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September 18, 2003

Down on Digital

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

On the oft-returned-to topic of digital progress and the movies, I'm going to play Mr. Doom and Gloom today.

Why? Once Upon a Time in Mexico.

Have you caught the film? A sort-of homage to spaghetti Westerns by the talented Robert ("El Mariachi," "Spy Kids") Rodriguez. He shot the picture digitally (HDTV, I think), The Wife and I saw it projected digitally, and I wound up about as depressed as I've been recently at a movie.

To be frank, I was in a grumpy mood by the time the movie began. Lordy, the cineplex experience. Young people playing with cellphones and gobbling armsful of food. Crowded, too: although we usually sit near the back of the theater, we wound up near the front this time, in the third row. And then 15 or 20 minutes of pre-feature ads, pop music, popcorn-crunching, and previews ... I felt like a punchcard that was being hustled through some Evil Mega-Corporation's most sadistic computer. "Shoot me now," I said to the Wife. "Put me out of my misery."

Well, you try to make the best of things, even cineplex things. So I vowed to find the evening interesting if not enjoyable. It quickly became clear that the movie itself was a loud, hyperactive mess, so I turned my attention instead to inspecting the imagery -- computer-made-and-displayed -- from up close.

That was what really depressed me. I don't want to belabor this posting (not too much, anyway), and I know perfectly well that my opinion about these things matters not one iota. I'm also fairly peppy generally about the direction tech developments seem to be taking movies.

But benefits seldom come without costs, and why not dwell on them from time to time? Besides, what's the point of being an arts fan if you can't complain that everything's going to hell in a handbasket? That's part of the fun.

So, forthwith, a few negative and pissy musings and observations on digital movies. Grrrrrrrrrr.

* "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" isn't a movie, at least not in the traditional sense. It's a different thing altogether -- an electronic media thing -- and it speaks an altogether different language.

* I do know that the sensible thing here is to chirp, "It is too a movie! And not only that, it's an example of what movies are becoming! So get with it, man!" And if I were much younger, that's probably the stance I'd take myself. But I'm not young any longer; in my personal mental cosmos, there are movies BD (Before Digital) and movies AD (After Digital). It's as simple as that, and as clear a distinction as the difference between photography BP (Before Photoshop) and photography AP (After Photoshop). And as far as I'm concerned, movies BD and movies AD are two different art forms. Deep dark truth be told, while I love the earlier medium I have almost no personal feelings whatsoever for the more recent arrival. It's there, it's kinda interesting, so what.

* But to leave the moodiness and self-absorption behind for a sec. Most of the time, the HDTV image as Rodriguez uses it is a reasonable representation of a movie image. From the middle of the theater or farther back, it's functional, if seldom better than that -- it's acceptable. But it's always a representation of a movie image and never the real thing. Something clear but plastic seems to come between the viewer and what's shown onscreen. Specifically, here's some of what I found off about the imagery.

  • The hotter, cha-cha, sizzly colors get ragged and patchy -- they blare.

  • Backlighting's a disaster, and highlights tend to blow out completely -- there's just nothing there.

  • Creating an illusion of spatial depth is still largely beyond the technology. Rodriguez generally fakes his way past this problem pretty well, but even so there are number of shots in the movie that have a soap-opera, everything's-in-focus banality.

  • There's a crispy-crinkly something in the imagery that reminds me of digital still photography in its early days. You look at the image and think, Wow, look how clearly you can see that strand of hair! And then you think, Gee, why in god's name am I being made to pay attention to a strand of hair?

  • And that's the biggest problem with digital movie imagery so far: the way it yanks your eyeballs and attention around in hard-to-account-for ways. Why's that little area so weirdly detailed? Why's that color so overvivid? Why is that brick wall over there screaming for my attention when what I'm supposed to be attending to are a couple of actors? Things that have no business doing so poke and snag your eye.

  • You're constantly stuck using your mind to guide your attention back to where it seems meant to be. So you spend the movie experiencing discomfort -- cognitive dissonance of some strange sort. And when you get tired and give in, it's like being on drugs -- things swim around you.

  • The imagery is thin. It's short on density and information.

  • Possibly because of the thinness of the imagery, the editing in digital movies tends to be superquick, and the images tend to get a lot of processing. You've got to have something to look at, after all.

