Canadian-born pop star Justin Bieber was hit with an international arrest warrant when he landed in Rome on Wednesday, local news outlet Roma reported. Local celebrity photographer Diego Pesoa is pressing charges against the “Beauty and a Beat” singer for an alleged attack in November 2013. The photographer says he attempted to take a photo of… Continue reading →
A few moments from the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the new documentary made by the prolific Michael Winterbottom in collaboration with Russell Brand, the celebrity anarchist pretends to receive a phone call as he puts forward a proposal that the top 1% of the UK’s population should be more greatly taxed.
Yes, the top 1% would include him, Brand says, as if repeating the words of some invisible agent at the other end of the line. He then turns to the camera/audience and jests that perhaps this is one policy that might not be rushed into.
The moment, I assume, is a joke – although I am not apprised of Brand’s earnings such that I could know whether he is in the top 1% of UK earners or not. Either way, the moment for me deflated much of what had preceded it. Suddenly, I was faced with the possibility that the whole of the film is equally a joke – and that Brand, who had been riffing for the previous 90+ minutes about the institutionalised theft that is the contemporary banking system and about the need for citizens to take control of their lives by getting involved in politics, did not mean any of it.
In some senses, this is an interesting editorial trick for Winterbottom to pull off. It is a sleight of hand that finally distances him somewhat from Brand, who otherwise is the mouthpiece of the film.
Winterbottom’s penchant for looking at length at celebrity twats is well known, as is made clear by one of the posters for his film 24 Hour Party People, in which Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) is described using precisely that term. And so that Winterbottom would work with Brand, who is perceived as just such a celebrity twat by various circles of genteel (bourgeois) British society, is perhaps unsurprising.
It’s also unsurprising that in Winterbottom’s hands, Brand actually comes across very well, much as Wilson becomes a heroic – if comic – figure in 24 Hour Party People and much as the equally troubled Steve Coogan acquits himself beautifully in A Cock And Bull Story and The Trip.
This isn’t to say that Brand will be to everyone’s tastes as he marches into HSBC demanding a meeting with chief executive Stuart Gulliver in order to explain his salary, or as he manipulatively asks a bunch of eight-year olds whether it’s fair that one person gets paid dozens of times more money than someone else.
Indeed, these sub-Michael Moore stunts come across both as a bit laboured and a bit borrowed. Equally an issue is the sound of Brand’s voice as he gets excited – he knows he is about to say something clever, funny (or a combination of the two) but telegraphs it through a quickening of tempo and a slight raising of tone, which in turn undermines the power of what he is about to say.
However, Brand is also clearly a popular man. It’s fascinating to watch him wander around his hometown of Grays in Essex, explaining how it has gone from being quite an interesting place to a bookie-filled crap town overrun with pound shops. People approach him and chat, take selfies and basically love him.
Man of the people?
In other words, Brand clearly has what I guess is called the common touch – and it’s admirable to behold. What’s more, it surely is a worthy tool for getting people engaged in the political fate of this country. You have to organise and you have to protest, he tells us. Coming from anyone too clever, this might just seem insincere.
Coming from Brand, one wonders that people might well be mobilised to vote on May 7 in greater numbers, and more generally become engaged in political debate than would were this film not in existence – despite Brand’s own widely publicised calls for people to register their protest by not voting. And if we are to believe the rumours of Brand endorsing Ed Miliband after the Labour leader was spotted leaving his house, perhaps this is all to change.
The Emperor’s New Clothes bombards us with archive footage (often framed within glitch art-style graphics to convey that this is the age of YouTube), with stunts, with interviews (such as with Channel 4 economics editor Paul Mason) and with direct address. In this way it involves a panoply of techniques that aims to recall the political cinema of something like Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s masterpiece, the Latin American 1960s activist film The Hour of the Furnaces.
As such, it’s a timely and vibrant film, with a fantastic sequence about the history of the Cadbury factory in Bourneville. It’s also funny at times, with a hilarious final montage-rap by Cassetteboy.
But Winterbottom, his cards as ever close to his chest, just finally nudges some distance between himself and Brand with the 1% joke. Is it Brand who stands naked before us, in addition to the banks that have fuelled his ire for the duration of the film? It’s a very Winterbottom trait to float this as a final possibility, thereby folding the viewer’s thought in on itself.
