[The script of the video essay follows.]
For most of us, our first encounter with a wild animal happens through a screen: the camera has the power to bring us closer to an animal than we are ever likely to get in the wild. It is by sight that we become fascinated with them, by sight that we come to know them, by sight that we mourn their disappearance.
We are currently living through the world’s sixth mass extinction event, the first to be caused entirely by humans. By the century’s end, we are likely to have lost half of the world’s species. Film will not only be the most intimate encounter we have with animals: for most species, it will be the only encounter possible.
The fewer animals we find in the wild, the more we see on screen. The digital revolution has enabled filmmakers to create an entirely new breed of animal, one that exists only in the form of pixels. Absence of flesh and blood answered by an abundance of virtual animals.
Animals have always been a central part of filmmaking, and animals on the screen have always had a complex relationship to their real life counterparts. One of the earliest films made by Thomas Edison is of an animal execution. In 1903 the rogue performing elephant Topsy was sentenced to death by electrocution after killing her trainer. Edison used the event as an opportunity to show the power of alternating current, as well as his state of the art film camera. Thousands watched the event, and many thousands more flocked to the film.
The celluloid used in film stock comes from gelatin made from the rendered bodies of animals. Eastman Kodak had its own rendering plant so that they could monitor the quality of the animal product that went into the patented celluloid used by most filmmakers. Before digital, when you watched a film, the image on the screen was literally being projected through animal matter.
With digital we usher in a new era in which animals might play a different role on the screen. For Darren Aronofsky’s animal epic Noah, Industrial Light and Magic created 14,000 virtual animals, none of which involved the use of live animals in their creation. Aronofsky felt it would be against the theme of the film to put live animals in dangerous or harmful filming conditions. The result is the most breathtaking collection of virtual animals ever assembled. The film itself is a kind of digital ark, bringing thousands of animals to life even while their real-life counterparts are likely to become extinct in the coming decades.
Before Noah, CGI artists more often used live animals on the set to serve as models for digital versions. The process is called capturing. In the filming of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, four tigers were used to create the unforgettable feline presence of Richard Parker. One of them was reported to have nearly drowned on the set.
We know animals by sight. By seeing we know they have souls. Somehow, these souls survive even in their visual avatars, even when what we are watching is not an animal at all, but a collection of pixels on a screen.
.Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.