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Show Bizness => Producing => Topic started by: Reginald Hudlin on September 10, 2012, 06:17:35 am

Title: Film Is Dead? Long Live Movies
Post by: Reginald Hudlin on September 10, 2012, 06:17:35 am


September 6, 2012
Film Is Dead? Long Live Movies
IN the beginning there was light that hit a strip of flexible film mechanically running through a camera. For most of movie history this is how moving pictures were created: light reflected off people and things would filter through a camera and physically transform emulsion. After processing, that light-kissed emulsion would reveal Humphrey Bogart chasing the Maltese Falcon in shimmering black and white.

More and more, though, movies are either partly or entirely digital constructions that are created with computers and eventually retrieved from drives at your local multiplex or streamed to the large and small screens of your choice. Right before our eyes, motion pictures are undergoing a revolution that may have more far reaching, fundamental impact than the introduction of sound, color or television. Whether these changes are scarcely visible or overwhelmingly obvious, digital technology is transforming how we look at movies and what movies look like, from modestly budgeted movies shot with digital still cameras to blockbusters laden with computer-generated imagery. The chief film (and digital cinema) critics of The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, look at the stuff dreams are increasingly made of.

A. O. SCOTT In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1986 movie “Keep Up Your Right” a movie director (played by Mr. Godard) declares that “the toughest thing in movies is carrying the cans.” Those once-ubiquitous, now increasingly quaint metal boxes contained the reels of exposed celluloid stock that were the physical substance of the art form. But nowadays the easiest thing in digital movies might be carrying the hard drive or uploading the data onto the server. Those heavy, bulky canisters belong to the mechanical past, along with the whir of the projectors and the shudder of the sprockets locking into their holes.

Should we mourn, celebrate or shrug? Predigital artifacts — typewriters and record players, maybe also books and newspapers — are often beautiful, but their charm will not save them from obsolescence. And the new gizmos have their own appeal, to artists as well as consumers. Leading manufacturers are phasing out the production of 35-millimeter cameras. Within the next few years digital projection will reign not only at the multiplexes, but at revival and art houses too. According to an emerging conventional wisdom, film is over. If that is the case, can directors still be called filmmakers? Or will that title be reserved for a few holdouts, like Paul Thomas Anderson, whose new film, “The Master,” was shot in 70 millimeter? It’s not as if our job has ever been to review the coils of celluloid nestled in their cans; we write about the stories and the pictures recorded on that stock. But the shift from photochemical to digital is not simply technical or semantic. Something very big is going on.

MANOHLA DARGIS Film isn’t dead yet, despite the rush to bury it, particularly by the big studios. Film does not have to disappear. Film isn’t broken — it works wonderfully well and has done so for a century. There is nothing inevitable or natural about the end of film, no matter how seductive the digital technologies and gadgets that are transforming cinema. A 16-millimeter film camera is plenty cool. A 35-millimeter film image can look sublime. There’s an underexamined technological determinism that shapes discussions about the end of film and obscures that the material is being phased out not because digital is superior, but because this transition suits the bottom line.

The end of film isn’t a just a technological imperative; it’s also about economics (including digital rights management). In 2002 seven major studios formed the Digital Cinema Initiatives (one later dropped out), the purpose of which was “to establish and document voluntary specifications for an open architecture for digital cinema that ensures a uniform and high level of technical performance, reliability and quality control.” What these initiatives effectively did was outline the technological parameters that everyone who wants to do business with the studios — from software developers to hardware manufacturers — must follow. As the theorist David Bordwell writes, “Theaters’ conversion from 35-millemeter film to digital presentation was designed by and for an industry that deals in mass output, saturation releases and quick turnover.” He adds, “Given this shock-and-awe business plan, movies on film stock look wasteful.”

SCOTT Let me play devil’s advocate, though I hope that doesn’t make me an advocate for the corporate interests of the Hollywood studios. If there is a top-down capitalist imperative governing the shift to digital exhibition in theaters, there is at the same time a bottom-up tendency driving the emergence of digital filmmaking.

Throughout history artists have used whatever tools served their purposes and have adapted new technologies to their own creative ends. The history of painting, as the art critic James Elkins suggests in his book “What Painting Is,” is in part a history of the changing chemical composition of paint. It does not take a determinist to point out that artistic innovations in cinema often have a technological component. It takes nothing away from the genius of Gregg Toland, the cinematographer on “Citizen Kane,” to note that the astonishing deep-focus compositions in that film were made possible by new lenses. And the arrival of relatively lightweight, shoulder-mounted cameras in the late 1950s made it possible for cinéma vérité documentarians and New Wave auteurs to capture the immediacy of life on the fly.

Long before digital seemed like a viable delivery system for theatrical exhibition, it was an alluring paintbox for adventurous and impecunious cinéastes. To name just one: Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot many of the Dogma 95 movies and Danny Boyle’s zombie shocker “28 Days Later,” found poetry in the limitations of the medium. In the right hands, its smeary, blurry colors could be haunting, and the smaller, lighter cameras could produce a mood of queasy, jolting intimacy.

Image quality improved rapidly, and the last decade has seen some striking examples of filmmakers exploring and exploiting digital to aesthetic advantage. The single 90-minute Steadicam shot through the Hermitage Museum that makes up Alexander Sokurov’s “Russian Ark” is a specifically digital artifact. So is the Los Angeles nightscape in Michael Mann’s “Collateral” and the rugged guerrilla battlefield of Steven Soderbergh’s “Che,” a movie that would not exist without the light, mobile and relatively inexpensive Red camera.

