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Images and Psychology
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 06.26.2003 2:24 pm    Post subject: Images and Psychology Reply with quote

I feel the psychological impact created by the texture, format, and context of an image is worthy of discussion. Recently I read an interview with the French documentarian Nicolas Philibert, and he said something that resonated with me:

"Television is obscene in its transparency--it's a place where people lay bare their lives for very little return. Cinema isn't transparent--it uses elements like the grain, the depth of the shot, the play of light and shadow. Cinema is the art of ellipsis: the language is metaphorical and every film has its secrets of mysteries."

Of course, this topic also raises the question of whether digital video (which clearly has made filmmaking voices more democratic) has a substantially negative effect on the aesthetics of film culture.

Any thoughts on this subject?

Eric
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matt header
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PostPosted: 06.26.2003 3:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The emergence of digital video, especially in numerous independent films, is both a blessing and a curse. I think it's a blessing because you can buy a digital video camera for about $700, make it, and if you're talented enough you can make a movie with it that will be noticed. It makes anyone a potential director, while the specifics of a film camera, developing, editing, and the price of buying individual reels makes using film much more difficult. But I think most people would agree that the image on film is much better, and you can do so much more with it. I am reminded of "Sex and Lucia," a film I liked which was on digital video and had some beautiful shots, but also some that were overexposed or ruined by digital. I am also reminded of "Tadpole," a film I didn't like made slightly worse by the poor quality of the digital camera.

Matthew Libatique used digital to great effect in "Requiem For a Dream," and "Atanarjuat" basically required it. Neither of those films had poor cinematography, so I guess much of it depends on the quality of the cinematographer, of course. I guess Philibert's quote instills me with great respect for the film camera, which has been a glorious tool for more than a century and has limitless possibilities - what great filmmakers have done with it gives the film camera an almost mystic quality, and the thought of it being replaced by a digital camera is terrifying.

Matt
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 06.26.2003 5:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Matt,

Interesting that you mention Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, one of my favorite movies from last year. I'm reminded of something I wrote for the old board on this topic:

Regular readers of the Flipside know that I very much enjoyed The Fast Runner, an Inuit epic shot on the Arctic tundra, using digital video.

Recently I read another review of the picture, by Jeremiah Kipp, an excellent and imaginative critic who once contributed to this site. In his negative review, he wrote, ?It?s difficult to imagine the movie being [shot on film], lugging heavy equipment on location through the tundra? But are those noble excuses really enough to justify The Fast Runner for being? visually unappealing? Are good intentions enough to let a movie coast by with significant flaws??

I agree entirely with Kipp that digital video yields an inferior picture, compared to the texture and clarity of film. In particular, the medium is exasperating when film would have produced a preferable result. I think of Spike Lee?s great, important Bamboozled, which was somewhat diminished by the grainy murkiness of digital video.

In his review Kipp raised another interesting question, asking ?whether a movie should be made right away even if the budgetary restrictions cause the quality to suffer, or if it should wait for the ideal circumstances and maybe never get made at all.?

These are fascinating questions. I think The Fast Runner would look better shot on film, but viewers should acknowledge the logistical nightmare of such an endeavor, especially for low-budget filmmakers. (Unlike Lee?s Bamboozled, which used video to reduce its budget, The Fast Runner used video in order to counter the geographic near-impossibility of shooting on the tundra.)

I suppose it?s easy to wish the filmmakers had waited to make The Fast Runner until technology or ideal circumstances made the use of actual film possible. Yet, to me that slope is a tad slippery. Should Buster Keaton have waited until the invention of color before attempting to film the train crash in The General, in order to make it more spectacular? Should F. W. Murnau have waited until sound before tackling Sunrise, to make the silent melodrama more acute? Should Hitchcock have waited until CGI before trying to adapt The Birds? Should Cassavetes have delayed shooting Shadows until he could afford better, color film stock, and quality sound editing? Should Spielberg have waited until CGI and Avid editing before filming Raiders of the Lost Ark, which now looks slowly cut compared to the speed of modern actioners, which are manufactured on an Avid?

Since there?s virtually no way The Fast Runner could have been made today without digital video, I guess I?m willing to overlook how its filmmakers faced certain limitations, in the same way I can overlook how Keaton, Murnau, Hitchcock, Cassavetes, and Spielberg also faced certain limitations. Despite its inferior quality, digital video has a place?especially when that place is far away, icy, and fogging up the film camera.

Eric
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Danny Baldwin
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PostPosted: 06.26.2003 10:22 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I recently saw The Fast Runner and can honestly say I wasn't bothered by the digital video. But in a film like Manic (which I have only seen clips from) or Tadpole it's deliberately annoying. Sure, The Fast Runner probably would've been even better with some miraculous shots of the Artic Tundra thrown in, but I don't think that's any reason why filmmakers should've aited on making it. I think the experience translated onto digital video just fine, and is, without a doubt--moving. Very Happy
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matt header
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PostPosted: 06.27.2003 12:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I thought I'd add another notable digital experiment to the discussion: Mike Figgis' TIMECODE, which required digital video since a single reel of 90 minutes can't be shot at one time. Nevertheless, I didn't like the film at all - Figgis didn't take the least bit of time to constuct an interesting story for his experiment, instead pointing his camera at bantering, unengrossing performers. The visual quality of the film is poor - often intentionally - but that is far from my only reason for disliking it.

