In the hundred or so years since film was invented and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of ink has been spilled over lists and articles about just who has been the best – the best director, the best actor, the best musician – like humanity can’t get enough out of figuring out the most superior of our own self-importance. The Hollywood awards season seems to last the entire year, with a multitude of industry-based awards shows dominating the blogosphere and newsprint each and every month, culminating in the very pinnacle of cinematic artistic achievement, The Academy Awards. Each year, golden gongs are handed out to those folks judged by others folks to be the best in their category at what they’ve done that year. Whether those awards are warranted or not isn’t the point of this article; here, we’re going to spotlight the very best of the best – the best Actors and Actresses, the best Directors, the best Films, even the best cinematic advances of the Modern Age. What do I mean by Modern Age, you ask. Simple. Hollywood’s boom times of the 30’s and 40’s, at least prior to the War, are known today as the Golden Age, and the three decades after that could be termed the Bronze Age – with a shift into color film, multi-channel stereo and the re-invention of the Hollywood “blockbuster” away from biblical epics and sweeping melodramatic romance. The 80’s, however, when you look at films produced at that time in a reflective mood, represents a shift both artistically and stylistically in the medium of film to such a degree that I think a new “age” of Hollywood could be coined: the Modern Age. An epoch of cinema between 1980 and 2010, 30 years of both massive successes, and epic fails. The Greatest of the Modern Age series attempts to distill the best of the Modern Age into a series of opinion-based lists, and we hope you enjoy (if not disagree with) our work.
In the years since the early 80’s, cinema techniques and technology have come an incredibly long way. Today, we celebrate that advancement by giving you our choices for the top 10 advances in technology and craft for the film format. It’s been tough going, but I think you’ll agree with the majority of our choices. We’ve considered everything from new sound technology, new film formats and even, yes, even the venerable internet, all seeking to influence the way people watch, make and think about film. This Modern Age of Cinema list includes technology developed (or significantly improved) since 1980.
Criteria – The advent of the given technology or film-making craft must improve the cinema-going/film-watching experience. It must also work to improve the ability of people to watch films, be it at the cinema or some other medium.
First, there was the VHS tape. Then came DVD, before BluRay usurped that format for people to take home their favorite films. Now, the big push is on for digital streaming downloads (or whatever you want to call it) to take over, to simply access a catalog of films bought or rented and stored in the clouds somewhere for you to get to any time you choose. While hard-core film fans will probably always prefer tangible media to buy and store on a shelf, a larger proportion of film fans now simply download their favorite films (legally or otherwise) and stream it direct onto their televisions. Never before have so many films been watched by so many people all at the click of a computer mouse. Yes, the digital age is upon us, and this increase in our dependence on digital technology can be directly measured against the number of “digital” items on this list.
There’s something to be said for the millions of bloggers, critics and film fans around the globe, who can bring a film massive success, or alternatively kill it off (or, even both at the same time - Snakes On A Plane!) – yes, the internet has done more for film than perhaps any other media in history. From promotion, to discussion, to statistics and even illegal downloads, the internet is by far the largest promotional tool Hollywood and the film industry has at its disposal. And quite often, the internet is broken thanks to film promotion – just ask Starwars.com and their informational countdown to the BluRay release of the Lucas-created film franchise; it practically blew up the web for about an hour. Torrent sites, where pirates and those who support them can download, upload and seed so much illegally copied material across the web itself, are the bane of the film industry (and the music industry, and the… well, you get the idea…) for lost profits; when used legitimately, the internet is the single biggest tool for both big budget films and small indie arthouse fare to gain some traction in the community. Without the internet, we’d go back to relying on radio and television, and we all know how that’s going these days – ask anybody who sat through Richard Wilkins milking the apparent death of Jeff Goldblum for Australia’s Today Show how credible television news is….
