Tuesday, 18 September 2007

High Definition Aesthetics, Technology and Art

This is a rewrite of an earlier blog

IIn April this year at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, High Definition changed forever. Suddenly we leaped several generations and we gained the capacity, on everybody's desktop, to manipulate one of the highest levels of HD. Jim Jannard, a sunglasses manufacturer from Canada, managed to manufacture a new camera, called the Red, that might previously have cost half a million dollars. In fact, the camera body sells for $17,500. Red now works with Final Cut Pro the ubiquitous desk top editing system.


I am going to explore the rapidly changing face of HD and its impact, from the technical, aesthetic and societal perspectives
There are three aspects to this exploration:

The first is the understanding of HD through its mathematical base - which I shall show is affecting the development of high definition aesthetics.
The second will be a look at HD through my experience as an industry Director of Photography, because within that practice, elements that are under the radar or invisible to theory, exist.
The third is through my experience as an artist working in the video medium, because artistic intuition comes from a different perspective to intellectual proposition.

Then, I shall draw these three strands together.


I want to introduce an analogy that may be useful when thinking of HD: as the light falls at dusk and you are driving along, you might notice that the tail lights of the car in front seem much brighter than during daylight, and the traffic lights seem too bright and too colourful. The simple explanation for this phenomenon is that your brain is switching between two technologies in your eyes: the rods, inherited from our distant ancestors which were evolved for the insect eye to detect movement, are very numerous, (120 million). Through them you see mainly in black and white. The second technology is much more sensitive to colour: these are cones, which are far less numerous (between 6 and 7 million).
So, there are two technologies between which there is a physiological yet aesthetic borderland.

Keeping this idea in mind, it is becoming apparent that something similar happens when a certain level of resolution of HD is reached. A fluttering occurs, a switching between two states in the suspension of our disbelief. What is really interesting to me as artist is the boundary between the two states.


NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) recently conducted an experiment where it linked up a prototype 8k Super Hi Vision Camera to 18 one hour data recorders. The resolution of the image was immense and the subject of the test was a simple car ride lasting 3 minutes. In order to capture it, the SR data recorders were running so fast that they went through one hour's worth of recording in 3 minutes - all 18 of them. To display the image you have to imagine a normal computer display set at say 1280 x 1024 pixels. Now, imagine this display at this resolution, expanded to some 27 feet long.

This technological moment has echoes of the Lumiere brothers‘ screening in January 1896 of a train arriving in a station - some of the audience ran from the cinema in the belief that the train was real. At the NHK screening, the Japanese audience are reported to have found the experience so overpowering that many of them experienced nausea.

Let's look at some figures:

Standard HD is known as having 2k resolution - because it has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels (1920 is close to 2000 - or 2K)

4k is 4096 x 2160 pixels

8k is 8192 x 4320 - this is NHK's Super Hi-Vision.

In each of the above, if you divide one by the other you will generate a figure of around 1.8 - and this is roughly a 16:9 relationship - the now common TV aspect ratio.


Any serious understanding of High Definition technologies requires a basic understanding of 'compression'. First the lens receives light and focuses it onto a charged coupled device or sensor, which then turns this into electrical impulses. Very early on in video a question arose for designers when far too much data was originated in this process. Solutions were proposed and the idea of throwing 'unnecessary' data away took hold. This method continues today: a contemporary HD camera like the Sony HD750 or HD900 simply doesn't record 500 of its 1920 pixels.

Simply put, data is a representation of the artifact, whether generated in or imported into the digital realm, and all representations have levels of veracity. A full representation is all the data of the original, and anything else is something that resembles the original but has less data in that representation. Most of today’s HD cameras have worked with a software technology based on Jean Baptiste Fourier's Discrete Cosine Transforms (DCT's), which breaks up the image data into tiles, so that each can be treated independently.

