Calum Marsh on Miami Vice
There’s a genuinely shocking edit in the middle of Godard’s 2001 film In Praise of Love. The first hour of the picture, shot on 35mm in black and white, culminates with a close-up of Édouard Peisson’s novel Le Voyage d’Edgar lying on a cafe table; a sudden cut presents in its place the blown-out image of a beach at sunset, shot in unnaturally saturated color with a cheap mini-DV camera, followed by a title card which reads “Two Years Earlier.” Godard wanted but could not afford to shoot the second half of his film in 70mm film, but this limitation of means resulted in a juxtaposition—between the analog and the digital, the past and the present, the newly antiquated and the new—of remarkable prescience. Praise introduces digital video as a kind of aesthetic imposition, one both ugly and beautiful, that would come to define the rapidly shifting landscape of cinema in the decade to come. But video itself promised something more: in the acidic, sun-soaked reds and yellows of Praise’s digital beach there appeared a new cinematic image, one wholly distinct from the image of film. That one shot promised, in essence, a new cinema.
Michael Mann’s 2006 film Miami Vice seems, to this critic’s eyes, the realization of that promise. A feature-length adaptation of the late-80s television series for which Mann served as executive producer and unofficial show-runner, Vice marks an important shift for Hollywood in the digital era for the way it actively engaged with the implications of a technological change most had simply taken for granted, and it does so by both wholly embracing its mode of production and reflecting the consequences of doing so. High-definition digital photography had, by the time Vice arrived, firmly established itself as a viable artistic and commercial alternate to shooting on traditional 35mm film, but the practice was regarded by nearly everybody as a kind of cost-saving technical shortcut desirable only insofar as the results could be passed off as a close approximation of an ordinary film—the prospect of engineering a project to exploit digital photography’s specific technical or aesthetic qualities was highly unlikely even after several years of employing the technology itself to less conspicuous ends. But Vice proved that the digital image could be made beautiful not as a replication of something else but simply on its own terms, in a way unique to the format. In terms of texture and color, the film is sumptuous: from the moment of its opening salvo, a jarring cut from black to a nightclub interior timed to the first beat of the Jay-Z/Linkin Park mash-up “Numb/Encore,” Vice plunges us deep within an aesthetic all its own, its world of gangland subterfuge and drug-running intrigue painted in streaks of cobalt and grey.
Hollywood’s gradual transition from film to digital turned out to be silently efficient and largely self-effacing. Unlike synchronized sound and color photography, the advent of the digital was never regarded, at least by the mainstream media and the viewing public, as any kind of fundamental change to the way movies are made or seen. It was treated as a background process, no more or less significant to the essence of the medium than, say, the introduction of Dolby Stereo in the 1970s—a notable technological improvement, perhaps, but certainly not a sea change. When George Lucas announced that the second film in his new Star Wars trilogy, Attack of the Clones, would be filmed exclusively with Sony’s HDW-F900 digital camera, trade papers dutifully ran the news. But when Attack of the Clones was finally released, in 2002, there was no sense in the theater that some marvel of modern technology had arrived, and in fact an uninformed audience could be forgiven for not having noticed a change at all. (This was partly a result of exhibition technology: though Lucas was a vocal proponent of digital projection, few theaters had made the switch that early, and consequently Clones was seen by most via film print.)
Despite complaints that the computer-generated backgrounds and characters populating Attack of the Clones lent the picture a feeling of coldness, most people treated the film as just a film: despite the fact that it was not one at all. And by the time Robert Rodriguez released the more physically grounded Once Upon a Time in Mexico, in the summer of 2003, hardly anybody seemed to mention that it too had been shot with an HDW-F900 camera. The digital image had already been naturalized in the mainstream. Rodriguez’s attitude toward the F900 was typical of directors working with digital cameras for the first time: it was cheaper, easier, and more convenient to use than an ordinary 35mm camera, and the resulting images were practically indistinguishable from film. A behind-the-scenes featurette on the Once Upon a Time in Mexico DVD shows a beaming Rodriguez instructing Johnny Depp to rehearse his scene while the camera continues to roll, since, he explains, the footage costs nothing to shoot and there is no cartridge to be reloaded.
