It’s All Digital Now

This semester’s History of Cinema course concluded with the contemporary Hollywood entertainment economy. One of the themes we continually encountered was Hollywood pursuing spectacle and scale in order to remain relevant. This contrast with what we have seen throughout the semester with emerging cinemas relying more on New Wave priorities of stylistic experimentation and character development.

One of the main topics we covered was the new exhibition technologies of 3D and Digital Projection. While these have been around for decades, and for over a century in the case of 3D photography, the new push for faster frame rates seem as a new way for Hollywood to separate itself from other cinemas from around the world.

David Bordwell has recently covered the campaign for 48 frames per second—double that of the traditional sound film frame rate of 24 frames—led by Peter Jackson and James Cameron as a way to eliminate the artifacts visible in their digital-effects-heavy films. I won’t repeat everything he has to say in that illuminating article but I found a few points relevant for our discussion.

  • In order for theater owners to adopt new hardware, there needs to be a viable path to recovering those costs with profitable software. It’s hard to imagine filmmakers with a better profit potential than Jackson and Cameron.
  • By pioneering new projection technology, it will be hard for other filmmakers—both within and outside of Hollywood—to match them in terms of spectacle.
  • Bordwell is right when he points out the 48 fps debate overlooks the entire issue of story. It’s not that the two are mutually exclusive. It’s just that they are almost working with an entirely different medium than other filmmakers.

We have seen in various other nations numerous attempts to foster a strong national cinema. International co-productions and complex financing arrangements were such methods, but while they might have matched (or approached) the scale of a Hollywood film, they rarely accomplished any sustained success. What had worked was making films with a strong personal vision, complex characters, and drawing on rich sources such as history, politics, or philosophy. These films might not have yielded immediate financial successes, but films like these kinds fostered a strong sense of national identity and also became the hallmarks of international cinema. I tried to screen films of these type throughout the semester.

As filmmakers chase the apex of digital realism, we should not let the digital revolution foreclose what made the cinema, not just entertaining and spectacular, but an international art form.

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