Celluloid Heroes
Posted Aug 8, 2003

August 2003|Robert A. Starrett, contributing editor to EMedia, barrister, gentleman, and scholar, dismissed David Lynch's Mulholland Drive as "utterly worthless." When asked to elaborate, Starrett replied, "Any fool can string together a bunch of stuff that doesn't have to mean anything. Weird guys can make weird movies and nobody yells at them."

In the spirit of friendly debate and scholarly dialogue, I went ahead and disagreed with the latter of Bob's condemnations. David Lynch got yelled at for almost everything he made up until Blue Velvet (let's note that The Elephant Man received accolades here and abroad, but that one doesn't really count as a "Lynch" movie, since he hadn't yet found the end of the sidewalk and leapt over it). Way back in 1984, when asked to name the worst movie of the year, aisle-seat sages Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert simultaneously replied "Dune," and the poor interviewer sat there for about 30 seconds in silence, waiting for an explanation. He never got it. The "utter worthlessness" of Dune evidently spoke for itself.

The former of Bob's pronouncements, that Lynch's films are devoid of meaning, is slightly more difficult to dispute. It's been suggested many times that the meaning of Lynch's films is that they have no meaning and don't need to, in the same sense that looking at a dead cat nailed by a careless driver has no real intrinsic meaning, but is nonetheless compelling to behold.

It's also been argued that there is meaning, that Lynch's films are logical if not linear, you just have to dig a little deeper than you would with a straight Aristotelian "beginning, middle, end" narrative, and that we, inured to linear Hollywood dreck, aren't accustomed or willing—or maybe even able—to do that kind of work. A new logic, if that's what it is, must be incorporated into our old logic to make logic of Lynch, and that's a bearcat, for sure, like waking up and finding ourselves in a world of poison soil, enslaved by small yellow piles of frothing goo from Pluto. That would explain the popularity of Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man—distinctively linear, semi-Aristotelian films—and the bewilderment and occasional revulsion accorded Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, distinctively "Lynchian" films.

Mystery Train
Many of our greatest minds—Freud, Marx, and McLuhan spring to this lesser one—have identified this reversal of the perceiver and the perceived. In one manner or another, they've explored the way the world shapes us as much as—if not more than—we shape it, and have offered a variety of explanations for the commensurate anxiety, repulsion and, ultimately, acquiescence to the changes in our mind effected by changes in the world. Curiously enough, Marx, Freud, and McLuhan all discuss it in terms of technological and historical advance, slightly removed from their respective central hypotheses. By and large, these weren't technology guys—not Freud and Marx, anyway.

Freud, for example, was terrified of train travel; the thing just went too fast for him to be comfortable in. In an effort to explain this, he developed a theory he called "The Stimulus Shield." This shield, he explains, originates as a technology-inflicted psychic wound scabbing over, and ultimately becomes a deadened scar that enables one to ride on trains, planes, rollercoasters, and the like without fear, and, further, with some exhilaration.

Whether or not you go in for Freud and his thoughts on the subject, we have to admit something is going on in there: we drive daily at head-splattering speeds; the possibility of a nuclear accident always hangs over our heads; life on earth is expected to become unsustainable in the next 50 to 75 years; disease, death, pain, and suffering are always about two seconds away, and yet, here I am going about my business, and there you are, reading this, I hope in a comfortable chair. We should be freaking out all the time about what our world has done to us, what we've done to each other and to it, and what it stands to become as a result of what is done to it, but we charge on without fear or remorse, and that's just weird.

Now and again this scar, or whatever you and I have decided it is, may be ripped open anew. Anybody who's been in a car accident knows the trepidation of traveling by automobile that first time after the crash. Public accidents are even worse, leaving entire societies affected: that train derailed; that plane crashed; that Space Shuttle exploded; Bill Jr., daredevil, decapitated by the rollercoaster; Chernobyl. These machines didn't do what they were supposed to do, and I think we must confess that some of our horror at witnessing the events of 9/11 sprung from that fact, or I'd be led to believe so, anyway, from all the talk on the news that "commercial jets are being used as missiles."

