No Ghost, All Shell — on effects-driven filmmaking

Digital Essay 3

Even before the film’s first release, the Hollywood remake of Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk classic Ghost in the Shell has rendered thundering criticisms surrounding the whitewashing of Johansson’s role. According to ScreenCrush, Paramount and DreamWorks allegedly commissioned digital visual effects tests that would’ve altered Scarlett Johansson’s facial appearance in post-production to shift her ethnicity and make the Caucasian actress appear more Asian through the “beauty work.” Based on the eventual result of the film, the producers seemed to have dropped this scandalous project, yet the consistently plummeting rating on IMDb is evident that the auditorium have not warmed to the film. One objection is that it is all about discrimination that the producers opt for a high-profile white actress over a low-profile asian actress. The other objection, is that the gist of Oshii’s monumental anime movie was entirely lost, which is the consensus of the audience of media and regular moviegoers alike.

Based on the observation above, the Hollywood remake is disconcerting fundamentally because of two things. The first problem is that the producers even considered using digital effects to alter Johansson’s facial definitions, possibly her facial performances as well. The almost spontaneous decision reflects how special-effects makeup has become a commonplace, habitual practice in the film industry. As the re-framing of digital human figures was effectively used in many commercial films such as AvatarThe Polar ExpressThe Lord of the RingsThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the initially planned retouching of Johansson’s facial features is clearly an exploitation of the technology. As Allison pointed out, there is an increasing reliance on visual effects in all stages of production, as digital visual effects have factored into the making of many films that do not fit into the typical, effects-driven films (Allison 2016). Jessica Aldred defended the use of digital facial makeover in “From Sythespian to Avatar,” stating that the practical digital effects should be appreciated according to its functionality rather than its believability (Aldred 2011). Yet the producers were clearly making a too-contrived attempt to put the ethnicity back into the context, in reaction to the objections in the lead-up to the production.

The other problem is that Sanders tuned down the original narrative for commerciality yet re-enlivened the original visual setting at full strength. The opening sequence of the original 1995 anime, the scene of shelling Major’s skeleton and eventually finishing her cybernetic carcass, has influenced the most famous tech noirs such as The Matrix and Westworld. To recreate and reinterpret the milestone scenario, digital visual effect experts from Weta and Effects House MPC worked with a physical 1,400-piece skeleton modeled on Johansson and a body lifted from real liquid filmed against green screen, according to CNET.com. MPC also created the futuristic metropolitan landscape for the film. With giant advertising holograms as tall as skyscrapers and the digitally simulated crowds hoarding on the shadowed streets, the city seems to be even better than the original anime had envisioned. MPC won this year’s visual effects Oscar for its work on The Jungle Book, and provided more than 1,000 shots for Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell.

In the 1995 anime movie, Major Kusanagi merged her ghost with the ghost of the Puppet Master to become a free entity in the net. Her immortal body is nothing but an artificial shell to her, and after the merging her ghost can wander through any corner of the net, and download into any available robotic shell. The obsolete, bizarre ending was a judicious choice to situate the identity of Major in a liminal zone between the virtual and the real worlds, where any kinds of oppressive power hierarchy will be liquidated and the ghost of Major embraces the ultimate freedom, becoming a god-like entity. Oshii did not put too much emphasis on polishing either the city view or the look of Major’s body. Oshii presented a grand view of an age of evolving technology without all the stylistic curlicues, and his cyborg heroine remains enigmatic. The futuristic post-information age Oshii perceived is an abysmal condition for humanity. It has a constant gloomy climate and barren natural landscape in the backdrop, since the global populace has consumed the natural resources, and there is prevailing drug abuse, plague and violence.

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According to the characters in the advertising signboards, the location is possibly set in Hong Kong, a popular setting for noir mangas in 1990s featuring violence, sex, and crime.

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The neon city in Ghost in the Shell (2017).

Sanders wraps up his remake with a cheering bright neon aesthetics that pleases the eye and inspires admiration for the glossy finish. The beautiful city in Sanders’ film is nothing like the infernal place depicted by Oshii. Hollywood not only rules out any possible confusion in the narrative — and therefore, uncommercial results — but also executes the film with visceral effects that were never the aspiration of Oshii. Johansson’s performance was largely completed in front of the green screen, according to CNET.com. Using the digital backlot technology, the complicated computer-generated environment was conjured pre-production and complied post-production with the live-action performance. Digital backlot is an effective visual device for making a highly stylistic film like Sin City, yet it appears that the producers are only concerned with making the film as high tech as possible at the expense of profound storytelling.

