Digital Video: A Rotterdam Talk

by Jon Jost

DV--the small format digital video, released a few years ago as a consumer item, intended by its manufacturers as a kind of up-scale variant of Hi-8, meant basically for home-movie makers with deep pockets--is already much in use in the professional world, from television news-gathering, to corporate videos, documentary production, and even in the supposedly more demanding world of feature fictions: already made, marketed, and showing transferred to film in local cinemas are such films as Lars von Trier's The Idiots, Vinterberg's Celebration, and Hal Hartley's Book of Life, to mention the better known ones. Behind them will be a flood of others, already announced on the internet and elsewhere. My own adamantly uncommercial, and hence unshown outside the limited festival circuit, and thus far unbought, London Brief, showed here last year.

Despite the confusions of other similar formats--DVCAM, DV PRO, Digital Beta--something clearly is upon us. I would like here to discuss a bit of just what this is that is upon us, taking it from the most elementary aspects and on from there to its many potential implications. For for those already familiar with the technical aspects, forgive me for a quick, simplified, run-down on this for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the realm of video.

So, first:  What is it about DV that makes it different from previous video formats, and what is it that makes it in some ways similar or equivalent to film?

Very briefly:

Earlier video formats whether Beta SP or, more familiar to most people, VHS or Hi 8, were analog processes, in which at each stage of being copied--as in editing or the addition of effects--quality (measurable in technical terms, as well as to your eyes and ears) was lost. The professional formats, such as Beta SP were such that this loss is virtually unnoticeable, at least through a handful of replications. Studios for editing were systematized to minimize one's distance from the original, with time-coding, multiple recorders, mixers, all of the highest quality and organised with a kind of redundancy to allow one to step as little away as possible from the original material. Numerous aspects, particularly dealing with video effects, were shunted through digital computer systems for this function. In the professional world thus analog degeneration was minimized, such that to the viewer it remained virtually invisible. It did not do so, however, to the accountants as on-line editing with all the--in biz terms--bells and whistles included, can run up to thousands of dollars per hour. This reality spawned off-line editing, a simplified system where you edit at home (your office) and once you know what you want to do, you go to the on-line studio, editing decision list (EDL) at hand, and rush through, going back to the original or as close as possible to it, and in a big rush cram through your work as fast as possible adding effects from simple dissolves, fades, and color and contrast corrections, to much more complex multiple layerings, shifts in timescale and the ubiquitous flipping flying images of the digital EFX boxes. Back to the accountants, though:  The bottom line is that to have this quality one pays heavily. Hence the half million and million dollar 30 second ad. Anyone who has been to a plush editing suite, with attendants popping in every 15 minutes with offers of coffee, etc., will understand the dynamic.

At the other end of the scale, anyone who has transfered VHS to VHS, or Hi8 to Hi8 or VHS is familiar with the drastic drop in quality that happens with each copy. This in turn generated its own convoluted production logic to do off-line editing on the cheap, and then to bump only the necessary material up to higher quality Beta SP, again to do a quickie on-line edit. The point being to lose as little quality as possible while originating in a cheaper format. To put this in very tangible terms for those unfamiliar with it: a Beta SP camera costs from $40,000 to $70,000, depending on which, where, and when. A VHS or Hi8 camera costs $800 to $1500. And similar shifts of economic scale operated down to recorders, editing boards, etc. Thus the shift from professional video to home video represents both a drastic jump in financial terms, as well as technical and aesthetic terms.

As a consequence few genuinely artistically minded people were much attracted to the low-end realm, and the high end was so costly that it was consigned to well-paid corporate ends, advertising, industrials, etc., and in a sense became tainted with such associations. Additionally the high costs, and willful professionalism--meaning priest-like mumbo-jumbo obscurantism around lots of electronically based acronyms--tended to make all but the most technically minded stay away.  Reading journals dealing with electronic imagery is for the engineering-minded only; for the rest, one's eyes glaze over quickly and one submits to the $500 an hour expert to negotiate through the alleged complexities of it all. Or, as largely happened, a large sector of people simply stayed away--filmmakers mostly, who in turn adopted a certain snobbism in which video was and for most still is a secondary, lesser, inferior format unworthy of their most serious creative selves. This mythology remains alive and kicking in the film world, mostly among people unfamiliar (and not wishing to spend the time and energy to bother to gain familiarity) with electronic media. I'd have to say in passing that unfortunately the quality of so-called video art in the past few decades is such that it will be difficult to shake the bad reputation already acquired.

