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A Digital Cinema of the Mind? Could Be

If only we could just stop that gentleman in the top hat coming out of the Metropolitan Opera -- no, that one, with the fur collar -- and ask him about the performance of "Tannhäuser" he has just attended. Perhaps, if he were agreeable, we could walk with him up Broadway and let the conversation go where it might, since this is October in the year 1899, and one's thoughts have naturally turned toward the coming 20th century.

What about the stunning production that he has just seen? Truly unbelievable!

And perhaps a word about the future of opera -- specifically, Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or Total Art Work, the ultimate fusion of music, drama, and image. What wonders will audiences be seeing in 100 years?

As he stops to consider, one cannot help but glance over his shoulder at the sight of dozens of men in the shop behind him, mostly young, mostly immigrants, their heads plunged into some kind of mechanism, their right hands cranking madly away in a kind of trance. We have stopped by chance in front of an amusement arcade, and the men inside are operating Kinetoscopes and watching images of young ladies disrobing over and over again before their very eyes.

Well, as our fur-collared friend is excitedly anticipating a century of high culture and operatic triumphs to make those of the 19th century pale in comparison, we -- we time travelers who know the truth -- cannot help suppressing a smile. Imagine our new acquaintance's astonishment and repugnance at being told that the noisy and offensive contraptions behind him would shortly transform themselves into the dominant art form of the 20th century and stage their own assault on the citadel of Total Art Work; and that although his beloved operas would still be performed in 1999, and lavishly, they would be -- mostly -- re-workings of the 19th century's preserved-in-amber canon, the West's version of Japanese Kabuki.

Of course, we won't disappoint him with our insights, which would seem like typical ravings from the kind of strange-looking creatures he usually takes pains to avoid. What is New York coming to these days? Goodbye. Nice talking to you.

Without much warning, we are back in the New York of October 1999. "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace" is still playing, and the lines have not got any shorter since it opened, in May. In fact, at one theater in Times Square they have got somewhat longer.

Strolling by the marquee, we discover why: "Phantom Menace" is being projected digitally, without film. The sprocketed 35-millimeter celluloid that served our friends at the amusement arcade in 1899, and served as well the expanding cinematic dreams of the 20th century -- through the arrival of sound, of color, of wide screen, of (for a few years, anyway) three dimensions, of Dolby Stereo -- film itself, the physical medium that carried all these inventions uncomplainingly on its shoulders, is, at the end of the century, about to put down its burdens and slip away. In a few years it will become a historical curiosity.

And the three ubiquitous symbols for the motion picture -- the reel, the clapstick and film itself, with those little square sprocket holes running along its edges -- will all be anachronistic, referring to a forgotten technology, like the carpenter's adz and awl.

Is this something to be concerned about?

By way of comparison, Gutenberg's first Bible was printed on vellum, a beautiful and tactile organic substance; but printing only really took off with the invention of paper, which was cheaper and easier to manufacture.

Gutenberg's concept of movable type transcended the medium used for the printing itself. Digital, perhaps, may prove to be paper to celluloid's parchment.

So let's declare confidently that although film may fade away, there will always be pictures that move. The insight that gave rise to motion pictures, Muybridge's quantization of movement in the 1880's, is as profound in its way as Gutenberg's, and as independent of the medium of transmission.

As astonishing as it will be to see digitally projected images -- clear or clearer than 35-millimeter film, with none of the scratches, dirt or jitter that infect even the most pristine of 35-millimeter prints -- the truth is that for 15 years the film industry has been steadily turning digital from the inside out. In my own areas of expertise -- editing and sound -- the transformation is almost complete. The triumphs of digital visual effects were already well known before their apotheosis in "Jurassic Park," "Titanic" and now "Phantom Menace." But the arrival of digital projection will trigger the final capitulation of the two last holdouts of film's 19th-century, analog-mechanical legacy. Projection, at the end of the line, is one; the other is the original photography that begins the whole process. The movie industry is currently a digital sandwich between slices of analog bread.

Once digital projection makes significant inroads, however, film laboratories like Technicolor will find it difficult to operate in the black, since most of their profits come from massive theatrical print orders, sometimes as high as 50 million feet of film per motion picture. When the laboratories go out of the film business, motion picture companies will inevitably turn to digital cameras for original photography.

In the almost-immediate future, then -- when final projection and original photography are digitized -- the entire technical process of filmmaking will be digital from start to finish, and the whole technical infrastructure will telescope in upon itself with great suddenness. Some of the consequences we can foresee; others are unpredictable. But it is likely that this transformation will be complete in less than 10 years.

Of course, there will be wonders to compensate us for the loss of our old friends Clapstick, Sprocket and Reel. Of course, the blurring of borders among video, computers and film will vastly increase. Of course, digital creatures will be born that will make 1995's "Jurassic Park" seem like 1932's "King Kong." Of course, Channel 648 will be a live transmission of the planet Earth as seen from the Moon, in stunning detail, occupying the entire liquid crystal wall of your media room.

