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Category:    Home > Essays > Filmmaking > Technology > Debate > The Digital Revolution Myth & Real Cinematic Revolutions.

The Digital Revolution Myth & Real Cinematic Revolutions.


By Nicholas Sheffo



We have heard so much about how great digital video is and it can be great, especially on the end of playing back films and HD video, especially when shot and transferred well.  In the case of High Definition video used for production, it is just getting out of its Model-T stage and has plenty of color and definition limits film does not.  Some can debate this, but most who side with HD do not have the experience with film to know better, or film stock would no longer be produced.


Sure, playback on Blu-ray can look great, though the digital projection in most movie houses nationwide and worldwide for that matter have been second-rate in most cases with their share of motion blur, detail and depth issues you would never have with good film prints.  The idea that we should go along with something because it is happening always gets us in trouble (known in advertising as the bandwagon approach) and when we let it happen in entertainment, it is worst still in even more serious matters, so this is more than just about technology. 


Revolution is supposed to change things fundamentally, but High Definition Digital Video is just a continuation of what analog video started in the 1950s, color video continued in the 1960s and digital video continued after that: conversion, not revolution.


For a true revolution to happen, there has to be a severe ideological change and if anything, digital video has only solidified the dominant ideology of the conservative 1950s.  For all the ranting, raving and celebrating, what has it really achieved as a format to shoot in?  Like sound on film in the early days or widescreen films and even 3D films in the 1950s, it was a gimmick before it was an artform and many consider 3D a gimmick to this day, so it is no coincidence that digital video is its new best friend.


Of course, there are some rare artistic uses of both, but they are too rare.  The consumer may win in home use of digital, but outside of 3D uses, digital video is already saving movie theaters and the studios millions of dollars in 35mm film print production they do not have to pay for since doing a digital copy is cheaper.  Ticket buyers are not getting cheaper ticker prices and if anything, prices are rising again, especially on 3D.


Any innovative visual uses of video already happened in the 1960s and 1970s, ending in the Music Video era.  It has been all down hill since for the most part.  Besides sports, the only real revolution has been one that started before digital video arrived and that is independent journalism in documentary filmmaking.  Being able to sneak smaller cameras into dangerous areas has been the only benefit, but that has been it.  The camcorder has yet to give us a Scorsese, Kubrick, Spielberg or big name director and not because they have not been around long enough, but because it is about the artist and until you have the challenge of shooting on film, with its risk, harder work and greater expense, all you get is lousy and lousy-looking, forgettable junk.


If you start to list and name the feature length releases that were all or mostly shot in HD, once you put aside the documentaries, you get two kinds of product left.   One are the major feature films by filmmakers who may be shooting in HD now, but started making it big on film (especially 35mm film and even 16mm film) and can transfer that experience to HD production if they wish.  That leaves a large number of productions you cannot name and in the vast majority of cases (how about 97%), you get nameless, formless, pointless, cynical junk made by hacks who should never be behind a camera.  These are the same people who often claim that their production would have never been made if it were not for digital video, or what real film fans would call the good old days.  There is a reason these time wasters should never be made.


Then there is a smug new ignorance about digital video as if it were superior, when you are really getting overpriced or ultra-cheap versions of what we used to call TV movies.  Some are touting it as better than film and even acting as if film was something bad, which it turns out extends to major film critics like Manohla Dargis of The New York Times by way of a surprisingly arrogant and condescending new piece called “The Revolution Is Being Shot on Digital Video” from December 2010.


It begins with an extremely unprofessional cheap shot at a filmmaker and not because of what the director filmed, but that he filmed it at all.  Damien Chazelle helmed a film called Guy & Madeline On A Park Bench, showed it, than told the audience it was filmed and named the black & white stock form Kodak specifically.  Dargis then had the nerve to attack this man by talking about his good taste in film (though writes it off as nostalgia the way all of film is being written off in this article) and adds a slam about Chazelle probably also buying and owning vinyl records.


Yes, that’s how low the opening paragraph of this supposedly objective piece of journalism was.  Then it gets worse!


We get a flashback to shooting Chuck & Buck (2000) on analog video as if it were some pioneer, when in fact, feature films were trying out analog video since the 1960s (guess this scholar missed 200 Motels, The TAMI Show and similar endeavors, narrative or not), lists films shot with digital video without explaining that some that also used film used 90% film (when your get this sloppy, why quit at any point?) and it amounts to one of the most inaccurate articles about filmmaking I have seen in a long time playing remarkably loose with the facts.


