In one of his cryptic jabs, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard took a dig at Abbas Kiarostami by suggesting that his recent movies were made without a camera. Godard was implying that Kiarostami’s meaning making emanates from his status as a contemporary author, rather than from the filmed reality of the image. Godard was amongst the first prominent voices dealing with the digital as a form of thought in images. In movies like Film Socialisme (2010) and Goodbye to Language (2014), he played with the digital as a medium of expression for thought, rather than as a technological switch with budgetary implications.
Interestingly, his quarry Abbas Kiarostami embraced the digital for his swansong, 24 Frames (2017), a tribute to the photographic epiphany. In an appropriate retort to Godard’s old jab, Kiarostami turned 24 Frames into a deep meditation of space and time by animating photographs using digital techniques on either side of an instant captured in the photographic image. Be it digital or film, cinema as a medium was a work of art made with self-consciousness for both the masters, and they provide a fitting vantage point to look at the film-digital dichotomy.
Ever since James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) triggered a conversion frenzy across the globe from film to digital, fuming debates around film versus digital have also surfaced everywhere. From the 2000s, the film-digital dichotomy row was dominated by discussions extrapolating the case with blatant technological determinism. The aftermath of this paradigm shift reflected in the photochemical image making industry, with major analogue camera manufacturers either phasing out cameras and film stock, or shrinking their production for a niche market.
As a result, making a movie using any variant of film stock became a cumbersome task for filmmakers worldwide, not to mention the hurdles in film projection. With major camera equipment makers like ARRI, Panavision and Aaton venturing into the digital ecosystem, and labs like Technicolor and DeLuxe reinventing themselves as service providers for digital post-production, the outcry for the death of film started echoing from every nook and corner of the industry.
This was backed by arguments pointing at how the digital alternative and its tools revolutionize filmmaking and film projection. Even though professionals and critics acknowledged the technical and aesthetic supremacy of film over digital, the wind was in favour of the latter, both in industrial and artistic terms. Issues like depth, contrast and image details were levelled in the following years with digital officially replacing film in all the major facets like shooting, post production, and distribution.
The initial furor about the death of film was soon replaced with an appeal for the preservation of film stock. A prophesied future of cinema foresaw movies made simply by cut and paste; Godard’s historic jab, a movie made without a camera, was becoming a reality. Artists around the globe dreamt of a free world, barring corporate ownership, intellectual property laws and copyrights.
But the transformation was monitored and driven by the same industrial and capitalist forces which abandoned film. So far, the guidelines of this historic analogue to digital transformation were drawn, defined and executed by the industry kingpins, with a focus on cementing the technical parameters rather than reshaping film stock as an alternate medium of cinematic expression. When gauged with such parameters and guidelines of digital cinema, movies made on film stock look outdated and uneconomic. The nostalgic metal cans, which safeguarded hundreds of thousands of emotions in film reels for more than ten decades withdrew into the darkest corners of abandoned warehouses.
When I say film, I don’t simply mean 35mm film stock on the verge of extinction, but rather, the decades old process of celluloid filmmaking, which encompasses a magnificent marriage of man and machine. The harmony between human intelligence converging with creativity and mechanical precision is the soul of celluloid filmmaking. Nothing but pure black magic can match the experience in which a mysterious ray of light reflected off people and objects traveling through a camera to fall on a chemical composition, which would then reveal the same people and objects upon projection.
On the other hand, images are made as zeroes and ones, or pixels, in the digital realm and then stored in disks of varying shapes and sizes, which in turn pass through a digital editing process. They can be streamed, projected or simply played on platforms in convenient sizes and quality. Even though the whole digital process lacks the mysterious simplicity of film, it renders more possibilities for a digital artist due to its ability to transform how movies are made and consumed.
In semantic and aesthetic perspectives, the requiem for film may sound like a hyperbole. The buzz informs us about a monumental transformation and paradigm shift in technology, whereas the transformation from photochemical to digital is not merely a technology replacing its predecessor, but a relatively young art form extending its scope by adding one more medium for expressing ‘thought’.
This change brought a new set of semantic and aesthetic parameters and possibilities, which posed a question about the co-existence of two powerful media of cinema. In the earlier stages of the digital revolution, movies shot simultaneously using digital and film evoked slightly different emotional experiences from viewers. The mechanical projection of film produced higher levels of emotional repercussions, whereas the digital was less immersive. But, most of the discourses were centered on the image as a single unit and corresponding aesthetics, rather than images as a stream of consciousness flowing through time and resulting emotional immersion in a cinematic narrative. The survival and future of film depend a great deal on this semantic aspect. The gap between perceptive differences between film and digital is closing in and technical supremacy, acceptance and flexibility of digital is almost completely established. What’s left behind is the so called grammar of cinema, whereas the digital has already created its own clichés and conventions.
Elements like collision of the shots, or montage, in film have been replaced by overlapping or superimposing digital images, which demand a new perception of multiplication, duplication and originality of an image. In film, an original negative marks the origin of the foremost visual and everything from it is a copy, whereas in digital, lines separating original and copy have vanished.
Digital also has its own patterns of evoking memories, similar to how we remember things, as a memory of a memory. When we remember something, we don’t remember an original incident, but a memory of that incident, so that the original incident functions only as a trigger for an interconnected chain of memories. As a medium of meaning-making through images, the digital constructs a vertical array of superimposed images which makes it impossible to distinguish the original image from the copies, just as it is impossible to discern the original incident from the interconnected chain of memories.
On the other hand, the celluloid relies on the horizontal stacking of images for meaning-making, which makes it possible to distinguish the original image from its copies. Both the digital and celluloid perceptions are connected with memories and meaning making in their own way, employing their own set of definitions for originals, copies and reproductions. A complex harmony between technological imperative and cinematic aesthetic can be found in both film and digital.
The history of cinema has evolved alongside the history of its medium, just as the history of painting has developed according to the chemical composition of the medium. A medium espouses a creative process and disseminates it through poetics. With new possibilities like virtual reality start shaping the imagination of artists, there will be more additions to this spectrum. The future of film lies in its semantics, rather than in the industrial and technological supremacy of analogue over digital. That future will never belong to the film-digital dichotomy and debates, but rather, to co-existing media of the artform and visionary filmmakers who can envision a movie made without a camera.
All images from Pixabay.com
Ragesh Dipu is an independent filmmaker and poet from Kerala. Besides making micro movies and exploring poetic expressions in nature, cinema and literature, he likes long walks, and conversations about art and culture, punctuated with coffee and cigarettes. He writes articles and columns for various online platforms in English and scribbles poetry in Malayalam at his blog http://chylanthy.blogspot.com.