  • The most glaring flaw is how cruel digital imagery is to facial flesh. It's merciless. Closeups make you want to run away screaming -- and movies without eloquent closeups aren't real movies, as far as I'm concerned.

  • Some outlines and diagonals do get the jaggies.

  • Given that this is a Mexico-set movie with much emphasis on grungy, repulsive gunmen, you're spending a lot of time looking at long, dark, greasy hair. For for some reason, digital makes greasy hair glisten in an especially disgusting way.

  • And beneath it all is an unforgiving grid -- a stable graininess that isn't the graininess of film. Looked at from close up, the digital movie image looks like it's being projected onto a bed of sand or sugar.

I can sense someone getting set to lecture me about what a reactionary I'm being. My response? "Sure. So what?"

I can sense someone else getting ready to remind me that movies have always drawn from popular culture and other art forms, and have always incorporated technical innovations. My response? "Of course they did. Movies have stolen and absorbed a ton of things, innovations and influences. This still happens. You can see it at work in L'Auberge Espagnole (here), for instance, or in Demonlover (here) both of which take the iconography and even thought patterns of the digital life and stir them back into fundamental movie language. But with some of the other new movies, a corner has been turned. This is something different. These other new movies aren't absorbing anything; instead, they're being absorbed into something else. (Pixelworld, presumably.) It's the undermining of movies themselves, the transformation of movies into something else entirely."

Some final reflections:

* Digital movies are, at this stage in their development, a great thing if your problem with movies is that they aren't bigscreen TV. Do digital movies have to be bigscreen TV? Certainly not -- as ever, it depends on how people are putting the tech to use. But, as a practical matter, many, many people are clearly going to use the technology to make movies that are basically bigscreen TV.

* I don't really like TV much, TV in the sense of the routine TV thing, do you? Come to think of it, I don't like the electronic media much. Long ago, I took to reading, art, movies and theater partly to get away from the electronic and pop thing. I find it rather distressing to find the electronics and the pop chasing me into domains where I was hoping to find refuge from it.

* In the future, what the heck, I'll search out the movie-movies that get made, and I'll probably check out a few of the huge-screen TV offerings too. But only because I'm a bit of an arts anthropologist.

* Do I think digital movie technology is generally an advance? And am I looking forward to some of what it'll bring? Sure. But who cares what my opinion of what's inevitable is? And, besides, life's only so long; I'm not going to have the energy to do the kind of running-around and sifting-and-sorting that'll be required. And I'll certainly be 'way too old ever to make creative use myself of the technology in anything more than an amateur-dabbler way. I expect that, given how far along in life I am already, I'll never develop the kind of feeling for the post-digital movie medium that I have for traditional movies. Will it be a nifty new moviemaking and movie-watching world? Of course, someday. But will I -- me, I, moi, yo -- have much reason to care? I mean, apart from being a benevolent soul who wishes future generations the best?

* What it boils down to sometimes is that I can't help feeling that what the new movie technology is mostly accomplishing is bringing about the death (OK, the near-death) of an art form I've often loved. I'm blissed-out when I watch what I consider to be a good example of a Real Movie, whether it's old or new: Devil in a Blue Dress or Touchez Pas au Grisbi (here), say. When, on the other hand, I'm locked in a cineplex getting an electronic going-over, I may be able to find the experience interesting, and I'm happy to celebrate the occasional example that moves or tickles me ("The Matrix," for instance). But, speaking purely as a spectator, 99 out of 100 times getting an electronic pummeling makes me want to shoot myself.

* After The Wife and I returned home from "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," I was consoling myself at the Imac, surfing the Web while also making playlists with Itunes. Have you looked at Itunes? It's brilliant. You feed music CDs onto your hard drive, and then ... Well, the song is the central, indivisible nugget of Itunes. You might have a thousand of them on your hard drive. Once they're there, you can find 'em, search 'em, order and re-order 'em, and then play 'em back (or burn 'em) as you see fit.

* Aside from copyright concerns, the big worry people have expressed about the effect of programs such as Itunes is that they destroy "the album" as a creation. Now that the program itself is all about the individual songs, who's going to go to the trouble of listening to a carefuly constructed album?

