Friday, September 19, 2003

Straddling the Digital Divide

Michael Blowhard has a rather longish rant this morning on the subject of Digital movie making, and in particular Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the Robert Rodriguez flick currently in a cineplex near you. In the course of the piece Michael morphs his subject matter to still photography, iTunes, and CDs vs. Vinyl. While, as someone who straddles the digital divide himself, I disagree with much of what Michael says, it is very hard to argue with him, since he offers the counter arguments himself and is so delightfully curmudgeonly about the whole thing.

Couple of points though about developing technologies. In the area that I am most expert, still photography, I've already seen a ton of improvement in just a few short years. Perhaps because this is a technology that has a large consumer base, combined with a large enough professional base to spur development, we are seeing consumer level digital SLRs in the sub $1000 level (Canon 300D) that offer the full SLR experience to a hobbyist. Creative use of ASA, Aperture, Shutter Speed and interchangeable lenses, are all possible for the digital photographer, giving the kind of focus, tone and depth of field that previously would only be possible with film, in a digital environment. And this is all before going into Photoshop to do any post-processing. And while Photoshop can be used for "digital art", it is also a great digital darkroom, and with restraint a talented Photoshop user can enhance in all of the ways (and more) that a photographer could previously do in the darkroom. The one thing that is missing from digital, which can be faked in Photoshop, is grain. Grain can be something a traditional photographer seeks to emphasize or minimize, depending on the effect they desire, but it always there.

Returning to movies and digital film, I think this is still, to a large extent, new technology. Rodriguez is also an early adopter who works outside the studio system, which he certainly should receive kudos for. Take a look at Star Wars Episode 2 with digital projection to see what digital can look like when it has the full power of ILM behind it. Unfortunately the movie is not very good, but that has nothing to do with it being shot digitally.

I think that as the technology develops many of Michael's complaints about blown out highlights, pixellation (what he calls jaggies), over emphasized detail and color, will be solved. The grain issue will probably not be solved, but a smoother look without the overemphasis on detail will be achieved, and our expectations will also change as digital becomes more ubiquitous. And, as Michael points out, like with CDs, the artists will adapt to take advantage of the strong points of the medium.

Personally, I too am a lover of film, and certainly would consider myself a film buff. I would hate to see film replaced, but I do see digital as a new medium that offers a different palette for the filmmaker.

Read Michael's whole posting here.

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