Monday, 26 July 2010

The study of the effects of Resolution: the entertainment industry and academic positions

For a thorough assessment of my research up until this moment, please see the blog dated 8th February entitled Time and Resolution: Experiments in High Definition Image Making, which outlines my work and current findings.

As an AHRC Creative Research Fellow with special regard to high resolution imaging, I have spent the last three years exploring this area through the use of a static camera looking at how increases in resolution affect the choice about what images are gathered and how the audience then responds to that choice. In short I wanted to understand what happens when resolution increases in an electronic moving image. My use of static camera was about starting at the beginning, much like early film, with similar choices about natural light, though film choices were related to how much exposure they needed to excite the silver solutions with. I use this methodology because I believe from long practice as a cinematographer that the addition of movement raises the complexity of the study by a geometric factor. So eventually, when I fully understand and are capable of articulating the issues of static camera and resolution increase, I will study the effects of moving camera and resolution increase.

This all cannot help but necessarily lead to the idea of ‘research’ itself and though I try to speak about what I have discovered in my search – oddly called ‘re-search’ which tips a nod to the notion of a priori (pre-knowledge) as opposed a posteriori (knowledge reasoned through experience or ‘fact’) and rediscovery of what one already knows through being born in to this kind of thinking (I know, my upbringing gives me a Platonic world view, but I do try to break out occasionally and look away from the shadows on the cave wall). So all of this must lead towards the nature of what an enquiry is, who is enquiring and what their vested interests might be.

To give you some insight to those issues in relation to myself, I am working to a basic tenant: that the twin purposes of academia are to teach and to reason – the two are not disconnected – and inherently in both is that they have a benevolent impact on society.

Later this year I shall begin organising a series of symposia and conferences on various issues around image making. These will be variously for academia and also the professional realm as a primary audience. One of these conferences is set for March 2011 and will explore the current state of digital video technology – though as the symposia progress I shall try to assert a different terminology. For instance, Digital Cinematography no longer utilises video technology, but rather raw digital capture technology. As a colleague of mine argues: ‘recent advances in video recording technology, notably the development of the Red camera, have had a revolutionary effect on work practices within the screen production industry. Film is rapidly becoming video history’.

This is an interesting argument but I believe it is only part-correct and should read: ‘Film and video are rapidly becoming Digital Cinematographic history’, where the idea of digital cinematography is easier to understand for the non technical person rather than ‘raw data acquisition and treatment’, which is what it actually is. Video is of course a different medium to Digital Cinematography (or its other title, Electronic Cinematography), for various esoteric reasons. But the base line is that video begins and ends with an image, whereas Digital video starts as data and ends – in a way analogous to film - as an image. Both video and data raw come to the same place but begin differently. When exposed, video is fixed in its exposure – with Digital Raw you can return to the source data and reset its exposure index before again re-rendering it into the image domain.

Both Film and Digital Cinematography record a latent image and then develop, or render that image into a perceivable and then pliable form. Film leaves behind it a series of atifacts: rushes, negative, answer print, release prints etc, but Digital Raw produces materials as extensions of its raw state which can be returned do indefinitely and it is therefore ‘non-destructive’. Undeveloped Negative film is transmuted into negative film which holds a negative image – digital raw, effectively source data in a handy package can transmute or render into any of its states and still be accessed as digital raw. To reiterate, after exposing film, it is set in an exposed state with a set of fixed values which realate to its exposure indices. When Digital Raw is exposed, one can return to it and then re-set it’s exposure index before proceeding through it’s subsequent processes. This is unique amongst image gathering mediums.

And I utilise this property regularly.

Our conference will also go on to discuss how digital technology promises to bring ultra high-definition imaging (with eight times the resolution of HD video) and ultra high-speed recording (of up to 2,000 frames per second) into mainstream screen production.