Recently though, we have seen the arrival of Wavelet transforms, (Fourier's theories were in place by 1807 but not truly mathematically understood until about 15 years ago). Wavelets have helped prise open Pandora’s box:

"Wavelets are mathematical functions that cut up data into different frequency components, and then study each component with a resolution matched to its scale. They have advantages over traditional Fourier methods in analyzing physical situations where the signal contains discontinuities and sharp spikes. Wavelets were developed independently in the fields of mathematics, quantum physics, electrical engineering, and seismic geology. Interchanges between these fields during the last ten years have led to many new wavelet applications such as image compression, turbulence, human vision, radar, and earthquake prediction. If you choose the best wavelet transforms adapted to your data, then your data will be sparsely represented. A wavelet transform is so designed so that it uses its internal structure to produce the most complimentary and accurate handling of the material. Amara Graps, http://www.amara.com/index.html

The critical difference between DCT's and wavelets is their use of sinusoidal waves because the function used in wavelets eventually returns smoothly to zero, whereas a sine wave has no beginning or end - it just keeps oscillating. This makes it very computationally intensive to do a DCT over a full frame. As one DP put it on the most professional of all HD lists, the Cinematographers Mailing List: "ummm, wavelets good, DCT bad."

Contemporary cameras and post production systems have been designed with DCT's and the manufacture of the relevant devices, cameras, proprietary editing and storage systems has been positioned to recoup the massive amounts of costly research that has been expended by big corporations. It is simply not in the interests of the bigger corporations to switch over to the new more elegant technology - Yet.


A pixel is effectively a packet of data that is represented on screen by a changing luminosity and a changing colour identity. As usual, the more pixels, the better. And we want to record as much data as possible. Currently, the highest form of HD image capture requires a hard disc - and not just any hard disc, but a Redundant Array of Independent Discs - a RAID. The only exception on tape is through Sony's SR deck which records data.

So what's a RAID? If I throw you a ball you might be able to catch it. If I manage to throw you 20 balls at the same time you have no chance. If I throw 20 balls at you and another 19 friends - you have a chance of catching them. A RAID Array uses a group of discs to catch large amounts of data. If you want to record 1920 x 1080 pixels with their full complement of data then you need read and write speeds of over 440 Megabytes per second.

Here is the rub. HD practitioners really don't want to distress an image that is already distressed by being compressed - especially if it means losing more data. If you do work on the image in camera, as the traditional film DP does, then you limit how much data is recorded - you have to work in the colour matrix. If you crush the blacks to get a 'look' you automatically reduce the data that is output into the image display. So current HD practice is to do very little in camera, so that every bit of data is carried back into post production, when the work on the image can begin. But I would contend that when you really look at images produced like this, you see that there is a thin patina over the image and the 'look' itself is not inherent within the image. I'm a romantic so I want the look within the image. I spent 30 years shooting video as well as film and I know it's possible.


If reality itself is extreme resolution, what is the DP trying to render within the image? Where does compression end and aesthetics begin?

Within contemporary aesthetics there are a series of tactics to 'say something' with light. These are used by mundane cinematographers unaware of the photographic within cinematography. These tactics if listed become mundane: a warm look for safety and comfort, blue for threat and alienation and a whole variety of other strategies.

Though there are DP's like Vittorio Storaro - whose famous colour theories produce incomprehension among the more prosaic and practical of cinematographers - yet who shot the masterly Apocalypse Now and has liked HD from the beginning - many standard film DP's have abhorred it.

Where Storaro works with colour and light in one way, the physiology of light enmeshed with the psychology, Conrad Hall (American Beauty, Day of the Locust) worked in another. His inventiveness and commitment was to the photographic within the cinematic arts. As his career progressed, and as Hall traversed the boundaries of contemporary wisdom about what constitutes good exposure, Hall influenced a whole generation of DPs on this issue.

Outside of the issue of film or HD, he came to understand that the still image gets at something that cinematography rarely gets at, and he was therefore concerned with finding the photographic moment amidst the flow of images. In describing Hall as searching for the photographic, I mean here he tried to find the extraordinary within the ordinary - this was a deep psychological quest.

Historically, in the clash between film and video, the film users were seen as craftsmen and video users were seen as being artless - video was obtainable and without atmosphere, film was arcane, it was a quest in itself, it had kudos.

On a Ridley Scott set in 1983, as he shot the famous 1984 Apple Mac commercial, I was shooting the “making of” material for Apple. As we were viewing back our rushes checking focus and exposure I became aware that about 20 people were standing behind us looking at our monitor.

Usually the film rushes would come back the next day to be viewed by the more select in the hierarchy. We stared at each other - two alien tribes at war with each other. This was a film crew that had never before seen what it had been shooting at the same time as shooting it. Then one of them grinned in pleasure at seeing our footage and suddenly, like the German and British troops in the first world war downing their rifles on Christmas day and playing football together, suddenly we were friends. From then on they stopped being hostile to us, even sometimes offering to move lights to let us have more illumination.

