Understanding Hybrid Media
Since the end of the 1990s, the new hybrid visual language of moving images has dominated global visual culture. While narrative features still mostly use live-action footage, and videos shot by “consumers” and “prosumers” with commercial video cameras and cell phones are similarly usually left as is (at least, for now), almost everything else is hybrid. This includes commercials, music videos, motion graphics, TV graphics, dynamic menus, graphics for mobile media content, and other types of animated, short nonnarrative films and moving-image sequences being produced around the world today by media professionals, including companies, individual designers and artists, and students. I believe that at least 80 percent of such sequences and films follow the aesthetics of hybridity. (This includes practically all “motion graphics,” i.e., animated nonnarrative sequences that appear as parts of longer pieces.)
Today, narrative features rarely mix different graphical styles within the same frame. However, a number of recent films have featured the kind of highly stylized aesthetics that would have previously been identified with illustration rather than filmmaking: Larry and Andy Wachowski’s Matrix series (1999–2003), Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005), and Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007). These feature films are a part of a growing trend to shoot a large portion of the film using a “digital backlot” (green screen). Consequently, most or all shots in such films are created by composing the footage of actors with [or: making a composite of the footage with actors and] computer-generated sets and other visuals.
These films do not juxtapose their different media in as dramatic a way as what we commonly see in motion graphics. Nor do they strive for the seamless integration of CGI (computer-generated imagery) visuals and live action that characterized the earlier special-effects features of the 1990s, such as Terminator 2 (1991) and Titanic (1997) (both by James Cameron). Instead, they explore the space in between juxtaposition and complete integration.
Matrix, Sin City, 300, and other films shot on a digital backlot combine multiple media to create a new stylized aesthetics that cannot be reduced to the already familiar look of live-action cinematography or 3D computer animation. Such films display exactly the same logic as motion graphics, which at first sight might appear to be very different. This logic is the same one we observe in the creation of new hybrids in biology. That is, the result of the hybridization process is not simply a mechanical sum of the previously existing parts but a new “species”—a new kind of visual aesthetics that did not exist previously.