We have a series of questions to ask around this assertion: What do these numbers mean? Will the next generation of HD technology approach a technological sublime or simply stimulate new levels of commodity fetishisation? In trying to answer these questions, our symposium will engage with possible futures for digital video technology, now that the screen industry’s digital ‘revolution’ has apparently ended.

So, as I have researched into the effects of resolurtion, standard tv has taken up High Definition imaging as an adjunct to standard image gathering. This has lead to an emphasis on the spectacular: the shot of the tree canopy where the landscape falls away to reveal a waterfall and a gathering pool some 7000 feet below; wilderbeest on their long migration across the African savanna coming to a steep bank into a river which sme will die in negotiating; the polar bear as it gingerly slides its way across thin ice whilst its cub bats at its feet oblivious of the danger to both.

Here, broadcast TV has sought to integrate its higher definition image gathering into its flow of entertainment and consequently whilst the trailer images have some sort of impact, when homogenised into the flow of a standard piece of documentary entertainment the high resolutions simply become part of the flow and experience of being entertained. Sky TV for instance, being nakedly interested in subscriptions, pushes HD as a selling point whereas the BBC tries for the Reithian goal of educating the British masses.

Meanwhile Hollywood has sought to deal with the passing of analogue photo-chemical film and the move into electronic digital cinematography. On a meta level the exposing of film to then capture a latent image which then required developing to reveal the negative image is similar to raw digital image acquisition requiring light to also gather a latent image and then rendering (developing) to reveal a captured positive image. In a sense raw data capture has more in common with earlier reversal film which also revealed a positive image than it does with negative film.

However, the latitude of the positive digital image has a similarity in terms of its exposure and latitude of response with film negative (as opposed to the narrow margins of exposure of reversal positive film). The main point is that working professional cinematographers have embraced digital raw as commensurate with their needs – in fact it is a rare photo-chemically gathered film that now does not go through a digital intermediate process (DI) before once more being scanned out to photo -chemical film for distribution. The slow move to Digital projection is one dependent on economics, not aesthetics.

The issue of the development of a cinematographic high resolution aesthetic circles around Hollywoods’ use of the image, which like that of TV is to subjugate a potential developing aesthetic to its own needs – in this case to raise a spectacular response from the audience in a different way from TV. That use has been discussed many times in papers and journals but circles around the involvement of the audience in a passive way to the spectacle. The audience sits in the dark and expects to be entertained.

High resolution imaging which initially indicated that people would spend more time looking and therefore needed far fewer cuts in a moving image entertainment, far from limiting the amount of cuts in a movie, proceeds unabated. In blockbuster movies shot with digital capture the amount of cuts is still at an all time high so the effect of high resolution is obviated and reduced by its formal use. (please See Salt, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis – plus then examine for yourself a film like District 9 for the background to this assertion).

Then there’s the thorny issue of depth of field; thorny because there’s an almost universal and unquestioned allegiance to the idea that low depth of field is good because it is somehow one of the main marks of the act of creating cinema and that anyone worth their salt knows this. But of course it is an opinion and therefore can be argued against – especially in relation to images that are formed intentionally in high resolution.

Cinema has several of these markers, camera movement, wide aspect ratios, low depth of focus (or depth of field of focus). The latter is about isolating the subject from the background – making the subject stand out. It has been favoured by cinematographers because they too see the value that mid-second millenial painters used between 1550 – 1650. It is a technique similar to the use of chiracuso in painting championed by Caravagio – where the painter utilises a technique of isolating the foreground figure to give precedence to what they want us to look at in the painting. So the cinematographer values a tool that gives them power. But unlike the painter who in the past was also shackled to the desires and motivations of the patron, (be it bishop or merchant) the cinematographer is not the sole artist within the collaborative act of making an entertainment like a movie.