At this point, Sony and others introduced DV, which they imagined, evidentally, to be a modest improvement on Hi8: little cameras, improved aesthetic and technical qualities, but, well, intended for home-movie makers, wedding shooters and the like. Their error.

DV, digital video, is a quantum jump beyond previous video--so much so that one might well think of dumping the word "video" with all its blurred reds, scuzzy scan lines, jaggies, and other signifiers, and finding a new name: maybe electronic cinema, or digital film, or... or anything but the awful word "video" and all its historical baggage.

In technical terms, which are also aesthetic terms, the shift to digital instead of analog format has resulted in some of the following:

the virtual elimination of scan-lines and their off-shoots, jaggies, resulting in an image which is almost devoid of customary "video" indications.

a far more stable control over color and contrast, such that the image approaches the latitude of film

and, most importantly, a virtual (I emphasize this because for technical reasons I won't elaborate on here, it isn't quite 100% the case) a virtual absense of degeneration in the process of replication which occurs in analog video processing--of which more in a moment.

These factors, coupled with big advances in other aspects of electronic presentation - better monitors, very good video projectors which do such things as split scan lines or in digital ways "correct" video anomalies such as jaggies, not to mention digital sound - have combined with the qualities of DV to induce a profound shift in the total world of image-sound production.

Distilled down to crude terms the combination of the technical capacities of DV, the projection systems existent, the broadcasting systems existent, coupled to the financial realities, has incurred a veritable earthquake in the media industry. It is a shake-up which has far more profound implications than normal advances in technology, and was certainly not intended by the manufacturers: Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi and all certainly did not imagine or intend that the major broadcasting organisations would run out and buy their DV systems, and have since attempted, largely in vain, to make DV-like but allegedly better, and far more costly replacements--like DVCAM, DV Pro, etc.--be the standard for these bread and butter clients. They certainly did not imagine that the likes of Lars von Trier and others would run out and shoot features with these "toys." And, rustling loudly in the background they are working to cover their error with the imminent introduction of HD (High Definition) video, which will of course supercede and presumably, at least on the "professional" side, eliminate DV. In a few years.

But, for the moment DV is here, along with accompanying computer all-digital editing systems, from the low-end version I have (a PC 400Mhz with 128 RAM, 26 Gigs and MiroDV300 card, Premiere editing software) on up to some very fancy and somewhat costly other systems, from AVID to other digital editing suites. And what does this mean?

It means the demise of 16mm as a viable format, regardless of the desires of some in the filmworld that it should continue - it means this not because DV is "better," "equal" or anything like that; it means this because for most users of 16mm, who long ago shifted to video formats, DV is more than adequate and in many ways better suited to their needs, and in any case far far more economical, and thus the economic background which supported 16mm has already died away. It is just a matter of a short bit of time before Kodak and Fuji turn off the life-line and cease making filmstock.

It means that when using this much improved version of "video" the analog problems of loss of quality in processing the material - to say in ordinary editing, or in complex effects - is essentially eliminated.

It means that to make very high quality and very variable imagery, suitable for a home TV screen, or a big cinema screen, along with accompanying sound, the basic production costs have plummeted to about as low as one's imagination cares to make it: to cite from purely personal and direct experience, the cost of London Brief, which runs 90 minutes, was--exclusive of the cost of the camera and editing equipment--around $1000 or less; the cost of Nas Correntes De Luz, showing this year, was well under that. In film an approximation of either of these would have cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars realm, and, needless to say, I would not have even thought to make them, much less have actually carried them out.

