The False Divide: Crosstalk in the Digital Wars

Shaun Huston

In the arguments over digital versus traditional film, can't we all just get along?

As part of Time magazine's annual look into the near future, film critic Richard Corliss made his entry ("Can this man save the movies? (Again)?" 20 March 2006) into the debate over digital technology and its impact on cinema. Corliss situates himself as a pro-digital revolutionist, taking particular note of the economic advantages of digital film making and distribution. What makes Corliss' article problematic is not so much the side he takes, as his participation in the tendency to treat digital and "traditional" film as necessarily mutually exclusive. Why there isn't room for both isn't entirely clear, but Corliss, and his central informant, George Lucas, seem intent on framing the debate as if it were an either/or proposition.

Corliss initially outlines his position with a look at the 2006 Oscars, noting the lack of recognition bestowed on the year's premier digital releases, Star Wars Episode III - Revenge of the Sith and Sin City. He also makes oblique reference to the repeated admonitions during the Oscar broadcast for audiences to go and see movies as "they were meant to be seen," which is to say, on film and in the theater. In Corliss' world, this is pure nostalgia, and, at the level of film making itself, atavistic and even irrational.

Corliss is likely right in a number of the claims he makes. Digital film making is more cost effective. Young and independent film makers accustomed to working with digital video (DV) cameras and editing on their Macs are unlikely to have warm and fuzzy feelings for film. After making an initial investment in equipment, theater owners will also benefit economically from a switch not only to digital movie making, but to distribution as well. Full digitization will also facilitate the rise of day-and-date release of films ("day-and-date" is the term used to refer to release of a film in multiple formats simultaneously, rather than staggering the theatrical, DVD, and television releases at different times). This strategy is seen as one way to control piracy, or, at least a means by which distributors and producers can recapture profits currently lost to the black market in stolen versions of their films. While theater owners are understandably ambivalent towards this latter innovation; on the whole, the economic incentives for riding the digital wave are fairly clear. And yet it is this purely economic way of looking at the divide between the two media that narrows Corliss' field of vision to the point where he can only see the rise of digital as the end of film.

Take for instance his counter positioning of editors and photographers. Corliss notes correctly that even film makers who balk at shooting digitally, edit, and have been editing, that way without hesitation (Steven Spielberg and Michael Kahn are cited as exceptions that prove the rule). Undoubtedly, pragmatic and economic forces are at work here, but that is not the whole story. Digital editing also has advantages for the art and craft of film making.

In a digital environment, it is possible to try out various cuts, combinations, and transitions before committing to one or another. Furthermore, just about everything you do in a digital editing program can be undone; and entire projects can be reset. Digitization offers film editors an opportunity to experiment and exercise their creativity in ways that are not practical when working directly with film. Simply put, editing film directly is a delicate and labor-intensive process. It requires envisioning certain cuts and combinations in your mind's eye before enacting your choices. Undoing and redoing what you've done is at the very least difficult. In digital editing, you work with copies of your source media. Furthermore, you don't manipulate that media directly, you manipulate 0s and 1s. You can do this infinitely and without ever actually cutting and splicing your raw footage. You no longer need to imagine what a particular combination of shots might look like before cutting and splicing; you can put them together and actually see what they look like. If it doesn't work, just click "Undo" in the editing pull down menu and it's as if it never happened.

When editing film directly, you do not have the same latitude to experiment or free associate with sounds and images. From the perspective of time, money, and the integrity of the media, it is always best if your initial choice is the "right" choice. If working with digital media was simply more cost-effective than working with film, and did not also enhance the art and craft of what editors do, then there would unquestionably be more hold outs. Instead, some of the profession's leading practitioners, like Thelma Schoonmaker and Walter Murch, were among the new technology's early adopters.

In photography, the advantages of going digital are far less clear cut than they are for editing. Michael Mann (Collateral) likes the clarity of digital. M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) prefers the "humanity" of film. Is either wrong? Of course not. They are expressing different aesthetic preferences, preferences that aren't going to go away in spite of the economic advantages of digital photography, or disputes over the objectivity of each claim. To write off Shyamalan as an "atavist" and advance Mann as a harbinger of the future, as Corliss does in both instances, might make sense if the movies were just a business, but they aren't. Film making has always been a complex dialectic between art, commerce, and technology. Corliss sees the commerce first, and the technology second, but seems not to see the art, except to dismiss it as romance and fancy.

There are three underlying assumptions at work in Corliss' narrative: change is inevitable, change is total, and change is driven by the economics and availability of technology. It is not too difficult to read his argument as normative as well as descriptive, in that it carries the implication that filmmakers like Shyamalan are not merely tilting at windmills, but are struggling against change that is both inevitable and good. Whether merely analytical or normatively judgmental, Corliss turns the question of digital cinema into one of tradition versus progress with no ground in-between.