What is not often discussed in relation to the aesthetics of cinema, is that with the rise of the idea of the auteur, which defeated the 1930’s practice of leaving the movement and orientation of the camera to the DP because he was the only person who had the training to know what would come back as next days rushes – with the rise of the idea of the auteur – he who knows all creative practice - the DP rarely gets to choose anything at all. The director has become more versed in the use of camera and lenses and with the aid of the grader or colourist can now completely sideline and demote the cinematographer to quality control clerk during the production process – formally the DP worked in this role throughout the entire process from pre to post production – as well as integrating artistic values and championing these above the demands of mammon.

The journals that champion the Director of Photography’s role, such as the American Society of Cinematographers Journal, were initiated as an act of PR to aggrandise that role and therefore keep the rates of pay high and they spoke in terms of the cinematographers art and used the language of the mercantile sailor. The DP was said to ‘helm’ a movie or in some case ‘lensed’ it – meaning ‘captained the good ship Hollywood to port’.

But the art of the cinematographer is is more truly a craft – because all of the signs and markers of the craft are learnable – whereas art has an indefinable element within it that is not learnable –rgardless of the philistine moves of advertising executives like Charles Saatchi to colonise the meaning of Art. Of course all practices - and this includes crafts - can be transcended and in so doing the practitioner elevates the act to an art. But all too often simple mediocre work is positioned as art because the cinematographer sees him or herself as the gatekeeper against mammon – when in fact they are fulfilling the role of a security guard or night watchman. Someone has to do this after all.

But in this gate-keeping, cinematic tropes have grown to prominence that are counter productive – especially in relation to seeking out a high resolution aesthetic.

In terms of the nomenclature of producing images, title like, Lighting Camera, Cinematographer, Lighting Director or Director of Photography, - The 1st and third come from TV, the 2nd and fourth come from cinema – though the fourth is being used in TV these days (especially in the UK because the more times a DP is credited as such on TV the more likelihood they’ll be voted into the British Society of Cinematographers. As the BSC says it is unapologetically an elite organisation. Membership guarantees respect and respect guarantees employment. In other countries there is less class associations than in the UK – but then the UK is the worlds most class based society (in any meaningful way related to exportation of values). All of these titles derive from an economic necessity and relate to a role on a particular kind of production. There is also a relationship between the nomenclature used and the level of budget and the kind of product to be generated.

To return with force to the technical arena – if standard TV images are generated at roughly one quarter of high definition at .5K effectively, where K refers to 1000 lines of resolution, then current Digital Cinematography gathers images mainly at 2k, though the Red One argues that it gathers at 4k resolution. It should be born in mind that High Definition images are 1920 x 1080 pixels – whereas 2k is 2048 x 1024 (in some systems) So the term HD is in fact a consumer term.

Red One cameras are 4096 x 2048, but when truly measured their value with regard to Modular Transfer Function is 3.2k. So the caveat to add to any claim about the resolution of a system is that all image gathering is conditioned by Modular Transfer Function – the simple rule of algorithms, that as with the phrase, ‘a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link’, whatever the level of resolution of gathered image and its pathway through rendering, post-production and display, the module of lowest resolution within the pathway is the conditioning resolution of the entire chain. So, the accepted resolution of a Red 4k image is in fact, 3.2k (under laboratory test).

There are issues around film being scanned at 6k rather than 4k for capture in the digital domain and also that the 2k standard is some 4 times less resolution than 4k – and so on. The argument might be put forward that film could be seen as having a higher resolution that Digital, but the reality is that most film is witnessed by an audience at 1k after its degradation through answer prints and release prints and then its final degradation though old, low resolution lenses on standard cinema 35mm projectors. Besides that I have it on good authority (people on non-disclosure contracts with the military, so I cannot site the sources) that experiments with 64k are happening.

Academia has itself fielded a common response to the digital realm by maintaining that the digital is immaterial in form – due fundamentally to its disappearance when the electricity is turned off – yet the outbreak of commercial digital development laboratories belies that assertion. If the digital has no materiality, Hollywood doesn’t agree – it makes its money where it can and its belief in digital materiality challenges the standard academic response.

