THE TROUBLE WITH VIDEO
By Fred Camper
Several years ago, in a lecture, Peter Kubelka advocated that each media-form should utilize its own unique properties, rather than try to imitate other media. In film, one works with its rapid succession of individual, still frames: "Cinema is not movement." Kubelka went on to add that he does not like the idea that diverse media can be seen as expressing themselves similarly, or that works can translate from one medium to another, "so that literature translates into theater, theater translates into cinema, cinema translates into video, and video translates into hamburgers."
In early 1985, "The NYC Experimental Video and Film Festival" advertised itself as "...an organization which seeks to unify video and film art despite establishment taboos.... The festival is in a video format; films must be transferred."
In recent years, there has been frequent animosity between the independent film and video communities. Video artists sometimes feel that filmmakers have no respect for them or their medium; filmmakers are often afraid that video will completely take over, and make it impossible to work in their chosen medium. Certainly it has been a shock for film artists who were working on the technological forefront less than a decade ago, in a medium in which new cameras, film stocks, and processes were constantly being introduced, to now come to see cinema as the nineteenth-century, mechanical and chemical process that it is.
My purpose here is not to attack video, a medium with its own unique properties and potentials, but rather, to address filmmakers and the film community on attitudes such as that of "The NYC Experimental Video and Film Festival," and on the more general question of whether a film can survive the transfer to tape, and whether film should be even viewed on video at all. With filmmakers increasingly tempted by the exhibition possibilities of video distribution and cable TV, some reflections on the differences between the two media, and particularly between film projection and the standard TV monitor that now exists, are in order.
The Box. A film image is generally projected on a screen, and viewed in darkness. This image exists in a kind of virtual space. The distance between the viewer and the screen in a darkened room has none of the tangible measurability of distances in a normally-lit living room. The image hovers before one almost as if an image in the imagination. A TV image emanates from a box, which is itself a piece of furniture which occupies a particular place in the interior architecture of a room. Its inevitable materiality and objectness is in stark contrast to the film image's utter ethereality. (It is interesting to note how in contemporary interior decorating schemes the television has come to replace the fireplace as the focal point of a "family room.") Further, TVs are often viewed with some ambient light, which further places the image in a definite setting. Even when viewed in darkness, the curved rather than rectangular image borders and the convex glass of the screen tend to project the image out into and all about the room, whereas the flat rectangle of the film image can fill a room only via its reflected light, so that the internal structure of the image, if such is at all complex, remains entirely on the screen. To make an "environmental" film, one in which the imagery does its work partly in the way in which the film light illuminates the entire room, filmmakers generally must choose images without much internal structure, such as the pure blacks and whites of Tony Conrad's The Flicker and Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer, or the single line of Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone. The architecture and placement of a TV set, by contrast, encourage one to see the image as blending into, and even occupying, the room. Its small size is surely a factor here too: rapid movements tend to bleed off the edges into the surrounding space. I am convinced that part of the illusionistic power of commercial TV results from the way in which the imagery tends to seize the surround.
The Image. It is well-known that a standard video image lacks the sharpness and definition of even 8mm film. There are other, and in my view even more important, differences as well. In video, the range of darks and lights, the differences between the blackest black possible and the whitest white, is far narrower than in film. As a consequence, there are fewer intermediate shadings possible. Video colors lack the fullness and saturation of pure film colors; they are less intense. I am not speaking so much of the measurable purity of the light as of the fact that video green seems somehow less different from video red than a film green is from a film red. The video image is thus less differentiated in its internal structure than the film image. Similarly, far less of an illusion of depth is possible on video than in film. One has only to see the extreme deep-focus wide angle compositions of an Orson Welles film on TV to appreciate all these differences. In a Welles image, one senses the physical solidity of each object, but one also feels that the space between objects has the same palpable sensuality. A space is created, all pieces of which are in measurable and articulate relationships with each other. In video, this sense of physical space, of a felt distance between foreground and background, is largely lost. It is as if cinema needs its spatial isolation from its surround to permit its imagery to contain articulate distinctions within, while TV's more integrated relation with its surround muddies its images' internal structure. Indeed, it is no accident that a major use of video by artists has been in sculptural and performance installation pieces.
