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Digital Is Cinema

Extremely colorful animated film stills by Jodie Mack

At a Q&A session on October 14 at the RedCAT Theater in Los Angeles following a screening of the film cycle “Let Your Light Shine: Handmade Films,” animator Jodie Mack put forth a concept that, while very simple and obvious, puts an interesting perspective on the current state of the moving image.

The five films in the “Handmade Films” cycle, all done by Mack, are all produced — and were screened — in 16mm film. They include the epic autobiographical animated musical Dusty Stacks of Mom, which is surrounded by four shorter, abstract works: New Fancy Foils, Undertone Overture, Glistening Thrills and Let Your Light Shine. All of the pieces, with possibly the exception of the last film, acts as a meditation on the handcrafted, tactile nature of art and film, which is a nature that is slowly vanishing via a digital demise.

It was perhaps in response to a question about why Mack favors film over digital that the filmmaker remarked — and what follows is paraphrasing of her response — that all concepts and methods found in the production of digital-based cinema comes from all the concepts and methods found in traditional filmmaking. Dissolves, editing, juxtaposing one image against another: Those are all things done in digital that are done because that is what, as a culture, we have come to expect cinema to be through film.

Just imagine a bizarro world — an impossible world, but fantasize for moment — where digital cinema was invented before film. In that world, would there even be a concept known as “editing”? Because, for the most part, why would a digital media maker need to edit?

The history of cinema, in a physical sense, is one of finding more convenient ways to store the maximum amount of visual information. There is nothing “convenient” about 35mm film. It is large and bulky and awkward, and a shot is based around the limitation of the physicality of the actual reels of film.

Film still from Alfred Hitchcock's Rope

For example, Alfred Hitchcock attempted to make a movie all in one shot, but the best he could do was one that approximated one shot with some subtle trickery to disguise the necessary reel changes. Plus, he was also constrained by other technical limitations of the time, so that the final film, Rope, is forced to all take place within a single location.

While digital cinema does not have totally limitless image storing space, it does have an immensely greater ratio than that of any film gauge. While, say, a remake of Rope maintaining the “one take” conceit is more possible to produce today than it was in 1948, would the idea of watching a film like that done in one take hold any kind of impact? Or would it seem the product of the lazy filmmaker who doesn’t want to hire an editor?

(The only “single unbroken take” feature film that the Underground Film Journal can find mention of is Andrew Bowser’s Worm, which screened recently at the Arizona Underground Film Festival.)

But, is that the only innovation that digital can bring to the world of cinema? The ability for longer takes? And is that inherently more interesting than making films in shorter takes? Well, to be fair, the debate of long vs. short takes is a perennial one no matter what format is being discussed.

It seems the only real new frontier for the cinema to go is to provide more immersive viewer experiences, which is what the whole modern 3D craze is all about — finding ways to convince audiences that they need to spend money to have experiences in a theater they can’t have at home. However, even that immersiveness has its limitations to what’s on, or using cheap 3D tricks, directly in front of the movie screen.

What was fully immersive, though, was Mack’s final film of her “Handmade Films” cycle, Let Your Light Shine. It is a simple abstract film of white lines and shapes criss-crossing the screen that audience members were told to view through a pair of special glasses.

But, they were not 3D glasses. Instead they were some sort of prismatic reflectors that multiplied and┬áspread out the images on-screen so that the viewer’s entire visual spectrum was filled with Mack’s images. The images came off the screen, filled the ceiling, the walls, the audience member’s head in front of you, etc.

This was Mack’s least tactile of all the films in the cycle, but it was a real visual dynamo that portends where perhaps our cinema might yet go: Traveling to world’s that completely consume our visual sense.


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