What makes this myopia interesting is that the two film makers he presents as digital converts, Robert Rodriguez (Sin City) and Kevin Smith (Clerks), are hardly examples of directors who are primarily motivated by the economic and technological aspects of what they do. Rodriguez, in particular, is presented as a disciple of the master, George Lucas. Given Corliss' reliance on Lucas as an informant and advocate, it comes as no surprise that he sees directors as technicians who believe that "better movies" means ones that are "more sophisticated technically." This captures Lucas pretty well, but misses the mark in the case of Smith and Rodriguez.

Corliss implies that digital film making has freed Rodriguez to innovate by shooting with a small crew, thereby exceeding even Lucas in the exploitation of the newer technology. Rodriguez, however, has always worked as a sort of one-man band. Similarly, Smith is a legend in the world of independent and guerrilla film. It's no accident that the project reported on by Corliss is the sequel to Clerks. Were Smith making the first Clerks today, there's no question he'd be shooting it with a DV camera. Equally, today "home made" doesn't look like scratchy black-and-white, but like DV tape. In all three cases, you have filmmakers with artistic predilections to which digital appeals, and those inclinations are not entirely the same (seriously, does it make any sense to see Kevin Smith in the same light as George Lucas?). This is not to suggest that economics and technology are irrelevant, but it is to suggest that they need to be kept in perspective and that the agency of the film maker as artist needs to be taken seriously.

Rather than see the rise of digital as the death of film, it makes more sense to view the newer media as expanding options for movie making. Even if digital video supplants film in the same way that color supplanted black-and-white, film makers will still use traditional film stock in much the same way as they still use black-and-white: for artistic effect. We may soon be in a world where all thing being equal, movies are shot digitally, but when they aren't, the "old" technology might find itself back in demand. This, however, is a far cry from Corliss' and Lucas' vision of a world without analog technology.

Despite the stories of recalcitrant directors and directors of photography, at present it might just be exhibitors who are slowing down the pace of conversion more than anyone. As Corliss reports, the economics for theaters don't quite add up. Not surprisingly, theater owners have found that people aren't willing to pay more for digital projection. At issue are the initial capital costs of the technology. George Lucas tried to leverage theaters into switching so that Sith could be screened as he intended it to be, but thankfully for the rest of us, and for film makers who aren't George Lucas, few exhibitors took him up on his offer to pick up the cost of conversion to digital projection.

As alluded to before, and as the experience with Steven Soderbergh's Bubble (2005) suggests, theater owners are also quite naturally wary of digital's connection to the possible advent of day-and-date release. It is one thing to refuse to screen a small, grim "art" film, it would be quite another to forgo, say, Spider-Man 3 if Sony decided to make that movie available on DVD, and maybe even on HBO, the same day it opens in theaters.

Even if resistant theater owners give in on day-and-date, the question of digital projections remains an open one. In much the same way that the costs of digital production have dropped over time, the costs of digital projection are also likely to decline. When that day comes, it might seem as though the final death knell of traditional film will be nigh, but why should it? Where I live in western Oregon, the newest Regal Cinemas are already equipped with both digital and analog projectors. Furthermore, it is becoming increasingly easy to shoot, edit, and distribute in varying combinations of film and DV. There's no inherent reason why projection capabilities in theaters can't remain flexible. For the sake of small and independent theaters, we should hope that this remains the case, otherwise such venues are likely to become little more than glorified home theaters, and corporate chains will rule the day even more than they do now.

It seems likely that film makers and audiences alike will continue to be drawn to the experience of making and viewing "film" as we know it. As M. Night Shyamalan argues in Corliss' article, and as we already know from music, there will always be people who will perceive analog media to have a greater humanity and immediacy than digital media. The relative "imperfections" of film, as with records, can remind us that there is a human artist behind the images we're watching or the sounds we're hearing. It is notable that there are two holy grails in the world of digital video right now. One, is the jump to high definition and a new standard of detail and clarity. The other is replicating the look of traditional of film. Cameras and software alike have been designed to assist digital film makers in the production of works that look as if they were shot on film. Whether or not this is a passing phase, and whether future audiences for "real" film ever rise beyond the level of a geeky niche, is hard to say, but it does seem unlikely that the attraction of traditional film for film makers and audiences alike will disappear anytime soon. Nor does it seem right, from an ethical and artistic perspective, to essentially advocate for the elimination of a media that has been, and still can be, a tool for expressing rich and varied visions of the world.

At the beginning of his article, Corliss draws an analogy between film and the internal combustion engine, implying that both technologies are still with us not because they're the best available, but because of sunk investments that make people conservative and fearful of change. Lucas underscores this point by making further analogies to "outmoded" technologies like the typewriter. The message here is clear: just as it would be irrational to write a book on a typewriter, it is equally irrational to make movies on film. These analogies are indicative of the commercial-technical view that drives Corliss' arguments in favor of a total digital revolution. In the end, it is in fact commercial actors, and technical "innovators" like Lucas, who would benefit most from a wholesale re-standardization of movies. However, those still committed to the art and craft of film will likely continue to gum up the works, resisting forces that would have us turn what could be an expansion of creative choice into a shrinking of horizons.

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