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74

ones and zeroes
Topic by: dpowers
Posted: September 20, 2002 - 1:58 PM PDT
Last Reply: September 30, 2002 - 7:53 AM PDT

author topic: ones and zeroes
dpowers
post #1  on September 20, 2002 - 1:58 PM PDT  
i'm tired of the martyr/messiah relationship between film and video that people keep throwing around.

some people put salt in their food. other people don't. everybody eats, everybody likes dessert, and there will always be brainy people seeking meaning in the many layers of their lasagna.

it's sad that the expertise that was developed around chemical filmmaking (and still photography) is vanishing, in favor of the more bland digital forms. sad because before, making movies was its own thing, and now, making movies and designing a spreadsheet are very similar. this is a little bit of a violation of personal ingenuity.

fans of digital video like to say it's a "democratization" of cinema. give me a break. when was it not possible for any person to pick up a camera and make a movie? pink flamingos, shot with an old newsreel camera. or little fugitive, shot with a homemade camera!

what "democratize" here means, unfortunately, is that middle-class people with money to burn on computer equipment can make movies without dedicating themselves to the craft--i.e., without losing their position in society. (which says to me that society has become less flexible, and people are sensitive to that.) but to me that still means "digital" is more "democratic" because it allows the teacher's pets of the world to go a little bit higher on their swingsets during recess.

on the other hand, this generation grew up with computers, not chemistry sets, so it makes sense that we would have nothing but high praise for movie equipment that lets us play with computers instead of chemicals. that's tidal, though. if another wave of kids grows up making pastries, expect powdered sugar to replace dv in 2020.
dwhudson
post #2  on September 21, 2002 - 4:47 AM PDT  
DPOWERS wrote:

> i'm tired of the martyr/messiah relationship between film and video that people keep throwing around.

Sure. And I'd add in agreement with you, D, that the article that's up at the moment is a little too either/or -- probably in reaction to the piece in the Stranger. I could have, and probably should have included examples/quotes of the 'defense of film' argument. There are plenty of terrific filmmakers, from Spielberg to Atom Egoyan, who've made that defense darn eloquently.

Spielberg has talked about 'bouncing molecules' that bring images on film to life; Egoyan gets at the same intuitive approach by talking not only about 'color saturation' but also 'emotional saturation.'

As things are now...

> some people put salt in their food. other people don't.

Right. But...

> it's sad that the expertise that was developed around chemical filmmaking (and still photography) is vanishing, in favor of the more bland digital forms.

Yes, it probably is, and even Agnes Varda, a pro-digital gal, talks about missing holding onto the strip of film, touching the images in tangible form. This is something I'll miss, too, as well as the texture of really raw Super-8 or grainy b/w 16mm pix up on the screen.

Maybe the people who really love film will keep it around for years, maybe decades, as a specialized art form, long after digital production has replaced it in just about every other area. Or maybe the materials will eventually simply become too hard to get your hands on.

But...

>sad because before, making movies was its own thing, and now, making movies and designing a spreadsheet are very similar. this is a little bit of a violation of personal ingenuity.

I think that the people who make movies this way are going to get filtered out. These will simply not be great movies that get to people, that move them, and they'll be forgotten. It's the filmmakers that take advantage of the light portability, etc., etc., to tell stories in innovative ways that'll rise to the top.

I purposely wrote "rise to the top" because I know that that argument is a little simplistic. Ok, a lot simplistic. The film industry is not a meritocracy - but neither is any other industry. In general, though, bad work will not ultimately be rewarded, even if some of the good stuff falls through the cracks as well.

> fans of digital video like to say it's a "democratization" of cinema. give me a break. when was it not possible for any person to pick up a camera and make a movie? pink flamingos, shot with an old newsreel camera. or little fugitive, shot with a homemade camera!

And there are other examples galore. Werner Herzog famously stole hi s first camera (reminder: it wasn't to be had for free, then), and there's the Richard Rodriguez legend and so on.

But all their films still cost some money. So if Rodriquez had $7000 to spend, the question is whether he could have made a technically smoother film (not that technically smoother is better, etc) for the same money if it were possible for him back then to have done it digitally.

And with the advent of digital, I think it'd be hard to argue that there aren't more Pink Flamingos getting made right now; again, a lot of them will be crap. But one of them might be really good, and might not have been made otherwise.

> what "democratize" here means, unfortunately, is that middle-class people with money to burn on computer equipment can make movies without dedicating themselves to the craft--

This reminds me again of the digital divide arguments throughout the 90s. Don't get me wrong -- absolutely legitimate arguments, and I've made one or two myself. But, yes: "democratization" cannot be exaggerated (as it was re: digital tech in general in the early 90s -- 'soon, everyone will be wired!'). Digital cameras will not rain from the sky and the govt sure won't be passing them out, either.

Nonetheless, to some degree -- how much of a degree is another question -- there is "democratization" going on around here by simply virtue of the fact that digital is cheaper.
dpowers
post #3  on September 28, 2002 - 7:37 PM PDT  
this comes from this is orson welles, by orson welles and peter bogdanovitch, published in 1998. (welles died in 1985, but from the book's introduction i figure the quote came from somewhen between 1969 and 1980 or so -- before the video toaster and digitized video.)


PETER BOGDANOVITCH: [Otto] Preminger once said that ideally, if he could, he would never cut. He would like a picture all in one take.

