[Frameworks] Letter to other Filmmaker Artists

From: Doug Chaffin\(\ (email suppressed)
Date: Wed Jul 21 2010 - 14:44:29 PDT

First of all i would like to say that I have already received so many great responses from incredible filmmakers and film lovers on here and I'm staying in touch with each one through personal emails. I mailed off 5 DVDs of my movie today and I am excited to hear back from anyone else who reads my letter today or in the future. The more true cinema lovers I can meet the better for me. In addition to sharing my own work with others, I will also help support and exhibit other filmmaker's movies in any way I can in my life.

It's really fascinating to read the voluminous discussion that has been sparked about photo-chemical cinema. For what it is worth, here are my two cents, the text of my lecture/manifesto on this issue :

I love photo-chemical celluloid moving images and I will always shoot on real film. If film ever became obsolete and was replaced by digital I would not shoot on digital video, I would instead concentrate on other interests of mine like painting and possibly architecture.

I believe film and digital motion pictures are two distinct art forms that should co-exist as different languages and mediums of the moving image and that they should not be confused as the same thing just because digital is recently developed technology that came out after film’s invention and happens to share the quality of visual motion.

For anyone who is not technically knowledgeable about this issue I will give a quick overview of the technical difference between film and digital.

Film involves capturing pictures that are exposed one after another 24 frames per second. In the case of black and white, each frame is made up of countless separate “silver crystal halide” grains that are suspended in gelatin on a film base and are exposed to light for a fraction of a second. In the case of color film, each frame contains 3 layers of “dye coupler” grains: a blue, a green, and a red layer, one on top of another and the combination of these exposed dye couplers create all of the other colors. These small physical-chemical bits are what make up the whole image that is finally processed, printed, and projected onto the movie screen.

Digital imagery on the other hand consists of an electronic sensor that relays its recorded visual information in the form of numbers. These numbers are what determine the color and look of all of the small pixels that make up the final digital picture. It is a electronic simulation of the colors and shapes that are recorded as opposed to film’s real physical material-chemical process, whereby either silver grains or dye coupler grains are exposed physically by light to make up a whole image. 
Both the film camera and film projector also are different from digital in that between each projected film frame that the audience sees there is a “flicker effect”, meaning that there is a quick moment of black in-between the frames. The audience is actually sitting in a dark theatre half of the time but because of the phenomenon of “persistence of vision” the human eye cannot see this and interprets the projected images as continuous motion.

Those are the technical differences between the mechanical-chemical process of film recording and the electronic process of digital recording.

Now I am going to speak of the aesthetic differences and I will mainly be referring to my kind of cinema, which for me is the best and most valid form of filmmaking, abstract sound-visual Pure Cinema.

But before I do I would like to point out that in most instances in commercial-theatrical films the film camera has been treated as a subordinate recording device, a slave that just records acting and dialogue and every once in awhile illustrates literature. In this kind of mainstream filmmaking very few sequences or moments are even creative enough to subordinate photo-chemical film to what is usually referred to as “visual storytelling”, “cinematic storytelling”, or “telling a story with the camera” and while I do like it a lot more than the usual “photoplay” approach to movies, it is still a derivative, subordinate, mimetic, and illustrative use of cinema that I believe is ultimately limiting and reductionist, and should be considered a secondary form of cinema along with other secondary forms like “visual music”, “cine dance”, and scientific, educational, industrial, and architecture films.

But I think that in the more cinematic and creative narrative films there are incredible images, visual-sound moments, and cinematic sequences that are exhilarating and can be taken out, abstracted out of the context of the story and enjoyed for purely cinematic non-literal non-story aesthetic reasons. These special few narrative features like JFK, Apocalypse Now, 2001, “Blade Runner”, “Eraserhead”, “Vertigo”, “Sunrise”, “The Conformist”, "Days Of Heaven", “Once Upon A Time In The West” and many others, are powerful and effective for me because of their use of the unique dynamics and aesthetic qualities of photo-chemical movie film, regardless of the manufacturer or the era of the film stock used for them. It would be a sin to have shot any of them on digital, regardless of the type of digital camera or digital technology that would be used.

But especially regarding the use of motion pictures as an independent art form with no story and no acting in my kind of Abstract Filmmaking, I believe the old paradigm of digital being the same art form as Film is totally invalid and wrong-headed.

One of the fathers of digital motion pictures, George Lucas, has made an analogy about this subject which I totally disagree with. Mr. Lucas has compared the invention of digital to Renaissance painting when canvas, easels and oil paintings started to be employed in 16th Century Venice, freeing painters in Europe from being limited to timely, expensive indoor Frescoes and wood panel painting. I believe this is a fundamentally misguided analogy.

For me a better analogy and comparison is the invention of still photography. Painting images with oils, acrylics, watercolors and other techniques were not abandoned in the 19th Century. Still photography did not replace anything just because it happened to be new technology that was invented after painting was. It was a technology that became useful for many different purposes and eventually became a fine art in its own right with the pioneering work of artistic photographers such as John Edwin Mayall, Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, and Man Ray, existing alongside different kinds of painting and image-making as its own independent and separate art form.

For a few reasons, I disagree with the paradigm that assumes that digital is a new step or addition to the art of photo-chemical filmmaking, just like the addition of color and sound to cinema, and that digital should replace photo-chemical film.

Firstly, this viewpoint negates and short changes both art forms, film as well as digital. To me the more valid and creative ambition of digital art would be the goal of creating looks and techniques and experiences that Film has never achieved and could never achieve. The real valid art of digital should also be to get past story, character, acting, and dialogue and concern itself with purely digital motion-sound experiences instead of just trying to “look like film” - whatever that would mean.

