Monday, October 8, 2012

Film or digital?

Technology changes. It advances. But not all change, not all advances are good; are they?

When electronic drums came to be years ago, many purists, especially old time drummers (which isn't to say, old people who drummed, but professional drummers who were "old school") as well as audiophiles said that to make the drum sound electronic was to literally take the heartbeat out of the production of music. When you run an electronic drum in a song, you code for it, you adjust settings, it's rhythmic, it's "perfect" in a way. But when a drummer drums on a drum kit, you have a human drumming, you have a, heartbeat. That random element that is produced from the organic being, the emotion, the musician; something you cannot code for.

Because of that human musician, that organic element manipulating the sounds, the music produced is based upon the strikes of the drumsticks on drum head, cymbals, and yes, any "cow bell" or whatever else may be in the mix, like chimes, etc. Behind that drum stick is a hand, a wrist, an arm, muscles, tendons, and a heartbeat, a brain, whereupon sits the musician's mind with its history and emotions. All these things add up to that performed drum beat. It's something that you can feel it when you listen to it. The musician is communicating a real "feeling", an emotion, they are conveying a message from that performer's life to the listening (and feeling) ear of the audience. The musician emotes a very primal, base communication to the listener.

When you take that human element out of the mix, you lose something. There is a complexity that is missing. An electronic drum set built of electronics and coding is not as sophisticated, as complex. For that you would need to have Artificial Intelligence and even then, you would be missing something; you would be mimicking a human element in the sound production and you wouldn't actually have a human being behind it.

We have a similar situation now with film and HD video. It's not quite as direct as the music paradigm, but there is a loss of complexity, of traditional filmic history, of an obverse concept that further breaks down the fourth wall between the audience and the filmmaker. There is, and you can easily see it in viewing the difference between celluloid film and digital HD video, a feeling of watching something "real". Many people are noticing that it is almost, "too real", too immediate and at least for now in the beginning of this format it is breaking the element of "suspended belief" for the audience that is so necessary to filmic storytelling. It is like you are sitting on the set of the production watching the story play out. Which, is kind of cool in its own way. But you are also losing something. The "texture"of the film is now gone.

As with the digital drum kit, you can add artificiality to it, to the video experience. You can give it that "texture" with a digital "grain", you can "slow" down the image within the frame, to make it have that "Hollywood" look and feel. But it's not real. It's still a simulation. Anyone younger may come to believe it is real, but it's not.

There is a great difference between the digital drum kit and the real drum kit played by a human; and there is a between real and simulated film; though it's not even simulated, it's just outright HD digital video. I'm not trying here to draw a direct connection between the situation of drumming and HD video, I'm just trying to point out the kind of loss involved. It's a qualitative kind of loss. Almost to some anyway, like real milk or powered milk. It may seem real to some but it's not, there is a lack of quality involved. And at least some of of know it.

There is a certain loss of "materiality" as Keanu Reeves recently put it in saying that we are losing many things in life now a days, losing a certain "haptic" quality of contact. Keanu has produced a new video called, "Side by Side". From the web site: "Movies were shot, edited and projected using photochemical film. But over the last two decades a digital process has emerged to challenge photochemical filmmaking. SIDE BY SIDE, a new documentary produced by Keanu Reeves, takes an in-depth look at this revolution."

I've had a 42" Sceptre HDTV for some years now, but recently my TV went out. So I bought a newer technology LG HDTV and it's lighter, has a smaller footprint, and a far better image. I am now seeing for the first time, real HDTV. Painfully clear images with colors that will "make your eyes bleed". Okay, not really, but it has an immediacy, a clarity that is almost too much. I hated it at first. I watched some of my old shows like "Firefly" and they were clear in a way I had never seen them before. It was, disconcerting.

I even bought a new set of Firefly disks and it was so very different to watch. It lacked that certain quality that it used to have. It put the actors right there in your face, or, it was more like you were right there on the set watching them act. Where was that distance between the set and audience? That Hollywood feel? I wanted to feel like I was watching a dream, not actors on a set, a fantasy that too me out of my reality and into that fun, produced world. I did fine that by turning down the power levels on  my new TV screen, that I could return to how it used to look, though it was still clearer than before, which is cool. I thought it was interesting that the "power level" was somehow what was giving me that super clarity that was taking me out of the fantasy and too much, perhaps, into the reality of the production.

I started to realize that this is a new technology (for me) and that I would have to adjust. I realized that younger people would come to see it as normal; maybe even not liking that old "Hollywood feel" that I love so much. I remember years ago when you would see a TV show shot in video, it was obviously different, harsh looking. It had a cheaper look and feel to it. Sometimes, depending on the show it was cool, and sometimes it detracted from quality of the show. Sometimes it pointed out how little money they had to produce the show.

But this is something new. Yes, it is cheaper than film, but in some cases they are shooting in digital HD video and transferring it onto film anyway. Which is a huge money saver since you don't waste miles of footage of expensive film media and the ensuing film processing and only use in the end what you really need to.

So are we losing something special? I don't know. Perhaps as in many things we are seeing now a days, we are merely gaining a technology and not losing one. But in the way that corporations and studios are always trying to save a buck, we could be losing something here, and never realize it. Corporations love to do that, to make the cereal box the same size with less weight within it, the candy bar smaller but the price remaining the same. Is this just another example of the consumer being fooled? Maybe. Maybe not. The audiences still do set the pace and if audiences find it displeasing, sales will drop off and we may go back to using film. But at this point, I just don't see that happening. I fear they will fall complacent and accept the digital tricks to make it look like film and eventually, no one will really be the wiser.

It also makes me think of the current book revolution. Do you read books on a Kindle, Nook or some other eReader device, or do you read a book in paper form? Should we continue to kill trees for paper? There is something very pleasing about holding a book in hand, turning real paper pages, with that special paper and printing smell I have such a history with and which many younger people will not. Now that I own my own Kindle (I felt that if people are buying my works in digital format I had best learn it myself), I find that I enjoy both now, the ease and volume of content that I can carry with me in my Kindle, and the weight and feel and smell of a real paper based book. Though I mostly only read books now at home and my Kindle is my go to device for carry and read, out and about in the world.

Either way, society and life march on whether we wish to keep up or not.

When asked what Keanu shot his documentary on, he had to smile off to the side and answer honestly saying, "Digital," and then made it clear that he really wasn't against digital, he just saw that there were two different things to consider here (as I have been trying to point out here) and that he hoped as I do, that digital will be an adjunct in "film"(?) production that will enhance our movies and not simply kill film, completely.

But then again, didn't video kill the Radio Star?

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