* But as I played with Itunes, one other worry occurred to me: it seems inevitable that Itunes (etc) will be the end of the song-that-grows-on-you. Why? Because you'll never give a song that doesn't instantly grab you a second (let alone a tenth) chance. I'm not the world's most impatient listener, yet with Itunes I find myself not just skipping the in-between-the-hits songs; I don't even transfer them to the hard drive in the first place. I also find that there's a strong temptation to listen to songs for just a few seconds at a time. Click -- and you get that rush that the first bars of a song you like deliver. And then it's Click again. Pretty soon you're like a rat who's developed a taste for speed; you're going from place to place, looking for another up. When you don't find it, you're outta there, and outta there fast.

* iTunes is convenient and brilliantly designed. Hats off to Apple for it, and I'm having a good time using it. But let's not fool ourselves about whether or not it'll have an effect on the music itself. As so often with digital creations, the in-between stuff falls away. It just disappears. With Itunes, you go roving in search of one blast after another. Do people have to use it this way? Nope. Will most of them use it this way? Yup. What will be the effect on the music people create and enjoy?

* What's between the blasts -- what doesn't reach out and grab you instantly -- is what's getting left behind as we move farther into the digital era. Which means, as far as I can tell, that the electronically-mediated life tends to take the form of a catalog of highlights, or a never-ending Greatest Hits collection. It's an especially odd thing for me to encounter given my interest in meditation, Vedanta, yoga, etc, all of which seem meant to drop you down into the places between what's obvious, there to find some more essential thing -- Being itself, perhaps. In the digital universe, when you drop between the hits, you tumble not into Being but into Nothing.

* All hits, all the time -- this what magazines and ads are already. Everything pops -- everything's given the kind of pumpy emphasis (in terms of visuals -- colors, graphics, cartwheeling typography) that not so long ago was reserved for what was special. Magazines and ads can seem these days to consist of nothing but a bunch of warring, pop-y things; they're like a classroom of students all of whom are desperate to answer the question you just asked. But what was the question? All that's before you is a crowd of eager faces and waving arms. Which of course means that everything's now special, which of course also means that the concept of "special" has lost its specialness. In other words, the general clamor and grabbiness level has been given a big boost, and the coherence level has been cranked 'way down.

* Now that processing power and storage devices have gotten to the point where they can handle the amount of information a movie represents, we're seeing the same development in movies: a change from the human scale to a level on which everything's pumped-up; a change from a universe of nuance, coherence and depth (or at least attempts at them) to one where pinwheeling effects are layered one on top of the other and hung out over industrial, synthetic rhythms.

* Oh, "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" itself? Godawful and incoherent -- apparently made-up by Rodriguez as he went along. Rodriguez's scripts have always been weak but have sometimes been adequate. Here he seems to be winging it almost totally. He's like a supertalented rock-guitar soloist who has absolutely no taste. The actors? Well, Johnny Depp does an outre faggy-creepy Ugly American number, and at times he's almost as amusing as he hopes he is. But everyone else is just posing for the camera. The movie's basically an endless trailer for itself -- one big "daring" flourish after another, one effect after another, with Dolby speakers growling, rumbling and blaring deafeningly away beneath.

* I was fascinated (if also dismayed) to notice that many of the young people in the audience weren't bothered by the movie's disarray. It's loud, it's got energy and flair, and it's got an infinite number of blasts, zooms, and effects. Hey, that's a movie, right?

* Which leaves me wondering about something else too. Forgive me for needing a sec to set it up. Remember the early days of music CDs? Engineers were saying the sound was perfect while sound snobs were saying they found it cold and harsh. What with tweaks, the machines did eventually start to generate creamier sounds for the sound-snob set. But an unexpected thing happened too, which was that the pop part of the audience developed a taste for digital sound -- for the cold, harsh, raggedy, buzzy thing that was initially experienced by the experts as a flaw. To many people in the popular audience, these weren't flaws -- it was an exciting, edgy and new quality.

* A lot of pop music since the advent of the CD has come out of exploiting the qualities of digital-Dolby, CD-type sound. It buzzes, it tinkles, it gooses, it crashes, it shatters, it goes thumpa-thumpa kablam. The advent of digital sound helps explain the advent of much of the new rap-techno pop music, which doesn't use song structures but is instead a collage of sound effects laid over beats.

* All of which has me wondering something. To me, an old-fart moviegoing snob, the digital movie image needs greater density and depth, and certain obvious goofs need correcting but fast. But maybe that's just me. Maybe younger people growing up on this kind of imagery find it exciting, in the same way that the pop music audience embraced the "flaws" of digital sound and wound up constructing a whole universe for themselves there. So I wonder: what will the movie equivalent of rap and techno turn out to be? I have a feeling we're going to find out.

