Monday, December 26, 2011

2011: The Year Movies Died

It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.

As 2011 is set to end and 2012 to begin, I'd like to take a moment here to mourn the passing and the imminent extinction of an art form and a technology which has been an enormous part of my life and most of yours. (If you are say, age 20 or younger, the following will be a senseless old person rambling.)

2011 truly marks the end of movies. The use of 35 millimeter film moving past a light at 24-frames-per-second and projected onto a screen is fading fast in favor of digital technology. Even if I claim that digital is better, it is impossible to know if the claim is correct since we are in the midst of it's use and ascendance.

The quote at the start of this post from writer William Gibson, who coined the term "cyberspace" for his novel "Neuromancer" in 1984, a term already dusty and quaint. He made his remark in this interview with the Paris Review this year, and he had more to say on the topic, comments which seem appropriate in this eulogy for movies, for film, for cinema:

"It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. … My great-grandfather was born into a world where there was no recorded music. It’s very, very difficult to conceive of a world in which there is no possibility of audio recording at all. 

"I can remember seeing the emergence of broadcast television, but I can’t tell what it did to us because I became that which watched broadcast television ... 

" ... we’re all constantly in a state of ongoing t­echnoshock, without really being aware of it—it’s just become where we live. The Victorians were the first people to experience that, and I think it made them crazy in new ways. We’re still riding that wave of craziness. We’ve gotten so used to emergent technologies that we get anxious if we haven’t had one in a while."

Thanks to the constant digitization of everything for storage and delivery via the internet, I do indeed have access to much more of the history of movies, as will all the world. But what goads me is the abandonment of the film projectors themselves, the end of film, the actual stuff you can hold in your hands composed of thousands and tens of thousands of frozen images, which can be made to race past a light and create the illusion of life, persistence of vision, a concept which has filled my life and my imagination and which I am still exploring, though now it will more as archeologist rather than anthropologist. I am now an antiquarian far removed from the cutting edge, a removal which took place pretty quickly.

What was once the product of gears, light bulbs and sprocket holes (ancient steampunk artifacts) is now the domain of the Digital Cinema Initiatives, pixels, gigabytes and hard drives.

There is no longer a need to change reels, mark the timing of that change with a "cigarette burn", or have stacks of film cans.

Is it a better image?

In this column, it is noted that:

"Vittorio Storaro has estimated that there are a minimum of 6000 x 3000 bits of information in one 35mm celluloid frame – in other words, eighteen million bits of pictorial information. In our HD transfer, there are roughly 2000 x 1000 bits of information per frame (or there would be, if we were working in Storaro’s ideal but theoretical 1X2 ratio) – i.e. about two million bits of information."

So that's where we are now, but that standard of image information is surely to change very quickly. Standards range from 24 FPS (frames per second) to 72 or more, and director Peter Jackson is using an army of more than 40 digital Red Epic cameras to film "The Hobbit" and is aiming for 48 FPS. I'm still yearning to own my own 35mm Arriflex camera. Some might say that's rather like asking for some papyrus and a few reeds to write some cuneiform.

Don't get me wrong - I don't want 8-track tapes or cassettes back, though I did like my old reel-to-reel sound system. I'm not wailing about the loss of hand-tooled buggy whips, or I hope I am not.

But if the only place you watch movies is on a screen you can hold in your hand, you are missing a major part how movies have served us best - they helped us form communities where we shared experiences all together, as one, at the same time, in vast darkened palatial rooms where overhead a beam of light raced above us and landed on a massive screen and life jumped out at us all.

But who knows what unimaginable discoveries and technologies might lie just ahead? That might be for those who dream more of the future, not the past.

Read more on the end of the 35mm movie world here from Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott.

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