To boil it down to its most elementary level, DV places, for a relatively small investment of from $7,000 to whatever you wish to spend, a production capacity of technical and aesthetic possibilities which only a few years ago would cost more like a half million or more dollars. Or, from another viewpoint, using the ordinary expenses of ordinary video or filmmaking, for the cost of a few laboratory processes or on-line studio days, one can literally buy the same production capacity, from A to Z, as well as having a top-notch computer for other functions.

So what does this mean?

Cynically, it means that the media industry is scrambling fast to make DV seem amateur, undesirable, and no competition. It does this with derogatory propaganda in its trade journals, in its quick effort to displace DV with a more costly and controllable HDTV, with spending more mega-bucks to make extravagant Hollywood spectaculars, and with hyping still more the cost and value of obscenely overpaid actors and directors and everything that goes with it. Who would want to look at some no-cost film with a cast of nobodies and no exploding buildings, etc.?

It also means that the media industry is scrambling fast to make sure that it overwhelms whatever distribution system might exist that just might be amenable to those making those no-cost films with casts of nobodies and no exploding buildings, just in case some nobodies might be interested in seeing such things. Question not: the industry will do its very best to squeeze out any little spaces into which its products might be squeezed in. In Americanese: money talks, bullshit walks. And as far as the business is concerned, DV is bullshit, and dangerous bullshit for that.

And then, on the more positive side, what does DV mean??

It means that there will be a literal flood of new things made, things that simply use DV as a poor man's 16mm, conventional stuff made really cheap. For the moment this is humming on the Internet. Read Res magazine; check out WEB cinema. It means that many other things, akin to the underground cinema of the 60's, will arrive, and like that movement it will be 90% or more mindless idiocy courtesy of the low-cost and ease of use that lets almost anyone "express themselves." Out of the inevitable mountain of shit a handful of diamonds will emerge, as will many new aesthetics, which, like the innovations of the 60's underground, will surely be quickly swiped and co-opted by Hollywood, the advertising industry and MTV alike.

It also means that a new artisanal media will emerge, a media relieved of the past few decades of so-called "independent" cinema in which the prime discussions were about how to find, raise, hustle, make, etc. money money money; how to satisfy the interests of those interested in money money money, whatever masks and cloaks were employed to disguise the ugly underlying interest. It means that a small little pocket of breathing space has opened again for those whose interests are something other than just money money money, a pocket which has wide technical and aesthetic ranges, and which costs in industry terms virtually nothing. Even the equipment buy-in is close to nothing, and once over that modest hurdle, the cost is as low as your interests and imagination wish to make it.

It means that new aesthetics will emerge, aesthetics that use and take advantage of the numerous qualities of digital manipulation - you can already see this coming from Hollywood in its grosser forms - morphing films, little digital bodies falling into the fractal waves of the Titanic's wake, happy little ants and big digital dinosaurs frolicking about in frantic pursuit of, if not happiness, at least your ten bucks. And for sure you can and will see it in far more sublime forms, done by real artists who perceive and work to make the very real capacities of this media function for other than the most obvious of purposes: you can and will see genuine and lasting art emerge, though you'll have to wade through an awful lot of awful shit to do so. Digital video, for all its hide-bound detractors clutching hard to the virtues of celluloid, fully has the capacity to make full-fledged real art. And it can do so in many senses more readily than film in so far as it relieves one of the tedious, unhappy and ultimately distorting and destructive process of chasing the almight buck merely for the chance to make something, whether good or bad. The vast amounts of time and energy spent looking for "production funds" can be spent working on the actual process of making things, of learning, of experimenting instead of on the dubious process of talking to people who know nothing about art, and only how to combine sources X, Y and Z of money, while scraping off their due percentage--people who posture a knowledge of media but normally have none at all. Especially when the sources of that money are all locked into a very narrow, conventional idea of what is desired: literary-based narrative plot stories about love, violence and stupidity. Turn on your TV for some examples.

And, once these things are made, what then?