* A propos of next to nothing: don't video screens and computers seem meant for computer animation? Clear, crisp -- bright and hyperreal. Computer animation jumps out and grabs you much more effectively -- if that's the experience you're in the market for -- than can any live action footage.

* I do know that there's much to be said for ease and convenience, and for tools and materials that bend more easily to the will. But maybe there's a little something to be said for more recalcitrant tools and materials too. Why? Well, they push back, just as the world itself does. Thinking about all this, I realize that I actually like the way that photography and movies (of the traditional sort) make you submit to reality, a process that can make you draw on (and perhaps develop, and give) more of yourself. Perhaps digital technology makes it all too easy to have things your own way.

* One final, if goofy, question: Rodriguez sets the movie's action in front of and around a lot of amazing buildings, walls, churches and neighborhoods. Assuming the movie actually was shot in Mexico, I found myself thinking, "Sheesh, Mexico? The country that never seems to be able to get its act together?" (No angry comments please; this was the theme of the Mexican movie "Y Tu Mama Tambien.") And: "Hey, putting together gorgeous buildings and neighborhoods requires resources, talents, organization, will and discipline. Judging by these buildings, Mexico once had these virtues. When exactly did Mexico lose them?"

Best, if watching an art form that I love wither away to next-to-nothing, but also resigned to being more upbeat tomorrow,


posted by Michael at September 18, 2003


I think what you mean is that a digital production like _Once Upon A Time..._ is not a _film_. It's a certainly a 'movie', that is, a moving picture. But it has different attributes from a movie produced on film. Video imagery is emissive, not reflective (like print) or absorptive (like film). The colorspace is different: RGB, instead of CMYK or whatever film uses. Changing the medium changes the art.

A few years ago, Roger Ebert wrote of some inventors who developed what he thought should be the Great New Thing in movies: _not_ digital, but improved film. See

Film technology was in several respects frozen in the 1920s; we could do far better now. Mainly the frame rate: 500 frames per second has very different qualities from 24 fps. The Maxivision product touted by Ebert is 48 fps, and that alone was enough to impress him mightily.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 18, 2003 6:32 PM


Sorry you had a lousy time in "Mexico". May I make a suggestion? Run, do not walk, to see "Lost in Translation". See it a little late at night, and have a drink before you go in. It's so good, I'm still obsessing over it 48 hours later. The director, Sofia Coppola is on Charlie Rose tonight if you want a sneak preview.

I'd love to hear your opinion on it, and promise to respond at length if given!


Posted by: Robert Holzbach on September 18, 2003 6:54 PM

Hi Rich -- Yeah, I was trying to make that distinction by referring to Movies BD (before digital) and Movies AD (after digital), but maybe it didn't work. It's certainly partly the image qualities that make the diff -- I've heard cinematographers talk about how film has an organic quality (what with color dyes it apparently literally does) while digital has a synthetic quality. I buy that, just speaking in terms of how they feel, do you? Reminds me of fresh produce vs. frozen -- there's a similarity, and the second is certainly more uniform and convenient than the first. But there's a je-ne-sais-quoi in good fresh food (snap, bite, chi, whatever) that frozen will never match. I also think that putting the film together in post-production digitally makes a diff too. It becomes so much easier to cut and re-cut and tweak and process that movies get turned into carnivals of post-production effects -- the effects become the show in a lot of ways. Obviously someone's going to get around to making terrific work this way, but like I say as far as I'm concerned I don't find I can care about the digital medium in the same way I can about the traditional medium. How about you? Have their been digi-movies that have grabbed you and made you look forward to more?