Matt
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 06.27.2003 12:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I agree, Matt. Outside of its central gimmick, there's very little going on in Time Code that's interesting, not even thematically. Still, you raise the valid point that the movie (I hesitate to call it a film) simply could not exist on film. I'd argue the same is true of Atanarjuat, considering its setting. Certainly digital video has a place when it expands our notions of what visual imagery can achieve.

Several years ago, when digital movies were becoming more common I was among those excited by the possibilities the new medium represented. These days, I find myself wearied by the prospect of slogging through yet another independent feature/documentary that looks absolutely cruddy. Few filmmakers have embraced digital for its advantages; most have used it as an easy way around budgets and limited proficiency as an artist (or technician, I guess).

Eric
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 06.27.2003 12:41 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I wanted to also comment on Tadpole, which both Danny and Matt mentioned. I liked the film more than they did--I found it a well-sustained farce, and far more relevant as social satire than Igby Goes Down--but I must agree that the picture quality is disappointing. Like many digital videos, the colors are not sharp and in this case the endless tans/browns make it a very unappealing experience.

Colors suffer similarly in Atanarjuat, but the more skillful cinematography helps mask the deficiencies to some degree. Digital video simply cannot compete with celluloid (it's the difference between flat image capture and textured chemical emulsion), but the clear superiority of Atanarjuat over Tadpole proves that even digital cinematography requires proficiency, creativity, and artistry. I would argue that Sex & Lucia is a prime example of digital imagery at its finest. There were segments during that picture that I had to squint to discern that it was, indeed, digital video. Next to it, the visuals of Tadpole seem inexcusable. I may have liked the script, but cinema is not just a written medium. Equal attention must be paid to its visual expression.

Eric
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Danny Baldwin
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PostPosted: 06.27.2003 1:44 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

beltmann wrote:
I wanted to also comment on Tadpole, which both Danny and Matt mentioned. I liked the film more than they did--I found it a well-sustained farce, and far more relevant as social satire than Igby Goes Down


I liked Tadpole, and would recommend it. But since were talking about imagery and such, I just thought I'd point out that the digital video was distracting. My comments weren't as negative as you felt that they were.
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 06.28.2003 8:02 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I caught Boyle's 28 Days Later this weekend and am ambivalent about its use of digital video. On the one hand, the grainy, bombed-out texture seems wholly appropriate for a zombie-virus-apocalypse flick, and Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography has a seeping, washed-out beauty that ranks, I think, among the finest digital pictures--the unsettling images always seem to have goosebumps on them.

On the other hand, I kept longing for images of greater resonance, of greater texture. I wanted to clearly see Manchester burning, not a CNN newsreel version of it. I wanted to see fear register deeply in the actors' eyes, not just guess at their degree of suffering. I assume, though, that my ambivalence is a direct result of digital's overuse--I'm so tired of seeing it so often, I unfairly resisted Boyle's decision, even though his use seems artistically valid.

Is the film's sense of dread and paranoia improved by the coarse grain? Or would it have deepened on celluloid, since so many more shades of darkness would have been available? I suppose those are the central questions regarding digital video: Does it diminish the beauty, clarity, refinement, and texture of film as we know it, or can it offer certain visual qualities that celluloid simply cannot provide? In other words, are some movies better suited for film, and others video?

There's no question that film and video are two separate mediums, especially in terms of the technical precision required for each. In my opinion, film is clearly the superior, more challenging (and rewarding) form, but digital should be an acceptable option when it is artistically warranted. Perhaps 28 Days Later, like Atanarjuat, is one of those exceptions.

Eric
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PostPosted: 06.30.2003 4:19 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Last night I saw yet another movie I thought valid to add to this discussion: Paul Greengrass's "Bloody Sunday," which utilizes grainy, documentary-like digital video to powerful, stark effect. I must admit that at times I wished for a clearer image, but I can understand Greengrass' motivation for using digital, and it gives the film an unforgettable feel.

Matt
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 06.30.2003 8:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Matt, that's a good example of a subject that seems perfectly matched with digital video. In fact, I thought BLOODY SUNDAY was the second-best movie last year, tied with RABBIT-PROOF FENCE. Here's what I wrote at the time:

"The truth about imperialism -- its unacknowledged human price -- supplies the theme for these twin raids upon colonial arrogance. On Sunday, January 30, 1972, British soldiers killed thirteen unarmed civil rights demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland. If the recent Saville inquiry can be trusted, Paul Greengrass' nervy re-enactment, which accuses the troops of butchery, has accurately revised the record. Fiction plays a larger role in Phillip Noyce's expos? of Australia's Stolen Generations, but his chase of three Aboriginal girls who flee an internment "school" and scamper 1,200 miles home feels no less authentic. Though dissimilar in their naturalism (Greengrass relies on tremulous, anemic visuals, while Noyce embraces gorgeous landscape imagery), both stories are crowded with rigorous details about egos at war: In each, one group asserts its right to reign, while another asserts its right to live free. That timeless clash may be political, but one function of realist cinema is to liberate history from politics, to reveal its intricate emotional dimensions -- which is why both directors allow panic, grief, and rage to lay claim to these events."

