Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The dream that kicks* - digitally

Last night, Channel 4 screened a programme of a type which BBC-2 used to do so well (e.g. Howard Schumann's Talking Pictures) but has virtually given up on. (BBC4 has not seriously picked up the baton, either.) Entitled Side by Side, it was an examination of how digital imaging, recording and projection has virtually taken over the commercial cinema. Fronted by Keanu Reeves, whose name presumably guaranteed the finance for the documentary, and featuring most significant figures from the last two decades in Hollywood, it was not only an excellent introduction to the technology and its impact, but also touched on the future of the cinema experience. (Yes, it was shot digitally on this and this.)

Actually, that summary does not do justice to Reeves' contribution. He was not only one of the producers of the programme, he also participated in discussions where his experience - almost a veteran now - as a screen actor must have helped draw out his star guests, though the programme's credits assign the writing strictly to director Christopher Kenneally.

The contributors were inevitably Hollywood-based, though it was surprising how many of the cinematographers had British or Commonwealth accents. (I must admit to BSC-spotting in the credits of movies shown on TV.) It was good to see that doyenne of film editors, Anne V Coates, who had taken to the new technology in her 80s with, it appears, hardly a flicker.

It was not only an easy introduction to the way that digital production works, but, in explaining the differences with traditional film, also illuminated how these movies on Celluloid** were produced. It wisely avoided mentioning nitrate stock, or matting, and only touched on the benefits of digital visual effects. It was sad that the work of the early adopters in e.g. pop videos is lost to them because the machines to play back the particular digital medium no longer exist. (This is an area where they should have learned from the computer industry, or even the early days of TV recording.) There is also a worry for the future in that there is no high-capacity medium which passively retains digital data: both disks and tape need to be exercised regularly to keep them usable (the terms "stiction" and "print-through" come to mind from my mainframe computer days).

Professionals can still tell the difference between film and digital projection, but it seems that the tipping-point may be about to be reached. Already, cinema audiences benefit from more consistent presentation than with film, thanks to the current generation of digital projectors. In the programme, a Sony representative reckoned that 50% of cinemas worldwide were digital-only and that digital projection would be virtually ubiquitous within a few years. This presents difficulties for drive-ins, film clubs and small cinemas (at least one in Wales has been forced out of business because of the cost of upgrading), but it is probable that cheaper projectors will be developed, just as cheaper feature-film-quality digital cameras have appeared in the last few years.

More serious is the competition from the home cinema. Even one of the veteran cinematographers on Side by Side confessed that he was happy to watch movies on his big screen at home. Why would he go out? - he was beyond dating young women, which he remembered as the main reason for cinemagoing in his youth. I wonder whether cinemas can survive as theatre survived the competition from cinema itself.

* A quotation from Dylan Thomas's "Our Eunuch Dreams" used by Michael Chanan for the title of his history of early British cinema.

** A registered trade name!

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