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<nettime> Cinematic Video, v. 2
twsherma on Mon, 15 Jan 2007 06:53:27 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Cinematic Video, v. 2

Cinematic Video: film is dying while 'film' is being born...

by Tom Sherman

The word 'film' is undergoing a radical change in meaning. Film used to be
a photochemical medium--shot, processed, edited in celluloid, and
projected through 16mm and 35mm polyester prints. As Kodak says, film is
animal, vegetable and mineral. The base of film stock is cellulose acetate
(vegetable); the photo-sensitive emulsion is a thin gelatinous coating
composed of boiled, emulsified cattle bones and cartilage laced with
silver halides (animal and mineral). Kodak's rather organic medium was the
basis of film production for over a century. Now film likely describes
something very different. 'Film' is increasingly digital and electronic.

Today most 'film' is captured by light sensitive CCDs (charged coupled
devices), the silicon chips that make the pictures in video camcorders.
The lion's share of the editing and image processing done in 'film'
post-production is done with computers. The non-linear digital editing
station is fast replacing the hands-on Steenbeck and the wet film
processing lab. DVDs are used for printing, duplicating, distributing and
projecting 'films.' Film projection is a dying art. Digital video
projection is all the rage as screenings everywhere are increasingly
conducted in video. 'Film' has become just another word for video.

This major shift in the technology of 'film' is bemoaned by two
communities in particular--the diehard celluloid filmmakers who consider
themselves film artists, and by video artists, who find their medium being
trampled by an invasion of 'filmmakers.' Scores of film artists are now
involved in direct or handmade film (sometimes camera-less), splashing
their celluloid with bleaches and acids in sinks and bathtubs, pushing
film through alchemical transformations in order to get the most extreme
wet film look. Video artists, having had the medium of video to themselves
for forty years, find themselves necessarily pushing the cybernetic
aspects of video to its limits, focusing on 'live' performance to the
camcorder, or making limited-edition video installations for exhibition in
galleries and museums, capitalizing on video art's origins as a
systems-based sculptural form.

The vast majority of independent 'filmmakers' are simply working in video
while calling what they do 'film.' Film artists dedicated to celluloid and
video artists are offended and squawking because their ways of working,
their aesthetic languages are being threatened with extinction. In the
same way that half the world's 6,000+ spoken languages are being discarded
for World English, Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese (half the world's
languages will likely disappear by 2050), cellulose-based film art and
video art's forty-year history of experimentation and innovation are
currently being threatened by 'filmmakers' who don't seem to realize they
are working in "video." Most of these 'filmmakers' couldn't say video if
they had a mouth full of it.

Some would say that this is simply a crisis in semantics, that the meaning
of the word 'film' has shifted radically under the force of technological
evolution. Does it really matter what we call a moving image projected on
a screen that tells a story--fictional, documentary, or a mix of both? But
there are reasons to watch our language in the interest of preserving and
expanding diversity in contemporary independent film and video. The medium
of video is not 'film,' nor does video effectively embody the conventional
approaches of making cinema.

Cinema is the century-old tradition of translating literature or live
drama to the screen. Cinema is an act of imagination and construction, not
an act of recording or transmission. It could also be thought of as the
emotional manipulation of audiences through the illusion of film, a media
extension of the novel and the social dynamics of theatre. Celluloid has
been the preferred medium for cinema, as it was sufficiently distant from
real space and time, but could fully immerse the audience in a
high-definition, concrete resolution of illusory space. I'm not saying
that cinema cannot be made in video, but it would be a good idea to
acknowledge and understand the actual medium one is working in, and to
write and shoot specifically for video, not to assume video will respond
to the same creative approaches as celluloid.

Video, before these 'filmmakers' arrived, was the medium of choice for
thousands of artists, who developed an aesthetic based partly on the
material qualities of video (and more fundamentally on its cybernetic
strengths--video modifies and governs behavior through instant feedback)
and on different goals (the translation of literature and theatrical
performance was NOT the main goal of video artists). Video art is not a
history of illusion, but in fact is a creative use of a specific
technological medium to eliminate the gap between art and life. Part of
video's intimacy is its material qualities of acoustically defined spatial
reality. Video is like an audio recorder that sees. There is simply less
perceptual distance between a video recording of a subject and the subject
itself, than a film representation of the same subject.

Stan Brakhage, the great American avant-garde filmmaker, was fond of
saying "sync sound sank the movies." He felt that the need to maintain a
coincidence between picture and sound restricted experimentation with more
interesting relationships between image and sound. One of video's
strengths, its complete integration of acoustic and visual space, the
reason it is the preferred medium of 'reality' (television news, reality
TV, the documentary form), makes video an extremely difficult medium for
the translation of scripts and acting into cinema. Video is like an x-ray
technology. It sees through fiction. Video exposes bad writing and weak
acting much more brutally than celluloid.

Brakhage also used to say that all video looked like "a bowl full of
oatmeal," which, in the 1970s, was true. Video, for the longest time, was
a poor substitute for 16mm or 35mm in terms of resolution, color and
contrast. But digital video and HDV look pretty good today, and cost
advantages have tipped the scales toward video. The film snobs, who
pooh-poohed video for years, are now in bed with it. This marriage of
convenience is risky business. Video may do the same thing for cinema that
it has done for television. Reality TV may suck, but television producers
and directors have transformed television with the video medium's
essential cybernetic characteristics (behavior is shaped and governed by
instant replay, phoniness exposed, and thus 'real people' are humiliated).
Scripts and actors and the conventions of cinematic history have been
pushed off the small screen. And yet somehow it has not yet dawned on most
'filmmakers' that video by nature undermines the illusions of fictional,
cinematic narrative.

While video, the technology, spreads like wildfire, 'filmmakers'
everywhere are moving in on video as a territory. Why wouldn't they? Video
pours into television naturally, streams through computer networks and
digital telephony, and with HDTV and HDV soon to dominate movie theaters,
video will be truly ubiquitous. With film on the wane, it's time for
'filmmakers' to take over the video world. The semantic trail of this
awkward takeover is amusing.

'Filmmakers' now say they work in 'digital cinema.' 'Video cinema' or
'video film' are too straightforward and don't sound right. 'Filmmakers,'
now confined to computers and digital non-linear editing, are attracted to
the term 'movies' (as in QuickTime movie files) -- but the idea of
'digital movies' is ultimately too small and fails to encompass the grand
20th century scale of cinematic history. Let me suggest that 'filmmakers'
use a more accurate descriptor for making films in the medium of video.
Video is digital, based on electronics and silicon. Video is not
celluloid. The millennial practice of making films in the medium of video
is a new creative practice that carries the traditions and history of
cinema into the 21st century. Let's call it 'cinematic video.'


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