«Barring doors to ideas is useless, they will climb over them» – Klemens von Metternich
In 2007, when I started my collaboration with Digicult and writing for Digimag, I discussed with its editor, Marco Mancuso, about what could be the areas of intersection between digital art and cinema. At the time I was still rather fresh from a university degree course in film studies that was largely, if not entirely, based on textbooks using a terminology that was light-years far from actual, hands-on film-making. Six years later cinema was fully digitalized, but the language of film criticism has remained virtually unchanged.
2013 has been the year of the “triumph” of digital cinema, an upshot of a farther-reaching “technological revolution” that has marked the beginning of the XXI century. The transformation is not merely confined to the advent on the market of a new generation of products and services: it has so impacted every sector of the economy, that it has modified costs’ structure and production and distribution terms alike. Todo cambia, everything changes. The historical significance of the transformation brought about by the digital “revolution” can be compared to the one elicited by innovations like the railway and electricity. We are not merely dealing with the advent of new technical-scientific paradigm, but with its ability to spread across a relevant part of the economic system and renovate it, transforming society in all its aspects. The digital, after having established itself as a production system, has squared the circled, in the cinema industry, through the screening. Farewell film. But if film has been abandoned by the movie industry (e.g. The Place Beyond the Pines, directed by Derek Cianfrance and produced by Focus Features, has hit 1442 US screens since March 2013, of which just 105, that is 7%, in 35mm), in order to make room for the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) of the 2-4K (and more) screenings, why are we insisting on calling movies “films”?
The report written at the end of 2012 by David Hancock for IHS Screen Digest is unequivocal: out of approximately 130.000 screens all over the world more than two thirds were digital and more than a half were equipped for 3D screening (until 2005 the number of digitalized cinemas worldwide was negligible, close to zero). Hancock foresees that traditional screening will be abandoned for good within 2015, at least as far as commercial movies are concerned (it will certainly survive within film-enthusiasts circles: the arrival of a new technology does not entails the disappearance of the previous paradigm, but a coexistence of the two systems – same as with vinyl in music).
Contemporary cinema has taken a distance form Lumière (linearity and sequence shot) and Méliès (discontinuity and in-camera editing), overcoming the transitional DI stage of film conversion (which has remained substantially unchanged till the very end): nothing “real” occurs in the camera, because today’s increasingly advanced digital shooting tools can transform what happens before the lens into complex numerical data, that are unintelligible to human beings.
We are in the middle of a Cambrian Explosion – an accelerated evolutionary leap – of up-to-the-minute cinema cameras, while the old world is crumbling at breakneck speed. In July 2011 Technicolor closed down its Los Angeles labs, in October Panavision, Aaton and Arri announced the cessation of their film cameras production, in November Twentieth Century Fox announced that the shipment of 35mm copies is due to cease within one or two years, in January 2012 Eastman Kodak started the protected bankruptcy procedure, in March 2013 Fuji suspended the production and sale of 35mm motion picture film.
Yet, in this “revolutionary” situation, critics and, even worse, cinema players (directors, screenwriters, directors of photography and also producers) insist on using a terminology that has become obsolete, not realizing that every new technology generates a new technique and the latter produces new styles and new opportunities, which is incredibly challenging and fascinating. Failing to grasp the historical significance of the revolution underway reveals an essentially reactionary attitude. Part of the cinema cultural establishment is behaving like the European monarchs and the aristocracy in 1814 and 1815: they are playing the part of the Ancien Régime’s unconscious restorers, pretending not to see the change, whose extent only the “native digital kids” will be able to grasp.
The term workflow, in a technical and specialist framework, has rapidly overcome its boundaries, turning into a cornerstone in contemporary cinema. Although carefully analysed by specialized magazines (above all those focusing on the technical aspects of “making” cinema/images) and persistently debated at forums, conferences, cinema schools and university summer campuses across the world, it is still rife with naïveté, as well as outright omissions on the part of cinema criticism.
The workflow is a crucial part of the dialog between directors and production companies, between the makers of images and of the necessary equipment to make them, of the dialogue on how a movie can and should be made. The word – originating from computer science – defines all those processes and procedures through which the digital information is organized and subsequently turned into projectable material. The “workflow” is therefore the space where a cinematographic work develops: from shooting to final editing, from shootings to postproduction and down to the finished work. Contemporary workflow has it all: everything that occurs between hardware and software. It is the only concept capable of including all the procedures involved in the making of a movie (in the digital age), wherein the concepts of speed, flexibility and handiness are crucial.
High-end cameras, like RED and Arri Alexa, do not capture images conventionally, they record great quantities of visual data. Digital cinema has become immaterial: being based on binary sequences and metadata, its photochemical materiality has gone for good, consequently, all the processes falling under the term post-production umbrella possess a much higher interpolability potential than we could imagine just a few years back. The advent of the digital era marks the end of “materiality”, accordingly the production of images (in terms of shooting and post-production) has become editable in every moment and every aspect. Contemporary film is therefore very different from its analogic/photographic ancestor because is it the result of a “philosophically” different process.
