Imitation as Flattery: Why Film Will Never Truly “Die”

Kodak In his book, Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, Wheeler Winston Dixon raises some noteworthy points in regards to the past and future of the medium of film, and perhaps more importantly, where those two moments come to a crossroads. Dixon occupies a fairly pro-filmic position, in other words, he does not seem willing to openheartedly embrace the digitization of movies and media. It seems that, instead, Dixon is calling upon the producers, distributors, exhibitors, and consumers of digital media to actively recognize and appreciate what an older medium like film has to offer. While 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film are indeed antiquated, they are in fact the very foundation of digital cinema; the same can be said of how classic film projection fits in the emergence and adoption of digital projection. Dixon epitomizes this quasi-nostalgic point of view when he writes:

Everyone is headed full force into the future, and no one has time for the past (Dixon, 22).

At face value, I believe Dixon’s statement is valid, but I cannot seem to buy into it entirely. On the one hand, I completely acknowledge the faults of certain online streaming services and their failure to proportionately present older films in relation to modern cinema. As Dixon notes, this approach to streaming media promotes the existence and evolution of a non-cinematically literate audience, with no knowledge of film history, and furthermore, an audience with no desire to question the present state of cinema. If this audience can thrive unobstructed by any opposers (i.e. film enthusiasts), classic films may, “In essence…cease to exist” (5). Lacking the online exposure that digital streaming services offer, these “classics” of cinema will sit in vaults collecting dust, their worth continuously decreasing.

This is a standpoint on Dixon’s declaration that I can empathize with, but refuse to fully adopt. This mindset inherently denigrates or fails to value the impact of film on digital cinema. For quite a while, digital cinema seemed determined to stray away from film, aesthetically speaking. In recent years, companies like RED, Blackmagic Design, and Arri, have made great strides in attempting to mimic the film aesthetic with digital technology. In today’s world, filmmakers and producers aim to associate themselves with a filmic image via the tools they choose to use. Dixon clearly does not have faith in this decision:

Digital technology simply doesn’t have the same spectrum of tonal possibilities, and even though it can mimic millions of different shades of color, the end result is cold, artificial, distant. There’s something unreal about it (17).

Dixon is correct in his assessment of the digital image; it will never be film for a number of reasons. However, his use of the word “unreal” is not fitting. Film itself was in fact “unreal” when it was first revealed in the 1890s; many of us have heard the stories of audience members actually believing the train at La Ciotat was actually coming at them. This is the nature of technological progression; the new methods will seem unreal, while the previous technologies will appear static or old-fangled. Dixon expresses this when he writes:

As always, and in all mediums, it’s the work created on the margins of society that drives future artistic growth (24).

Technological transformation, in my opinion, is partly what constitutes those marginal works. Film itself, once the epicenter, will never be removed from the center; even if it dies completely, the influence of the medium will forever be engrained on cinema. For instance, Fuji Film recently discontinued their production of film stock, yet many filmmakers refuse to succumb to the rising prices of the film processes. Kodak released a list of productions shot with Kodak film, to list a few: Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games Catching Fire, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station. Dixon strengthens this point when he explains:

That’s why they routinely keep a 35mm fine-grain negative and positive print of each new release, whether it was produced on film or not, in their vaults as a backup in case something goes wrong with the digital master (11).

RED DragonWhile it is clear that the film industry is headed “full force” into the future, it is simply untrue to say that “no one has time for the past”. The past of the film industry is ever-present, in my opinion. If you are a camera junkie like me, you’ve heard of the 6K RED Dragon, which, according to RED, is, “a model for image innovation, helming the evolution of digital cinema technology”. This camera is essentially obliterating any previous notions that a digital image sensor can and will never exceed a film sensor, mainly via available dynamic range. RED is certainly leading the way in image capturing technologies, yet their products relentlessly attempt to achieve the “film look”; as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Kodak image found here.

RED image found here.

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