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The metro area in the digitally enhanced 1995 anime.
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The metro area in the 2017 remake.

Oshii expressed a distinctive philosophy on human subjectivity. The posthuman imaginary of a hybridized subject facilitates the possibility of an assemblage across the boundaries of nation, race and gender, distinguishes him from other animators and filmmakers — a distinction that has less and less meaning nowadays globally (Allison 2016). The chilling soundtrack was comprised of Shamanic bell chimes and ancient Japanese ritual chants, posing a jarring contrast to the futuristic visual world on the screen.

The choice to make Johansson star in the remake is not necessarily a silly choice infidel to the source material, since Oshii portrayed Major as a raceless, androgynous hybrid.The timeless cyberpunk manga by Shirō Masamune’s and the animated adaptation by Oshii both imagine a global future of humanity and try to value the human soul over the technological and the organic union of the physical existence. Yet the 2017 film is merely one another thematically pale, action-packed Hollywood blockbuster, with all the visual flair, blood-pumping sound effects that could appear in any action-packed blockbuster, and the formulaic Hollywood plot twists. Admittedly, the anime medium enjoys greater narrative freedom and visual potential, and the extensive special/visual effects that went into producing the 2017 remake show an effort in revoking the original setting. Yet the insistence on re-creating Major’s thermal camouflage suit, the making of her shell and the sophisticated city landscape, juxtaposed with the tediously generic new narrative, appears all the more ironic considering its title — Sanders’ remake is all shell but no ghost in itself.

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The elegantly simple thermal camouflage in the 1995 anime.
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The stunning thermal camouflage in the 2017 remake. Sanders left out the nipples and curves in the anime, which could be too graphic for a commercial release. Johansson’s nude suit appears more “artificial,” “assembled” and “stitched” in comparison, bearing less verisimilitude to a real female nude.

As early as in 1985, Neil Postman already pointed out in his Amusing Ourselves to Death that the prophesy of Huxley, rather than that of Orwell, will become America’s future. People will not be ruled by oppression; they will submit to their innate desire for trivia and eventually immerse their cultural life in endless entertainment. People will be not be deprived of books, freedom of speech, and liberal democracy. Because people will abandon the books themselves, bury journalism in inert, eye-catching information that do not lead to meaningful propositions and actions (a concern which the Teach-In on Quad at Emory mentioned), and drown themselves in the ocean of trivia that technology provides. On one hand, Postman’s view aptly describes the cultural force driving every Hollywood film with overridden effects and a feeble narrative, pessimistic and dismal as it seems. On the other hand, the raging criticisms against director Rupert Sanders’ new film is promising evidence of the resistance to superficial entertainment.

“‘Ghost in the Shell’ is one of the year’s most visually stunning films,” says Richard Trenholm at CNET.com, “Scarlett Johansson stars as a cybernetic cop whose human brain and robotic body blur the line between humanity and technology. The film similarly blurs the line between live action movie-making and cutting-edge computer effects.” But is the liquidation of the line a promising future of cinema? And was to “blur the line between humanity and technology” the valuable accomplishment of the original anime? Rupert Sanders made a valiant effort at bringing a touch of sci-fi noir to the mainstream entertainment, yet not even all the dazzling post-production VXF effects could emulate the esoteric beauty that is Mamoru Oshii and Shirō Masamune’s cyberpunk.

Works Cited

Allison, Tanine. “The Modern Entertainment Marketplace, 2000-Present: Special/Visual Effects,” in Editing and Special/Visual Effects. Edited by Charlie Keil and Kristen Whissel. New Bruswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2016.

Aldred, Jessica. “From Synthespian to Avatar: Re-framing the Digital Human in Final Fantasy and The Polar Express.” CA: UCLA School of TFT, 2011.

Sampson, Mike. “‘Ghost in the Shell’ Ran Tests to Make White Actors Look Asian.” ScreenCrush. N.p., 18 Apr. 2016. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Trenholm, Richard. “‘Ghost in the Shell’s Special Effects: Behind the Scenes.” CNET. N.p., 01 Apr. 2017. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

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