Robert, Thanks for the recommendation, eager to see the movie and compare notes. Were you a fan of "Virgin Suicides," her first movie? I admired it and thought she showed a lot of talent, but the movie didn't mean anything to me. Struck me as a moody, slow-mo, arty rock video, to be honest, but very well done as such. It sounds like she's gone in a different direction with the new movie.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 18, 2003 7:21 PM


What is the tie-in between digital movies and Alexander/Salingaros' ideas? (Maybe I should ask first: have you ever tried to figure out any application of A/S ideas to movies?) Does the rise of digital film-making signal the crushing of "Pattern Language" aspects of cinema (assuming they exist), or is it possible to do "Pattern Language" stuff in digital media? (I mean, haven't "Pattern Language" notions been incorporated into software programming? They wouldn't seem to be automatically anti-digital as a result, but what do I know?) Does the problem lie with the "path of least resistance"-type digital cinema, or is the problem at root digitalization itself?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 18, 2003 7:26 PM

What a good question. My offhand hunch is that the equivalent of Alexander/Salingaros might be something like Robert McKee's Story Structure approach. Complaints that it can be turned into formula are valid. But it's also true that he's brilliant at discussing the basic (ie., derived from history and the conversation between artists and audiences) building blocks and patterns of narrative. I thought his book "Story" was one of the best books about movies to come out in years -- it's interesting to thumb around in (no one's going to read it straight through) in the same way "Pattern Language" is.

But digital tech does seem to dissolve whatever analog medium it encounters, doesn't it? My general hunch is that all the media are turning into gooey bits and pieces in an overall digital stew. They aren't distinct from each other anymore, and their main connection is no longer with their own history -- they've come uprooted from their own natures -- but with the bubbling, ever-forming-and-reforming goo they're swimming in. It'd be fascinating to systematically follow the effects of digitech on one medium after another, wouldn't it? The typhoon hit music in such and such a year, and here's what happened. It hit magazines in such and such a year, and here's what they turned into. Etc, etc.

What's your hunch about it? Like I say, on another day I can be quite cheery about all this.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 18, 2003 7:48 PM

"I'm not the world's most impatient listener, yet with Itunes I find myself not just skipping the in-between-the-hits songs; I don't even transfer them to the hard drive in the first place. I also find that there's a strong temptation to listen to songs for just a few seconds at a time. Click -- and you get that rush that the first bars of a song you like deliver. And then it's Click again. Pretty soon you're like a rat who's developed a taste for speed; you're going from place to place, looking for another up. When you don't find it, you're outta there, and outta there fast."

Even at your age and with your background, you do this. (I've never tried it---I might do it, too, if I did). I think you may have just answered your own question about "These Kids These Days." Think if you never knew LP's, never knew anything but the internet?? They ARE like rats on speed. I feel like one day some teenager or twentysomething going to stagger in and say---I just listened to this WHOLE ALBUM of songs from thirty years ago, and it's INCREDIBLE. These songs all seem to connect together and SAY SOMETHING. And then (maybe, maybe not) the trend will reverse.

Posted by: annette on September 18, 2003 8:28 PM

You're right, they are like rats on speed! Do you suppose they'll ever be able to kick the habit?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 18, 2003 8:39 PM

A few months ago I read a piece in which a parent talked about watching his kids listen over and over to the samples at the iTunes store. That was scary.

But it works the other way, too. I usually have iTunes set to play randomly by song. But I've got about 4,000, almost all ripped from CDs I own, and I find myself enjoying music I haven't heard in years. It's such a pain in the ass to go over to the collection pick a disc, take the previous disk out of the CD player and put it away, put the new disk in, adjust the volume. Now I'll suddenly hear something and say yeah, that's it, and turn off the shuffle till the album's over.

Posted by: Michael Snider on September 18, 2003 9:12 PM

Hey, what Mr. Snider said about iTunes. I do exactly the same thing, and I'm having exactly the same experience.
Let that be a lesson--you don't have to be a rat on speed if you don't want to be.

Posted by: Will Duquette on September 18, 2003 11:15 PM


Glancing at a post of mine today on the evo-bio of an "innate" human bias for tonal music--which seems rooted in the "nature" of the human voice and its harmonics--made me wonder if the digital dissolution you refer to isn't an example of a fairly common human ability to--for a time--miss the forest for the trees. Haven't we been here before?

I see a parallel here to earlier phenomena like atonal music. I suspect the inventors and practitioners of atonal music found it seductive as a result of their pleasure in following a particular chain of logic to its atonal terminus. I'm no scholar of music, but weren't they convinced of the artistic "exhaustion" of the possibilities of tonal music? And if tonal music is kaput, then this stuff is where it's at, right?

And yet...a few decades went by and somehow the larger patterns reasserted themselves over the limited (composers') logic of the atonalists. The rather short history of analytical cubism might be taken as another example here as well, albeit one I'm more disappointed to see go.