But what will cinema -- the habit of seeing motion pictures in a theatrical setting -- what will cinema be like in 2099?

Will the digital revolution, so intoxicatingly heady at the moment, transform cinema into something unrecognizable to us today, for better or worse?

Will cinema perhaps have ossified by 2099 into the 21st century's version of grand opera? Tuxedo-clad crowds attending yet another projection of 150-year-old "Casablanca," unimaginably enhanced by some technological grandson of today's digital wizardry?

Or perhaps cinema will have disappeared completely, overrun by some technical-social upheaval as unimaginable to us as the Kinetoscope's ultimate transformation was in 1899. The parallels between the immigrants cranking their Kinetographs in the amusement arcade and your teen-ager locked in his room with Tomb Raider III are striking.

As soon as we pose these questions, we know it is silly even to attempt an answer. But it is October 1999, after all: Halloween is just around the corner, and so we are allowed to make fools of ourselves.

Is the complete digitization of the art and industry of cinema something that will ultimately be good for it?

To glimpse an answer to a question like that, we need to find some analogous development in the past, and the one that seems closest, to me, is the transformation in painting that took place in the 15th century, when the old technique of pigments on fresco was largely replaced by oil paint on canvas.

Some of the greatest, if not the greatest triumphs of European pictorial art were done in fresco, the painstaking process whereby damp plaster is stained with pigments that bond chemically with the plaster and change color as they dry. One need only think of Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the pictorial equivalent of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

A great deal of planning needs to be done with fresco, and the variables -- like the consistency and drying time of the plaster -- have to be controlled exactly. Artists needed a precise knowledge of the pigments and how they would change color as they dried. Once the pigment had been applied, no revisions were possible. Only so much work could be done in a day before the plaster applied that morning became too dry. Inevitably, cracks would form at the joins between subsequent applications of plaster, so the arrangement of each day's subject matter had to be chosen carefully to minimize the damage from this cracking.

There was more, but it should be clear that for all these reasons, fresco painting was an expensive effort of many people and various interlocking technologies, overseen by the artist who took responsibility for the final product.

The invention of oil paint changed all this. The artist was freed to paint wherever and whenever he wanted. He did not have to create the work in its final location. The paint was the same color wet as it would be dry. He did not have to worry unduly about cracking surfaces. And the artist could paint over areas he didn't like, even to the point of re-using canvases for completely different purposes.

Although painting in oils remained collaborative for a while, the innate logic of the new medium allowed the artist more and more control of every aspect of the work, intensifying his personal vision. This was tremendously liberating, and the history of art from 1450 to the present is a clear testimony to the creative power of that liberation -- and some of its dangers, which found their ultimate expression in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the emergence of solitary and tortured geniuses like Van Gogh.

The nature of working with film has been more like painting in fresco than oil. It is so heterogeneous, with so many technologies woven together in a complex and expensive fabric, that it is almost by definition impossible for a single person to control. There are a few solitary filmmakers -- Jordan Belson comes to mind -- but these are exceptional individuals, and the films they make are geared in their subject matter to allow creation by a single person.

By contrast, digital techniques naturally tend to integrate with each other because of their mathematical commonality; thus they come under easier control by a single person. I can see this already happening in the sound-mixing work that I do, where the borders between sound editing and mixing have begun to blur. And it is about to happen in the further integration of film editing and visual effects.

So let's suppose a technical apotheosis some time in the middle of the 21st century, when it somehow becomes possible for one person to make an entire feature film, with virtual actors. Would this be a good thing?

If the history of oil painting is any guide, the broadest answer would be yes, with the obvious caution to keep a wary eye on the destabilizing effect of following too intently a hermetically personal vision. One need only look at the unraveling of painting or classical music in the 20th century to see the risks.

Let's go even further, and force the issue to its ultimate conclusion by supposing the diabolical invention of a black box that could directly convert a single person's thoughts into a viewable cinematic reality. You would attach a series of electrodes to various points on your skull and simply think the film into existence.

And since we are time-traveling, let us present this hypothetical invention as a Faustian bargain to the future filmmakers of the 21st century. If this box were offered by some mysterious cloaked figure in exchange for your eternal soul, would you take it?

The kind of filmmakers who would accept, even leap, at the offer are driven by the desire to see their own vision on screen in as pure a form as possible. They accept present levels of collaboration as the evil necessary to achieve this vision. Alfred Hitchcock, I imagine, would be one of them, judging from his description of the creative process: "The film is already made in my head before we start shooting."