Digital special effects, meanwhile, are turning up this season not only in phantasmagorical places like “Cloud Atlas” and “Life of Pi,” but also in movies that emphasize naturalism. To my eyes the most amazing bit of digital magic this year is probably the removal of Marion Cotillard’s legs — including in scenes in which she wears a bathing suit or nothing at all — in Jacques Audiard’s gritty “Rust and Bone.” While movie artists of various stripes gravitate toward the speed, portability and cheapness of digital, which offers lower processing and equipment costs and less cumbersome editing procedures, consumers, for their part, are suckers for convenience, sometimes — but not always — at the expense of quality.

I love the grain and luster of film, which has a range of colors and tones as yet unmatched by digital. There is nothing better than seeing a clean print projected on a big screen, with good sound and a strong enough bulb in the projector. But reality has rarely lived up to that ideal. I spent my cinephile adolescence watching classic movies on spliced, scratched, faded prints with blown-out soundtracks, or else on VHS — and also not seeing lots of stuff that bypassed the local repertory house or video store. I’d rather look at a high-quality digital transfers available on TCM or from the Criterion Collection, and more recently (very recently) at a revival theater like Film Forum in New York. Like anyone else of a certain age I have fond memories of the way things used to be, but I also think that in many respects the way things are is better.

DARGIS We’re not talking about the disappearance of one material — oil, watercolor, acrylic or gouache — we’re talking about deep ontological and phenomenological shifts that are transforming a medium. You can create a picture with oil paint or watercolor. For most of their history, by contrast, movies were only made from photographic film strips (originally celluloid) that mechanically ran through a camera, were chemically processed and made into film prints that were projected in theaters in front of audiences solely at the discretion of the distributors (and exhibitors). With cameras and projectors the flexible filmstrip was one foundation of modern cinema: it is part of what turned photograph images into moving photographic images. Over the past decade digital technologies have changed how movies are produced, distributed and consumed; the end of film stock is just one part of a much larger transformation.

I’m not antidigital, even if I prefer film: I love grain and the visual texture of film, and even not-too-battered film prints can be preferable to digital. Yes, digital can look amazing if the director — Mr. Soderbergh, Mr. Mann, Mr. Godard, David Fincher and David Lynch come to mind — and the projectionist have a clue. (I’ve seen plenty of glitches with digital projection, like the image freezing or pixelating.) I hate the unknowingly ugly visual quality of many digital movies, including those that try to mimic the look of film. We’re awash in ugly digital because of cost cutting and a steep learning curve made steeper by rapidly changing technologies. (The rapidity of those changes is one reason film, which is very stable, has become the preferred medium for archiving movies shot both on film and in digital.)

We’re seeing too many movies that look thin, smeared, pixelated or too sharply outlined and don’t have the luxurious density of film and often the color. I am sick of gray and putty skin tones. The effects of digital cinema can also be seen in the ubiquity of hand-held camerawork that’s at least partly a function of the equipment’s relative portability. Meanwhile digital postproduction and editing have led to a measurable increase in the number of dissolves. Dissolves used to be made inside the camera or with an optical printer, but today all you need is editing software and a click of the mouse. This is changing the integrity of the shot, and it’s also changing montage, which, in Eisenstein’s language, is a collision of shots. Much remains the same in how directors narrate stories (unfortunately!), yet these are major changes.

SCOTT I agree that digital has introduced new visual clichés and new ways for movies to look crummy. But there have always been a lot of dumb, bad-looking movies, and it’s a given that most filmmakers (like most musicians, artists, writers and humans in whatever line of work) will use emerging technologies to perpetuate mediocrity. A few, however, will discover fresh aesthetic possibilities and point the way forward for a young art form.

An interesting philosophical question is whether, or to what extent, it will be the same art form. Will digitally made and distributed moving-picture narratives diverge so radically from what we know as “films” that we no longer recognize a genetic relationship? Will the new digital cinema absorb its precursor entirely, or will they continue to coexist? As dramatic as this revolution has been, we are nonetheless still very much in the early stages.

DARGIS The history of cinema is also a history of technological innovations and stylistic variations. New equipment and narrative techniques are introduced that can transform the ways movies look and sound and can inspire further changes. Does taking film out of the moving image change what movies are? We don’t know. And it may be that the greater shift — in terms of what movies were and what they are — may have started in 1938, when Paramount Pictures invested in a pioneering television firm. By the late 1950s Americans were used to watching Hollywood movies on their TVs. They were already hooked on a convenience that — as decades of lousy-looking home video confirmed — has consistently mattered more to them than an image’s size or any of its other properties.

From there it’s just a technological hop, skip and jump to watching movies on an iPad. That’s convenient, certainly, but isn’t the same as going to a movie palace to watch, as an audience, a luminous, larger-than-life work that was made by human hands. To an extent we are asking the same question we’ve been asking since movies began: What is cinema? “The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent,” the philosopher Roland Barthes wrote. “From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here.” A film image is created by light that leaves a material trace of something that exists — existed — in real time and space. It’s in this sense that film becomes a witness to our existence.

Then again, I learned from the great avant-garde artist Ken Jacobs — who projects moving images that he creates with shutters, lenses, shadows and his hands — that cinema doesn’t have to be film; it has to be magic.