Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Incredible Third Dimension

Pundits, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, would have us believe that the new 3-D is a technological breakthrough that will change the face of motion picture history and narrative story-telling as important, as game-shifting, as the coming of sound and color.

Perhaps. But it smacks so very much of gimmick. You know, like the last two times 3-D came around, in 1952 and in 1982. It's about right on schedule, if a couple years late.

Blame it on the theatres, who don't want to install those $100,000 digital projectors.

Those 2 times Hollywood was in desperation panic mode, first when television caused people to stay home (attendance never recovered from the mid- '40s levels), then when VHS and cable did the same in the '80s. Now of course it's the Internet, and the desperation is acute. While at least the studios figured out how to sell their product to those young upstarts (making more billions producing t.v. and selling rights to ancillary markets), now it's different. When content is routinely ripped and streamed online they find themselves holding a bag filled with hype and the sound of crickets Tivoing through the commercials.

If some new and technologically-dependent system forces people to go to theatres again, maybe Hollywood will survive this downturn. So everything under the sun is being produced in 3-D versions now, including a new version of A Christmas Carol (with Jim Carrey, whom I always thought was 3-dimensional enough), a remake of Piranha, and new "second eye view" re-renderings/re-issues of every Pixar movie.

But whether or not films can adopt a spacial dimension to their narrative strategies has yet to be proven to have traction. The flat and indexical surface of a photographic image works as an artistic abstraction that creates meaning from counterpoint, sequencing, and measured use of composition.

Distracting the plane of focus off the screen's cognated surface reduces your viewing experience from a narrated one to a vertiginous demonstration of technological disorientation.

All it does is make you tirelessly adjust your focus. If this really does "change" the way films are made and told from now on, I'll stay home and watch my flat screen. And of course the proof of the new storytelling mode will be how it translates to all the other devices and places people watch films, at home, on their computers, on a hand-held device.

None of which will have the immersive 3-D technology, which why it's being pushed - it can't be duplicated elsewhere and you have to go to the movies again. Out in the real 3-D world.

If the content doesn't work anywhere else but in giant digital thunderdomes, the long tail of revenue has been prematurely flattened.

I wouldn't buy any version of "The Polar Express." 3-D seems more at home at Disneyworld.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Prints And The Revolution

Film prints, it is reported, can last upward of 200 years if treated properly, kept in a dry and dark place, with a minimum of humidity and not stored next to gasoline, mold, or the vinegar.

Yet there is a move nowadays to digitize everything, and get them all saved. To preserve them once and for all. The precious visual imagery of Hollywood past, your grandmother's photos, or the paintings of the masters must be stored on computers.

Safe. Digital and forever.

But the words "digital" and "preservation" don't belong together. To preserve something is to freeze its physical state in a moment close to perfection or originality.

For a while. For a long while.

The format in which it is frozen must be stable, or it isn't preserved. Only copied. Digital formats are electronic rather than analog/object based, and aren't preserving, only changing it into another format - bits and zeros. You don't make a new digital object, only duplicate the information, elsewhere and over and again. This suggests that digital is endless; actually it's only promiscuous.

You never save a digital object - you only make successive copies, over time and from system to system.

Sure. I guess that could work. But magnetic storage devices are prone to every magnet in your home, wallet, and cell-phone, to gamma rays and the passage of time in non-predictable and catastrophic ways. It's all intangible and temperamental. Digital discs fail suddenly and fatally. A VHS tape may turn to snow over the years everytime you watch it, and even if it stretches it pulls its way through the heads. Yet a digital file will work at 2:00 p.m. then not at 2:05.

Recopying over and over has its pratfalls as well. Each migration of a digital file to a new medium loses 1% to 5% of the formatting, depending on the conversion and compression strategy.

Digital looks fantastic, when projected properly, but that is only for the short-term. There is no standardized way to keep it.

Nowadays the Hollywood studios all preserve their films, even (and especially) the ones shot on digital cameras and that have no negatives, by burning them out onto 35mm celluloid in three-color separation masters.

Analog. That's how they preserved old Technicolor films, too. "The Wizard of Oz" still looks vibrant every time it's reissued in a new digital format because they go back to the color film negatives. It's the original best copy with all visual information still intact - not the 2k scan they did in 2002.

Those film masters'll probably still be around in 200 years. All the drives the digital files are on will still be here, too. As door stops.

For now the only way to preserve those digital files is to move them to analog format. Which renders them less than they were, no longer having the qualities that makes them unique, interactive, portable, "digital" - at the cost of making them stable.

That is the crux of the revolution happening now. Do we abandon physical objects in order to look forward, or implement them into our preservation strategy, as a nostalgic and retrograde technology that prevents progress?