Reviled by many, adored my others, the resurgence of 3D presentations in the last few years has become something of a subset industry within the Home Cinema industry: designed to sell more tickets at a premium price, some have accused Hollywood of exploiting the audience for extra financial gain at the expense of quality films, and to a point I guess, they’d be right. The added dimension of image, seen via a set of glasses designed to enhance the visual experience, has allowed cinemas to charge a few extra dollars for patrons to see their films: James Cameron’s Avatar really led the resurgence in 3D technology in 2009, after several years of rather tepid theatrical releases from studios such as Disney. While almost every CGI film in the last three or four years has been released in 3D, the ability for filmmakers to re-release classic films in a retrofitted 3D experience (George Lucas’s impending re-release of Star Wars, and James Cameron’s apropos 100th anniversary re-release of Titanic to celebrate the sinking of the actual boat, are all on the immediate horizon) allows studios to reap more financial gain from their product, even at the expense of the quality of the product itself. Regardless of what you think of 3D cinema, and the flow-on BluRay HD marketing that follows, there’s no denying that the technology to enhance viewing films on screen in 3D has become a significant industry unto itself.
In the 80’s, the introduction of VHS cassette technology allowed Hollywood studios to bring their catalogs into ordinary homes without the need for an expensive film projector. VHS tapes, which worked like audio cassettes with the added bonus of including video as well as audio, allowed movies to be watched by fans whenever, wherever they wanted. Recognizing the financial gain to be made from this new market, technology companies soon developed the higher quality Laserdisc format, which then led (in 1997) to the introduction of the more accessible DVD format. These same technology companies, including Toshiba, Sony, Panasonic and their ilk, developed better and bigger hardware on which to approximate the cinema experience in your own home, including surround sound processors, 5.1 speaker systems, increasingly larger televisions and better screen technology, until once more, it was possible for even the most financially strapped film fan to be able to watch a film at home with the approximate feel of going to the cinema. This, coupled with the omnipresence of the internet and digital streaming and downloads, has made getting people to the cinema even more difficult for the major studios. But it’s the fact we all have a choice to do so, which brings the advent of home cinema in at number 7.
Up until recently, film budgets were quite often swallowed with the cost none of them could ignore – processing all those thousands of feet of 35mm film; much like processing photographs shot on film, this cost was exponential depending on just how much footage was shot in camera. Development on digital technology to capture motion pictures, in which high definition images could be stored on a relatively cost effective hard drive storage unit, as well as an increase in usage of digital cameras overall, reduced the need for raw film to be used for capturing images on a set or location. That being said, films were still transferred across to 35mm stock once edited and produced, ready for screening in your local multiplex – at least, until digital projects began to push into the market, reducing once more the requirement for film stock to be used. While purists will argue about the texture and “cinematic” feel of shooting on actual film, instead of digitally, there’s no denying the advantages digital cinema has over its film stock brethren. Faster rushes, less intrinsic issues of mechanical failure, and for the most part pretty decent imagery when held against film, digital cinema has become one of the more significant developments in the shooting and projection of films across the globe.
Don la Fontaine revolutionized the marketing of films with the now iconic “In a world…” line from the hundreds of trailers he lent his voice to. As he mentioned in an interview once, this line, ending with a film-specific explanation of a time or place or subject, such as “In a world where crime is king…”, which immediately allows the audience to connect with whatever the film is about. It was a stroke of genius. Since then, film trailers (and the voice-over guys) have become an industry unto themselves, and it’s almost impossible to imagine the marketing of a film without the accompanying trailer. To Don, and all his fellow voice over artists, we salute your work with position 5 in this list.
