Thursday, April 19, 2012

Movies in the digital era

We information professionals have long asserted that the transition from paper- and film-based to digital means of recording information will be profoundly destabilizing. However, when one's working life focuses on the quotidian aspects of facilitating, managing, and mitigating the risks associated with this transition, it's easy to lose sight of just how sweeping the changes will be. And that's why Gendy Alimurung's long, thought-provoking article in last week's L.A. Weekly warrants close reading. Alimurung focuses on the film industry's transition to digital filmmaking and, in particular, projection, which is being hastened along by studios enthralled by the cost savings they will achieve once they no longer have to produce and distribute vast quantities of 35 mm prints. However, as Alimurung points out, this transition and the manner in which it is unfolding has profoundly unsettling implications:
  • The cost of digital projection equipment is much higher than that of 35 mm film projection equipment, and even with the subsidies provided by the big studios, a lot of independent theaters are going to find the transition to digital projection prohibitively expensive.
  • Most of the big production companies are ceasing distribution of all 35 mm prints, including those of older films for which theater-quality digital versions are not available, a move that will likely cause a substantial number of repertory and art house cinemas to shut their doors or to fall back upon screening DVDs or BluRay discs, both of which look dull and flat when projected onto a theater-sized screen.
  • Preservation of digital films is substantially more expensive than preservation of 35 mm films, and the speed with which digital cinema formats change makes preservation even more of a challenge than it would be otherwise. Moreover, just as many silent films were destroyed or quietly allowed to disintegrate after the coming of sound, many older 35 mm films may be allowed to die of neglect.
  • The nature of filmmaking itself will likely change -- and not always for the better. As one of Alimurung's sources points out, shooting a movie on 35 mm film imposes a certain discipline: one can shoot only ten minutes of 35 mm footage at a time, and goofing around while a 35 mm film camera is rolling costs money. Some directors will no doubt find that the the freedom and flexibility of digital filmmaking enables them to do amazing things, but some novices, in particular, might not develop the focus and restraint needed to make a halfway decent movie.
I'm really not doing justice to Alimurung's fine article, and I encourage you to read it and the accompanying reader comments, some of which add additional weight to her assessment and some of which offer interesting counter-arguments. And the next time one of your cinephile friends asks why you're so wound up about all of this electronic records stuff, giving him or her a copy of this article ought to be explanation enough.

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