Historically film people are brought in to light HD because they are seen as artists. But they don't know the technology and video people are brought in to hold their hands and that has meant that mainly unaltered footage gets taken back into post to do the colour grading work - and therefore the 'look' is applied as an overlay to the image.


In film, cinematographers constantly distort the colour standards and definitions of film stock, to impose atmosphere. 'Atmosphere', like popcorn, shares a quality that allows the easy suspension of disbelief. If film manufactures say that development should occur at such and such a temperature, then heating up or cooling down the developer is a means by which the colour or grain or exposure may be changed in a pleasing way.

All cinematographers seek to distinguish themselves from the others, to have a signature. However, in High Definition, the form is less available to material manipulation and that work is left to post. Anyone interested in pushing the boundaries will have to find other strategies to get at the suspension of disbelief and generate atmosphere and it is my contention that simply to light well and to leave everything to post will not achieve the goal.

Some of the available cameras are mighty complicated and this can intimidate a person who has simply to get the job done - but the real answer is that the DP has to take on their time honored role of being both artist as well as the chief quality control technician.

It is art, it is experience, it is knowledge. It's obvious really.


And here I wish to turn our gaze to video artists, who have long pushed the boundaries of the form, and sometimes this has allied them with commercial forces. The 'downtime' agreements in New York in the '70's were an example where commercial facilities allowed artists to use the extremely expensive equipment during the night at very low cost, as long as they told the editors in the morning of anything they discovered during the night.

In my own practice I have often been enraptured by the simple act of making the work with such wonderful technology. This technology, like an internal combustion engine, functioned faster than the eye or mind. If you think that a car uses a series of miniature controlled explosions many thousands of times a minute - you can't help but wonder. And video, even analogue video, took one 64 millionth of a second to 'write' a line. Here I remember Bill Violas Zen-like observation:

Duration is to consciousness as light is to the eye.

Viola is proposing that the presence of light is why the eye evolved and consciousness evolved to deal with things that were more than momentary. In a medium where time is a factor, waiting reveals so much more.

Viola's roots lie in both the Buddhist proposition of Dependant Origination - that everything arises in relation to everything else - and the symbolism of renaissance painting.

My own roots really grow out of that moment that I realised that all things record an image: from a lowly rock which, if left in shadow long enough, records an image; to paper that has a leaf left on it in bright sunlight; to celluloid that holds a coating; to tubes, chips and sensors that react to light.


My first encounter with video tape was in 1976 with 2 inch analogue quadruplex, where one took a razor blade and cut it in two just like film then spliced it together to make an edit. Then the idea of re-recording came along and we set up machines to record the next bit of video in line.

Around 1982 I was managing a video facility in Soho called Videomakers. The owner of the studio was the son of an electronics inventor and watched whilst w etried to accomplish a simple dissolve between one image to another for a piece of art I was making. He excitedly told us that his father had successfully harnessed a computer to revolve a still image. With a little bit of development the image could be refreshed nearly 12 times per second - so by then doubling and interlacing by splitting the image into odd and even lines, a whole second of video and henceforth a moving TV image could be revolved.

In this case, through a sole inventor and not a corporation, we groped our way through the late analogue age into the early neo-digital and the main concern was how to adjust the thinking processes to cope with the new paradigm: the fact that with a digital event one had something that could be infinitely manipulated and how could one systematise the process - thus giving rise to 'the operations' as Lev Manovich has termed them.

Recently, noticing my daughter sleeping on a granite ledge in the sun, I turned the camera on to her. I videoed her as she woke up, unfurling from a tight embryonic shape. She got up and unselfconsciously walked away. When I got to the editing suite I found this moment and took the 10 seconds down to 30 minutes. As usual the accidents of the medium came into play and though there was value in the distortions in the image, I realised that given the same brief, if shot in high definition at high speed, this might unveil something more than the original standard definition version.

Though I have enjoyed the accidents that have come about through stressing the parameters of low definition equipment, HD equipment offers a different kind of unveiling of form: Image capture can be achieved without necessarily stressing the media.

This then prompts questions about the aesthetics of HD: given that a primary ingredient of the artists palette is the stressing of the medium to find surprises within the form, what new strategies can the artist or practitioner use to unveil a deeper insight into content. Though McLuhan tells us this should not be so, could the messages HD delivers be the beginnings of transparency ?

