Distinguished guests, President Yang, Consul General Griffiths, colleagues and students. Ni hao, and thank you all for participating in this … a noteworthy and important media event in Nanjing.
As you know, this is the fourth NYIT-NUPT Student Film Festival, and another testament to the quality of education and opportunity engendered by the collaboration between Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications and New York Institute of Technology. This year, we are celebrating that collaboration with two new additions: our Center for Culture and Humanities, and an international symposium on film that is accompanying this year’s film festival. The symposium’s theme is Longing and Inhibition in Film. That is purposely a broad topic, though clearly one that signals emotions as the key subtext. With permission, I am going to provide a broad and extended opening statement to set up context for what we will be seeing and saying over the next two days.
Sometimes it’s helpful to reflect on history and the patterns of challenge that reemerge with each new accomplishment.
The first image I showed you is a street sign of Broadway, the so-called Great White Way, and the word Broadway itself is most associated with theater in America and probably the world. It so happens that the corner of 61st Street and Broadway is home to NYIT, and NYIT is the closest university to New York’s theater and performing arts districts. In fact, it could not be closer. And in many ways modern cinema began on Broadway. Edison’s laboratories and film discoveries were made just across the river from Manhattan, and many of the early silent films were based on plays and were performed and directed by New York actors. The film industry set up shop in Manhattan, notably the American Biograph Company on 14th Street, where a Kentucky-born-and-bred actor in New York, D.W. Griffith, now known as one of the pioneers and fathers of motion pictures, directed film after silent 8-minute film in 1908 and 1909—creating one film every two days was common. By 1915, with his three hour-long Birth of a Nation, he had established the key techniques and models we employ today.
As an actor and aspiring playwright, Griffith arrived in New York in 1907 when there were some 106 theaters on Broadway, but the emergence of motion pictures changed all of that. Movies began to replace plays and other theatrical entertainments as people’s first choice, and film’s abilities, including its method of presenting realism, transformed the stage, including turning drama inwards, more psychological on one hand or more outward as performance on the other, such as the famed Broadway musicals. Today, 40 theaters remain in the Broadway theater district … but there are quite a few movie theaters as well.
The theater of the 19th century was defined by two styles, realism and romanticism, and was nowhere more apparent than in the melodramas that ruled the theaters in England and America. The emerging cinema was uniquely suited to inherit melodrama from the theater, and cinema emerged at a time when theater goers liked highly visual drama. Melodrama, of course, is all about emotions, often about longing and inhibition. Melodrama involves rhetorical excess, heightened dramatization, and polarizations of good and evil, such as the white and black hats in the visual language of the American Western.
Melodramas appealed to a wide audience and help democratize culture. “The purpose of melodrama is not to deal with the monotony of daily life,” noted historian Paul Pickowicz. “Rather, it seeks to put an insecure and troubled mass audience in touch with the essential conflict between good and evil that is being played out just beneath the surface of daily life.”
The early short silent films generally were either melodramas or comedies and decided low-brow. Griffith, like his contemporary early film directors, looked to the theater and to literary classics for the plots of short films, and Griffith notably introduced “high-art” to the world of melodrama and film with his pioneering adaptations of works by Dickens, De Maupassant, Robert Browning, George Eliot, Hugo, London, Norris, Poe, Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Tolstoy.
I raise D.W. Griffith, who was also the man who moved filmmaking to Hollywood for its more reliable natural light and weather, because he was a well-known and major influence on the Chinese film industry.
At the turn of the 20th century, when the new medium of film was first introduced to China through screenings of Edison’s films in Shanghai, they were dubbed “xiyang yingxi,” or “Western shadow play”— a way to relate them to an already established tradition of entertainment.
Although the first Chinese theater exclusively devoted to film appeared in Beijing in 1907, as time progressed towards the 1930s, the “Western shadow play” was integrated into Chinese variety shows that included acrobatics, traditional opera, and vaudevilles. It would be naïve of us to assume that these various modes of entertainment did not have some effect on one another- everything from martial arts novels and comic books to love stories and live shows played a role in the evolution of this medium.
At first, 90 percent of all films shown in China were American. Between 1896 and 1937, that amounted to more than 5,000 films. As movie going became a more popular pastime, audiences began to express a desire for feature films that involved Chinese subjects and themes. The earliest iterations of this domestic cinema drew on local theatrical traditions.
After 1921, extra capital seeking investment made its way to China, jumpstarting China’s budding film industry. With no tradition of filmmaking of its own, and with film looked down upon as a lesser art, the Hollywood commercial model was accepted and the film industry was driven by what made economic sense. In the hands of businessmen, it was not ideologically or pedagogically framed.
Between 1922 and 1926, 175 film companies opened in China, with 145 located in Shanghai. By 1929, there were 233 movie theatres in seven cities in China.
Although the first Chinese short feature was based on an adapted script rather than on opera, Chinese opera has played an important role in the history of Chinese film, not least of all for its influence on shaping the filmmaker’s creative process and modes of expression.
What developed was a playground for artistic expression, where the lines between realism and idealism danced between social convention and aspiration. The theatrical traditions of symbolism, illusion, and extended metaphor were re-evaluated and transformed for a new type of audience.
Many of China’s first popular films were based on costume dramas adapted from vernacular literature and opera. Towards the end of China’s first Golden Age of cinema, filmmakers chose to explore conventions in stylized realism and expressing truth through cinema- sometimes through documentaries and artistic interpretations of current events and issues.
It was around that time, in the mid-1940s, that China was experiencing its second Golden Age of Cinema, 300 kilometers from here in Shanghai. Production houses like Kunlun Studios and the Wenhua Film Company sprung up in the city, which to this day remains an important media capital.
