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Bordwell on the Digital Revolution

Last year at the Vancouver International Film Festival a distinguished panel including Alan Franey, Simon Field, Tom Charity, Andrea Picard and David Bordwell (hope I haven’t forgotten anybody!) pondered the future of the cinema. Among the many things that the panel thought the cinema might be it was agreed by all that the future was, in all its width and depth, digital! Now one aspect of that digital revolution has been examined in a most interesting new book by scholar, and livewire gadfly David Bordwell in a new book Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files and the Future of Movies.

The author explains its genesis in the book’s introduction where he says that it “grew out of out of a series of entries on the blog site I publish with Kristin Thompson, Observations on Film Art I began studying the transition in September of 2011 and posted my first entry in December. The series was initially planned for only three entries, but as I learned more, the thing grew to eight instalments, finishing in late March 2012. Somewhere along about the fourth part I realized that this could become a mini-book.”I can't pretend to quickly unpack here the argument and information the book contains. I’ve only just started reading and digesting it all over again after sometimes glancing at and sometimes absorbing the articles as each appeared. So let me give you a few paras from the introductory chapter so that you might get the flavour of its aims and ambitions as well as a sample of the author’s crystal clear prose. If you are interested after that the book is available for purchase via David’s website which is linked above.

“It was the biggest upheaval in film exhibition since synchronized sound. Between 2010 and 2012, the world’s film industries forever changed the way movies were shown.

But ours is the age of plastic, electronics, and keystrokes. Film on film was an anachronism. Sooner or later it would be transformed into ones and zeros. …The film is no longer a “film.” A movie now usually comes to a theatre not on reels but on a matte-finish hard drive the size of a big paperback. The drive houses a digital version of the movie, along with alternative soundtracks in various languages and all manner of copy-guarding encryption. Instead of lacing a print through rollers and sprockets, the operator inserts the drive into a server that “ingests” the “content.” (By now a movie has become content, an undifferentiated item to be fed into a database.) The server accesses the files only after a key, a long string of numbers and letters unique to that server-projector combination, authorizes the transfer.

Once ingested, the movie appears on a monitor as an item in a Playlist. Through drag-and-drop, the operator or the manager composes the whole program, from advertisements and trailers to the entire feature. When the projector recognizes the server and identifies the film as something certified to play, it runs it automatically. The projector—“just a big computer with a lightbulb inside,” as one engineer described it—is noiseless, except for the air blasting in to cool the lamp. When the film has finished its run, the hard drive is sent back to the distributor for wiping and re-use….

My goal in this little book is to have my cake and eat it too. I hope that my experience studying film history helps me spot some broad-scale trends at work in today’s shift from film prints to digital files. What forces brought it about? What does the change tell us about the business of making and showing movies? What are the effects, both immediate and long-term, of the conversion? How does it change our experience of movies and moviegoing? Full measure of the changeover will have to await a more judicious and detached view, but I want to offer some first quick sketches of how it happened, with some hunches about why….

The change isn’t simply a matter of new technology, or hardware turning into software. It isn’t simply a matter of fancy gear or even the look and sound of images. It involves social processes, the way institutions like filmmaking and film exhibition work. Technology affects relations of power, along with the choices that moviemakers and filmgoers are offered. As films become files, cinema changes in subtle, far-reaching ways. People may not have noticed the difference between a 35mm image and a digital one, but as moviegoing becomes different, so does our sense of what films are, and have been.”

For those who might bemoan it, and those resolutely sticking to 35mm, the answer as to why we will have to get used to it lies here Pandoras-digital-book

Posted 19th May, 2012