Back in the 50’s and 60’s, Hollywood had to combat the growing threat of television by introducing large format films to audiences – Vista-vision, Cinerama, Ultra-Panavision – all new forms of film stock promising better image quality to larger screen sizes to improved sound… anything to draw in a viewing audience more readily able to sit in front of the TV in their lounge-rooms and not go out to the movies. IMAX, a film format developed during the 60’s and installed in a small number of cinemas in the 70’s, really came into the mainstream for Hollywood in the 2000’s, with the release of a number of theatrical features in the large-gauge 70mm format. With nearly three times the resolution of standard 35mm film (see our Widescreen feature article here), IMAX film presentation is performed with an enormous screen and incredibly powerful sound system, fully enveloping the viewer in both sound and picture. Initially the domain of documentary filmmakers, due to the expense of IMAX film stock, size of cameras, and prohibitive production costs, directors like Robert Zemeckis and George Lucas paved the way for more and more features to come to IMAX – Christopher Nolan famously shot portions of The Dark Knight in IMAX, the results of which can be seen on BluRay and speak volumes for the quality of the larger gauge film.
Where would Hollywood be now if Spielberg hadn’t brought his dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park? Or George Lucas hadn’t insisted on creating Jar Jar Binks completely inside a computer? The advent of digital effects, for both creating characters and an ability to mold a frame of film to however the director desired, has revolutionized cinema forever. Nowadays, almost every film made contains some kind of digital effect: from scene reconstruction, background modifications, digital stuntmen and even entire sequences made in a computer, the advent of the computer into film-making has proven to be both a boon and, sometimes, problematic. While the majority of filmmakers would argue that the freedom offered by digital effects is virtually unlimited, audiences have found that an over-dependence on the technology by various directors has led to a malaise towards the technology overall. Where digital effects serve the best cause, however, is undeniably in bringing things to the screen that could not otherwise be done either practically or safely. Digital stuntmen have replaced real people on screen where it’s entirely unsafe to put a real human being – this is only a single element that digital special effects allows the modern filmmaker to make better, bigger, braver films without completely blowing out the budget.
For decades dominated by Dolby laboratories, sound technology in cinema really came of age during the late 70’s, with Star Wars in 1977. Dolby’s late 80’s “Spectral Recording”, a precursor to what we now call surround sound, enabled greater fidelity and crosstalk between channels of sound in a cinematic presentation, including more accurate spatial delineation and bass reproduction. During the 80’s and early 90’s, this “pro logic” effect was transformed in 1992 and 1993 with twin digital channel surround sound formats – Dolby Digital and dts. Dolby Digital debuted with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, while dts premiered with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park: both sound formats involved 5 separate channels of sound and 1 dedicated bass channel, allowing crystal clear, superior sound reproduction in the cinema, and giving filmmakers yet another tool to their storytelling arsenal. It would be several years later, with the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999, that a new sound technology came along, Dolby Digital EX, which added an extra surround channel to the rear of the cinema auditorium. Since then, both Dolby and dts have continuously worked to refine their respective sound codecs for not only cinema film presentations, but also on new BluRay technologies, game audio and even digital download technologies. Competing sound format SDDS, developed by Sony, was restricted to cinemas only, and involved extra speaker placements at the front of the auditorium to further enhance the listening experience. While the lack of mainstream success for SDDS prevented uptake on new DVD and BluRay technologies, all three major audio companies brought a new level of audio realism to Hollywood and cinema in general, and considering sound is two thirds of the movie experience, that’s some feat.
Perhaps the most significant advance in cinema over the last 30-odd years has been the rapid rise of CGI animated feature films, beginning with Toy Story in 1995. Since that film hit the screens and took audiences on a journey in a brand new way, film studios have been falling over each other to bring you the latest and greatest advance in animation technology each time up to bat. CGI animation, as opposed to digital special effects, is where the entire film is crafted within a computer and animated to behave like a live-action film. CGI films allow us to go where no real film camera can reach, it allows filmmakers to bring us stories no human being can possibly deliver in live-action, and they are completely controllable. Modern studios like Pixar, Dreamworks and Blue Sky deliver financial gain for their parent companies, with the accompanying merchandise of generally kid-friendly fare also ballooning the coffers of Hollywood moguls. For its impact on modern film, especially in the last 15 years, CGI animation is perhaps the single biggest revolution in cinema since the advent of sound, and for that, it takes out the number 1 spot.