For filmmakers in 2003, this must have sounded like a compelling proposition: one could shoot something that looked like film but without any of film’s attendant difficulties, and one could do it at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time. The presumption that a digital image could replicate the look and feel of 35mm film—not always convincingly, but to the untrained eye it was surely passable—remained digital video’s principal selling feature, which is why even the earliest digital practitioners strained for this kind of verisimilitude above all else. Digital cameras were designed and calibrated for the purpose of fidelity—not to the world as our eyes naturally perceive it but to the spatial integrity of analog capture, oriented in the manner of a film lens. It became standard practice for a digital camera to suppress its technological idiosyncrasies—digital color grading became popular largely so that the image could be adjusted more extensively to this end—and to magnify or in some cases artificially manufacture qualities specific to film (especially textural elements like film grain), all so that an audience might not be aware that what they are seeing was captured by a digital camera rather than an analog one.
Regardless of how effectively that illusion of perceptual realism deceives its audience, digital capture remains fundamentally different from analog photography. The significance of this distinction, more a redefinition of ontology than a simple change in technology, necessitates further recognition and a deeper understanding, especially when one considers the degree to which it has changed the overall character of the cinema. This is precisely why Miami Vice should be regarded as such an important object of study, and why it behooves us to examine the film from the perspective of its specific form.
Production circumstances, for one thing, change considerably: the digital camera has the capacity to operate in a wider range of natural lighting conditions and can pick up greater detail in low light without introducing interference in the form of grain. But lighting presents new challenges, particularly when it comes to standard-practice rigs and tools. Helium balloons, typically relied upon for additional nondirectional illumination at night, register on digital as conspicuously artificial sources, the light they provide appearing too bright and non-diffuse. The heavy-duty lighting equipment employed on most film sets has to be dimmed drastically or just scrapped altogether. Density gels become crucial. These are merely hiccups, of course—they’re early tech wrinkles to be ironed out as the format advances and engineers adapt to the new demands.
But some ontological differences arise, which demand more than technological adjustment. In The Virtual Life of Film, D. N. Rodowick explains that “the material basis of photography, as well as film, is a process of mechanically recording an image through the automatic registration of reflected light on a photo-sensitive chemical surface.” This photochemical process, Rodowick observes, is an act of transcription in which a moment in time is recorded, physically, by the impression of light onto a fixed surface. The information of time and place, represented by reflected light, is imprinted in a physical substance, organized spatially by the lens. The relationship between the “profilmic” event being captured through the lens and the physical impression recorded on the film is direct and isomorphic, producing a strong indexical link between the moment and its filmic record.
Where the photochemical process transcribes, digital capture translates, and in doing so weakens that crucial indexical link. A digital camera responds to the registration of light on its lens by transforming that information into meta-pictorial data, a code that represents light values as mathematical abstractions. “The end product,” explains Timothy Berkley in his essay “Cinema Fantasia,” “is a photograph, but it visually depicts the numerical contents of a frame buffer, and not necessarily the state of any real place at any particular time.” Rather than be impressed into the concrete grains of photographic chemicals, in digital capture “light must be converted into an abstract symbolic structure independent of and discontinuous with physical space and time,” arranged into a static, rectangular grid of dots called pixels. It would take roughly 12 million pixels to produce an image with the resolution of a single frame of 35mm film.
