Revolt might be too strong a word, but as I was watching the new Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and its beautiful storytelling using puppetry, I could not help but think about the course of digital media and the apparent desire to have something “more real.”
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a prequel series to the 1982 feature-length movie The Dark Crystal directed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. In that era of filmmaking, you had essentially three options if you wanted to include a non-human character such as an alien or monster: dress up a human to look like the imagined creature, use claymation (see Clash of the Titans, 1981) or use a puppet, or as in this case, a Muppet (see Yoda in Star Wars Episode 5, The Empire Strikes Back, 1980).
This all changed with Jurassic Park in 1993. There had been CGI attempts before Jurassic Park, but no one had ever pulled it off so effectively. I can recall as a 20-year-old being astounded by the scene where the camera pans up to the enormous brontosaurus rendered so lifelike, then panning across the landscape filled with dinosaurs; I still get goosebumps today (the sweeping musical score, of course, helps). Welcome to Jurassic Park – YouTube It was then followed by escaping the vicious velociraptors and the mighty T-Rex. It seemed so real, so visceral, I can remember driving home thinking it entirely possible that a velociraptor could jump out of the bushes and attack my car.
And then it was off to the digital races. Two years later, Toy Story debuted as the first digitally animated feature-length movie. And more and more, too much to account for, as CGI grew. Another milestone might be James Cameron’s 2009 Avatar; the CGI was on such a scale, there was talk in movie awards circles as to whether or not it should be considered in the animation category. And now, many of our favorite franchises, Marvel certainly being one, would be unimaginable without CGI.
So here we are in 2019 and Netflix, who always makes calculated moves, greenlit a 10 episode fantasy epic featuring puppets based on a 1982 movie called The Dark Crystal, and people are raving about it. It is astounding. Its lore as deep as Tolkien, its landscapes as imaginative as Avatar, and what it must have taken from a production standpoint, amazing. And it’s all done with puppets (there is some CGI in the show, but very limited).
The production originally had much of the show’s characters created through CGI, but as test scenes were created and viewed, it was decided to honor the original source material and have all characters played by puppets.
So I thought about other instances in recent years where there has been a push back against digital, synthetic media for a more authentic experience.
A quick mention of terminology: the use of analog in this post refers to anything non-digital, for instance, a clock with a second, minute, and hour hands as opposed to a digital clock as one might see on their microwave, stove, or Atomic Clock. Or music listened to from a record player as opposed to some means of digital delivery such as MP3 files or streaming services such as Spotify.
When Star Wars Episode II, Attack of the Clones was released, the Star Wars faithful were up in arms about what was perceived as a very important change: Yoda was CGI rather than a puppet. Still voiced by Frank Oz, there simply was something not right about CGI Yoda. In fact, a big complaint about the Star Wars prequels was the digitization of so many of the alien characters.
Of course, CGI didn’t exist when the original Star Wars trilogy was released, but the new prequels seemed to go too far with the new technology. When JJ Abrams took the helm for rebooting the Star Wars Franchise with Episode VII, he made it a point to have many of the aliens to simply be as they were in the original trilogy – humans in costumes rather than CGI. And there was great rejoicing when Yoda returned in Episode VIII in his puppet form.
What is it about the synthetic nature of digital media that turns some folks off from it? This is a fantastic question to probe both philosophically and psychologically. Does it have something to do with the preference for a tactile experience? Or the abstract nature of CGI or other digital media? Is it a matter of simply our minds preferring a more ‘real’ experience?
There have been other revolts. When the iPod and other MP3 players came out, it revolutionized music. At that point, the most music you could carry around depended on how many CDs you wanted to pack in your CD carrying case. But as digital music files continued to become ‘cleaner’ in their audio quality, an interesting revolt began to spring up; people started listening to records again.
The record player industry all but disappeared, the technology completely decimated by compact discs, but all of a sudden, electronics manufacturers began production again as a resurgent demand appeared; I have one in my home office. As a means to listen to music, records and record players are completely impractical compared to what technology we have today, yet here they are with a faithful following.
Just last week I saw a story on CNN about how cassette tapes are gaining popularity in Japan.
Another revolt: e-books. In 2007 the first Amazon Kindle was released and from there on out, e-books shook up the publishing world, so much so that competition from other brick and mortar bookstores to develop and compete with the Kindle destroyed many, Boarders being the biggest one. Barnes and Noble managed to hang on but have completely changed their marketing model as a result.
Yet the e-book boom has slowed and stabilized to where only ⅓ of all books purchased are e-books; the rest are physical paper books. Why is this? I went through this cycle myself. I’ve owned three Kindles starting with the Kindle 2, but I’ve been back on physical books for 6 or 7 years now. Why is that?
Though there are some great reasons to use e-books, such as looking up words on the fly and keyword searches (great for research), there is just something about a physical book; holding the book, the smell of the book, writing in the margins, seeing how far you’ve progressed. It exists in physical space. Not that a Kindle doesn’t exist in physical space, but the books inside the Kindle don’t.
What to make of all this? Is this analog revolt a small blip on the radar of whatever path humanity thinks it is progressing towards technologically? Is all this just a trendy, 21st-century Luddite movement packaged as a cool counter-culture movement? Maybe it all comes from some notion related to nostalgia and an underlying feeling that the future is moving all too fast.
Why do we reject that which is artificial or synthetic?
Compliment this post with another about being “real” To Live Is to Live Authentically.