ORSON WELLES: That will come when tape is perfected and they stop putting film in the camera. I saw that kind of insane flash of ignorance when I first started [shooting Citizen Kane]. I said to [Gregg] Toland, "Isn't it basically ridiculous that the film is in the camera?" And he said, "Yes. Eventually it will just be a sort of electric eye. We won't be carting the film around or the motor--we'll just be carrying the lens."


i screwed up, i didn't want to argue against the primacy of digital video, i was trying to argue against the "digital" part being overvalued. as far as i'm concerned, the CCD (charge-coupled device), invented in 1969, was toland's "electric eye" and that invention marked the end of film as the principal storytelling medium. to my mind all developments since then have been refinements of the technique of recording the visions of this "electric eye."

regarding the cost of digital video and how that makes filmmaking more widely available, if a thing becomes widespread, that doesn't mean a restriction of supply was holding it back before.

kids weren't falling over each other to use video equipment that was available at their schools in the 70s. when i made a video in the late 70s, before MTV, i was the weird kid who was using a camera. nobody else used it as far as i know. now, no question in my mind, i'd be locked out of the a/v room by the cool kids. that just smells like fashion to me.

many filmmakers are now moving to digital video for all those good reasons -- the end of generation loss, offline editing, etc. i just want to note that the avant garde here, documentarians, turned to video for cost reasons long before fully digital video was available.

i'm sorry i just can't finish anything for this thread that makes me happy. i didn't mean anything that sounded like a "digital divide" argument. i simply distrust novelty. most times you can trace a new thing back fifty years or more, if you can get past the marketing.

dpowers
post #4  on September 29, 2002 - 12:57 PM PDT  
> On September 20, 2002 - 1:58 PM PST DPOWERS wrote:
> [we] grew up with computers, not chemistry sets, so it makes sense that we would have nothing but high praise for movie equipment that lets us play with computers instead of chemicals. ... if another wave of kids grows up making pastries, [it's reasonable to] expect powdered sugar to replace DV in 2020.

requoting this, because this is still the center of my position. nobody would reasonably propose that telecommuting had made the golden gate bridge redundant. everybody still needs to eat and sleep and physical objects need a path to travel.

we should know this but maybe we don't. the people who were inventing the movies were watching huge parts of our modern world being built right alongside them and they had a better sense of perspective than we do now, i think.

thinking about this last night i wondered if these technologies, film and video, could be traced back further than just the dates of their specific invention. for instance, film could be described as an "automatic painting," or oil-based pigments that arrange themselves, instead of requiring a brush and paint. that would make film an evolutionary development of very old artistic symbolic technology.

video is an application of the understanding of energy's response to other energy, a much more recent development, with more in common with our thinking now. we forgive many of video's faults on the basis of that kinship.

it could be that the wide excitement about digital video is that it finally overthrows one of the great intellectual chemical dependencies (light sensitive chemicals as art) to install yet another example of the primacy of electricity and energy in creation.

matter reacts, energy creates, i guess i'd rather be "creative." i guess i'd rather be the sun than the person stranded in the desert. but pretending you're a friend of the sun won't save you if you don't have enough water.

dwhudson
post #5  on September 30, 2002 - 7:53 AM PDT  
Hm... Very thought-provoking stuff, D. I think that in terms of the quality of the image, no one but no one is going to argue with you. I'm glad you mentioned making video works yourself; I've made a few in my day, too, music videos for obscure bands and performance groups that were either broadcast on TV here in Europe or shown in galleries in the late 80s. And here's the thing: Well more than half, probably more three quarters of the total footage I was shooting back then was film even though it cost me a lot, lot more and I didn't have much money at all to throw around. The aesthetic leap was worth it.

Even though the quality of DV has come a long, long way in that decade and a half, there's a difference that you touch on here with vivid imagery ("rather be the sun than the person stranded in the desert"). Film as substance with a chemical base; video as substance-less energy interpreting other substance-less energy. And this difference is made visible on the screen in that, even in a static image, a point of light seems "alive" on film because the actual particles it's being shown through change 24 times a second, changing, every so slightly, the quality of that light. Whereas, on video, that same point of light is a steady, constant stream of identical information; while it isn't, it seems "dead".

You trace the origins of film back to painting and, taking David Hockney's recent arguments into consideration, absolutely. Over-simplified, Hockney has argued that Renaissance painters "traced" (loosely interpreted) from images projected onto a canvas, camera obscura-style; hence, the sudden appearance of perspective, the triumph of realism over the more 2-dimensional and religiously allegorical figurative drawing, etc. Maybe. We do know, though, that there were forms of the camera obscura all the way back there in the ancient world.

The thing about the camera obscura is that light that comes from afar, goes through a small hole to shoot on through to a surface in a darkened room... this light is teeming with the dust and shadow and color of the air of the living world. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of a comment Laurie Anderson made years and years ago, something to the effect that Virtual Reality won't be virtually real until we get the dirt in it.

I think we're going to be seeing people working on getting DV to incorporate the dirt. Maybe the aesthetic problem with DV is not that its resolution is only just now catching up with that of film but that it's too clean. We're already seeing some attempt to capture the matted colors, the bleeding and so on that film offers (remember the old, crude "Paint" option mixing boards used to offer?). It's an attempt that could be interpreted at scrunging up DV's perfection and making it as imperfect as life.

On that note, I translated this for a friend the other day:

"... So you could say that the Neptunes try in their productions to play the inevitable inaccessibilities of hand-made music with machines. Or you could put it as Pharrell Williams has: 'Sequencers are perfect and people aren't. They are fallible. And this fallibility is the real perfection.' And so, in the way that the Neptunes attempt to play the unconsciously fallible perfection of human music-making on perfectly functioning machines, on the new version of their N.E.R.D. album, In Search Of..., they have tried to make use of the unconscious fallibility of a live band in order to play the consciously made mistakes of the first version of the album. That not only sounds complicated, it is, and it only began to get there via the power of coincidence..."

Harald Peters, "Der Fehler als System" ("The Error as System"), taz, August 8, 2002.

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