The kind of filmmakers who would reject the offer are interested above all in the collaborative process of filmmaking and in seeing a detailed vision mysteriously emerge out of that process, rather than being imposed from the beginning. Francis Ford Coppola's colorful description of his role sums it up: "The director is the ringmaster of a circus that is inventing itself."

The paradox of cinema is that it is most effective when it seems to fuse two contradictory elements -- the general and the personal -- into a kind of mass intimacy. The work itself is unchanging, aimed at an audience of millions, and yet, when it works, it seems to speak to each member of the audience in a powerfully personal way.

The origins of this power are mysterious, but I believe they come from two of the primary characteristics of a motion picture: it is a theater of thought, and it is collaborative.

Film is a dramatic construction in which, for the first time in human history, the characters can be seen to think at even the subtlest level, and these thoughts can then be choreographed. Sometimes the thoughts are almost physically visible, moving across the faces of talented actors like clouds across the sky. This power is enhanced by two techniques that lie at the foundation of cinema itself: the close-up, which renders such subtlety visible; and the cut, the sudden switch from one image to another, which mimics the acrobatic nature of thought itself.

And collaboration, which is not necessarily a compromise after all, may be the very thing, if properly encouraged, that allows the work to speak in the most developed way to the largest number of people. Every person who works on a film brings a particular perspective to bear on the subject, and if these perspectives are properly orchestrated by the director, the result will be a multifaceted and yet integrated complexity that will have the greatest chance of catching and sustaining the interest of the audience, which is itself a multifaceted entity in search of integration.

None of this, however, addresses the other salient fact about cinema: it is by definition a theatrical, communal experience for the audience as well as the authors, but one in which the play remains the same each time it is shown.

The midcentury pessimism about the future of cinema, which foresaw a future ruled by television, overlooked the perennial human urge -- at least as old as language itself -- to leave the home and assemble in the fire-lit dark with like-minded strangers to listen to stories.

The cinematic experience is a recreation of this ancient practice of theatrical renewal and bonding in modern terms, except that the flames of the Stone Age campfire have been replaced by the shifting images that are telling the story itself. Flames that dance the same way every time the film is projected, but that kindle different dreams in the mind of each beholder, fuse the permanency of literature with the spontaneity of theater.

But I would like to emphasize the leaving of familiar surroundings. The theatrical-cinematic experience is really born the moment someone says, "Let's go out." Implicit in this phrase is a dissatisfaction with one's familiar surroundings and the corresponding need to open oneself up in an uncontrolled way to something "other." And here we have the battle between motion pictures in the home and cinema, for I will venture that the true cinematic experience cannot be had in the home, no matter how technically advanced the equipment becomes.

I am struck, for example, at how often someone tells me that they have seen one of my films in the cinema and that they were impressed with the level of detail in picture and sound, something they never experienced when they saw the same film on video at home.

Well, I have seen both the film and the video, and I have to say that by and large the level of detail is comparable, if not exactly the same. What is definitely not the same, however, is the state of mind of the viewer.

At home, you are king, and the television is your jester, and if you are not amused, you take out the remote control and chop off his head. The framework of home viewing is familiarity: what is right is what fits with the routine, and this implies a mind-set that sees only what it wants or is prepared to see.

Going out, however, involves some expense, inconvenience and risk. Remember that you will be sitting in a dark room with as few as 6, as many as 600 strangers. There are no distractions. There is no way to stop the film once it starts. And it starts at a certain time whether or not you are there. This produces a mind-set that is open to experience in a way that home viewing can never be.

M OST mysteriously important, however, are those 6 or 600 strangers sitting with you, whose muffled presence alters and magnifies in an unquantifiable way the nature of what you see.

Let us say that the average age in the audience is 25 years. Multiplied 600 times, that equals 15,000 years of human experience assembled in the darkness -- well over twice the length of recorded human history of hopes, dreams, disappointments, exultation, tragedy. All focused on the same series of images and sounds, all brought there by the urge, however inchoate, to open up and experience as intensely as possible something beyond their ordinary lives.

Well, it is not yet the new century, the digital revolution has not yet swept the field, and when it does it will be many years before Mephistopheles arrives with his electrode-studded black box. There will be collaboration in motion pictures, grudging or not, for many years to come. But it seems that if we are looking out for the shadow that digital might cast, we might look in the direction of anything that encourages a solitary monolithic vision and discourages developed complexity, both at the beginning, in the production of film, and at the end, in its theatrical enjoyment.

And since we are here to draw conclusions, I will come down on the affirmative side and say that cinema will be with us 100 years from now. Different, of course, but still cinema. Its persistence will be fueled by the unchanging human need for stories in the dark, and its evolution will be sparked by the technical revolutions now just getting under way. We are perhaps where painting was in 1499. So we have a few good centuries ahead of us, if we are careful.

Beyond that, who knows? Let's meet again in 2099 and have another look around.

The New York Times May 2, 1999   
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