RED HDRx technology – used in Scarlet-X and Epic-X models – can simultaneously produce two video tracks with different exposure length of every single take. By mixing together the two exposures of the same shot, we can produce a composite image with high dynamic range (HDR); this means that a dimly lit interior and an over-lit exterior can appear correctly exposed in the same take. This is a practical example of how the shot material no longer depends on real shooting conditions, rather it becomes a dynamic element that can be constantly manipulated.
Digital Imaging Technicians (DITs) manage the data (correct transmission and corrupted metadata correction) and advice the cameraman about the choices to be made during the shooting. They can be considered to be post-production technician on the set: they set the workflow process on its way as rapidly as possible, so as to maximize the potential of the process, making it immediately available for the whole crew (above all for the director of photography). In short the DIT takes care of the following operations: shootings (for instance the camera setup), transcoding, synchronization, colour, window burn, watermarking, versioning, colour space conversion and lined-script notes. This professional – far from being bypassable, considering his on-going evolution and the expansion of his scope of action – makes it clear that today post-production occurs during the shooting stage. The next future will be the integration of the post-production procedures during the shooting and production stages, and before that an ever-growing technological integration in the camera of all those procedures that are today the job of the DIT (according to Moore’s first law: «the performance of the processors and the number of transistors related to them double every 18 months»).
It is therefore possible to state that the DITs make the shot material available within of the workflow. Therefore the agent of the workflow is the DIT. But just in the theory, under optimal conditions, because in reality this professional is considered to be too expensive for most productions, therefore production companies often get round by fragmenting or outsourcing operations like Color Correction and Color Grading.
The possibility to constantly modify every aspect of the shots opens up another controversial and threatening scenery for directors, directors of photography, screenwriters and more in general for all those professionals who, de facto, develop the work (but do not fund it): the chance, for sponsors and clients to dismiss the real authors of the work by modifying the shot material to their liking at post-production. From a legal standpoint one can batten down the hatches by means of contractual clauses, which vary from country to country and are easily bypassable due to the poor bargaining power of several professionals of the sector. In advertising and in serial television production (both besieged by sponsors) the real authors of the shots and of the creative idea can be easily excluded during post-production and confined to the role of mere shooting executors – the more thorough and rich in variables the shot material, the easier it becomes to modify it (substantial colour changes, reduction of the visual space inside the frame through the alteration of the original idea, changes in the shooting time, camera movements, etcetera).
If the concept of “workflow” has become neuralgic in contemporary film production, the control of the work by the authors against the perils represented by intrusive and disrespectful clients should be central too. The concept of workflow is not merely a technological one – a mere production modality to set against the “traditional” method – it is, rather, a brand-new production system capable of creating a profoundly renewed aesthetics for the 19th century’s motion pictures. It is the new battleground of the conflict between movie producers and movie makers that has always characterized the history of cinema.
In the era of the digital revolution cinema criticism and culture set the pace, but keep using an out-dated terminology to describe todays’ production procedures, disregarding the deep changes that have occurred in the movie industry (changes concerning big Hollywood studios as well as young filmmakers at their first short with a Canon 5D). It is not my intention to state that the cornerstones of film-making, like editing or mise-en-scène, have been replaced by something else (not to grasp the eternity that goes beyond the technique and comes before cinema itself would be naive), but I want to call attention to the self-conceit with which we have forgotten that back in the days of the aforementioned Lumière and Méliès cinema was already, and has always been, inextricably linked to technology. Therefore a correct analysis should not neglect the concrete production modalities.
Artful criticism has focused, in the best of cases, on Color Correction, often basking in this attention for the technical aspect, regarded as innovative and unparalleled. But, let alone the historicization of the concept (what was the Technicolor used in the 1939 masterpiece by Victor Fleming The Wizard of Oz?), how can criticism remain so silent about the total transformation in the implementation stages of the movies that we watch at the cinema?
Over the last few years cinema criticism and the reference culture, apart from a few honourable exceptions (e.g. the New York four-monthly magazine «Filmmaker»), have poured rivers of ink (real and/or digital) in a nostalgic, amarcord-like defence of the physical/photographic medium, churning out an endless sequence of articles, essays, books and conferences on the desertion of the traditional filmmaking technique in favour of the digital one, too seldom going into the details of the digitalization of the movie industry. Both academy and specialized magazines are lagging behind and such delay will be their resource for the years to come, which will result in a proliferation of doctorates, conferences, publications, campuses and forums that will once again certify, at the dawn of the XXI century, their intrinsic delay from reality.
While close to the concept of découpage, the “workflow” differs from it because it is (substantially) invisible and, above all, because it defines a process and not a result.
