September 27, 2001

The Daze Rant

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Technicolor Digital Cinema claims that “digital benefits everyone.” I don’t deny that there are many sensible and logical reasons for artists, distributors, exhibitors, and audiences to make a full filmic transition to the Information Age. Hell, everyone else is, and supposedly its improving the quality of life. But, despite all the rhetoric and business strategy jargon, I can’t help but hesitate when considering the idea that 16 mm film would be banished from the projection booths around the world in favor of a computer streaming tiny bytes of information onto the silver screen.

It’s true that if movie theatres crossover to digital there will be many benefits economically, visually, logistically, and creatively. Firstly, consistent quality with each presentation is possible. Shipping, delivery, and assembly costs will be reduced. Digital will allow a more efficient editing and production process. Soundtrack capabilities will be increased. And, lastly, the audience will experience enhanced sound and image quality. To top it all off, the digital cinema technology can be easily interfaced with existing screens and sound systems.

Why explain all of this when it seems rather counter-productive to my argument? Because I believe my reservations about this transition are founded on a solid principle: Cinema without 16 mm film isn’t cinema at all; it’s new media. Since cinema is one of the seven defined art forms, it would be like replacing realist painting with photography.

If this revolution occurs as planned, 16 mm is sure to follow the same downward path as it’s brother, 8 mm, which is now only available through one distributor, at a ridiculous cost, because it has ceased to be manufactured. If this happens, the term “film” will be rendered meaningless without an object to represent linguistically. Instead of watching film, audiences will be watching pixels.

The reason that film needs to be preserved and maintained as a sacred form of art is because digital cinema, no matter how cheap or efficient, does not replicate the quality of film. It’s not an equal replacement for film, it’s just the next best thing. Experimental film makers like Stan Brakhage would not be able to hand-scratch digital footage in order to create a visual effect. Sure, they could accomplish a stiff version of this effect with a computer program, but there’s something to be said for hand-crafted artwork.

There’s also the issue of depth. Don’t ask me why exactly, but as a person who has seen quite a few films, celluloid gives images a rich, milky quality that tempts the viewer to reach out and grab it. Digital cinema, although sharper (its pixelation may provide an answer), seems unattractively flat in comparison.

Economically, it is indeed cheaper to transport digital cinema via the information superhighway that is the Internet, and increased satellite usage. But what about the many jobs that will be terminated as a result? Truckers, projectionists, reel and film manufacturers, and all the middle men will be effectively and efficiently cut out. As a participant in this great nation of capitalism, I would usually chalk losses like this up to the unrelenting push of progress. But I don’t think this progress is necessarily an improvement. It just seems to be another one of the many ways that Big Business is trying to cut costs at the expense of quality.

Archived article by Laura Thomas