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THURSDAY 2 - Computer Vision: Experiments in Digital Cinema

Programmed by: Bret Hart

The adoption of computational and digital technologies in the 90s and 2000s radically changed every aspect of filmmaking. This shift was just as significant as the introduction of sound or color, but the films made in this period have received far less historical attention. Instead, most of them have been reduced to the status of cinematic artifacts, lost in the stream of progress.

Rather than dismiss them as mere firsts or oddities, we can instead view these works as experiments that offer points of departure from contemporary practices, made before the use of digital tools became routinized, domesticated and efficient. With close watching, this series invites us to think about how conditions of production and histories of technology are profoundly intertwined with aesthetics. These films offer kernels of an alternate history of digital cinema that is untamed, inspired, and experimental… without a clean or linear adherence to the pursuit of graphical fidelity, realism or perfect computer vision.

COMPUTER VISION brings together an underseen set of films that enthusiastically document one of the major transition periods in film history. Here, filmmakers indulge in digital excess, brandishing new tools as formal expressions of the techno-optimism of the new millennium. In them, we can identify techno-aesthetic roads not taken as well as the origins of debates around VFX, labor, AI and image/sound quality that still echo today. Years after their release, we can begin to understand these films as avant-garde experiments rather than unrefined first steps into an uncharted technological frontier.

The Lawnmower Man (1992)

The Lawnmower Man (1992) still

Brett Leonard · 108m · DCP

Before Pierce Brosnan was Bond, he played a corrupt scientist experimenting on unwilling subjects. Attempting to push the limits of human cognition, he subjects them to nootropics, VR, video games, and even cybersex. Fittingly, Lawnmower Man has the most all-CGI scenes of any film up to this point – over 20 minutes – with 3D effects made by a production house that later became a video game studio.

Thursday, January 4th 9:30PM

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) still

Hironobu Sakaguchi and Motonori Sakakibara · 106m · 35mm

Directed by the creator of the popular video game series, this foray into film by major game studio Square used full motion capture and CG to make the first ‘photorealistic’ animated film. The studio aspired for its digitally rendered star to become the first ‘synthetic thespian,’ a virtual celebrity who they hoped would appear in later films... in anticipation of today’s debates over AI and labor.

Thursday, January 11th 10:00PM

The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

The Rescuers Down Under (1990) still

Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel · 77m · 35mm

The unjustly forgotten black sheep of the ‘Disney Renaissance’, The Rescuers Down Under is an action-adventure (non-musical!) set in the Australian Outback. Notably, it was the first film to solely use Disney’s Computer Animation Production System which allowed for vivid coloring, the simulation of camera movement, and even multiplane animation, used throughout for a remarkable effect.

Thursday, January 18th 9:30PM

The Polar Express (2004)

The Polar Express (2004) still

Robert Zemeckis · 100m · 3D DCP

At the Logan Center for the Arts, room 201.

A Tom Hanks-Rob Zemeckis motion capture passion project, The Polar Express stars Hanks in five(!) different roles centered around a mysterious train ride that takes kids to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. It was the first feature to be released in stereoscopic Digital 3D, and according to a VFX supervisor, it’s “the way everyone [should] see the movie, since [the graphics] all originated in 3D.”

Saturday, January 20th 7:00PM

The Last Broadcast (1998)

The Last Broadcast (1998) still

Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler · 86m · Digital

When two reporters go missing in the New Jersey wilderness, the lone survivor is blamed. But conflicting media sources unearthed by a local filmmaker complicate the truth. This found-footage “micro-budgeted digital video marvel" (Filmmaker Magazine, 1998), enthusiastically received on the festival circuit, was the first film made and distributed digitally from start to finish. It was even projected via satellite relay!

Thursday, January 25th 9:30PM

Timecode (2000)

Timecode (2000) still

Mike Figgis · 97m · 35mm

Featuring a star-studded ensemble cast, Timecode is an experimental masterpiece made up of four simultaneously recorded camcorder feeds, each filling one quadrant of the screen. Figgis was reportedly inspired both by the unedited feeling of emerging reality television and the visual multitasking enabled by desktop computers. The film runs 93 minutes, the exact capacity of the camera’s batteries.

Thursday, February 1st 9:30PM

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) still

Kerry Conran · 106m · 35mm

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law, this late 1930s-period homage to Golden Age comics and pulp mags was one of the first films made entirely on a ‘digital backlot’: live actors on all-CG bluescreened ‘sets’. Surreal and evocative of two-strip Technicolor, this production practice, now common in big-budget filmmaking, was a mind-warping experience for the actors and still looks like little else.

Thursday, February 8th 9:30PM

Dick Tracy (1990)

Dick Tracy (1990) still

Warren Beatty · 105m · 35mm

This Warren Beatty-led comic-book adaptation is atypical for the genre, stuffed with colorful cartoonish spectacle and Oscar-winning eye-popping visuals. It also happens to be the first film released with digital audio, highlighted by original Sondheim songs and starring Madonna in a femme fatale role. One marketer even compared the leap in audio quality to the switch from silent to sound!

Thursday, February 15th 9:30PM

Party Girl (1995)

Party Girl (1995) still

Daisy von Scherler Mayer · 94m · DCP

Party Girl is a celebration of downtown Manhattan’s club scene in the mid-90s and just so happens to be the first major film to premiere online. Starring Parker Posey, the film stands as a shining example of pre-9/11 utopia, “just as fresh today as when it debuted on the WWW,” (The secret history of Party Girl, Dazed). At its Seattle premiere in 1995, Posey herself pressed play, streaming the film online to audiences around the world.

Thursday, February 22nd 9:30PM · Friday, February 23rd 9:30PM