The Light. The most serious difference between the two media is the differences between the two kinds of light. Cinema light is absolute: it is a succession, rapidly-projected, of still images. On a modern projector, one might see each frame projected three or more times, for 1/144th of a second each, with three 1/144th-of-a-second intervals of darkness following. The key word here is absolute. There is no movement in cinema; that illusion is produced in the brain. With film one has a series of utterly separate, complete-in-themselves, elements, the frames, to work with. In video, there is also a succession of separate images, but these are not presented with the independence of the on-and-off flashes of film. Rather, the scanning mechanism gradually traces an image over the screen; the image then disappears and is replaced by another. As a result "frames" are presented not instantaneously but over time. The intervening darkness may seem like less of a break between images, because the images themselves become visible on the screen more gradually than the instantaneous apparition of the cinema image. While this process occurs far too quickly for the eye to differentiate it, it produces a very different quality of light from cinema's, just as, though one cannot see the individual 1/144th-of-a-second or less intervals of darkness in film projection, one can readily see the difference between movie-projector light and the uninterrupted beam of a slide projector. An important result of this difference is that the transition between adjacent frames is less absolute than in film; thus the differences between separate frames, and the strong contrasts between frames at the point of a cut, are elided. Video light is itself continually alive, continually vibrating; each image is constantly, at every moment, changing; new image areas are burned into the screen as the old image decays; there is nothing as stable as a single film grain on the video screen. Indeed, this sense of constant movement places video firmly in the electronic age, as a medium appropriate to a world populated with myriad electronic devices containing vast stores of information in the form of tiny electrical charges, and in which the constant movement of electrons has become the major transmitter of knowledge. Cinema, by contrast, is like a series of images carved in stone. Stan Brakhage has called video light "hypnotic," an insight I prefer to use descriptively rather than pejoratively. The light is hypnotic, in the way its continual tiny changes constantly lure one's attention, one's eye. One might argue that the flicker of cinema is "hypnotic" compared to the unchanging image of a painting or sculpture, and perhaps we are only speaking of degrees here: but film light also does leave the viewer a certain freedom. The tiny intervals of darkness, and the fixed and unchanging nature of each projected frame, may produce powerful illusions but ultimately leave the mind with those tiny spaces, even if only 1/144th of a second long, that it needs to make its own decisions about what it sees. Video, by contrast, is surely the most persuasive medium ever devised, as its commercial and political uses have made apparent, and I believe the reasons for this are to be found in the quality of its light, and in the way in which the light and imagery, emanating from the furniture-box, fill the room with their presence.
Movement. Movement, either of the camera or of the objects depicted therein, is rendered very differently by film and video. In film, the camera's movement through space can have a radical, even vertiginous effect on the viewer. The absoluteness of film representation gives the viewer a sense of seeking a space with fixed, defined coordinates; motion, then, alters the very dimensions of the perceived world. In video, since the light itself is constantly moving, any motion of the subject-matter is merely additional; a quantitative rather than qualitative change, and is not at all like the change from stasis to movement one gets in film, for in video there is no true stasis. This change, this difference, between movement and stillness in film is only one of the many contrasts which form the very basis of film art and which video radically effaces.
The Frame. Perhaps the most fundamental contrast within cinema is that between the flat rectangle of each projected frame and the implied larger world of which that frame is but a part. It is at the borders of the image that the filmmaker makes much of his statement, because there it is revealed what he has selected, and what he has excluded, from the implied larger setting that spread out before his camera's eye. In the darkness of projection these borders stand for absolute differences: for that opposition on which the art of film lives or dies, the distinction between the undifferentiated and unanalyzed chaos of reality as a whole and the filmmaker's selective act of framing. Video reduces the effect of the frame's borders from cinema's firm and absolute edge to that of an indistinct blur, because of the natures of "the box," of its presence in the room, of the light, and of the monitor screen, whose curved shape tends to efface the image's boundary-line. (Of course, on a simpler level the TV screen does not even reproduce all of the film image; much is eliminated by the curved shape. Modern camera viewfinders are inscribed with inner frames in the shape of a TV screen called "TV safe action areas," presumably indicating that the aesthetic of the framing of at least commercial film has also been affected by video.) It is no accident, but rather a testament to the nature of video and video light, that TV is often viewed in a lit room, while film almost never is, even though film projection is fully bright enough to allow this.
