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September 24, 2003

Guest Posting -- Adrian Hyland

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

I've written briefly before about my enthusiasm for the work of the young New Zealand film critic Adrian Hyland, so I'm pleased to be able to present one of his pieces here on 2Blowhards. Plus, hey, it's on a topic dear to this blog's heart.

Is Film Dead?

"Mulholland Drive" may have come and gone, but of all the reasons to see this most discussable of films an important one largely escaped public attention. David Lynch, one of the most cinematic of directors and a bona fide film "artist", shot what was widely received as his masterpiece using high definition digital video cameras. Up until now this technology has been pretty much the province of the CGI based director, in particular George Lucas and James Cameron, but in "Mulholland Drive" there are no special effects; Lynch simply used the new tools to achieve what was thought possible only when shooting on film: atmosphere, shadow and, most of all, a blazing colour palette.

Perhaps it took a truly experimental film-maker like Lynch to really stretch the boundaries of the new technology and create something "personal", because despite George Lucas' noisy endorsements, other Hollywood experiments with HD have been largely unsuccessful. Witness the strangely uninvolving fight scenes in Michael Mann's "Ali", shot on HD by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and compare them with Lubezki's work on "Y Tu Mama Tambien", shot on film. The HD footage in "Ali" has a cold, harsh, almost surreal quality that keeps the viewer at a distance, while in "Y Tu Mama," the imagery is warm and suggestive.

This, say purists, is the "magic" of film. They say that since film is a physical entity it is unsurprising that it looks "real" when compared with what is basically a bunch of 1s and 0s. Certainly film manufacturers Kodak, currently engaged in what can without hype be described as a global marketing battle with Sony, populate their advertising with words like "soul", "emotion", even "devotion". Grant Campbell, Kodak's Entertainment Imaging Manager for N.Z, points out that the Sony HD cameras come complete with a "memory stick", the purpose of which is to replicate as closely as possible the grainy, organic look of various film stocks. "Why would they want to do that?" Campbell wonders.

At the moment the view within the industry seems to be that film is still aesthetically superior. Rob Verhoeven, Operations Manager at Auckland's South Seas Film & TV School, says of the Sony HD cameras: "If they believed they were as good as film they wouldn't need to imitate it. Film still has an edge, in terms of dynamics and contrast, over HD. HD is marvellously clean, but at the same time artificially clean." Kiwi Cinematographer Paul Richards, who has shot extensively with both film and digital cameras, seems to agree: "Film gives you greater latitude and a much broader palette, and you can achieve genuine colour. There are more possibilities with film."

However the battle will not be won or lost over aesthetics alone, and as Verhoeven points out: "CD killed vinyl because of its convenience, not because it was a better format." In America this is the big question, as Producers and Directors weigh up the pros and cons of shooting on HD or film. The most obvious difference is in the way HD shooting has eliminated the need for dailies, the hour or so at the end of every shooting day when the actors and the director traditionally gather in a darkened room to sip martinis and view the day's work. With digital cameras there are no dailies; footage can be viewed as soon as it is shot. This is pretty revolutionary for everyone involved, and changes the dynamic of a set radically. Shooting becomes far more businesslike and efficient.

The problem is that, as anyone who has met either a director, a cameraman, or in particular an actor will know, they tend not to think of themselves as "businessmen", but as "artists", reliant on intuition and spontaneity, and certainly anyone who has seen the artistry-free "Attack of the Clones" (shot entirely on HD), must wonder what this new "efficiency" contributes to the final product.

There are signs elsewhere, though, that in the hands of a truly inspired filmmaker the digital camera can be a brilliant tool. There is nothing in the "Dogme 95" manifesto that specifically says "shoot on digital", but obviously the size and convenience of the low end digital cameras has made them the weapon of choice for directors like Lars von Trier, who directed "The Idiots" and "Dancer In the Dark", and Thomas Vinterberg, whose "Festen" won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1998.