To return to Viola:

"Duration is to consciousness as light is to the eye".

Through talking about the way we experience the world directly using the terms of the experience, Viola's intuition has lead him to work in a certain kind of way. But High Definition can deliver not just duration, but articulation. So we might now restate his observation like this:

"Definition is to consciousness as luminosity is to the eye".

In calling my latest piece Unfurling, apart from the obvious movement that occurred, I am also touching on an unfurling of my own undestanding about the way a series of images function when depicting movement.


Can the representation carry any of the authenticity of the original? Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay comes to mind, on the question of representations of the original.

But why should the image I bring to mind of the Mona Lisa have less authenticity than the original from which my imagination has manufactured its own copy? After all I remember the feelings the original evoked in me - I come as close as I am going to get to the artist’s intent (be it voiced or held beneath his consciousness). If that which is communicated by the artwork resonates in me, is that not what is authentic about the original?

In 1987 John Wyver carried Benjamin's argument along with the help of Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virillio in his opening programme for the satellite station, La Sept - L'objet d'art a l'age electronique. At that time the world was concerned with analogue representations, which decay in their passage from copy to copy, from medium to medium.

So twenty years later the spirit of the question still stands: where is meaning, significance and value in the digital domain, given that the medium of reproduction and the medium of origination reside together in the same realm? Further, could not origination and copying be one and the same thing? Has the idea that things can be 'derivative' become defunct - is not everything both derivative and original at the same time?

If one proceeded with previous digital compression using Fourier's earlier mathethmatics then Benjamin's question might unveil a buried insight:

To copy is to decrease

And this might ring true, not only because things are changed in the act of copying (a kind of Chinese Whispers that renders exquisite corpses) but also because the representation itself is simply a Borg, a lessening, a copy without feeling. In other words the copy is without the 'true' sense of the original.

Is the idea of an 'original' anachronistic? Perhaps there is no such thing as an 'actuality' before the representation, before the data accrues? Are not our senses simply analogue-to-sensorium devices? Transmitters of empirical data to an organising processor - the mind?


As there is a blurring of the lines between form and content, so there is between software, hardware and that nether region of firmware which tells hardware to be something - rather than do something.

Through use of the net and digital media, a kind of Glass Bead Game is available. This is a game where one might take a bar of Mozart and place it next to a brushstroke by Matisse and a line of poetry by Omar Khayyam and so create a new work of art. In The Glass Bead Game (pub. 1943), Herman Hesse predicted post modernism and its bastard digital child "convergence”. Here, derivation is all - in fact it's been canonised. Hesse proposes the notion that authenticity is not only present in the copy, but it lends its weight and accumulates with the weight of other copies and their imbued authenticity and combines into new, authentic works of art. In some transformative way, the actions of the technology and the way the technology is being innovated is in itself a developing aesthetic.

So, on August 31st 2007 when Jim Jannard and Red delivered their first compliment of 25 Red cameras to a selected few, they set the world alight with their offer of cheap and high level wavelet technology and made it available faster than any previous technological advance of this order.

Crucially though, this development of User Generated Technology came out of an individualist trend that has somehow stayed alive through late liberal capitalism: About five years ago Jeff Krienes, a Director of Photography in California, was experimenting with a friend from Thomson Grass Valley on a prototype HD Camera. They'd become fed up with the slowing of technical innovation emerging from the big corporations so they created a camera that fulfilled not only their needs, but their aspirations. They made an aluminum case, which contained some electronics and a few chips, had a fitting on the front to take a 35mm lens and on top the stripped down carcasses of 20 iPods to RAID record the high data output. This camera had near the same specifications of the Red Camera. Though looking like the trailblazers, Red are in fact the inheritors of a User Generated, YouTube-like attitude to the production of technology.

What this means is, from early sole inventors in Fourier's time, we have just been through a long period where corporations, from the late analogue to the neo-digital age have controlled the means of innovation. But on entry to the meso-digital age, access to high level technical innovation is now again becoming possible for the individual - and this apparent individual engagement with technology (besides being the apogee of the celebration of the geek within) is a hallmark of the web2/digital era, and this trend is centering on the production of High Definition Technology. The commonality of information available through the web is also allowing a commonality of aspiration so that the User and now the Doer is also the Maker and the Knower of their own world. Through these changes, the definition of the self is expanding - the idea of what an individual is, is being re-defined and new resolutions of definition are being employed in that definition.