If one accepts my description of the differences between film and video it should be immediately apparent that those qualities most important to cinema will simply not translate to video. Cinema, when it functions as art, depends upon the precise articulations made between different frames, and between different areas of light within the frame. Video, by effacing the differences upon which cinema depends, renders the rich complexity of a film masterwork as an inarticulate haze. A film realizes itself in the gaps between frames, and in the contrasts between light and dark, one color and another, foreground and background, movement and stillness, that it mobilizes towards its expressive ends. In video, those gaps are blurred and bridged, producing an ever-vibrating, ever-alive continuum.
The matters discussed herein are not narrow formal issues that should be of concern only to filmmakers and a narrow group of aesthetes. I have tried to show that the form of the medium a communication is presented in is a crucial part of that communication, and a part of its statement as well. Any work makes its statement not merely by its subject matter or "message" but by the relationship it defines, via its form, between itself and its recipient. If Leni Riefenstahl had made Triumph of the Will about a 1936 Democratic Party rally in the U.S. that was supporting the reelection of Roosevelt, it would still be a fascist film, and an evil one as well. One person can declare to another "I love you" by writing a letter, by sending flowers, by telephoning, by visiting, through a series of carefully selected gifts, by deep attentions to the loved one, or by a crude and uninvited seduction attempt, and the "medium" chosen for this communication helps to define the very meaning that the word "love" has in the implicit or explicit underlying "sentence." All of the differences described above are not merely technical issues, but epistemological and ethical ones as well.
The aesthetic and moral implications of the mechanism of cinema have been explored by several generations of filmmakers and film theoreticians, in a rich series of films and writings stretching from Eisenstein to Epstein, Dreyer to Deren, Bresson to Brakhage, Bazin to Baudry. Video is a comparatively new form. While my description of it may be taken negatively by some, I do not wish to condemn a medium that neither I, nor (I suspect) most of us fully understand. Certainly there is work by video artists that is more than promising in its attempts to utilize video's own properties. But it needs to be said that just as many filmmakers mistakenly transfer their work to video, so a lot of video art flounders by trying to imitate film effects in ways that video cannot.
Filmmakers need to take the strongest possible stance in defense of their medium. It is an appalling sign of the utter corruption and anti-art stance present in the academic establishment that many film classes are now taught with the showing of films on video. Film teachers must insist on adequate budgets for film rental and projection. Filmmakers must not dare to hope that some of one's film's qualities will survive the transfer to video. Film viewers must remember to view films, not TV. With schools increasingly exhibiting films on TV, and with new video exhibition possibilities opening up as opposed to a stagnation or even diminution of the number of venues showing independent film, and with supposedly serious "film buffs" increasingly viewing all types of films on cable TV and VCRs, it is all the more urgent to remain true to one's medium. Independent filmmakers are the only group that has pursued the medium's highest possibilities without compromise; to surrender now on this most fundamental of issues would be to literally give up the art.
Copyright © Fred Camper 1985.
mostly concerning developments since the above article was written.
The article above, written in 1985, will seem somewhat archaic today. Filmmakers now routinely transfer their films to video, if only because so many grant-giving agencies and film festivals require it. And there have been some changes in video technology that mitigate a few of my objections, chiefly the introduction of nearly square-screen monitors and the occasional availability of relatively high-quality video projection. Even these technologies, though, leave most of my points about the differences between film and video unchanged. Yet as film and its technology becomes less available, it becomes possible to imagine a future in which the only places offering film projection will be showing old irreplaceable prints — and will also be keeping their projectors running with the help of a machinist and machine shop resident in the basement. It also seems possible that video technology will improve, and that the future will offer some high-definition digital projection format that will be relatively inexpensive and that will display digital copies of films that are at least as faithful to the original film as recorded music is (for me) to live music: still not the original work, but close enough so that one can appreciate some of its most essential qualities. Neither standard video nor laser disk has, in my view, reached anywhere near that point today.
