Changing the Definition of Cinema

See page 300 in The Language of New Media

“The shift to digital media affects not just Hollywood, but filmmaking as a whole.  As traditional film technology is universally being replaced by digital technology, the logic of the filmmaking process is being redefined.”


While this observation certainly alludes to a process which many critics have observed — that digital technology exerts an influence on how films are produced by filmmakers and understood by audiences — the formulation and exposition of this observation here relies on generalities that omit many practical considerations of great importance.

The difficulty is a product of a methodological problem with Manovich’s text — that is, he begins with a reductionist approach to analyzing new media, then reasons through the potential consequences of his premises.  The problem with such an approach is that it relies entirely on the validity of the premises.  In this case, the premises are not only flawed, but in their focus on the purported “concrete” factors that distinguish new media objects from traditional media, they gloss over many cultural continuities.

The result of this difficulty is a series of observations that are equally disconnected from the history and the present reality of filmmaking.

Take, for example, Manovich’s assertion that the result of 3D computer animation is that “live-action footage is displaced from its role as the only possible material from which a film can be constructed.”  The thrust of Manovich’s assertion here is to emphasize the “newness” and the “otherness” of digital cinema; yet he does so as the expense of accuracy.

The history of cinema provides numerous examples that demonstrate the utter falsity of this claim.  Early in the history of cinema — before the Hollywood studio system came to exert a dominant influence on the aesthetics of film — we can see filmmakers such as Man Ray conducting experiments to produce moving images on celluloid without relying upon the photographic apparatus of the camera.  Man Ray’s 1926 film Emak Bakia contains several sequences produced by placing various objects directly on a strip of film and then exposing the film to light.  Aside from Hollywood’s rich history of cell-based animation (which clearly does not rely on live-action footage) we find contemporary experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage — who made numerous films by directly applying pigment to clear leader, or scratching the emulsion off of black slug — continuing the investigations begun by Man Ray.  Furthermore, it is worth considering that scientific time-lapse footage, such as of microbes or phototropism, do not qualify as live-action imagery (although they are examples of photographic motion pictures).

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