Academia as a branding system for the ‘excellence’ of scholarly studies, or more precisely as an acknowledged regulation system for the practitioners of fact gathering and the proposing of systematising of ideas into easily digestible formulas for the exposition of learning, has a huge amount of stupid people working within its boundaries.

What I mean by this inflammatory statement, and I use it as a shock tactic to get my audience to sit up and take notice, is that many leading media academics propagate the acknowledged and accepted value system within their research area.

The 19th cetury project to organise material reality derived from Renaissance rediscoveries of Greek ideas, then proceeding on through Enlightenment values, which danced around the development of scientific materialism, which then developed into an obsessive compulsive gathering and cataloguing of ‘facts’ in the 19th Century - became a project that embraced systemisation, but which also encoded system errors into its outcomes.

With a nod to Ivan Illych and as a particular instance, his concept of ‘iatrogenisis’, where contemporary allopathic medicine produces at least as much illness as it cures – the system of academia produces blind-spots in knowledge, not necessarily in facts (but that has happened), but in knowledge - and knowledge is a product of the age-old human project of getting wisdom – where wisdom is an integrative and gestalt collation of ideas as opposed to a linear analytic system.

In Greek sophistry above the temple gate of Pythagoras it is written ‘In all thy getting, get wisdom’. The Sufi tales of the Mulla Nasrudin, the holy fool of Islam, often use the stupid scholar (stupid because all he sees is what is immediately in front of him and not the whole) as the butt of his joke. The story is of four blindfolded wise men and an elephant for instance, where one thinks it a water spout (trunk), another a fan (ear), a another a pillar (leg) and the last a throne (the elephants back). Many cultures have this story of the folly of too much learning – or fact gathering,

The Persian poet Rumi uses this story as an example of the limits of individual perception: The sensual eye is just like the palm of the hand. The palm has not the means of covering the whole of the beast. But – of course it is important to have the university system as guardian of the practice of knowledge. Someone has to do it. Especially as the internet is bringing access to all kinds of knowledge to the general populace – and like the practice of alternative medicines and the blurred boundaries of good practice, there needs to be a systematizing and guarantee of the quality of the practice – we are in danger of academia being marginalized and sidelined. Hence many governmental value systems for generating impact.

Yes we can stand back and criticize this on many levels – especially if our academic value system is rooted in early medieval values derived from religious institutions which focused on the project of the importance of learning – but we are out of joint with the times if we simply criticize and offer no constructive ideas towards regenerating the project of academia.

So, given the above, it is our solemn duty to challenge simple values that are propagated without due thought and critique and in my very tiny instance is I wish to interrogate the idea that the digital is immaterial in form. For me this is derived from a scientific materialist position that cannot accept a reality that cannot be touched – just like Thomas from the disciples of Jesus. It is Judeo-Christian and archaic in value and in form.

A system derived from a set of empirical sensations accepts that somehow, what one senses is ‘right and true’. However, there is nothing innate in the argument that believing something to be true of course makes it true. That is a false argument. But then arguments are part of the sensory mechanism that validates everything that we are and validation itself is a moving feast.

I also detect an adverse reaction to the thinking that attuning ‘natural philosophy’ with metaphysics – a pre-enlightenment position that is no longer valid. Since Heisenberg formulated his uncertainty principle there has been no going back when thinking about material things. They simply do not exist. Like the Buddhist world view that accepted that all things co-dependently arise, we as academics simply have to be more open to possibilities – even if they are truly uncertain and unpredictable – and immaterial.

So – with regard to my study of how resolution affects both what the maker makes and how this is experienced by the audience, the key issue is the relational and inter-subjective paradigm that is developing. Here I would site new ways of evaluating what is happening to the audience by using ideas like entrainment and synchronicity to set the basis for the evaluation – but that is the next part of the argument.

Please either read the post that follows

New Understanding of the mimetic and the diegetic in the creation of Art

or go to my paper:

New Understanding of the mimetic and the diegetic in the creation of Art

which I gave at the Xi’an Academy of Fine Art in July 2010.