So, Sigmund Freud and Bob Starrett had adverse reactions to the new and unusual, though under totally different circumstances: Freud had the threat of derailment and death at stake, and Bob, who admittedly likes from time to time to zonk in front of cheezy, stupid Hollywood murder/action/cop buddy movies after a rough day, didn't get to zonk. Fair enough: both men—intelligent fellows, both—were challenged to erect a defense and/or new logic, and for whatever reason, didn't, couldn't, or wouldn't. Surely, we all fail to meet this challenge somewhere in our lives; for example, myself, I've got this thing about airline travel.

Invisible Republic
Being industry cats, I'm sure we all remember the complaints about audio CDs being "too crisp" and "lacking warmth" when they arrived on the scene, and have since lived to see audio CD become the norm, vinyl enthusiasts notwithstanding. That's not to say nobody complains about those things anymore, but that group of people, bless 'em, have become the exception rather than the rule. The same thing happened with MP3: a friend of mine recently complained he couldn't stand a mere 128Kbps, it had to be 192 or it wasn't coming down his pipe. Psychoacoustically speaking, that's an odd insistence: in theory, there's no real empirical aural difference between 192 and 128 (the source and whose compression software you use impact an audio file's sound more than that particular Kilobit distinction within the MP3 range). That said, there is a difference in how much disk space will be occupied, and that's one area where I lean toward the conservative. Maybe he hears something I don't, or doesn't hear something, I don't know, but that's a discussion for another time.

Digital Video—our plane, our train, our automobile—is something we often hear is "too crisp" and "lacking warmth" (and "omigod, look at the size of that pore!" and "when's this infernal debate between Nixon and Kennedy going to end?"). It's the old story, but with a completely new twist: where you absolutely cannot convince even your heavily medicated, half-cocked-on-airplane-bottle-Tanqueray First Class seat-mate that he's on the ground when he is in fact 30,000 feet in the air, there exists technology for both production and post-production ends that lends digital video the look and feel of film. There are ways to digitally add the crackle and pop of vinyl to audio CDs, but I know of only one track—Liz Fraser's cut on Massive Attack's Mezzanine—where this was attempted, and that track's mutation strikes me as more a digital artistic statement than an effort to resuscitate or perpetuate vinyl.

The efforts to make digital video look like film, however, do seem to have as their aim the perpetuation of the old celluloid format, or at least capitulation to ultrapowerful market forces: distributors, bankrollers, corporate shills, Hollywood, and even, in some sense, your audience, we who have not yet wrapped our heads around digital video. Despite the fact you're adding as much as 30 grand to your production budget, even an independent artist must, if they wish to put a hook into a distributor's mouth, acquiesce to the demand that their DV gets dithered on down to film. Of course, this is my reading of things here: it could very well be that digital video is ugly to behold, and I'm a weirdo for failing to perceive it that way. The fact is, though, I'm seeing, from here—this old ineluctable modality of the visible, thought through my eyes—good digital video, cheaply made by good filmmakers (who further have the benefit of pure artistic independence), untainted by the will to 35mm.

There is No Eye
So what exactly is the difference between digital and film, beyond the obvious one-zero stuff inherent to all digital information? Essentially, it's a matter of frame rate and interlacing. NTSC, the video standard in North America, comes in at 29.97 frames per second, but it's also interlaced in a pattern called "60i," which actually means it's throwing 60 images per second at us, rather than the 30 you'd expect. Film, on the other hand, is 24fps, and that's actually a 50 percent jump from the 16fps of D.W. Griffith's day (increased at the time talkies came in because 24fps was necessary to synchronize films with their soundtracks), which accounts for the smoother motion. Think of those old-time flipbooks, with minutely different images on each page, that gave the impression of motion video if you flipped the pages fast enough. Too slow, and the illusion was lost; too fast, and your eyes ceased to take in the nuances of motion that emerged if you found just the right speed.