This film won’t tell you anything you don’t already know, says Brand at the film’s outset. True. But then it’s always good to keep mulling over what we believe we know, including about the film’s star. It’s only in reconsidering and ever-more-deeply comprehending (rather than blindly accepting) that we might find ourselves drawn into action.
On November 30 2013, actor Paul Walker died in a car crash before filming of Furious 7 was complete. The accident meant the franchise’s filmmakers had to resort to workarounds to finish scenes featuring Walker. This was made possible by combining footage from outtakes with the construction of a “digital mask” of the dead actor’s features, which was projected onto motion captured by Paul Walker’s brothers Cody and Caleb, who have similar builds.
Casting actors after they’ve died is nothing new, and neither is the use of many digital tools in film making. The real question is how the acting profession and the audience will react if this practice were to become more commonplace.
From editing to animation
Three techniques are currently used to “re-cast” actors after they’ve passed away. The simplest is the juxtaposition of older and newer footage. Outtakes of Larry Hagman’s performance as JR Ewing from the TV soap opera Dallas (1978-1991, 2010-2014) allowed him to appear in episodes not actually filmed until after his death. However in the case of The Sopranos (1999-2007), the same trick lacked emotional depth. Livia Soprano was played by actress Nancy Marchand, who died in 2000, and HBO ultimately decided to give her character an off-screen death.
A second approach, rotoscoping, allows clever montages using footage from different eras, showing living and dead performers together in the same shot. Notable examples include Bruce Lee in a recent Johnny Walker whisky ad, or Natalie Cole’s Grammy-winning duet with her late father Nat King Cole. A famous Coca Cola ad from the same year featured Elton John and put the deceased Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong in his audience.
The third and most complex technique involves the computer recreation of someone’s likeness (facial expressions, skin textures and hair modeling) to create synthetic actors. One landmark of this technological feat was The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum (2001-2003). Computer graphics fleshed out the character as played by actor Andy Serkis, who wore a motion capture body suit.
Oliver Reed died of a heart attack before finishing his role in Gladiator (2000), but computer graphics allowed his image to be recreated. The same is being done with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, set to be released later this year.
Innovations in computer graphics key
The high-tech reconstruction of Paul Walker for his uncompleted scenes in Furious 7 is a remarkable feat. But it hardly comes as a surprise given the development of computer graphics, from the early line graphics of the 1960s to the two-dimensional surfaces with simple lighting effects that give the illusion of 3D in the 70s and 80s (1982’s Tron is one of the earliest efforts to create a feature length film on a computer).
Other milestones include the wireframe spaceships in Star Wars (1977-1983) and the particle rendering that has propelled Pixar to success since Toy Story (1995). But just as important is the demand for immersive graphics in computer gaming, which has driven innovation in chip design and animation software.
Over the past 20 years, accelerating cross-fertilization between computer graphics and film and television has taken place – from the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1994) and the video game Doom (1994), to movies like Wall-E (2008) and the video game Mass Effect 3 (2012).
Simply put, without the rapidly scaling demands of computer games, today’s special effect movies simply wouldn’t be possible.
What are the implications for dead actors?
As anyone who watches Furious 7 will notice, it pivots on competition between the old and the new – between a predator drone and a 60s muscle car, between an omniscient surveillance chip and urban street savvy. The film, which can be seen as a sentimental tribute to Paul Walker, is poignant also in its juxtaposition of new and old questions about what audiences expect from film stars.
Whose body and whose face is it there on the screen? Who holds the rights to these images, to these performances? Tom Cruise was recorded performing in a motion capture suit for the movie Oblivion (2013), but after it opened in theaters, Cruise acquired the rights to all data recorded during his performance. It’s unknown whether he did this to enable future use or to prevent future use, but less established actors might not have as much clout in this kind of decision.
And then there is the question of what will prove acceptable to the fan base of an actor (and of a movie franchise). To what extent are the re-animators of Paul Walker bound by public perception of the actor? And to what extent are they constrained by available technology? Will other filmmakers resort to casting from the beyond, and how will audiences react?
Ultimately, the technical and emotional range of what can be done with someone’s posthumous digital recreation will be defined – and limited – by our living memory of the actor’s onscreen performances.
Artists including Beyonce, Daft Punk, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kanye West and Madonna recently joined Jay Z in New York to launch Tidal, his artist-owned streaming service.