This extends to botching a discussion about Kodak discontinuing Kodachrome as if they were completely out of the film business.  For the record, that was an 85-yrear-old stock and great as it was, finally ceased production (it had as a motion picture stock years ago) because it was not as environmentally efficient and Kodak (the #1 film stock company in the world) has been making EktaChrome and the outstanding Kodak Vision line for years.  You would not know that because the point of the slanted article is film bashing.  Almost makes you wonder if payola was involved somewhere here.  Lesser camera chains (like some carrying only non-Kodak stocks) have been guilty of the same Kodachrome fallacy and misinformation about the company itself.


Still, digital video and HD is here to stay, but it is not a replacement for film.  It is a companion and will never replace film, even as the industry transitions to it.  As it grows, it will become something else and that can be good or phony, but it will go in its direction and that 3D is piggy-backing with it tells us it cannot stand on its own without 3D as a producing method at this time.  We heard the same argument in the 1980s over digital audio being superior to analog recording, but that backfired as many top artists who tried early PCM sound quickly moved back to analog recording because it had more character than digital recording then and the resulting recordings hold up better for the most part now.


We will see the same thing happen with all these HD productions looking good now, but looking dated later and when we compare them to films on film (especially when large frame formats like 70mm and VistaVision are used in any way, as is the case with most of Christopher Nolan’s Inception and all the IMAX shorts), history will repeat itself.  Like most digital video effects, HD Video has a generic look that most systems cannot shake and the idea that anything lasting or important is happening is highly overstated.


So what about a revolution?


Of course, the biggest fallacy of this school of short-cut thinking is that technology is any kind of revolution when it only applies to some technology.  A newer version of something old is still old to begin with.  It is the way a visual medium is used and what is being said in a narrative that creates a revolution in cinema.  Hollywood is still stuck (save their Computer Animated features) in the 20th Century and formula scripts, as all the remakes, sequels, reboots, dreadful “re-imaginings” and franchises show us.  It is why the Summer of 2010 is one of their worst ever at the box office, because the live action releases were usually awful and the increase in digital projection does not leave a lasting impression like a great film print.  Oh, and if the feature is an all-digital shoot, it is doomed both ways.  Film prints will show its flaws and digital projection makes it look like common HDTV.


Revolution is about having the guts to show, say or do something that needs to be said or something that no one else is willing to present visually.  Hardly any filmmaker working today has any such vision or guts, yet you would think all this digital freedom would amount to a new golden age of filmmaking, digital or not.  Don’t hold your breath!


It comes down to what it has always come down to, a director or even writer and/or producer with vision who is going to take us somewhere we have not been to before, but the situation is so bad right now (more about quick bucks and shallow ideas than anything anyone could actually be proud of) that even a simple Horror, Science Fiction or Action genre film could not be made these days without it failing at some point.  That is why even the simple films that should work are so bad.


Film schools have ruined things and con artists in and out of the business seem to be at a record high.  However, a recent good example of a filmmaking revolution (forget if the work is filmed or on HD) is in Iran.  Two filmmakers, Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rasoulof, have gone to jail for six years (!!!) for making films the repressive government thought were too subversive by simply being made.  They were about something and certainly enough to upset an extremely desperate regime.


Politics aside, they actually made films about something they could be proud of and about something at all.  While people whine here about how great digital video is and want to make their quick buck, no talent required, here are two men who have had their camera and freedom taken away.  Do most of the directors and writers working in digital video and HD narrative production in the U.S. have the same pride, credibility and guts these men have?  Apparently not, or their “work” would not be so terrible and pointless so often.


The result is that the people here speaking out against Iran’s awful decision are real filmmakers whose work is about something and that sadly, is most older and long-running talents like Martin Scorsese.  It shows how weak the new generations of filmmakers (and if it is only about storytelling, they should write books, because this is a visual medium we are talking about) coming out of Hollywood and the U.S. really are.  It is to the point where it may be a crisis later and if it is, all this empty hype on HD and digital video versus film will be one of the ultimate culprits.


That is why filmmakers knocking film is like musicians knocking tape and vinyl.  No matter the new technology, the foundation technologies will never go away and all the ignorance in the world will never change that.  Just ask the two men jailed in Iran… if you can.


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