Tacita Dean’s Plea for Plurality

Why should we care about the rapid disappearance of the medium of film? This is the question that the artist Tacita Dean put to an audience of film industry members at an event titled ‘A Celebration of Film’ held in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern (where Dean’s artwork, FILM (2011), is currently on display). Her question, and the answers that she provided, become more pertinent every day. With each trip that you make to your local cinema it is becoming ever more likely that the movie you watch will be a digital, rather than analogue, projection. For most, this transition has already taken place. We are now left to consider what we might be losing with this new dominion called digital.

“How can we expect independent cinemas to afford to keep both an analogue and digital projector system for every screen in working order?”

This is not the first time in the history of cinema that there has been a rapid technological change on a wide-scale. During the 1950s several factors in the USA started to hinder the success of Hollywood: large-scale population shifts; rapidly changing recreational habits; raised unemployment; and competition with the booming television industry. As television sales rose it soon became clear that it was going to replace cinema as the main mass entertainment. Cinema responded by presenting itself as the spectacular medium which could offer a unique aesthetic experience. By 1953 the studios were beginning to experiment with different forms of 3D and widescreen in order to differentiate their product from the small, square image in the corner of your living-room.

We know that widescreen was a response to the changes in marketplace in the 1950s because the technology behind it was possible in the 1920s and 1930s but was not acted upon. The VistaVision cameras were originally designed in the late 1920s and CinemaScope was created by Henri Chrétien in the early 1930s. The industry even came to an agreement to standardise the process in order to reduce the engineering challenges in July 1930. But these plans were abandoned after the decision was made that this new novelty would not recoup the cost during a time of economic depression. But after the challenging years of 1950-52, which saw cinema attendance dropping and the number of televisions being purchased rising, producers began to look for a new novelty to recapture their audience. The establishment of various widescreen and stereophonic technologies in the 1950s helped to bolster ticket sales and allowed cinema to redefine itself as the leading ‘aesthetic experience.’

The Searchers (1956) is an example of a film shot using the VistaVision system

The change in technology during the 1950s, although significant, does not even come close to the total act of replacing the filmic with the digital, but there are still some interesting parallels that can be drawn between then and now. Television is still a threat to the Cinema, the size of screens in our homes have grown enormously in recent years and surround sound is readily available. These technologies were sold to us as the perfect way to watch films at home, but now television shows are producing spectacles that can challenge the cinema. The pilot episode for Lost (2004-2010) cost between $10 and $14 million to produce and featured stars from feature films. It was simultaneously seen by over 18 million Americans on 22nd September 2004 making it one of the first in a new generation of television programmes. Audiences started to find that blockbusters could be found at home as well as at the cinema.

“Digital cinema is not the next evolutionary step for cinema, it is a new branch of cinema.”

Big budget television series in the same ilk as Lost, spearheaded by the cable television network HBO, continue to challenge Cinema, but one other key threat is that of piracy. For film viewers, the immediate benefits of film piracy are hard to ignore; you can download and keep a digital copy of a film for free; you can watch films that are no longer in the cinema, on television or available on DVD; and you can watch films prior to their international release. Despite many attempts to stop websites that help film piracy, it is still incredibly widespread. Companies like Apple, through their software iTunes, have attempted to curb piracy by making the legal download of films incredibly easy and convenient. Netflix and LOVEFiLM, alternatively, allow you to stream directly to your computer or television. But film piracy still continues and it is acting much like television in the 1950s by giving the film industry an impetus to convert to digital. We can see that the return of 3D cinema, heralded by the release of Avatar (2009), aids the film industry in two ways. It trumps the spectacle of television (although 3D televisions exist, they are too expensive to influence the majority) and it helps prevent piracy by its very nature of being indecipherable to the naked eye. One main side-effect of 3D is that the digital projectors that are needed to screen the films are replacing the analogue film projection systems installed in cinemas. How can we expect independent cinemas to afford to keep both an analogue and digital projector system for every screen in working order? This will inevitably mean that many films will no longer be able to be screened in the format that they were created in. The full details of this problem and others faced by film archivists can be seen in David Bordwell’s recent article.

Dean's sketchbooks detail the planning and process behind each shot.

“Both forms of cinema are equally valid, important and relevant and we should be able to enjoy films in either way.”

It is this move to digital projection and the loss of medium specificity that has really got Tacita Dean worried. Many people’s objection to digital film is that is doesn’t look like analogue film. There is something about the flicker, scratches and texture of an analogue film that people love, and it is the loss of these things that is often mourned. But there are going to be people who prefer the look of the digital image; it all comes down to subjectivity. That is why that line of argument is pointless. What actually is important is that the two images look different because they are different mediums. Digital cinema is not the next evolutionary step for cinema, it is a new branch of cinema, or in the words of Dean herself:

They are made differently and the experience of seeing them and handling them is different. They might share the same content, the same images and even be copies of one another, but they are not the same.

Filmmakers and artists previously had no choice in their medium beyond the size of the negative, but now they have two choices – analogue or digital. They can now choose which medium they want to use based on their individual merits, much like a sculptor choosing which material to use. Both forms of cinema are equally valid, important and relevant and we should be able to enjoy films in either way. But we should also respect the medium that the film was made in. To transfer analogue film to digital is extremely costly; consider the difficulties the BFI have faced in securing funds for the unquestionably beneficial ‘Rescue The Hitchcock 9’ campaign. What will happen when the BFI want to restore films by a lesser known director? The other problem with the transfer from analogue to digital is that it is no longer the same film. Something is always lost in the transfer, it becomes a simulation of the original, like a very high quality print of an original painting that you can buy in art gallery shops the world over. Dean’s speech was particularly significant because it was being directed at the assembled members of the UK film industry, in particular its cinematographers who can decide which medium to work with. Let us hope that her plea for plurality and a respect for these mediums is heeded.

FILM will be on display in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern until the 11th March 2012, entry is free. For further reading on Hollywood film history – The Classical Hollywood Cinema, on the move to digital – The Virtual Life of Film, and on Tacita Dean and her artwork FILM: Tacita Dean


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