In their hands the camera becomes nothing more than a witness to the actions of the characters, and free of the demands to create "beautiful shots" or "atmosphere", (the manifesto forbids use of soundtrack music and artificial light), the director simply oversees what is essentially a dramatic home video. Sounds simple on paper, but the effect is devastating, because we feel intimately involved in the characters' lives. The best Dogme films achieve an immediacy that is unprecedented, and the use of the digital camera is central to this "punk filmmaking" method. So there are exciting things going on in the low end of the digital world, but the Dogme films probably have little bearing on the answer to the big question: Is Film Dead?

Paul Richards, DOP, doesn't think so: "Anyone who says that is probably working for Sony." David Colthorpe, who does work for Sony, as their NZ Sales and Marketing Director, has his answer ready in the form of a question: "How many steam locomotives do you see chuffing along the railway tracks?" His long term prediction is that film will become the diesel to HD's petrol in terms of what format to shoot on, but of more immediate interest to Sony are the possibilities of Digital distribution and projection: "In principle, the choice of movies will become greater as we move to digital distribution and digital screening, because, to use an analogy, sending an e-mail is so much more convenient than sending a letter." Grant Campbell at Kodak agrees: "The biggest change in the marketplace will be in distribution and projection, the origination (shooting) market will change slowly."

So it seems that reports of the death of film as we know it are a tad premature, and, although digital technology is definitely here to stay, it looks like the two will be co-habiting the marketplace for years to come. Rob Verhoeven: "I don't think the average punter on the street gives a damn if a movie is HD or film originated, I don't think that will sway it, so it's ultimately the filmmaker's personal choice. HD does have a very distinctive look about it, which the director may or may not want. But HD is not really taking off at the moment."

One thing that definitely is taking off is DVD. According to Verhoeven: "DVD is the fastest market uptake since black and white TV, faster than cellphones and ATMs. It's gone through the roof." However, he is careful to warn of the potentially disappointing picture quality of this low-end digital format: "If you buy a DVD disc and you see there's a seventy-minute documentary, plus various other extras, plus the two hour film, all on the same disc, don't be surprised if there are digital artefacts. It all comes down to compression rates. The amount of information squeezed onto each disc affects the quality of the picture."

So what is the difference between the kind of "digital artefacts" we are likely to see on a cheaply made DVD, and the "film artefacts" we are all familiar with from old movies? For this filmgoer it lies in the potential for distraction. Like the sound of the needle on a vinyl record that is instantly forgotten once the music starts, the technical flaws in old movies don't seem to have the ability to distract the viewer from the story. A great performance will still feel like a great performance through the shuddering and crackling you often get with old film negatives. But if there are digital squares appearing on the screen the whole world we are believing in is exposed as artificial, and the movie loses its ability to create the magic known as "suspension of disbelief". The quality of DVDs will undoubtedly improve with time, but at this early stage the low-end of digital technology is ruled entirely by economics, and many manufacturers are simply cashing in on the sudden rush of demand that accompanies the emergence of a new format.

At the other end of the spectrum, the high-end world of Hollywood watches with growing interest as filmmakers dip their toes in the water of digital technology. One director has dived straight in: Robert Rodriguez, the auteur responsible for "Desperado" and the "Spy Kids" movies, shot all of his upcoming "Once Upon A Time in Mexico" with digital cameras, proclaiming that he hadn't noticed the real colour of star Johnny Depp's eyes until he viewed the playback on a HD monitor. (Apparently they are "light caramel"). However, the really big players are still waiting to see what happens when a James Cameron or a Michael Bay eventually shoots a feature on HD. Everyone knew Lucas' "Attack of the Clones" would make its money back; the real test will only come when one of the studios commits its resources to a non-franchise, "risky" digital project. Then the floodgates may really open.

Is film dead? It seems it's too early to say. Perhaps artists such as David Lynch will eventually provide us with the answer. Meanwhile the global marketing war continues. As I write this there are probably Kodak executives in Hollywood, gathered around a desk in a boardroom not unlike the one in "Mulholland Drive", plotting a way to ensure Lynch never gets his hands on Digital cameras again.

-- copyright Adrian Hyland

Adrian can be reached at adrianhyland40-at-hotmail-dot-com, and there's an archive of his first-class film writing that can be enjoyed here. I hope no one will be shy about leaving questions or comments on this posting, though -- Adrian has promised to respond.