«The word découpage has at least two or three meanings and refers to the technique, aesthetics and theory of cinema. It both describes a technical procedure, the act of cutting out (découper) the film’s screenplay into sequences, as well as the material result of this procedure, called technical découpage. It then acquired another meaning, which derived from the critical and theoretical vocabulary. The film critic and theorist André Bazin and the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard – the former referring to the “evolution of classic découpage” and the latter elaborating his “Defence and Illustration of Classical Construction” – described not a technique, but the very audio-visual structure of the movie in all its complexity, that is to say the physical execution of the technical découpage shot on film, edited on the finished product and watched by the spectator.» – Michel Marie, «Découpage» excerpt from Enciclopedia del Cinema, Treccani 2003
The difficulty critics encounter in analysing films in the workflow era lies in the invisibility of the process.
20th century cinema has been analysed (also) through critical découpage, focusing the analysis on the mise-en-scène, described as the essence of the film director’s or the film crew’s work. Through a painstaking analysis of the sequences a film consists of, “by disassembling” every single scene, it is possible to grasp the choices made by the authors, thence the style. In digital cinema such choices change in terms of quantity: they multiply on accounts of the growing scalability of the numeric datum at shooting and at post-production stage.
Orson Welles in his Citizen Kane was a writer by images, who used the technical know-how and talent of Gregg Toland, director of photography, and of his crew to light up the scene by photographing it in depth of field with a 35mm Mitchell BNC camera (that was back in 1941). Today the ability is the same, the film-director’s vision and eyesight must try and be just as sharp. The difference lies in the quantitative relationship between the choices and the variables dragged in by the aforesaid Cambrian revolution.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by David Fincher was crafted in 5 weeks and a half of shootings with RED Epic MX and Epic machines with a resolution respectively of 4,5 and 5K, for a total of 483 hours of shot material, out of which 443 were used in the “workflow”, for a total of over 1,9 million metres of 3-perf film. The finished movie, 4K with a 2,1 ratio and lasting 158 minutes, consists of a quarter of a million of frames with 45 MB each. This means that – compared to shootings with RED Epic – only 70% of each frame were used, which has allowed Fincher’s team to go through each frame and modify it. The “workflow” in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo plays a central role in terms of aesthetics: each single take, each frame, has been revised in order to adapt it to the visual rhythm of the whole work. Obviously, the main difficulty resulting from this kind of procedure lies in the complexity of “shifting” such a considerable amount of data within a reasonable timespan.
From a technical standpoint, cinema had changed more over the last 5 years than over its ultra-centenarian history.
Considering the vastness and the invisibility of the possible operations involved in the workflow process, the choices made by directors and their crew seem immensurable, if compared with analogic/photographic cinema. But an invisible process can become a style and directors like Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher and Roman Coppola (just to name a few without judging the quality of their works) are there to prove it with films like Side Effects (2013), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (2013). The problem lies in spotting such choices: cinema has always been free will and authorship but, with no awareness of the change underway in contemporary cinema’s production modalities, these qualitative and stylistic “differences” tend to remain invisible (or, rather, hard to catch) both for critics and cinephiles, just like the workflow processes representing the immaterial and delocalized place, where movies substantially take shape.
Essentially the “workflow” allows to correct mistakes by maximizing speed and making the operation more immediate. An excellent “workflow” and the presence on the set of a DIT considerably shrink the production time: clear ideas, excellent screenplay and actors perfectly inside their characters allow to drastically resize the overall production time. For this reason serial television production, above all in the US, resorts to this production modality. High-quality images and top post-production speed right on the set are the peculiar features of the cinema produced in a dematerialized space, that we call workflow, namely the intersection in a software environment of all the hardware components involved in a cinematographic production and post-production. Working on the pre-editing and performing the cuts just a few hours from the shootings is incredibly advantageous for directors and film production companies alike, because it allows to constantly monitor the material. At the same time this opens up new possibilities for virtually instant corrections. The same can obviously be applied to the visual component of the work, which can be constantly modulated in accordance with the requirements of the director and his/her crew. The immediacy granted by the presence on set of the whole production enables the involvement of the whole crew (actors and technicians) in the possible adjustments, thus stimulating them to advance their contribution to the picture.
The key idea in “workflow” is the correction of mistakes. Digital workflow and non–linear editing allow to modify decisions anytime: cuts can be modified, the camera movement can be made more fluid, the exposure can be altered and colour can be completely modified.
Yet – as Oblique Strategies by Brian Eno reminds us to do – one should honour his own mistakes «as hidden intentions». It is indeed not difficult to foretell the risks that a total digitalization of the process can entail: on the one hand an offspring of anxious and insecure filmmakers, constantly on the alert for possible adjustments, on the other hand (a much more factual and serious danger) an increasingly stubborn intrusiveness by both industry and clients into the most crucial aspects of the creation’s aesthetics.
The concept of “workflow”, the philosophy beneath it, is ultimately rather simple to grasp and it existed before the digital revolution. We may even say that the workflow is basically what occurs inside the author’s head, his/her intelligence and technical know-how. In the current film production scenario though, singling it out within the body of a film is an extremely complex activity requiring new crucial tools and a novel approach towards both cinema and its accomplishers. Not to grasp the deep implications of this novelty would relegate criticism to a marginal and out-of-date corner of contemporary cinema: aphasic for filmmakers, useless (and harmless) for the film industry.
The following article was translated from Italian to English by Emanuela Cassol
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