In the silent movie days, 16fps was widely considered an appropriate refresh rate for effectively conveying motion to the human eye. (The idea, most likely, was to find the lowest reasonable rate so as not to overtax the primitive engines of early projectors.) And the increase to 24fps happened mostly to accommodate innovations engineered to please our ears rather than our eyes. The 30/60 scheme of interlaced NTSC, by contrast, was developed in response to scientific study of how the human eye reacts to representations of motion in video—given the availability of technology that could be adjusted to accommodate that (rather than the other way around)—which doesn't mean it's right, but at least it's less arbitrary. PAL, the standard in Europe and elsewhere, comes in at 25fps (with 50 interlaced images per second), which is much closer to film's 24p, but it doesn't necessarily evoke the look and feel of film any better than its across-the-pond counterpart. Which suggests the perceived disparity is partly, but not entirely, quantifiable.

Enter CineSwitch. That was the big word a few months ago, when I discussed an article like this one with an old friend of mine. CineSwitch, developed by Panasonic awhile back, enables a shooter to mimic film as she shoots: it's a real-time solution built into the camera (I believe their AG-DVX100 Mini-DV camcorder was the first model to incorporate CineSwitch), as opposed to something that would happen to transmute DV to "that film look" in post-production. The camera achieves this look in two ways: with film-equivalent 24 frames per second shooting and by offering four configurable gamma curves ("low," "norm," "high," and "Cine-like") to fine-tune image tone. It was in reading about CineSwitch that the question entered my head—why and what for?—and I began to mull the answer stated earlier.

A press release from Panasonic—dated April 7, 2002—has Panasonic broadcast vice president of marketing Stuart English saying of the AG-DVX100 Mini-DV camcorder, "With its 24-frame capture capabilities, the AG-DVX100 democratizes visual storytelling by substantially reducing the cost of entry for digital filmmakers…The AG-DVX100 is a forward-looking tool that integrates with existing IEEE 1394-based, non-linear editing platforms and will allow the creative community, whether video journalists, digital cinematographers or event videographers, to express their visions at the highest creative level." In non-techie, non-marketspeak, that means throw us $3500 (the MSRP then), and we'll throw you a digital camcorder that records stuff that looks like film.

When a multinational corporation says "democratize," I'm a little suspicious. A true conversation with a corporate person (not from Panasonic, but another corporation of comparable dimensions): "democratize," he flung, and I asked, "you mean like Allende got democratized?" and he said, "no, you know, like America," and I asked, "oh, you mean an SUV in every garage and McDonald's in every pot," and he said, "no, no, like a level playing field," and you can guess my reply there. The point being: few people really know what "democracy" is anymore, and we can't blame people who don't, our having seen that word used in a lot of awfully strange ways lately, and probably unwittingly altered our own understanding in the scab-scar-shield cycle.

I received a much better explanation of "democratize" from Stu Maschwitz, founder of The Orphanage, a post-production company that not only offers superior post-production services, but also an inexpensive software tool, "Magic Bullet," to bring a "film-like" look to digital video. The reason, says Maschwitz: "If Sundance wants your stuff, you're not totally" out of luck. Past DVD PRO attendees will recall Maschwitz as the youthful keynote of the Monterey show, and you may have seen the The Orphanage's work in videos by Cher and Aimee Mann, as well as the feature-length Things Behind the Sun, directed by Allison Anders. Those services, naturally, come at a price, and should an independent filmmaker find she can't swing it, she can pick up "Magic Bullet," and bring it on down herself, should the need arise. And when Maschwitz says "democratize," he means it: through their distributor, Red Giant Software, The Orphanage offers Magic Bullet at a deeply discounted price, down from $995 to $495 (SD) and $1695 to $995 (HD) for "Academic" versions of the software. The software version that Red Giant sells is actually a suite of five integrated plug-ins to Adobe's ubiquitous After Effects that run on both Windows and Mac. These include Magic Bullet, which handles the 24p conversion; Look Suite, which simulates on-lens filters and film-specific post-production processes; plus Broadcast Spec, Letterboxer, and Opticals tools.

