31. July 2015 · Comments Off on To Be Reel: The independent film artist in the wake of digital absorption · Categories: Film-related, Visible Cinema · Tags: , , , , , , ,
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To Be Reel: The independent film artist in the wake of digital absorption
mattby Matt Joyce

The debate surrounding film and digital cinema is becoming exhausting. Two mediums to choose from – which one is better? It is just not that simple. Like all debates, there are valid points on either side; different people use different mediums for different purposes. Yet it is because both parties are coming from two opposing subjective standpoints that the debate has escalated into irrelevance. The large-scale truth of the matter is: digital is taking over. Independent filmmakers all over the world have embraced the positive benefits of digital video for quite some time, but now digital is taking over the industry. However, this shift does not mean the death of film. Film’s medium is finding a new home, and a new appreciation from a smaller niche of individual independent filmmakers.

During an internship at the Independent Filmmakers Cooperative of Ottawa (IFCO) in Ottawa, Canada, I witness the various ways in which local film artists continue to choose film as their medium. What I determine from my experiences at IFCO is that the decision to privilege film as the medium comes from both a passion for the process of filmmaking itself and recognition of the desired mode of representation specifically sought after by the filmmaker. The purpose of this essay will thus be to describe objectively the impact of digital video while in turn explaining the special new importance film is garnering as a medium.

Firstly, for the sake of clarity, I must define an important crossover in terminology. The word ‘filmmaker’ today is used interchangeably. Years ago, when you announced that you were a filmmaker – you were. Film was all there was. Today, however, you are a filmmaker regardless of which medium you choose. Very few people use the word ‘videographer’. As digital is more openly accepted and embraced by the industry, the term filmmaker no longer refers to the specific medium attached to the word but rather to the growing convention of its use as a generic job title. For instance, if you are a young person shooting with DSLRs and uploading your videos onto YouTube, you are de facto a filmmaker. IFCO, however, is a purely film-based cooperative; therefore, the staff and members make a conscious effort to distinguish and separate the two mediums not only in practice but also in discourse. The members of IFCO often do this by calling themselves ‘film artists’. As the majority of them are experimental filmmakers, it is an appropriate title since filmmaker generally connotes narrative or documentary-based filmmaking. In acknowledging their ethos, I will, therefore, make a conscious effort to contextually distinguish the two mediums and, when addressing the members of IFCO, use the term film artist as much as possible.

My objective with this project, in discussing film’s importance, is to find a way to effectively voice the passion these local filmmakers have for their medium, and also to hear some of their views on the current digital transformation. With my IFCO internship, I am fortunate enough to sit down and interview two esteemed members of IFCO, their technical director, Dave Johnson, and the experimental film artist, Roger D. Wilson. As an experimental and documentary filmmaker, Dave has worked extensively with both film and video, while Roger has been working exclusively with film for over twenty years.

Within the course of the interview many insightful comments are made by the two artists but I come away convinced that in the end there is one key determinant in choosing which medium to espouse: the mode of representation. Despite certain advantages of learning to work with film, basic questions must drive the decision. What kind of filmmaker are you? Which medium suits your project best? When answered accordingly, these questions objectify the debate between the mediums; it ceases to be one of argument but rather a decision taken for practical reasons. Video provides freedom and flexibility for the documentary filmmaker whereas film offers the same to the experimental film artist. This may seem like an obvious point but when Roger mentions it, I realize that in all my discussions, forums and blog activity concerning the ‘battle of the mediums’ very few others have emphasized this objective reality. Could intensely passionate film practitioners be focusing too closely on their subjective perspective, thereby missing the ‘big picture’?

With traditional narrative cinema – the dominant mode of representation – film industries are increasingly pushing digital video, largely because it is easier and more cost effective. The current view of film by many Hollywood filmmakers is that the process is tedious and too many limitations come with the medium. Workflow in digital is faster, more efficient, and immediate. The HD monitors display the exact image in real time. There is no suspense as there is with film where you have to wait for the rushes, wondering whether the shot has turned out okay, was it exposed properly, etc. Digital filmmakers can keep rolling for as long as they want – it’s only tape. They never have to worry about running out of film in the middle of a shot. As Robert Rodriguez says, “[I am] able to move at the speed of thought”. (Film is Dead)

Again, the point is obvious, there are many positives aspects to shooting digital, especially when working on large scale/big budget sets. As Dave reiterates, it relates to mode of representation: “If all you’re concerned with is telling a story and having it on the big screen, me personally, I don’t care what you use, as long as the story is told well”; meaning, the medium is far more removed in narrative cinema because the story is what’s being emphasized. Hollywood is advancing and perfecting its own production process exclusively with fiction filmmaking in mind. The direction is digital. And the results are extremely impressive. Commenting on The Social Network (2010), which was shot on the Red One MX, Dave concurs, “It convinced me”.