In the 1960s, the first wide-screen Chinese film was produced. Following that, animated films used a variety of folk arts, including shadow plays, puppetry, traditional paintings, and cut paper. Though low-tech by today’s standards, they ultimately became popular modes of entertainment and education. 1961’s Havoc in Heaven,directed by Wan Laiming, was made at the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, and won the Best Film award at the 1978 London International Film Festival.
What role did technology play in this evolution? On the one hand, we have the visual themes, the mise-en-scene of theatre, the centrality of an actor’s body, the precise choreography of a movement or orientation of characters on stage, the scenery that suggests a particular time and place beyond the confines of the curtains. On the other, we have the filmmaker, the director, the ability to zoom in and out of a scene and pan across a setting to emphasize a particular thought.
In theater, we suggest environment through the construct of the stage. In film, we suggest emotion through an altered field of perception. Once we recognize this, we free the filmic medium from its role of preserving reality, and allow ourselves some room for play.
The visual context of film does not discount its aural aspects, which in various new technological aspects from the 1970s and onward in China has helped created new forms and modes of storytelling that overcome some of the restraints of visual culture. It is notable, too, that from a history of character-driven theatrical films, there gradually evolved metaphor-laden creative expressions whose unique nature stemmed from the quality of improvised reality. Chinese cinema has been incredibly adept at leveraging subtlety, nuance, and metaphor with both lush cinematography and minimalist verité styles toward presenting an instructive reality to audiences. We can say, a specific lexicon for Chinese cinema was born and expanded with the expanding quality of film technology.
Looking back, NYIT also played a key role in the evolution of the film industry, much due to the fact that we’ve kept our eye on technology.
Nearly 40 years ago, then NYIT President Alex Schure was interested in making a computer-generated feature length movie, and wanted to use computers to do it. In 1974, he established the Computer Graphics Laboratory at New York Institute of Technology’s Old Westbury campus. It was the most sophisticated studio of its time, and housed state-of-the-art computers and top-end analogue devices for creating special effects. The lab attracted both technology experts and artists. Top talent included Lance Williams, Fred Parke, Garland Stern, Ralph Guggenheim, Ed Emshwiller, Alvy Ray Smith and Ed Catmull—all giants today in the history of animation and many are still leaders in the industry.
The staff at NYIT were very prolific in the design of influential software and filed many patents during the period from 1975 to 1979, including the animation program Tween, the paint program Paint, the animation program SoftCel, and others. They also contributed to image techniques involving fractals, morphing, image compositing, texture mapping--the famous Mip-Map approach--and many others. The Paint program was sold to Ampex and became the main components of the Ampex AVA system, used by artist LeRoy Niemann to do interactive painting during Super Bowl 78. The scan and paint system eventually became the CAPS system used at Disney.
A great deal of effort at NYIT went into the development of the film, "The Works," which was written by Lance Williams. Although it was never completed, sequences from the work in progress still stand as some of the most astounding animated imagery of the time. The quality of the imagery, along with the other animation and graphics work being done at NYIT, attracted the attention of George Lucas, who was interested in developing a special effects facility at his company, Lucasfilm. He recruited the top talent from NYIT, including Catmull, Smith, and Guggenheim to start his division, which eventually spun off as Pixar.
They worked in what is now an administration building at NYIT's Old Westbury campus.Two-time Academy Award winner and co-founder of Pixar Alvy Ray Smith added the notation to the building: “The group now known as Pixar began in this building in 1974-1975.”
Globalism of Film
Today, the collaborative, cross-cultural, trans-national aspects of the film industry cannot be ignored.
While the U.S. film industry is the world’s oldest and still the largest in terms of revenue, India is the largest producer of films in the world in terms of ticket sales and number of films produced.
Commercially, the Chinese film industry has been growing rapidly, with box office revenues jumping more than 25% annually over the past decade.
175 kilometers away from here, the city of Wuxi is home to China’s first large-scale film and television studio and first designated digital film industrial park. The studio and new postproduction facility provide the Chinese film community with state-of –the art creative and technological services that allow them to complete aspects of filmmaking from previsualization to a final digital intermediate.
In February, Vice President Xi Jinping visited the United States and laid the grounds for increased collaboration in film production between China and global co-producers. Around the same time, IMAX signed a multi-theatre deal in China … aiming to more than double the IMAX network here over the next couple of years. Conventional screens have already been on track to double by 2015.
In terms of global co-productions, this is evidence that the rest of the world is eager to collaborate with Chinese filmmakers and that audiences wish to experience China’s rich history in film and culture. This is an exciting time in the growth of the Chinese film industry. As you know, the Walt Disney Company just announced a major investment and partnership in producing animated films in China.
We are at the stage where art can move beyond metaphor. It no longer has to replicate reality, it IS reality. We live within a globalized, postmodern world that creates art for audiences who mirror it back to the artists through popular cultures and subcultures. We have harnessed technology … first to mimic reality within the limitations of the art, then to replicate it. We have been chasing realism within the limitations of technology. Now, we have the ability to take it a step further … to address a hyper-reality that combines the sophisticated technologies that create a computer-generated avatar with the creative sensibilities that give that avatar emotional resonance.
And speaking of Avatars and 3D, here is a photograph of the most sophisticated and advanced film projection space in New York, the site where many films premiere. It is the NYIT Auditorium on Broadway, with its high-definition 3-D projection and Dolby 7.1 Surround Sound, multiple texture screens, video conferencing, and broadcast capabilities that currently make it the most technologically advanced, state-of-the-art movie venue in Manhattan.
I close by observing that the first Academy Awards presentation took place 83 years ago in a room much like this, with just 250 people in attendance. Now it has become a global media broadcast viewed by some 40 billion people. Tonight in this space, we will hold our own awards ceremony, which we hope will continue for another 83 years and will by then have showcased the early work of many Academy Award winners.