Ghosts of Future Past

Robert Zemeckis and the cinematic transition from analog to digital
by Matt Zoller Seitz  posted November 2, 2012
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In anticipation of Robert Zemeckis' newest film, Flight, the Museum of the Moving Image is showing four of the director's most inventive and critically acclaimed films, in a retrospective that will last through November 4, 2012. This article written by Matt Zoller Seitz was originally posted on the Moving Image Source on November 6, 2010, when the Back to the Future-trilogy was reissued on Blu-ray.

"If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."

That's a recurring line from the Back to the Future trilogy, newly reissued on Blu-ray DVD. But it could double as the mantra of series director Robert Zemeckis, who with these films went from being an already successful Hollywood storyteller to a technological innovator—a popcorn version of the tech-crazed visionary Stanley Kubrick, who from 2001: A Space Odyssey onward, pushed his collaborators to invent processes that would help him create the images he saw in his head. The Future trilogy, which Zemeckis cowrote with his writing and producing partner Bob Gale, also heralded Zemeckis's metamorphosis from a filmmaker into an issue. Whether you've written off Zemeckis as a technocratic noodler who traded gadgets for warmth, or think his forays into motion-capture technology (Polar Express, A Christmas Carol) are intriguing attempts to expand the language of cinema, this trilogy is where the transformation took root.

Up through the late 1980s, the medium had stayed stubbornly analog—based around celluloid and optical effects, light and chemicals. And it stayed analog despite the best efforts of directors such as George Lucas, whose fantasy epics pioneered processes that are standard today (including nonlinear computerized editing, computer-generated special effects, motion-controlled cameras, and digital compositing). Zemeckis, more so than Lucas, pushed movies into the next phase of their development by integrating many of the new techniques into the Back to the Future sequels, often in scenes that were set in physical reality rather than in some fantastic science-fictional panorama. The second film in the Future trilogy made Zemeckis the poster boy for cinema's transformation from an analog medium into a digital one. It also marked the point when Zemeckis's movies—and Hollywood spectaculars in general—started to become colder and more theoretical, and less interested in psychology and realism than spectacle and myth-making.

Zemeckis's early movies had always had a machine-like quality, but they were playful machines: gigantic clockwork contraptions. From his debut movie I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) through the knockabout business satire Used Cars (1980) and the grubby Raiders of the Lost Ark riff Romancing the Stone (1984), Zemeckis strove to balance logistical and narrative complexity with wry humor and strong, simple emotions. His films were plot-heavy, abrasive, even exhausting at times. But they had a sense of play and a lightness of spirit, and they were built around strong personalities. In that sense, despite their up-to-the-minute visuals, they were rooted in classic Hollywood language and values, drawing inspiration from old masters and their films: Preston Sturges's raised-eyebrow farces; Frank Capra's sentimentality; Howard Hawks's cheerful straight-arrow professionalism and versatility.

The culmination of this phase of his development was the first Back to the Future, which sent teenage hero Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) from 1985 (the film's release date) to 1955, where he accidentally interfered with the history of his small town in ways that would have prevented Marty's parents from meeting and Marty from being born. The first film has been so widely viewed that its plot needs little elaboration here. Suffice to say that while Zemeckis and Gale's screenplay featured plot galore, broad humor (including anxious Oedipal comedy), and winking jokes that contrasted the Eisenhower '50s and the Reagan '80s, it anchored everything in Marty's fear of being wiped from the cosmos—and to a somewhat lesser extent in his burgeoning awareness that his parents (Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover), and indeed everybody in town, were human and flawed. As loud, fast, and spectacular as the movie was, its tone was sweetly knowing. It was a big movie with a small movie's personality, and it had an underlying sense of humility that was reflected in the personality of its plucky hero. Marty, a frustrated but cocky young man, gained maturity by seeing the older adults he knew in 1985 as striving younger people in 1955. The literal lightning bolt that hit the clock tower was matched by a figurative lightning bolt that struck Marty's consciousness, revealing certain truths to him and helping him grow up.

In the sequels, which were shot back-to-back and released in fall 1989 and summer 1990, Back to the Future shifted its emphasis. For the first time, Zemeckis's director-as-God tendencies stepped into the foreground and everything else receded. Emboldened by public and critical adoration and a position on the chart of all-time moneymakers, the director unleashed his aesthetic audacity. The second Future movie is an almost purely formal exercise, deriving excitement less from plot and characterization than from its director's cinematic sleight-of-hand, showcased in the most casually spectacular effects shots yet seen in American cinema. Where the first film's characters possessed an emotional weight that balanced out the filmmaker's wizardry, the second film was all about the wizardry—about how many effects Zemeckis could squeeze into a frame, how many layers of information he could combine without confusing the viewer.

The second Future picked up where the first left off, sending Marty into the bleak futureworld of 2015 in an attempt to undo his future children's misfortune. Much of the plot revolved around the existence of a printed book from 2015 listing the outcome of sporting events, which Marty briefly considered using to enrich himself back home in 1985 until Doc talked him out of it. The embittered, elderly future version of the trilogy's thuggish, scheming bad guy, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), got hold of the betting book, time-tripped back to 1955 via plot convolutions too complicated to explain here, and brought his prize to the attention of his younger self. (Like most such shots in the second Future, this one put the same actor in the same shot twice, playing two versions of himself in conversation.) The book enriched young Biff and transformed him into a crude, savage cousin of Mr. Potter, the hateful moneybags from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. When Marty returned to his "present," 1985, it had been transformed yet again, becoming a hellish den of sin lorded over by Biff. The dazzling and at times unnerving climax of the second Future meticulously re-created the sock hop sequence that ended the original. It preserved the alternate timeline that Marty had created when he visited the past in the first movie, however; when Marty returned to 1955, he had to be careful not to let the time-travelling Marty from the first film see him, for fear of causing a catastrophic time-space disruption. Breathing new life into the sequel-maker's cliché, "Give them the same thing, but different," the director re-shot portions of the climax of the original film to insert the second Marty into the margins of it, then seamlessly integrated that new footage with scenes from the first film.