However, the individual film artist who shoots on film looks at the process radically differently from those who use film to tell a story. For Roger, the experimental artist, digital is extremely limited, unlike film. It is in the experimental realm that film comes into its own. It makes the difference. Painting on film, cross-processing, hand-processing, bleach-bypassing, these are effects possible with film. They are what Dave calls “the perfect imperfections” and they cannot be emulated on digital. As Roger explains:

I’m taking it to a point where I’m bored. I’m trying to find limits; I’m trying to see what can I not do with film. I’ve gone to the point where I’m taking film stock and I’m burying it in the ground for two months, and then I’m digging it out, and then I’m running it through my camera. Or I’m boiling it in water and to trying to destroy the film, and then running it through my camera. I’ve always been told, well, film’s very sensitive, you have to be careful with film, it costs a lot of money, it’s very sensitive but to me it’s not sensitive, it’s strong as a rock. You know I bleach it in household bleach. I have it sit in Jell-O for months on end, in baking soda, and other toxic environments…just to see how far can I go with this before the emulsion is completely destroyed on the film stock, and like I said, I’ve been able to bury film in the ground and it’s decaying, it’s rotting for months and still be able to take it out of the ground, wash it off, run it through my camera, and still capture images on that film stock afterwards.

Clearly, the mode of representation is going to dictate which medium you choose. The tactility possible with tangible media, enabling the manipulation of film, is what concerns the experimental film artist. In this regard the choice can only be film; you cannot physically grasp digital codes like ones and zeros.

I ask Roger about some of the digital effects that could be put in place to replicate those of film. He simply says, “It’s not the same”. Firstly, digital effects look fake to a trained eye, like a bad imitation. Most of the time digital effects are just a loop or filter, so the same scratch or gritty grain will become noticeable after a while. With film, the effects are random; the scratches on one roll will be completely different on another. Secondly, with film it takes skill. With digital all you have to do is turn up the ‘gain’ to get a bleach-bypass look. This is Dave’s major critique of digital: “It’s funny because with the digital medium, they’ve been perpetually trying to make it look like film but at the same time, they’re very quickly trying to cut down film, the use of film, so it’s almost like they’re contradicting themselves through their arguments.” The digital demographic wants the desired effect without going through the process, without doing the work and taking the risk.

Given this fact, before starting out in digital, there may be certain advantages and benefits to learning the film medium first, regardless of what kind of a filmmaker you want to be. Both Dave and Roger believe that digital cinema leaves wide open the window of possibility for ‘lazy filmmakers’. As Roger puts it, “I think if you allow a filmmaker to be lazy, they will be lazy…they don’t have to worry about sending the film to the lab or exposing the film properly”. This may not be an absolute truth. However, video definitely allows, and certainly does nothing to contradict, such a possibility. In order to fully understand and master a desired skill base in filmmaking, it would be wise to start at the beginning. Roger explains how he started out shooting only in black and white, which was excellent training in lighting because you only use two tones. The challenge is then to determine how different colors relate to those tones when lit in certain ways. A strong knowledge of lighting and composition is thus pivotal.

Film teaches directors to plan, to organize, to prepare every last detail before they start shooting. Directors must map out their vision on paper (storyboards) before they arrive on set. The work involved in pre-production used to be greater than post; now it is the other way round. Roger observes, “I’ve seen some people who are creating a digital film and they’ll be making a 5 minute film but have 20 hours of video to edit down to 5 minutes!” With film each shot is rehearsed until it is right because there is only so much stock. Therefore the overall process in film-making is much more disciplined than videography; it can either work for you or against you. Thus, there is a general consensus among a certain school of filmmakers who believe that the limitations of film aid in the process because the restrictions motivate them and keep them ‘in check’.

Ironically, Dave points out, the workflow of DSLRs is actually somewhat similar to that of film. With a DSLR camera, like the Canon 5D Mark II, (popular among low-budget Indie filmmakers due to their ‘full sensors’, which enable them to control depth of field) only twelve minutes or so of full HD video can be recorded at a time before reaching the capacity of the SD card. This means the filmmaker has to ‘time out’ his/her shot, much like he/she would do on a film camera, to ensure not running out of card space in mid-shot. Dave proposes that even the digital workflow is trying to copy film but he adds a crucial distinction: “The film discipline can translate into the digital discipline but the digital discipline cannot transfer into the film discipline”.