Presently the normal run of things means that--assuming one seeks as most do, to be distributed and exhibited--one must, by the logic of the film industry transfer one's digital whatever to film. At present, and for sure to remain, a modestly expensive process - from $20 - 30,000 for a 90 minute work. I have been several times asked to make such an expenditure on my less than $1000 LONDON BRIEF, and needless to say, said "no." It costs far less than $20-30,000 to buy a very good video projector capable of filling a cinema screen, not just with my work, but with everything which will follow.

Other logics also prevail:

transfers result in a loss, not a gain, of quality.

transfers result in an easily damaged celluloid print weighing in 35mm some 20 or more kilos, and in 16mm some 7 kilos (also in 16mm stripped of most sound quality, including reduction of stereo to mono), making shipping much more costly than a tape weighing less than one kilo

transfers result in a print costing a minimum of $800 or so instead of a tape costing $30 or less.

And so on and on: the only logic supporting the transfer of DV to film is the logic of inertia in a business which thus far refuses at the exhibition end to provide state-of-the-art video projection and instead imposes upon the producer/artist the cost of a transfer to film which exceeds by far the cost of buying a video projector. However this may quickly change as Sony has begun what is clearly a pilot program for electronic cinemas in Tokyo, and Hollywood recently literally bought into video projection systems. Many festivals and art-venues have already provided themselves with video projections systems.

In a short time the requirement for transferring DV or other video/digital formats to film will cease.

And then what?

No, it will not mean no and lo-budget valhalla; it will not mean that a great democratic vista of the people's work will be available at your neighborhood Bijou. It will probably mean in fact the opposite: that vested media interests will fight tooth and nail to suppress, wipe-out and destroy such a thing, though most likely via the usual route: buying - literally - with offers most cannot refuse, anyone whose talents show a disposition for the current hot fashions, to say whatever the going stylistic version of hot young sexy things with a dash of violence, romance, and happy endings, dressed in the latest digital style: of late this seems to be tilting left-right shooting, slurred slo-mo blurred imagery, zap zooms and whatever else one throws in the mix, usually with little concern or genuine aesthetic sense of control. It's there, so like Everest, one does it.

A gloomy picture? Yes, a bit. I have been around long enough to have gone through a number of these technologically based coulda been shoulda been routines: when laws for local cable were passed, when satellite transmission offered to open the doors to myriad broadcast channels, on up to today promise of digital TV, optical cables capable of 100s of channels, each offering the tantalizing prospect of access. Well, we saw it all before and there is a rule of thumb one might concoct: if it is broadcast, the big powers--government and/or money (they are usually the same thing) will buy it and run it; if it is very narrow cast, depending on the where the when and the why, probably it'll be left alone--to die. Witness community cable in America; witness the professional wrestling, sales of dubious gold chains, of this and that which floods the cable stations and the internet--even if it is narrow-cast, it'll quickly be occupied by financial interests. Witness the audience percentage of the terribly mismanaged ARTE in Germany: point zero something percent of the audience (although this has more I think to do with the ineptness of the programming administration than with the seemingly philistine audience--even they can spot the difference between the pretensions offered as "art" by ARTE and the real thing, which might just pick up a better percentage). Broadcast is power, and power--financial, political--will step in where broadcast exists; narrow-cast is, if cleverly manipulated, more of the same, so the same forces will try to step in to control it, though perhaps with less energy and investment.

Still one may anticipate a flowering of cafes, new exhibition venues, direct DVD sales, and myriad other ways in which new communication built around DV and its associated systems, will find their way to an audience--for better and worse. Among the doubtless vast array of things to come will be as usual mostly junk, a quick tilt to commercialization (i.e., the usual commodities which can be sold: sex, violence, cultish quirkiness as a marketing tool, etc.), flat out garbage, and, yes, here and there some genuinely interesting and lasting art.

This new media and all its advantages will result in something new. It will not however alter the basic element, the human psyche and how it works. It will generate many new things in a world in which there is never really anything new under the sun.

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