Their two targets, poor audio fidelity and a loss of artist control, indicate a dissatisfaction with the way that consumers are treating music. The Tidal revolution hopes to convince consumers that music and creativity can be better in the age of digital streaming. Yet within a day of the announcement there has already been significant backlash.
The internet is awash with scepticism of Tidal’s revolutionary claims. Though judgement should be reserved for a year or two, first impressions don’t look good. For many music fans, Tidal presents an elitist call to reverse the more democratic music revolution of the early 2000s.
Whilst Tidal’s website places focus on music fidelity, its publicity has veered more towards a story of revolutionary social justice for the arts. Tidal is framed as streaming service owned by artists. Their videos subtly rail against the use of their music as something to encourage advertising revenue or the sale of a new gadget. This publicity implies that consumers are getting music wrong. They’re listening at too low a quality, they’re paying too low a price and they’re consuming in spaces owned by the wrong people. As a result the “sanctity” of music has been lost and creativity is under threat.
Admittedly, the sanctity of music has taken a beating over the past two decades. The explosion of music piracy in the late 1990s lead to the dismantling of the album retail model with iTunes, and the development of music as a service via Spotify. What was lost was the framing of music as a high-value commodity object. Many blame these industry outsiders, Spotify in particular, for the financial and cultural devaluing of music, where artists are paid a per-stream pittance while album sales are cannibalised.
Tidal’s aim is to wrest back artists’ control over music from the current streaming model, reclaiming lost industry territory.
Which sounds good. But Tidal is built around a centre of 16 “top-tier” artists – those present at the launch – who receive the highest proportion of royalties. And for many commentators, this makes Tidal a very suspect kind of artists’ commune. Their new way of consuming music may have the desired old-world values but it looks like it has old business interests too. Less like a grass-roots movement – and more a revolution of the rich.
So far Tidal’s only concrete commitment to its “artists-first” philosophy is the top-tier’s stake in the company. This is a commune shaped around the creativity of its members. Details on how “lower-tier” artists will also share in Tidal’s wealth and influence haven’t been made public. For many, the current model indicates that industry status is likely a key factor. All this talk of “tiers” also seems to mean the commune will be hierarchical.
Was piracy positive?
The digital distribution of music via the internet fundamentally altered the music industry. Old models fell away as it was forced to merge with tech companies to survive. Consumers demanded new ways to listen to music outside of industry remit, and the industry was forced to comply.
Yet more importantly, digital distribution meant alternative channels for distribution too. Digital distribution supported a new ecosystem for independent artists to produce, distribute and promote their work without the labels. Artists were handed a degree of control and possibility that would not have existed had the CD remained king.
Paradoxically, for many, piracy in the 2000s represented a pro-artist position. Piracy sought to topple a model that was inherently restrictive and exploitative. Top-tier artists were considered complicit in that restrictive model –and high-profile artists began vocally and legally attacking their fans. Piracy was an encouragement to challenge the necessity of music as commodity and the vast disparity between music superstars and the struggling artist.
Consumers pirated the top hits, complaining about price-fixing and industry fat cats. Alongside, a host of direct artist-to-fan experiments began to lay the groundwork for an alternative, revolutionary music economy. Digital distribution wasn’t just about free music or streaming, it was a fundamental shift in creative power.
Those that Tidal is working against arguably better represent “artist-first values”. Though not a streaming service, Bandcamp embodies the potential of a democratised and participatory cultural industry. The platform offers artists control over their own corner of the site where they can sell their own music and merchandise. Artists control the minimum price, though fans are given the opportunity to over-pay. There is no standing charge or contracts. Artists only pay fees after they’ve begun to make money and anyone can sign up. Revenue from sales goes direct to the artists, with Bandcamp making its 10-15% by occasionally taking the full revenue of a sale to clear an accrued debt.
Sites such as Bandcamp make music that would be unprofitable to a record label, profitable to the artist. They foster creativity of niche genres and experimental forms, and provide artists control rather than loans and contracts. Admittedly artists aren’t offered a stake in the company, but with Bandcamp paying out $100m to artists since 2008, it may not need to.
So if Tidal’s top-tier believe the music industry needs a real revolution, perhaps they should drop their label and join Bandcamp instead.