Film has many different kinds of looks, 35mm 16mm 70MM and IMAX, Kodak and Fuji stock – all of these kinds of film can be exposed, filtered, lit, composed, processed, timed and color corrected in so many different ways based on a filmmaker’s style, intent and aesthetic. And I believe digital should not foolishly try to copy any of these unique looks in a hopeless attempt to look the same as film as if there was only one kind of simplistic look that film has – in the first place the visual quality of any art is largely subjective and determined by each individual viewer.

In the second place, regarding this purely technical way of simplistically comparing "visual information storage" - that is, picture “quality”, “resolution”, “sharpness” and “acutance”, “contrast”, and the amount of “visual data” recorded by film, as opposed to digital, no form of digital video has even come close to large-format film stocks like 70MM and IMAX. A 70MM film like BARAKA and an IMAX film like CHRONOS contain unparalleled images that are spectacular, beautiful, and powerful.

But much more importantly to me, even if a form of digital motion pictures could come close to 70MM and IMAX as far as this simplistic technical comparison of “visual information storage” goes, there are so many different kinds of irreplaceably unique artistic qualities and aesthetic effects of film stock, qualities that no other medium or process can have, no matter how hard they try to mimic and copy it.

For instance, I loved shooting my film on 16mm for so many reasons that are much more subtle and truly important to my film’s moods and impressionistic visual effects than any crude simplistic concern with getting the best “high definition” picture quality that I can achieve. While it’s true that high-end digital cameras can record more visual information than 16mm film, the unique qualities of film are what I love and were inherently fundamental to the whole intent of my cinematic concept for “Palms”.

All different kinds of film, whether it be the different film stock formats - 16mm to 70MM, or the 2 different brands - Fuji and Kodak, or whether it be the different film processes and materials from past eras and from different manufacturers throughout the whole history of photo-chemical filmmaking, still generally speaking I believe there are certain aesthetic qualities and effects that remain consistent and unique to all these.

I would like to now list the most important of these basic qualities and features that are unique to all photo-chemical film :
The visual texture, warmth, depth, and three-dimensional quality of the different looks that can be achieved when film is handled artistically with technical skill.

The amazing kinetic forcefulness of dynamic moving camera shots and the graceful beauty of camera movement when shot on mechanical film cameras is one of my favorite things about cinema and I have never seen anything on digital that has any of the exhilarating energy, force, or beauty of camera moves and camerawork when shot on real film.

The quality of motion within the frame on film stock is totally different when compared to digital. On film, motion can be choreographed and arranged to amazing effects that I have never seen in any digital moving image.

One of the most sensual, pleasurable and graceful things that can be achieved on film is slow motion imagery when shot in camera, that is when normal “24 frames per second” film is shot at higher frame rates in camera at the time of shooting, like at 48fps or 200fps, and then projected normally for the audience at 24fps. There is so much amazing grace and beauty in this kind of cinematography and I have hated most of the digital motion control effects that I have seen. These digital slow motion shots have looked very different and very weird to me and I have not enjoyed watching them at all.
Also even when films shot on 35mm are transferred to digital intermediates where motion control effects like slow motion and fast motion are applied to the film originated images – as opposed to shooting them at higher or lower frame rates in camera at the time of shooting - I think those are some of the worst looking and boring images I have ever seen in a movie. Particularly the quality of slow motion that is created in the digital intermediate glazes over me and appears flat and inauthentic and lacks any beauty or energy or excitement.
If for no other reason than this unique irreplaceable effect of slow motion when shot in the mechanical camera on film stock at the time of shooting, I would for no other reason stick with film and not shoot on digital.

I also feel that the visual effect of montages and the cut are totally different. On film powerful cuts between two images and whole montage sequences are uniquely thrilling and exhilarating to me and I have never felt these kinds of effects on digital. I believe film has its own language and grammar when it comes to combining and juxtaposing moving images that has to be different than digital motion pictures.

On film when sounds are used in a abstract emotional way that is creatively stylized and non-literal, it is a totally different kind of experience for me than when sounds are creatively used with digital images. There is something totally different and unique about how sound plays off of film images, working with them to create mood, atmosphere, and sensory experience.

For all of these reasons I will always shoot on film. I believe real film stock will always be available and I will do everything I possibly can to support its production and availability into the future. It is a special independent form of art that is different from digital video, it has its own language and grammar, its own looks and effects and techniques, and it is my favorite art form.

Real photo-chemical cinema is only 118 years old and that is nothing. Compared to music, literature, theatre, painting, and other graphic arts, it is still a relatively young, fresh art form that deserves to be available to artists as a form of expression forever.

The historical fact that film was invented before digital video is to me arbitrary and incidental. If things were the other way around, if film had been invented just now after digital imagery had existed for the last 118 years, I would still be shooting only with film after not having had any passion for motion pictures when they were available only as a digital art form.

I believe digital video should be a separate, exciting, new art form that is completely valid when it is being used for its own unique textures, looks, language and grammar to create special moods, effects, and experiences that nothing else can create, experiences that could not be felt if digital video did not exist in the first place.

To me, the real new step in the evolution of motion picture film is the 48fps process known as SDS-70. SDS-70 is a spectacular new large-format 70MM process with its own special cameras that can shoot 48fps in addition to 24fps and then each frame is printed twice and a special computer-controlled film projector projects the images at an astonishing rate of 90 frames per second(which by the way completely makes up for the quality loss of “the flicker effect” of traditional film projectors where a moment of black appears in-between every film frame).

This exciting new process SDS-70 is the next horizon, the next step in filmmaking technology, not digital. It is what I believe can be truly compared to adding sound and color to movies.

Doug Graves
2400 E. Pleasant Valley Rd.
Oxnard, CA 93033 

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