So when you portray the evolution of digital media as a process of looking at the "shortcomings" of reproductive technology and learning to prize them for their "modernity," their "this is what we sound like/look like today"-ness, I wonder if you're not overestimating how long this type of taste will last. Couldn't we're be off following another chain of apparently seductive, yet ultimately short term aesthetic logic, from which we will inevitably return?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 19, 2003 2:08 AM

Yeah, the imagery and tone of digital falters in comparison to the richness of film, and far too many 'movies' are cutcutcut together for senseless visceral impact sans regard the timeless quality that we seek in authentic generative art. In general, I prefer the richer texture of film.

BUT...give the new technology time so that innovators can realize its promise--one bad movie does not signal the complete worthlessness of the tools. Remember how the original introduction of sound immediately set back the artistry of Hollywood movies--suddenly the brilliance of visual masters such as Lang and Murau were usurped by anyone who could whistle; and it took years before the reintegration of the promise of all the elements of the technology.

And remember, too, that this is, for better or worse, a commercial art form. Vote for the good stuff by going, recommending, screaming, touting, and the like--help us create an audience for the films we really love!

Them Hollywood folks figure there's two ways to make more money: lower costs or get more seats in the theater (or find new ways to harvest the same stuff.) Let's convince them to make quality films!

Also, in terms of seeking the underlying patterns in successful films--Syd Field's books predated McKee, I believe, and both were preceded by some Greek guy, Aristotle....

Posted by: Tom Ehrenfeld on September 19, 2003 8:58 AM


I actually didn't see, though I was tempted, "Vigrin Suicides" because I got vaguely the kind of vibe from it that you expressed above -- neat and moody but not particularly effecting or meaningful.

Big point of disagreement though (which I'll sure you'll come around to after seeing it). "Lost in Translation" is not a different direction from the tone poetry of Suicides, but a fulfillment of that direction. In "Translation" she uses the mood to create an effect, not as an end in itself.

Looking forward to your review!

Still Obsessing about "Lost in Translation",

Posted by: Robert Holzbach on September 19, 2003 11:48 AM

In regards to the "too digital" look of "Once Upon a Time..." :

I went in to the theater overly sensitive to having just such a reaction -- and was pleasantly surprised. I did not think the movie looked unduly harsh -- and where it did seem "contrasty," I believe that was Rodriguez’ intent -- he was showing people in the desert in harsh sunlight, after all. I noted many scenes shot with a very minimal depth of field, providing the same blurry background film enthusiast always claim digital lacks…

Some of the discrepancies in our takes on the film might arise from the digital projection at the theater in which you saw it -- [you did say it was digital projection, did you not?]. I saw a film transfer. Rodriguez has said he prefers all-digital; Ebert’s review of this film noted he liked the digital projection…

Overall, I thought the move was the same shallow-but-fun hyperkinetic mishmash that Rodriguez featured in "Desperado" -- which was shot on film. Much of the short-attention-span pacing problems do come from nonlinear editing -- but that issue is a separate one from digital capture or projection.

[And I also have found that using iTunes means I listen to many songs I’d otherwise skip, as random play lets me better enjoy background music as opposed to active thumb-on-the-remote listening.]

Posted by: Paul Worthington on September 19, 2003 12:29 PM

Movies shot on purpose-built "24p" digital cinema cameras have a far more film-like image quality than those shot on HDTV, which, broadly speaking, is high-rez television and makes no attempt to look creamy.

That said, even the high-end cameras have small image sensors, therefore small lenses, therefore lots of depth of field, therefore distractingly abundant detail.

Similarly, IMAX Corporation has a directors' guide containing a whole section on why drama is impossible in Omnimax movies -- largely because drama depends on closeups, but the only emotion resulting from a five-storey-tall wrapround closeup of an actor's face is complete terror.

Posted by: Lloyd Burchill on September 19, 2003 1:38 PM

Many thanks to all for observations, thoughts, upbeatness, etc. Of course what I'm doing here is focusing deliberately on the downside -- I'm really fairly cheery about all this generally, but also feel we may as well take note of what's being lost. I dig Itunes too.

Another example is poetry -- Mike Snider can fill in much here. Eratosphere, an online poetry gathering-place, is obviously a terrific new development. On the other hand, computers seem to be contributing to a move from a "reading" to a "looking and skimming" mindset. I'm abstaining here from making a final decision about whether or not the balance is good or bad, and trying instead to take note of both sides.

