Intersecting Art and Technology

This weekend I watched the documentary “Side by Side” which chronicles the state of the “film” part of the film industry and assesses where we now stand with digital workflows. There are some big-name directors and cinematographers contributing to the discussion, with valid opinions on both sides of the debate. It moves along nice and quickly with it’s roughly hour and a half run-time, and it covers not just acquisition, but also visual effects, distribution and storage.

The amazing thing is that it’s already out of date in a way, with new cameras constantly being released and improved, and no discussion at all of high frame rate photography. It touches on Internet-delivery (ie Netflix) as a means of consumption for the public, but not as a replacement for the cinema experience or a first-run distribution avenue.

But for me the thing that the film really crystallised in my head is why editing is the perfect filmmaking job for me – because it requires that you are both an artist and a technician. The technician part of the job is obviously hugely important but to me mostly as an enabler of the artistic part of the job. To me it is important that the films I edit are of a high technical standard (a carry-over from my previous job, when I was delivering for broadcast) but only because technical errors take you out of the movie you’re watching and make you aware of the construction. It’s something that came up again and again in discussions of Final Cut Pro X and the debate over whether it is “professional” – I wondered if it really mattered? As long as it works and your film makes it onto the screen, I’m not sure it does. All editing software, or hardware, back in the day, is just a tool. The person using it is the editor.

However, having said that, it does make me wonder how it would have been if I had been editing film on a flat-bed edit machine. It’s something I’m now unlikely to experience and I can’t help wondering if I’m missing out on something. As Martin Scorsese describes in the documentary, you’d cut your fingers sometimes and as he says with some relish “your blood gets in the film”. I think it would make me more disciplined, and as Anne Coates points out “more considered”. Certainly I’d love to try it at least once, if for no better reason than to experience that piece of movie history for myself.

You still need to see the rushes at a “special time”, as Scorsese calls it, and I agree. With the pressure of ever-tightening deadlines, it’s hard to step back and look at the film as a whole, try seven different ways of cutting a scene, or even just make objective assessments about your footage. So although I’d describe myself as distinctly pro-digital, it’s not all rosy. Archive an storage is still a massive unsolved problem. The fact that digital lets you shoot more and more footage actually makes problems for the editor later on, trying to find the one nugget of gold in a half-hour-plus clip. And it’s not like the post schedules are getting longer to accommodate having shot more.

Celluloid film is still revered as the very best acquisition format (I’m a huge fan of IMAX), but at some point that will change. Editing systems will also change. Just this week saw the release of TouchEdit for the iPad, which puts some of the tactile experience back into editing. Sadly I’m yet to try it as my iPad is too old for it, but there are a couple of great write-ups from Pro Video Coalition and if you’re interested. I’m excited to use these new tools, but nothing will replace the human connection with the story.

That’s the thing about movie-making technology; it doesn’t really matter whether it’s digital or analogue. The only thing that matters is the viewer’s experience.

Side By Side is available from iTunes in the UK now – highly recommended viewing.