I recently re-visited both on DVD, and feel confident that they are, indeed, great films. BLOODY SUNDAY, in particular, grows in stature upon second viewing. I should also admit, though, a certain bias for realist cinema--like Andre Bazin, I feel that cinema's most noble function is to approximate reality, to capture and interpret truths about what it means to be human.

Eric
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Michael Scrutchin
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PostPosted: 06.30.2003 9:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

There's so much to say here, but I just thought I'd throw out a few things right now and then pop back in later to discuss these issues further.

When speaking of digital video, I think we should make a distinction between the different formats -- mainly between digital video (DV) and High-Definition (HD). Both are "digital video" formats, but the difference in feel and quality can be astounding. Just compare the image quality and aesthetics of any of the Dogme 95 films, Full Frontal, or any number of micro-budget indie films (DV) to something like Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones, Jason X, or Lovely & Amazing (HD). I can almost always tell if a movie was shot on film or video, but I didn't even know L&A was shot on HD until months after seeing it!

DV is typically rough and jagged, but HD is much higher quality and can be shot at 24 frames per second, just like film. Depending on the intent of the director and cinematagrapher, HD can be amazingly clean and clear. I was astounded by the clarity when I saw Attack of the Clones projected digitally; the HD look loses a lot of its clarity when transferred to 35mm film and projected traditionally. The same goes for DV transferred to 35mm, like Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (which I haven't seen yet).

Of course, it all depends on how the format is used. A well-shot DV or HD can certainly have more visual depth and texture than a less-than-well-shot 16mm or 35mm film. It's not the format; it's how it's used. And since DV and HD are both in their infancy, filmmakers are still experimenting, learning how to make the best use of the new mediums. One thing I like about DV is its immediacy. Sure, it can't compete with the depth and texture of 35mm film, but film doesn't have DV's you-are-there immediacy. 24fps HD transferred to 35mm film, on the other hand, can often look like it was shot on 35mm to begin with; most people, I suspect, would not be able to tell that Session 9 or View from the Top were not shot on film.

Okay, enough rambling for now. I'll be back.
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beltmann
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PostPosted: 07.03.2003 8:05 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Unfortunately, most people assume that film and video are essentially the same thing, with only slight (and therefore negligible) differences. Yet the properties unique to each medium are what validate them as separate artistic mediums, and, for those who take cinema-as-art seriously, it is essential to acknowledge the major distinctions between them.

One of my favorite film writers is Fred Camper (who also does fine art criticism, and often publishes next to Rosenbaum at the Chicago Reader; his film writing qualifies him as a Brakhage specialist), and he often discusses these distinctions. A while back I read one of his essays about the subject, and here's a quote:

"Cinema, when it functions as art, depends upon the precise articulations made between different frames, and between different areas of light within the frame. Video, by effacing the differences upon which cinema depends, renders the rich complexity of a film masterwork as an inarticulate haze. A film realizes itself in the gaps between frames, and in the contrasts between light and dark, one color and another, foreground and background, movement and stillness, that it mobilizes towards its expressive ends. In video, those gaps are blurred and bridged, producing an ever-vibrating, ever-alive continuum.

"The matters discussed herein are not narrow formal issues that should be of concern only to filmmakers and a narrow group of aesthetes. I have tried to show that the form of the medium a communication is presented in is a crucial part of that communication, and a part of its statement as well. Any work makes its statement not merely by its subject matter or "message" but by the relationship it defines, via its form, between itself and its recipient. If Leni Riefenstahl had made Triumph of the Will about a 1936 Democratic Party rally in the U.S. that was supporting the reelection of Roosevelt, it would still be a fascist film, and an evil one as well. One person can declare to another "I love you" by writing a letter, by sending flowers, by telephoning, by visiting, through a series of carefully selected gifts, by deep attentions to the loved one, or by a crude and uninvited seduction attempt, and the "medium" chosen for this communication helps to define the very meaning that the word "love" has in the implicit or explicit underlying "sentence."

"All of the differences described above are not merely technical issues, but epistemological and ethical ones as well."

I find this stuff fascinating, and I agree wholeheartedly with Camper that these matters have more significance than merely technical. Here's a link to Camper's full essay, called "The Trouble With Video"

Eric
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Danny Baldwin
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PostPosted: 07.04.2003 3:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Was X2 filmed in HD? I noticed that a few theatres were playing it in digital projection, and at the show I saw it at, it looked very grainy. Question
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Michael Scrutchin
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PostPosted: 07.04.2003 4:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Danny Baldwin wrote:
Was X2 filmed in HD?


No, it was shot on 35mm film. Very Happy
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