But for the space I'm allotted here, I'd quote the whole of Maschwitz's thoughts on why we should need our DV to look like film; this is a small snippet of what he has to say on the issue of why we need to look at film, taken from the documentation for Magic Bullet: "Since before history, mankind has sat around campfires and told stories, and there are those who suggest that this association with narrative and the flickering image is so deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious that it in part explains our love for movies. Whether this is true or not, applying Magic Bullet to your video instantly transforms it from feeling like just another bit of DV camcorder footage to something more."

Though they're replete with the assortment of tools with which to perform the operation, Garron Bateman of Digitrek, Inc., a Denver-based post-production company that boasts the patronage of AT&T and Lion's Gate Films tells me, "The demand for ‘that film look' is actually decreasing, and the request for ‘that film look' usually revolves around poorly shot, poorly lit footage. They want to put ‘professionalism' on junk." Bateman adds, too, that he's recently been approached by people who want an 8mm look to convey a nostalgic vision, something akin to adding crackle and pop to a CD track.

The New, Weird America
The most interesting take on the topic, and the one I'm inclined to follow, comes from Gwylym Cano, an independent filmmaker based in Denver. Outright, and forthrightly, he puts it, "I don't think you should even try to make your DV look like film, not just because the aesthetic possibilities of digital video haven't been fully explored, but also because we have in our hands a form of protest."

Here we unearth yet another parallel to the early days of digital audio, when the availability of cheap digital recording equipment that closely approximated the fidelity and richness of more pricey equipment—as cheap analog equipment never could—welcomed a generation of new, underfunded, but plenty-inspired artists into the field. The ability to distribute music digitally and electronically took us further down the same paths—including (especially) resistance on the other side. And who's to say some of the resistance to all things digital didn't in some measure arise from the fear that new voices might muck up the works—meaning not so much the means of producing great art, but the means of controlling it and selling it? (That's certainly been the case with MP3 and P2P, but that's another story.) DV, as a sort of everyman/woman's format has the same power to kick open doors, especially if met on its own aesthetic terms—as opposed to its ability to ape celluloid.

Toe-to-toe with Hollywood, which has, in some sense, crafted even our "indie" artistic imaginations (to our detriment, I'd say), the honest independent filmmaker, the Van Gogh who has to steal his powdered paints, has to insist at some point: enough, we're not bowing to your laws or your will or your distribution schemes. In that vein, Cano continues, "When digital video doesn't apologize for being digital video, then you get to see it, the pigment—instead of water color trying to be oil, charcoal as pastel." Compromise, then, isn't something built-in to the creative process. Van Gogh, of course, only sold the one painting during his lifetime, but I think it can safely be said that he moved us quite a ways forward. These are the stronger people, and the ones we should look to for artistic innovation and its natural consequence, human evolution. As our man Shelley put it, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

We're in the fortunate position of being able to appreciate the new, and that's our job, after all, right? Even the Lynch-resistant Mr. Starrett is going to tell you we live in the Digital Age, and if you should move your murder/ action/cop buddy movie straight from Digi-Beta to DVD, he'll watch it, and most likely will be thoroughly pleased. And having learned what I've learned over the course of the conversations I've had with these people, I might even be able to gut one with Bob, the medium being the message and all. It's high time we built our shields, and moved forward as a species, off into another weird adventure.

Companies Mentioned in this Article

Adobe Systems, Inc. www.adobe.com
Digitrek, Inc. www.digitrek.com
Fool Moon Productions www.foolmoonpro.com
The Orphanage www.theorphanage.com
Matsushita Electric Corporation of America (Panasonic) www.panasonic.com
Red Giant Software www.redgiant software.com