Film to digital: Virtual reality
By a resonant coincidence, the news that Martin Scorsese is reluctantly abandoning celluloid to shoot digitally came on the day I decided to put my old Super 8 equipment – camera, projector, editing suite – up for sale. I haven’t used it for years, and I’d rather see it in the hands of an aspiring film-maker than gathering dust. It is poignant that the announcement was made by Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor of 40 years, and the widow of the great British film director Michael Powell. “It’s just impossible to fight it any more, the collapse of film,” Schoonmaker said. “It would appear that we have lost the battle.”
Although it probably makes little difference to the vast majority of filmgoers, when a director of Scorsese’s stature abandons traditional film, a significant cultural shift has clearly occurred. But is this really such a great loss? Every obsolete technology has its aficionados, as the nostalgic obituaries of France’s internet precursor, Minitel, demonstrate. Yet who would want to go back to the days when typewritten copy had to go down the corridor to a compositor and come back as galley proofs, which then had to be painstakingly corrected and cut to fit in pen, before going back to the setter who would then make the necessary adjustments. The whole process was so time-consuming that I don’t know how we ever managed to get anything to press on time.
Digital technology has also greatly driven down costs, putting professional quality leaflets within the grasp of the smallest businesses, professional quality recording within the reach of aspiring bands, and allows us to send a high-resolution image across the world – completely free of charge.
Few writers will hanker for the days of pen and ink, or the manual typewriter, although I sometimes wonder whether the word processor has made a difference to the way we write. Is the ease with which we can correct, add, delete or move sentences and paragraphs around evident – for better or worse – in the results? Perhaps it has only facilitated what writers have always attempted to do. Balzac drove his printers to distraction by endlessly rewriting his galley proofs; Henry James was quick to embrace the new technologies of the typewriter and the Dictaphone; Vladimir Nabokov wrote out each paragraph on a separate index card, rearranging them until he was satisfied with the result.
It is also important to remember that traditional analog media – even the oldest of them, painting and writing – are just that: media, the representation of something, not the thing itself. But digitisation takes the process a step further, dispensing with the artefact altogether. When you download an etext or an mp3, you are buying a numerical code that will allow a computerised device to reconstruct a representation of the thing itself. What has disappeared in the process is the physical artefact, be it a vinyl record or a film transparency.
That contains a hint as to what is lost in the conversion to digital media: the struggle with the medium that is essential to many a creative endeavour – the intensity of the engagement, the fact that you have to get it right first time. The traces that leaves in the resulting work are often what create its energy, atmosphere and visceral presence. They way that new technology attempts to simulate the incidental effects of the old is a tacit acknowledgement of the fact. Digital cameras play a sound clip of a mechanical shutter release when you press the button; Photoshop allows you to add film grain to a digital image; recording studios pump digitally recorded sound through valve amplifiers to ‘warm it up’; and the very terms ‘plug-in’ and ‘cut and paste’ hark back to analog technology. (There’s a technical term for this – skeuomorph, a decorative feature that reproduces a structural element of an earlier technology, like the shield-shaped thingy you sometimes see on the back of spoons, recalling the long-gone days when the bowl was actually welded to the handle.)
Maybe a new generation of digital artists will find that creative tension in their struggles with recalcitrant code. And maybe, as new, slicker, more user-friendly technologies supersede what is now cutting edge, they too will lament the good old days when you had to do it the hard way, and the results were so much more… well, real.Tagged in: digital, film, Scorsese
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