Saturday, September 17, 2005

musings on "what is digital cinema?" from

Manovich's article 'WHAT IS DIGITAL CINEMA?' is a dissertation to clarify a historical context that contemporary cinematographers stand upon. It analyzes specifically the role of how technology is pervasively infiltrating film and tries to define the terminology: digital cinema.

Cinema even in its historical infancy is dependent on the same idea as an illusion of moving reality directly bonded to the transition of time. Manovich excavates proto-film/projection history by pointing to the Phantasmagoria shows of the late 18th century. Actual movement was employed to utilize the temporal in these shows. The projectionist moved the projector to zoom or pan the image.

Development of the projected image advanced toward the loop-image devices such as the Thaumatrope and the Zoetrope. These devices were dependent on a relatively small number of image 'cells' and were drawn or painted images in the early development. Muybridge used paintings in his Zoopraxiscope lectures, because technology had yet to offer a reasonable photographic alternative. As projection moved toward mechanization the length of the projected media extended and thus the illusion of temporeality could be extended toward a more realistic experience. This of course lends itself to storytelling and narrative was to become the dominant paradigm in film for the next 100 years.

I am critical of Manovich's second principle in digital filmmaking. The statement is as follows:

2. Once live action footage is digitized (or directly recorded in a digital format), it loses its privileged indexical relationship to pro-filmic reality. The computer does not distinguish between an image obtained through the photographic lens, an image created in a paint program or an image synthesized in a 3-D graphics package, since they are made from the same material -- pixels. And pixels, regardless of their origin, can be easily altered, substituted one for another, and so on. Live action footage is reduced to be just another graphic, no different than images which were created manually.

I believe this point is partially flawed in the respect that film is a mediator even its’ verisimilitude to reality. Film mediates in the same method as the selection of images chosen by a painter. The filmographer chooses shot, time, etc. Film is not a pipe/reality (read my semiotics rant in the post below). Film is a chemistry-coated strip that is akin to a canvas and paint or perhaps more likely stained glass. Pixels are just the technologically current transformation in medium. I acknowledge that pixels by their binary nature are more abstract than film chemistry since their reality is only appropriately ordered ones and zeroes mediated through a tool. Film to digital media is not any more defining a transition than painted image to mechanically advanced image. It (projection!) is the transformation of the signified (nature) to the signifier (image); humankind has pursued such acts since at least Lascaux. I believe he means to show the level of mediation has advanced another layer, it is technological change nothing more mysterious.

Manovich arrives back at this firm theoretical footing through some wormhole in fabric logic as he acknowledges digital cinema to be a sum:

5. Given the preceding principles, we can define digital film in this way:
digital film = live action material + painting + image processing + compositing + 2-D computer animation + 3-D computer animation

This approach extends the possibilities of the medium and frees it of the enslavement of narrative bonds. It achieves the elasticity and creative possibilities that are akin to painting. I am going to base my first projection on this concept as painting.

-kn, out!

A bio from his website:
Lev Manovich ( was born in Moscow and moved to New York in 1981. He studied fine arts, architecture, animation, and programming before starting to work with computer media in 1984. Since mid 1990s, his projects have been shown in the key international exhibitions of new media art; In 2003 ICA London presented a retrospective of his works entitled "Lev Manovich: Adventures in Digital Cinema." Currently he is working on a five year project Soft Cinema which was supported by commissions from ZKM (2002) and BALTIC (2003).


  1. Thomas,

    I agree with you. I think the focus on technique rather than content and experience is misleading.

    I would have prefered the article to focus more on the differences such as:time, interactivity, venue, experience.


  2. I is kind of hard to think of old tape film and digital film as the same. They both do the same thing but the tape you can physically see the image and then DVD tapes are just 1s and 0s and only the computer can make them into recognizable images. But I think they should be thought as the same because they both do the same thing, even if one is less tangible.