Best, and thanks to Adrian for letting us run this excellent piece,


posted by Michael at September 24, 2003


I suppose there will be some who yearn for the good old days of "film" (spoken with a kind of quiet reverence), much as there are still those who yearn for the good old days of "analog sound", which was ever so much warmer and richer than this nasty icy old digital stuff.

In fact, when digital technology gets good enough (and it may be there already), we won't be able to tell the difference, and we won't care. Except for a few art houses where we can watch "Citizen Kane" and "The General" and Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast" (still a knockout!!).

I don't think it makes sense to compare Mann's "Ali" with Lubezki's "Mama". Compare one cinematographer's film work with his digital.

An interesting use of digital format was the Russian film "Russian Ark", a 96 minute film in one single take (without rollouts, as in Hitchcock's "Rope").

Maybe someone will remake "Barry Lyndon" in digital, to see if they can recreate the candlelight scene. (Just kidding.)

Posted by: Mike on September 24, 2003 7:34 PM

A technical rhetorical question: would Lynch have used HD if the product had not been initially intended for teevee, vs. where it (thankfully) ended up, on the big screen?

As an old guy, I don't mind saying that I still prefer film, but I haven't seen a movie in a theatre in two years, so it hardly matters.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on September 24, 2003 9:33 PM

I guess I'm out of the loop here, since I was actually unaware that both Ali and Mulholland Drive were shot on digital. (I knew about Once Upon A Time In Mexico, but only because R Rodriguez is such an evangelist for the medium.) Is there any exhaustive list of all the theatrical features which have been shot on HD?

Posted by: Felix on September 24, 2003 9:35 PM

Just in response to Mike's commments re: "Is Film Dead", I just want to clarify the fact that Lubezki was the Director of Photography on both 'Ali' and 'Y Tu Mama Tambien', and it was my intention, as Mike suggested, to compare the cinematographer's digital work with his film work.

Perhaps, Mike, you were referring to the fact that Mann was his own cameraman for some (we don't know how much) of his fight scenes.

One other point to make: Ali was not shot entirely on HD, just the fight scenes.

Thanks for the comments.

Posted by: Adrian Hyland on September 25, 2003 5:50 AM

When my folks first got a CD player, I had heard the complaints that the sound was too 'cold' or 'bright'. I put on a disc, squinted, and listened, and I couldn't hear the offending qualities. My lack of auditory acuity notwithstanding, I got the feeling that CD's critics were used to the way that vinyl distorts sound, and most people would eventually get used to the way CD's distort it. I expect the film/HD phenom will go the same way.

Posted by: franklin on September 25, 2003 8:31 AM

Seems to me that an aspect of all this that could be dwelt on a bit is how the changeover to digital is going to affect the art of movies. The image quality problems are going to be surmounted at some point -- in 2 years? Maybe 10? But what kinds of movies will be getting made?

Seems to me very likely that they'll be something quite different than traditional or classic movies. A few comparisons: photography before Photoshop is one thing, photography since Photoshop has been something quite different. Pop music before digital sound was one thing, and since digital sound has been something very different. Magazines prior to Quark, Illustrator and Photoshop were one thing, and since then have turned into something very different. What'll theatrically-presented movies become? I suspect we're getting a bit of a foretaste with pictures like "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" and that "Star Wars" thing. Which (personal reflection here, not a general observation) probably means that I'll be losing interest in movies, alas.

Yet another aspect of digital's effect on movies will be distribution and form. A "movie" will no longer automatically be assumed to be a 90ish-minute-long narrative thing intended to be watched sequentially and all the way through. I'm betting that we'll see (I notice that we're already seeing) many variations on this -- web pages full of video clips, Imovies, avant-garde Web-distributed shorts, etc. This aspect of digital's effect on movies (again: personal response here, not a generalization) is something that makes me feel pretty cheerful.

I'll miss classic movie language, though, which I suspect we won't be seeing too much of...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 25, 2003 11:31 AM

Adrian Hyland wrote of

"Kodak executives ... plotting... to ensure Lynch never gets his hands on Digital cameras again..."