Friday, May 8, 2009

New Moguls

We are nostalgic for the old studio days, in which a paternal (or dictatorial) regime bought, sold and traded properties, actors, directors and screen counts to fill the theatres of the nation.

Many classics were made under this system, and many more low (and high) budget programmers, a "mode of production" which kicked in around the capital-intensive time of the 1920s and didn't really begin deteriorating until the Paramount decree in 1948 and came to resemble full nitrate-style deterioration by the '70s, with bankruptcies, mergers, selling off of ruby slippers, and Disney buying ESPN in an attempt to diversify out of the film business.

The studio system is dead, and independent production is now dying as well. Part of it is there's no loose money in the economy. Part of it is there's no audiences anymore willing to go out and take a change on art films, no culture to discuss and support marginal, original, challenging films; only the roller-coaster blockbusters.

Part of it is the "film experience" itself - it's changed for good.

I'm not just talking about people not going to theatres anymore (I did that here). I'm not talking about how everything seems to be bootlegged and online weeks or days after their expensive wide theatrical releases (I did that here). Making cinema itself has finally become decentralized. Less privileged. And finally democratic.

The avant-garde promise of 16mm in the late '50s and early '60s was hindered by the high barrier to distribution. The VHS and DVD revolution allowed home-filmmakers to get their product out to a public if they could reach them. Now with the Internet, the barrier to entry is near zero. If you have it, you can download it. Even if it isn't yours.

And it's therefore available... TO THE ENTIRE WORLD. The biggest theatre ever.

The second important part of the film equation that has become democratized is the equipment. Not just digital cameras, which at the high end (the Red which shot Soderbergh's Che and Sommer's upcoming G.I. Joe) now go for under $12,000, one-twentieth of what similar ones did 4 years ago, but also the abilities to edit, score, and of course upload it.

In 1970, an 80-minute film shot on black-and-white 16mm stock would cost $200,000 at least, in lab work and processing alone. And that was if you could borrow the equipment from your local film school. In 2009, an 80-minute film shot on digital doesn't have to cost more than $100.

The final part of the way cinema has moved away forever from the studios is the changing aesthetics of audiences. With quicktime streaming, bite-sized iPhone links, and portability valued over a ritualized community experience, it simply doesn't matter that your film isn't in the multiplex (or arthouse) down the street. You don't even have to burn a copy - you just upload to Rapidshare or YouSendIt and you're a film distributor.

The new Saturday night is pulling out a camera and capturing footage, miming to your reference copy of "There Will Be Blood," ripping music in, and uploading to your stealth site. It doesn't even have to go viral - those 12 hits back home in Kentucky mean more to you than any $30 million gross opening weekend - the studios didn't keep much of that anyway after the independent contractors get done with you.

The new film experience is at home, with your friends and less than $1000 in equipment. You can carry it around. You can be your own mogul, in charge from beginning to end.

You can imagine how much this panics Hollywood, who doesn't know how to crack this market. And even if it is a market.

And if your film is good, well then,... prepare to be co-opted by a young executive in Culver City, charged with trying to hold on for dear life to last year's model.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Insurance Insurance

I recently got a small (if you call a terabyte hard-drive "small") portable back-up for my computers at home. It plugs in and automatically copies any new files or changes since the last time, once an hour if you'll let it, and makes a full back-up every week.

This is so if (when) my computer crashes, I can restore almost all my information onto my next future door stop. The key is that I have to keep the thing plugged in, or at least have done so 5 minutes before my digital storage and work device goes south for the winter.

I'm not sure what the best strategy is for back-up. Once it's full it apparently begins to piece-meal write over itself, and the clear headroom it needs is now clogged with old "back-ups." Is it a back-up if you never use it, or does it merely have the "potential" to be a back-up, unrealized and impotent until it's cured, released to fulfill its destiny?

There's no instruction manual - well, there is but it's 26 pages in 13 different languages. That's not a manual, that's a collection of inserts stapled together. Once you plug it in, it automatically loads the full complete manual onto your computer's hard drive (and then proceeds to back it up for you, back onto itself).

If you don't install it with the pre-loaded software, the manual doesn't load and it asks you if you'd like to.

It knows what you've done, or didn't do. It's post-modern; it refers to itself. It's recursive in that it needs itself to work, to create its own presence for you to figure out how to work it (assuming you even read how).

You can otherwise merely let it do its magic without a thought and have a blissful and unfounded faith that everything is now "safe."

I don't know if I want my back-up to be so self-aware. I appreciate not having to be in charge, but if it's infringing on my need to not think about it by being so insistent, I'm shopping for a different back-up strategy that's a little less needy.