The other day I was explaining to my girlfriend why the Shaw Brothers studio system was interesting in the grand scheme of world film history. I don’t remember how we got on the subject, as it’s not something that she cares about, but that’s what I was doing. The quick version is that the Shaw Brothers model was interesting because as Hollywood was gradually moving away from studio-bound filmmaking in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, the Shaw Brothers were doubling down on the old school studio model.
This model was composed of a few key components and it’s what classic Hollywood ran on for quite some time. At the studio there would be a group of reusable sets to keep film production costs down, as well as a contracted group of actors and crew members that worked on whatever was on the day’s agenda. While one team was out making a movie, there was another movie being made on different sets, while the guys in the writer’s room banged out the next films to be made. Shaw Brothers probably had more than five films shooting at once during their height, and this is how a relatively small group of people were able to crank out so many films in one year.
But as more and more films turned to location shooting, it became harder to sell the studio-based films to audiences. By the 1970s, Hollywood was all about shooting in the streets. Studio sets are great, but they can never compare with a real street corner. The Shaw Brothers continued into the early ’80s using the old studio model, but when your competition has Jackie Chan busting through plate-glass windows in the middle of Hong Kong for Police Story, it’s really no contest, even with my intense love of the Shaw studio. For reference, imagine an American audience’s reaction to wide-release films in the 2000s made with the production values of the ’80s… I’d love it, but most people would have probably scoffed on their way to Final Destination 3.
So how does this relate to the current abundance of digital filmmaking, or more specifically CGI-laden productions? With the rise of digital filmmaking, we have once again been ushered into an era of studio-based films, although nowadays the studios they’re working with are much more technologically advanced. But no matter what the tech is, will anyone argue that computer graphics look better than reality? Even now, 20 years after groundbreaking films like Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park used CG in ways that blew people’s minds, we’re still discussing how “good” or “bad” the CG looks. I think that at some level we will always know we’re watching something fabricated, and therefore shooting something real will always be the most realistic. (But isn’t it crazy that this is even an argument that’s possible?)
At some point, I do think a backlash against the fantasy of CG will occur. It might be 20 years (or more) from now, but eventually I imagine audiences will tire of movies that resemble video games more than they do the outside world. There will be game-changing films that turn the tide away from green-screened studio sets, and back out into the green hills of nature. So with that possibility in mind: The film industry isn’t treading new ground when it comes to digital filmmaking, they’re simply rebooting the industry. It’s all they know how to do. It’s just part of a larger, natural cycle.
The slow decline of society might not make this a reality, as people continue to delve even further into escapism and wild, wish-fulfilling fantasies. I look forward to the future of cinema, whatever it ends up being. But I’d really love to see a future version of what the 1970s meant to American filmmaking, even if I am a senior citizen when it finally comes around.