However, it is a known fact that young filmmakers are highly impressionable. They see what Hollywood is doing with digital and they get ‘taken over’ visually. They sell themselves to digital because the tagline for digital is ‘whatever I can imagine, I can create’. However, the truth is ‘budget’ creates this reality, not imagination. Do not get me wrong; a lot of imagination went into Avatar (2009) but so did a $237 million dollar budget. Robert Rodriguez, in his “Ten Minute Film School” videos, in explaining the philosophy that enabled him to shoot El Mariachi (1992) on 16mm for $7,000, uses the metaphor of the “money hose”: “You’re going to come into problems ever day on your set. You can get rid of the problem one of two ways – you can do it creatively or you can wash it away with the money hose. You have no money, you got no hose.” The drawback with digital video today is that no one, by and large, solves problems creatively anymore. The mass commercialization of filmmaking, which has spread like wildfire with digital technology, has embedded creative decision-making into software and into ever-newer ‘toys’ that cost. Sure you can highjack a torrent of Final Cut Pro but it is more than that. It is a mentality. Novice filmmakers are being lured into thinking they need all the gimmicks that digital video offers them to get their picture across and the truth is – they don’t.

As the head of video production at Henry’s Cameras in Ottawa, Quinn Brown, told me, “The DIY gear of the Indie filmmaker is going to work 90% of the time. Hollywood spends millions of dollars so that when they’re blowing up a building they’ll get the shot 100% percent of the time”. What is advertised to the everyday videographer is that 10%. Film, however, offers no easy way out. It was invented before the consumer culture exploded. With film it is the film stock itself that changes, not the camera. Thus there are two different ways of looking at the price points. Most digital filmmakers think, ‘Buy the camera now. Save later’; when in reality, given the influence of the consumer culture, the camera they buy will seem obsolete in a few years. However, the nature of film automatically pushes the filmmaker to depend on no one but him/herself – to trust in the knowledge he/she has acquired before the moment of creative execution. With film you make it happen yourself instead of relying on all the ‘bell and whistles’ that live inside an IMac. Roger observes the sad fact that in the huge upheaval that is transforming the industry “the true filmmaker has lost the right to that word”.

Dave adds another point. The curse of technology, which forces filmmakers to constantly upgrade, is hurting film exhibitionists most. The classic 35mm projectors in theatres have not changed that much since the beginning of cinema; the machines have become more reliable but their overall mechanics have remained constant. An exhibitionist could have the same projector for fifty years as long as it is cleaned, lubricated and taken care of. However, with the rise of digital, Multiplexes are becoming 3D compatible, and independent theatres are being forced to convert to DCP projection. These projectors cost twenty to thirty thousand dollars, and the bulbs have to be changed every few years, adding further to the exorbitant cost. Privately owned theatres will close or attendance will have to increase across the board to make such theatres viable.

Moreover, digital is changing how we experience motion pictures and how we access movies. We can now watch unlimited movies with Netflix apps on our phones. Dave believes the YouTube phenomenon, paired with ‘the lazy filmmaker’, will be the death of cinema. With the democratization of cinema comes more competition but more specifically – more content. “How do you sift through the crap?” is Dave’s primary question. And it is a good one. Sure there will always be treasures; it might even be easier to find them, but undoubtedly they will be surrounded by millions of minutes of mindless video. Dave draws an interesting correlation between film and music. With a guitar, as with a film camera, you cannot just pick it up and start playing. Acoustic instruments keep music within a certain perimeter of genres due to what is sonically possible. However, digital technology has permitted an infinite number of sounds to proliferate. In turn, we are seeing genres of music breaking apart into dozens of sub genres, largely due to Pro Tools or Garage Band. With anyone able to press ‘record’, in video as in music, who can say how our relationship to motion pictures will ultimately morph or expand?

It is no wonder then that IFCO wants to promote and encourage the time-honoured disciplined approach to filmmaking. Their focus has always been just film. In many ways this is due to having SAW video right next door. IFCO has been able to remain completely celluloid-based because SAW video has always been around. Roger explains that within the past few years most film cooperatives in Canada have accommodated digital into their mandates because of members wanting access to both mediums in one center. For years the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers and the Double Negative Collective in Montreal were purely film but recently they both have integrated digital for this very reason. In Ottawa however, if you want to have access to both, you have to become a member of both co-ops. As Rogers says, “it would be redundant to offer both”.

