second gives up all effects in favor of “authenticity” and “immediacy,” achieved with the help of inexpensive DV equipment. I will trace these two aesthetics back to the very origins of cinema. If Georges Méliès was the father of special effects filmmaking, then the Lumière brothers can be called the first DV realists. To use the contemporary terms, the Lumière brothers defined filmmaking as production (i.e., shooting), while Méliès defined it as post-production (editing, compositing, special effects).