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June 24, 2011

True Blood

I was watching the pilot of AMC Original Series The Walking Dead the other night (I believe [Cable Network] Original Series has become an official titling appendage and prestige signifier, much like Contemporary Classic, A Spike Lee Joint, or From the Creators of Troll 2) and found myself disturbed by the use of blood. Not the amount of blood or the gore — it’s still a television program and was not incredibly gory — but the use of CGI’ed blood, especially for gunshots. The use of this visual effect was something I first noticed around the time of Takeshi Kitano’s take on Zatoichi where the spritzes (or sometimes geysers) of blood that mark the genre were done with CGI, as was the sword blade, it seemed, at times. What disturbs me about this shift from practical special effect to visual effect is that, though it is meant to be more shocking and “realistic”, the result tends to make me feel less shocked and less viscerally disturbed by the violence. This is not because of the artifice of it all. I’ve written other posts here about my love of various filmic tricks and effects, and even poor imitation can be effective in creating an emotional reaction.

I recall a summer job I had in college painting dorm rooms. In one building I was given a special can of paint and tasked with putting a fresh coat on all of the fire extinguisher wall units. The paint was a bright, bright red and immediately reminded me of the color of fake blood used in low budget films from the 70s, especially of the exploitation ilk. This is the red of red hots (both kinds), Red #5 (the dangerous kind, from the 50s), and Glacé fruit (the kind of fruit that is actually bad for you).

It’s a conundrum — how does one delineate the point at which something fake looks more fake than other fake things — but something about the Somebody worked a few days to research and painstakingly recreate the correct shade and splatter pattern of real blood-ness of it all just…looks…fake.

I don’t want to make this a rant about the coldness of digital versus the warmth of analog — though I do tend to admire the ingenuity and physicality of practical effects — because computer-aided effects are not across the board bad. The issue is, more so, one of shifting perceptions of what constitutes realism and what one, experientially, accepts as the norm in visual representation.

I think here of a Cosby Show episode where the adults discuss how things like rubber bats and other haunted house-y type things in movies were enough to scare the bejeezus out of them, but kidsthesedays just roll their eyes at it all. Damn you, Rudy!

To reiterate, the problem we face is what people are currently accustomed to viewing versus what people were previously accustomed to viewing. Unfortunately, in terms of moving images, these shifts are gradual and not always noticeable in degrees, like how when you see a child every day you don’t exactly note their growth over a year, but if you see them once a year they will look very different. As a simple example, placed side by side, the differences in visual quality between VHS and DVD are noticeable but can be difficult to articulate, unlike, say, comparing classical portraiture to non-representational art. Additionally, the less we view VHS the more distant our memory of the particulars of the format become. We feel things should look like DVD or Blu-Ray or H.264 now because those are what we experience.

Trying to define why “This fakery is more fake looking than this fakery” is similar to trying to define why “This format looks better than this format”. The issues compound when one takes prosumer and professional formats into consideration. The limited scope of direct exposure makes it more difficult for a wider audience to differentiate. When dealing with preservation reformatting, the challenge becomes maintaining the look of the VHS or whatever source format, but also helping people who do not recall or never experienced the qualities of the source understand that this DVD ought not to look like what they may expect. Binder formulations, monitors, playback machines, codecs, and such are the bristle, paint, and canvas types of video that produce their own quality and have their own aesthetic, which qualities need to be maintained to the best degree possible.

In short, as a human of a certain age with a certain exposure to methodologies of creating bloody messes, I maintain a certain sense of what appears the “correct” presentation format, leaning more towards Karo syrup and less towards AfterEffects. This isn’t to say that one’s taste or eye cannot change — it does shift, as in the case of video — but there is a loss in the shift. A fading of memory, an alteration in perception, a dispersal of molecules. Inscrutable, intangible things that we cannot fully grasp onto in order to keep in place. Things that go away, we know not how and we know not where.

But then again, it was AMC Original Series The Walking Dead I was watching. I guess there are certain things we don’t want sticking around forever.

Joshua Ranger

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