A computer’s capacity for translating wavelengths of natural light into numbers is imperfect; it must manipulate brightness and contrast in order to fake the results. More disconcertingly, a digital camera may take the original light values captured by the lens and, if the values are similar enough across a given block of pixels, apply the same numerical coding to all of the pixels within that block in order to quicken the translation and save computing power. This accounts for the somewhat eerie sensation of stillness one sometimes feels when watching a digital presentation: where film grain is inherently random and constantly in flux, even from one frame to the next, digital capture flattens the difference by fixing light to a static pixel grid. There is movement in a 35mm image that a digital image simply does not represent.
It is surprising, given the significance of these differences, that the digital image should so consistently strive to replicate the look and feel of traditional film images. That kind of imitation is always, at heart, a doomed endeavor: the gulf which divides the analog from the digital is inherently unbridgeable, no matter how close an approximation seems to bring us. Perhaps this is why In Praise of Love’s midfilm introduction of deliberately low-grade and otherwise heavily modified mini-DV footage appears to tear the very fabric of the film apart: its digital essence isn’t remotely repressed or effaced, the image instead relished for exactly those qualities which distinguish it from the 35mm footage it disrupts. It rejects the crisis of digital verisimilitude: by nature of its design, that image of the blown-out and color-saturated beach is inherently digital, a singular vision wholly unique from the look and feel of film.
Michael Mann proceeded from the foundation established by Godard to bring the digital cinema into its own, beginning with the production of Collateral in 2004. Mann, along with DP Dion Beebe (hired as a replacement hand a few weeks into the shoot), strove with Collateral to make a digital film that would actively rely on the advantages specific to shooting digitally, in particular the capacity of their equipment to capture more detail in situations without much light. To this end they employed two Grass Valley Viper cameras and two Sony HDW-F900/3 HD camcorders for principal photography, adding a third F900/3 for second-unit work in the last three weeks of the shoot. The cameras were cumbersome and the production was plagued with technical difficulties. “With a film camera,” explained Beebe in an interview, “you’ve got a standardized system in place so you’re getting the same results. But if you’re running four HD cameras, you’d better step through each, making sure that the gain setting is the same, that the matrix settings are all the same, that there aren’t color shifts within them.” But shooting digitally allowed for considerable freedom in other areas: when a small pack of coyotes happened to waltz through a street near their production, Mann and Beebe were able to capture the moment without worrying if the image would be underexposed.
Miami Vice expanded the scope of Mann’s vision for digital cinema. Working with Beebe once more, Mann conceived of an aesthetic built around the unique capabilities of the technology at his disposal. The Vice shoot employed a combination of cameras (including Thomson Viper FilmStream, Sony HDW-F950, and Sony HDW-F900), recording to HDCAM-SR tape through Sony SRW1 VTRs in what’s called “Rec. 709 HD color space”—establishing this color space in advance obviated any need to manipulate in postproduction, which Mann felt had become a crutch for filmmakers shooting digitally. It wasn’t just about the cameras used, explained Beebe, “but also what software will be in those cameras, what modifications we needed to make to that software, as well as what kind of LUTs [“Look-up Tables”] we would use in order to visualize on set what the end product would look like.”
For Vice, Mann and Beebe had custom display terminals, programmed with specialized LUT algorithms, designed for their on-location use; these terminals were programmed to replicate with great accuracy the viewing conditions of 35mm projection, so that the crew could see not only how the finished product would look to them, but also how it would look when presented theatrically. Mann and Beebe also used a portable, high-resolution DLP projector to screen the dailies every morning to a twelve-foot screen in their location screening room. Because they did not intend to rely on post-production tinkering to perfect the image, they were able to see nearly 100% of their footage as it would appear in the finished version—and since they had only limited or temporary access to many of their exotic locations, this capacity to immediately review footage was crucial in allowing them to return for reshoots before their time to do so had expired.