None of these gambits would have been possible without the late-1980s invention of the VistaGlide camera system, which recorded a camera's movements and reproduced them exactly, allowing for multiple versions of the same character to be inserted into the same moving shot—a far more dynamic and convincing method to shoot such a scene than the old way, which required the camera to be locked down. The VistaGlide was the then-state-of-the-art version of the motion-controlled camera, a staple of effects-driven movies. The expressive use of the camera was perfected by George Lucas in the first couple Star Wars movies; Lucas's technicians used the cameras to carefully track the movements of various spaceships in outer-space dogfight sequences, the better to accurately combine them later via an optical printer. Computer-controlled cameras were also used for subtler effects, notably in David Cronenberg's 1988 horror film Dead Ringers, where the technology allowed Jeremy Irons to play identical twin gynecologists locked in a spiral of self-destruction. The best recent examples can be seen in David Fincher's recent features—notably The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), which used motion capture and CGI to age its principal cast members, and The Social Network (2010), where a combination of motion-controlled cameras, body doubles, and digital compositing allowed one actor, Armie Hammer, to play twin brothers who were often shown occupying the same frame and engaging in rapid-fire patter.

The climax of Back to the Future II, which superimposed an alternate, parallel climax over the final section of the original Future, was the most overtly postmodern flourish Zemeckis had attempted up to then. It built on his experiments in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which integrated old-fashioned cel-animated characters into live action compositions. And it pointed the way toward the matter-of-fact disfigurements and disintegrations in Death Becomes Her (1992), the "Where's Waldo?"-style historical gamesmanship with newsreel footage in Forrest Gump (1994), the high-tech Hitchcockian camerawork in What Lies Beneath (2000), and the seemingly endless pullback shot in Cast Away (2000), which showed its plane-wrecked protagonist growing smaller and smaller in a storm-tossed, lightning-illuminated sea. Zemeckis's 21st-century films have used motion-capture techniques, which scan live actors and then fit them with computer-generated costumes that include skin tones and hair, and that can make them older or younger, and even reproduce certain takes from new camera angles. These movies push even further into visual flamboyance and technological experimentation than anything Zemeckis did in the '90s, collapsing the real and 'toon worlds of Who Framed Roger Rabbit into an aesthetic that's somewhere between live-action, animation, and an illustrated storybook come to life.

The third Future, which sent Marty and Doc back to Hill Valley circa 1885 for a rollicking western pastiche, marked a partial return to the bustling humanism that distinguished the first phase of Zemeckis's career. But although the film made extensive use of the VistaGlide camera, especially in sequences that put Marty and his distant historical relative in the same frame, the third film's relatively subtle deployment of the latest technology proved uncharacteristic of Zemeckis. Since Back to the Future II—in retrospect the defining film of the modern phase of his career, and a watermark in cinema history—Zemeckis has used technology not to achieve invisible effects that serve the story, but to free storytelling from the bounds of realism altogether. His post–Cast Away work takes place not in physical but metaphorical space, a theater of the mind enabled by gadgets. His last three features, the motion-capture epics Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, occur in a dream space in which the camera is unmoored from physical restraints. In Polar Express, we follow a magical ticket out of and back into a train in a four-minute, unbroken tracking shot that floats through the air and swoops over mountains and down into valleys. In Beowulf, the camera soars across miles of imaginary Danish countryside and follows the brawny hero off a castle parapet and up into the air as he clings to a dragon that he's trying to slay. And in all three of Zemeckis's post-2000 movies—Polar Express and A Christmas Carol especially—the combination of motion-capture technology, digital compositing and voice manipulation allows a handful of actors to become a whole repertory company; Tom Hanks, for instance, plays at least five roles in Polar Express, including that of the preadolescent protagonist.

The phrase "showing off" would naturally affix itself to such flourishes in special-effects driven live-action movies. But it seems inapt when applied to Zemeckis's recent work. Clearly we're in new territory here. The reflexive responses of mainstream film criticism—a mode of writing still tethered to the literary values of narrative, characterization, and "believability"—are often inadequate or misguided when used to describe this new and hard-to-categorize genre of feature. Zemeckis's motion-capture movies pose all sorts of thorny questions. They're frequently criticized for not being photorealistic, for prizing allegory and spectacle over psychology and physical realism (the mo-cap characters in his last three features are often described with pejorative adjectives such as "rubbery"). But what if Zemeckis isn't interested in any of those things? What if newer technologies aren't capable of the values that motion capture's detractors prize, and Zemeckis chose to use them in spite of that, or because of that—because he's after something different than what he did in the 1970s and '80s? When the rules of physics no longer constrain filmmakers—indeed, when technology mutates commercial filmmaking into something disquietingly new—should the viewer write Zemeckis off for not being what he used to be, and for not scratching the itches that his old films used to scratch? Or do we follow him wherever he's going, and try to engage with the new work on its own terms?

Unanswerable questions, all. The only thing we can say for sure is that neither Zemeckis nor cinema can ever go back to the past. 

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THE AUTHOR

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

More articles by Matt Zoller Seitz
Author's Website: The House Next Door