Also, some filmmakers have now begun to make films designed to look just as good on video as on film, and some even authorize either form of display as acceptable alternatives. Some of these are also works that I like, and would agree do survive either format. In other cases, this dual accessibility has been achieved by making a work that depends far less on the expressive potential of imagery and the unique properties of a particular media than on content, a very Pomo trend. Some of these works can be good too, but it saddens me to see how many possibilities are lost when one "dumbs down" the very imagery one's work is based on. Still, it should be acknowledged that viewing such works on video is not quite the crime that viewing the work of earlier generations of filmmakers on video is. That this shift would occur is perhaps inevitable: it has already been happening in Hollywood for decades, starting from the point at which studios recognized a significant proportion of their feature film income from video, stretching up to the present, when that proportion is over 50 per cent. Lighting styles changed; compositions changed; even the filmstocks changed. (See also my article Highway Views, Cinema Views, also available in German translation.)
Sadly, though, viewing any film on video is now seen by most as an equivalent to viewing the film. "I rented (insert title here)" is a common locution. "I saw (insert title here) last weekend" can be used to mean that one viewed the video, though almost no one would say that they'd been looking at Michelangelo's paintings last weekend unless they'd been to Italy. I'm constantly correcting people by replying, "You mean you looked at a video reproduction of the film," and everyone finds my corrections quite quaint and amusing. There is an operation in Chicago known as the "Celluloid Moviebar," which shows films regularly, yet despite — or perhaps because of — their name, they show everything on video. A trend that is noted in my original article, the "teaching" of film on video, has more and more become the norm. But such teaching is often so content-oriented ("the image of minorities in Hollywood films of the 40s") that perhaps it doesn't make a whole lot of difference. And showing works on film isn't always the sole answer either. I was pleased to learn that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign still teaches its big introductory film course not only on film but when possible in 35mm, and so I peeked in on 15 minutes of The Searchers there in 1997. The classroom was a large, long, low-ceilinged affair distinctly unsuited to film projection; seen from the back of the room, where not a few students were also sitting, the image was so tiny that the inner dynamics of the composition were almost invisible; I found myself thinking that I'd rather watch this film, which I know well from the original and now-lost 35mm Technicolor prints, on a close-by video monitor than in the form I was then viewing it. Certainly much more of the film would survive that way than in this postage stamp-sized image I saw.
Another disturbing development is that film critics now think nothing of writing about, and even writing full reviews of, films they've seen only on video. In some cases, they're seeing these films in the wrong aspect ratios — with the sides of the image missing, for example. Yet this is now done without second thoughts, and there are critics who prefer it; I know of one case in which the only critic interested in a program of films I was speaking on wouldn't see them since there were no video copies available. Thanks to Thom Anderson, who introduced a talk of mine at the L. A. Filmforum by calling me "the last film critic in America." I didn't know what he meant at first, until he explained: "As far as I know Fred is the only critic who will not write about a film that he has seen only on video." Yet just this past year, two different Chicago exhibitors have complained to me about the inconvenience of previewing film prints for me. One suggested that one of his films was originally made in Pixelvision and transferred to film, so that there should be no problem with looking at it on video, right? My response, as always in such cases, was to ask why the filmmaker had gone to such expense to transfer it to film if the difference didn't matter. And when I finally saw this work, on film, Michael Almereyda's The Rocking Horse Winner, not only did I like it, but much of what I liked had to do with the unique quality that celluloid gave the Pixelvision image.
But it's still is possible to see 35mm prints of great
films under good conditions — or at least, pretty good conditions. Mentioning
only venues where I've actually seen films and found the projection at
least adequate, Chicago, where I live, has The Film
Center at the School of the Art Institute,
Doc Films at the University of Chicago, the Block Cinema at Northwestern University in Evanston, the Music Box Theatre, and Chicago Filmmakers. New York
has the Museum of Modern Art,
The Walter Reade Theatre
of the Film Society of Lincoln Center,
Anthology Film Archives, and The
American Museum of the Moving Image. Toronto has
Ontario; Montreal has the Cinémathèque québécois.
The San Francisco Bay area has the Pacific
Film Archives. Los Angeles has the UCLA
Archive. Finally, in Paris, there is the Cinémathèque
française, with its superb collection and
programming and illustrious history.
Chicago, October 4, 1998. (Venue list updated January 18, 2003.)