FvB -- Interesting thoughts. I'm just musing out loud, but it seems to me that there may be a diff: atonal music was an art-thing (and may well have been a dead end), where the shift to digital is a tech thing (and certainly won't be going away). But I've been wondering about similar things, not that I've come up with answers or even half-answers. For instance: blogging. Is it a "form" (in the sense that a sonnet is a poetic form), or is it just a technology? I can see arguments on both sides, though for the moment I'm mostly coming down on the side of technology. Your hunch?

Tom -- I hear you. Although I'm betting that the shift to digital is going to prove to be much more fundamental even than the shift from silent to sound, largely because what digital does is creep into the very nature of the image that's being shown, as well as the distribution channels through which it gets made available. Like I say, adding color to black and white photography is one thing -- the medium adjusts and moves on. But introducing Photoshop to the process is another, or so it seems to me. But we'll see, eh? I think another big change we're going to see isn't just in feature films. It's that digital's going to result in the fragmenting of "movies" generally --Imovie stuff, a movie equivalent of blogging, pages of clips to view ... And like I say, I'm pretty cheery about that. And much more so than I am about the direction movie-theater movies seem to be taking.

Paul -- The movie didn't look too bad to me when I watched a few minutes of it from the middle of the theater instead of the third row. Did the cruelty to the flesh bug you at all? That seems to me where digital is weakest. I've got a DLP-equipped theater about two feet from my apartment, so I make a point of seeing many films digitally-projected. I find that the imagery works out brilliantly for blockbusters and computer animation, and that it's weakest on mood and sensuality, not that too many people have tried to use it that way. I like "Desperado" too, and god knows it wasn't real coherent. I wonder why I enjoyed it and not the new movie. Seemed less frantic, and sexier, where the new one struck me as more of a deafening rock show.

Lloyd -- Interesting, thanks. I've talked to cinematographers (a few, anyway), and follow the field in the magazines. Interesting to hear them talk about the imagery and what they wrestle with. Controlling focus and depth of field seems to be a big one; the other big one seems to be that information that's in brightness or darkness is often completely lost, where on film you can wrestle it out. And many of them do say they have a hard time giving faces any glamor. The latest thing people are happiest with, I understand, is using a "digital intermediate" (is that the right term?) -- shooting on film, thus garnering detail and sensuality and depth, but doing post-production in digital (thus getting tons of control). How long do you suspect it'll be before digitally-captured movie imagery compares?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 19, 2003 2:39 PM

I think we're just going to have to wait for digital movie tech to improve a bit before it can reproduce all of the qualities of film that it is currently lacking. But I think it will catch up, and then you'll be able to do everything you could with film and more. Right now you've got the 'and more', but it's not advanced to being able to capture all of the nuances of the original analog medium.

This same thing happened with music. At first you had the jagged digital 'too much crispness'. But since the late 90s computer power and the bit resolution of A/D converters has gotten so good, that you can now do things like simulate horribly expensive high-end tube amps in your home studio. And it really does sound just like the $20,000 pre-amp, but it's now a few hundred. But until the resolution got to be twice as high as the analog medium (and the human ear), it was gonna be kinda nasty and sharp. Of course people still make plenty of nasty and edgy digital music, but you now can completely simulate the analog with digital gear too. Some acoustic singer/songwriters I know love digital recording now, as they can use a $1000 computer, a $200 guitar, a $100 mic, and some pirated software off the net, tweak the settings just right, and it sounds like they used $50,000 of analog gear. (Of course you have to tweak the settings right, which is why producers still exist. But it's getting easier to fake that too, as effects packages come with better defaults.)

It wasn't just Photoshop that led the Photoshop revolution. Until you had very hires scanners, digital stuff still looked all ragged and overly sharp. But once you had (high end) scanners that exceeded the grain resolution of film (yes they still cost a lot :-), you can scan, tweak it, and then output, without being able to tell it went through the digital wringer along the way.

In all these cases you have to sample at twice the resolution you actually want to use (google 'shannons theorum' if you care for more gory details).

So we've got a while until we go 'round the mulberry bush and digital movies can be as rich as film, but we'll get there. And then they'll be able to be as rich as film, but with other new tricks.

Posted by: David Mercer on September 20, 2003 2:24 PM

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