Because most of the members of IFCO are primarily hobbyists, rather than storytellers, their main passion for film derives from the process. They are attached to the tactility and versatility of film. Roger strongly believes that the process will be the reason people continue to work with film. Those who have not been sold on digital, having used film for so long, will stick with the medium because they enjoy it. Roger alone, with his undying bond to his roots in film, expresses his feelings on the essence of the film process:

Nothing beats that moment when I open up the tank and I pull out that film, and I start to roll it off and I see – it’s still black, it’s still black, it’s still black – because this is unused film that’s coming through and I’m like ‘Aw, where’s the image? Where’s the image?’ and then all of a sudden you see this negative where you can see an image on the film and right away you’re like ‘Oh…yeah, it work again, it worked!’ because each time it’s like this all over again, because each roll is completely different. And when you see it there, right in front of you, it brings that whole experience home as if it’s the first time again. Anybody, who has that thought and they get passionate about that thought and excited about that thought, will continue to work with film. Video could look better than film but it wouldn’t matter to me, it’s the process.

I ask Roger if he thinks film will ever die out completely. He remarks that North America is converting to digital much faster than in the east. In Europe, for instance, film is still used significantly, especially in Germany. However, he adds jokingly, if ever it comes to film’s demise, he has a recipe for his emulsion and he has kept the contents of his ‘trim bins’ since the beginning, twenty years ago. But it will never come to this. There will always be a need for film. You can still buy Polaroid film and 8mm film. Even figures in pop culture, Arcade Fire, insist that their music videos be shot on 16mm. The NFL Football League has their own broadcast division – NFL Films – where every game, to this day, is shot on Super 16mm and used for highlights. These individuals are making a conscious decision to go with film. True aficionados, in love with the aesthetics of film with its warmer, softer image, believe the depth within the film image is unique onto itself.

There is an art form behind the old technology that is always open to rediscovery. Film, to the next generation – the children of the digital age – is even now becoming a novelty. It represents new technology to them. Moreover, the new hipster movement, with styles revived from the ‘50s through to the ‘80s, is bringing back vintage technology. You’re cool if you have a wooden television and you shoot on film. Diana Cams are sold now at Urban Outfitters, just like retro Casio watches are sold at American Apparel. Film, I believe, even if it goes underground for a period of time in the wake of the digital revolution, will come full circle. Like most trends that go out of style, film will re-emerge as people inevitably long to return to the roots of things.

However, for now, even though individuals may choose film, the industry dictates the choice. No one knows exactly what will happen in the next three to four years. Some insiders predict that film will be completely wiped from the commercial industry by 2015. Although Roger strongly believes if Kodak closes, another party will buy up its stock, the issue of lab closings remains a serious problem for film artists. IFCO faces other equally challenging concerns. Roger expresses the struggle IFCO increasingly faces in the future: given its non-profit status, how will it convince the foundations that support IFCO of the continuing importance of film, how will they educate them to believe in the special uniqueness of film. The prevailing attitude towards the medium, he says, is “Well, why don’t you just shoot on digital?” The people who work for these granting agencies are not artists. If they have to ask this question, then they obviously don’t ‘get it’. They see what Hollywood is doing, what the mainstream is doing, saving time, saving money. “I think they’ll take James Cameron’s word over ours”, says Roger.

In the end, returning to the root of things in my own overview of the debate, the choice of medium will come down to the mode of representation. Telling questions like – are you telling a story? Or even, what is your definition of a film? Is Avatar a film or is it computer animation? Is CGI, motion-capture filmmaking? What is film, or what is cinema and what is not cinema, will continue to be up for discussion. IFCO distinguishes the mediums, arguing that “Yes, they both capture an image but they capture an image in totally different ways”; thus, they should be separate. IFCO, simply put, looks at anything shot on film as a film, and anything shot on video as a video; this is the attention to medium-specificity that most people do not think of. This, however, does not mean that IFCO is against video. As Dave says, “I think we should be celebrating both mediums for what they are”. There are things that film can do that digital cannot do, and vice versa. Ultimately, the task for IFCO and other such film centers will be to perceive film as an art form, to celebrate film history, to project and spread a deep appreciation for film practice…to keep it alive, to honour the fact that we have it. The magic of 35mm – many of the greats have not forgotten this magic; they haven’t lost that thought, which daily renews Roger’s commitment. Filmmakers have grown up with it. It is the ribbons of dreams, the first thing that ever captured their imaginations and brought their stories to life. There’s no forgetting that story. “I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes.” – Steven Spielberg

Works Cited
Rodriguez, Robert. “Film is Dead” YouTube. Part 1 of 2. 8 May. 2008. Web. 30 March 2012.
Rodriguez, Robert. “10 Minute Film School” YouTube. 5 July. 2008. Web. 30 March 2012. <ref>
“Steven Spielberg & Martin Scorsese: The Joy of Celluloid” TheGuardian.co.uk. 10 Oct 2011. Web. 30 March 2012. <ref>
Wilson, Roger D. and Dave Johnson. IFCO Interview. 23 March. 2012.


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