This degree of control and care is typical of Mann’s filmmaking process. Though the Vice shoot has been noted for its extensive preproduction period, when Mann assigned his lead actors to help conduct simulated drug busts with the police, the real time and effort went into mastering the art of digital photography. At this time, Mann and Beebe spent seven months testing and retesting their recently acquired (and in many cases modified or redesigned) equipment, learning the limitations and advantages of the technology. Mann and Beebe agreed in advance that Miami Vice would not look like it was shot on 35mm or any other kind of analog film, and to that end they was successful: the film’s look is characterized by blown-out and overexposed daytime photography, a proximity to precarious and sometimes dangerous action uniquely possible with smaller and less expensive cameras, and, more than anything else, nighttime photography of a depth and clarity never before seen in a Hollywood film. Though its TV source material was notoriously garish—perhaps remembered more for its pastel palette and beachside milieu than anything else—this Miami Vice inverted the stylistic legacy, rejecting the sun-kissed beaches and white linen jackets of the series and tending instead toward a look tailored to suit digital capture. The film’s defining aesthetic is thus modern, dark, and exceptionally sleek, making much of its many late-night settings and expansive ocean views.
Jean-Baptiste Thoret wrote, in Senses of Cinema, that Miami Vice “is an inspired synthesis of impressionism and hyper-realism,” a quality at least partly attributable to its engagement with the nature of the digital. The uncanny depth of the image—think, in particular, of the many sequences shot on speedboats at night, where the waves can be seen crashing far off into the distance despite nothing to illuminate their edges, or of the nightclub rooftop lit only by the skyline around it—has a bracing candor and clarity, as though what we’re seeing lacks the artifice or mediation of analog film. Mann is keenly aware that his audience will associate the bareness of his digital images with the authenticity of photojournalism, which is perhaps why he shoots his spectacular final showdown in the blunt, confidential style of war reportage. Put simply, much in Miami Vice feels somehow more real than if it had been shot on film. But the film also has a painterly quality unique to the apparatus: the technical “failures” of the image, that lack of familiar professional cleanliness which makes a film look like cinema, often lend Miami Vice the illusion that its colors are bleeding into one another. Its imperfections become, as Thoret says, impressionistic, blurs of color and light that look like watercolor. “The power of Miami Vice,” says Thoret, “comes from its mix of formal elegance and brutality.” Both qualities are products of its technology.
If the digital image can never truly replicate the analog image, it must benefit the format to aspire to something else, to embrace the advantages and limitations unique to itself, to establish an aesthetic of the purely digital. Miami Vice suggests that such an endeavor may yield a new kind of image, one for what is fundamentally a new kind of cinema. “Certainly when you look at it on screen, the format is different from film,” Dion Beebe observed during the production of Collateral. “It’s a different result. Because you’re seeing a night world that is richly illuminated, with an enormous amount of depth, it’s slightly unsettling. It feels almost otherworldly, and it’s somehow a little bit alienating.” As it should: better that a new kind of image present itself as explicitly new and fundamentally different than efface the mode of its own production, fooling us into believing that we’re seeing something other than what we are. If we’re to lose film—and it increasingly seems as though we already have—better that we should feel as though we’ve lost it, to be aware of its absence in contrast to the urgent and immediate presence of something unlike it.
Miami Vice is a work of urgent difference, both an introduction to a new medium and an automatic culmination of qualities specific to it. The film’s blistering opening sequence makes this obvious immediately, alternating between a busy neon-lit nightclub and the roof of a downtown high rise in what acts as a veritable sizzle reel for what digital can accomplish with minimal light: the club interior, lit naturally, looks more like a living, breathing nightclub environment than any artificially mounted set piece could have, while shots from the rooftop find the camera gazing far off into the distance, the twinkling lights of the cityscape perceptible for what seems like miles. The camera at once takes in more—more detail, more light, more of the city at night—and does more with it, the image somehow, as Beebe says, “otherworldly,” remarkably clear and yet seemingly blurred with the texture of digital noise. Vice foregrounds this cognitive dissonance inherent in the digital image: it is simultaneously clear and in high-resolution but blown-out, pixelated, the colors gorgeously smeared, hyper-real and unreal.