He's wrong. Today Kodak announced a new corporate strategy. They have decided that film is now a legacy business, to be used as a cash cow to fund investment in digital imaging. See Money quotes: "headed by leaders with experience in digital products and services", "managing the consumer film and paper businesses for cash and manufacturing share", "use the cash generated by the traditional business", "transformation to a digital-oriented growth company".

If Kodak is plotting, it's to get Lynch's hands on _their_ digital cameras.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 25, 2003 1:00 PM

Old media never die - they just become art materials. Etching, engraving, hand-drawn lithographs, daguerrotypes, cyanotypes, and many other processes got their start in the commercial world, were rendered obsolete, and were preserved by a relativlely small group of hardcore enthusiasts who like the effects they produce or the methods they entail. Film is joining this prestigious group. So will digital video one day.

New media change the landscape, but there are always revivals. Pop music after digital sound was different than before, but now there's a guitar-rock revival going on in bands such as the White Stripes. There was a significant swing trend going several years ago with bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers. The Stray Cats became popular in the midst of 80's synth pop as a rockabilly act, of all things. Once styles enter the culture, they enter it permanently, it seems.

Posted by: franklin on September 25, 2003 6:09 PM

Digital projectors apparently aren't there yet either. The business case for them will be compelling once cost goes down and quality goes up. Think about a movie house that can easily show any movie in its' library --- as easily as someone watching DVDs at home.

Posted by: snore on September 26, 2003 1:08 AM

I think I tend to comment on these things after everyone else has abandoned the thread, so I'm talking mostly to myself, but here goes.

First of all, being an audiophile, CDs sound as good or better than vinyl anymore. Sorry, they just do. They didn't at first and the reasons are simple. For one, a lot of antiquated systems couldn't handle the sharp response offered by a digital recording - meaning the signal sent to the bass speaker would blow it out (the lining holding it to the frame would rip) or the tweeter would fry and sound mushy thereafter. So, most of the early CDs where mastered with a reduced signal or quieter than they should have been in a misguided attempt to keep customers from blowing up their systems by turning it to 11 the first time and limiting just how far they could turn it up overall. The sample rates were lower, meaning they digitized less of the signal so it wasn't as rich as most analogue, or vinyl, signals. Finally - and here's the biggy - most if not all of the mixdown tapes used to create the final master were the original vinyl mixdowns, which were specifically equalized for the qualities of vinyl - keeping a needle in a groove. Vinyl tends to emphasize the bass and underperform in the high range, so the mixdowns were hot in the high end and pulled back in the bass - and most of the original CDs sound that way.

Here's where "remastering" comes in to save the day. (All new CDs are mixed and equalized correctly in the first place for CD, that's why most CDs of new bands sound good - provided the artists do.) If an artist's catalogue has been profitable enough, the label has gone back and remastered it for CD - made a new stereo mixdown optimized for CD. In some cases, like Led Zeppelin, they've even totally remixed from the original multi-track master tapes, giving even greater clarity and resolution. Others, like Billy Joel, have simply done a new stereo mixdown. Either way, the difference is startling, usually. And since I have the vinyl and the remixed CD of a lot of these artists, I can attest that new remastered CDs sound much much better than the vinyl.

It's going the same way with digital movies. Right now they're not very good at getting the balances right, and they're more limited by the playback equipment - the projectors and DVD players - than they are by the recording equipment. The folks who have gone digital and have a digital master to work from will be able to adjust and enhance the image as time goes by and playback equipment gets better. (This means that George will be able to do one last "remastered" version of Star Wars in his twilight years to completely set his kid's grandkids up for life.)

In short, the whole game is sample rate and bandwidth. In about a decade, once blue lasers for DVD players are widely available, and compression rates are better, movies filmed digitally now will be able to be made as clear as movies filmed at this future date. And, sadly, some things that are stored on film, and that don't have a really clear digital master laying around, will visibly age a little bit.

We are in the infancy of the medium, but it will really blossom in the coming years.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on September 26, 2003 12:40 PM

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