The Cellophane Wrapped Image

No wrapper needed

I have often referred, here and elsewhere, to what I call the “cellophane wrapped image” produced by digital video. I mean that both literally (it looks like it is wrapped in cellophane) and metaphorically. Just as a piece of candy can have a shiny wrapper to enhance its appeal, so too contemporary production is “wrapped” in the overly bright, hard-edged image. The results are certainly highly detailed. Whether they capture experience is another matter.

When I first started using HD, I felt that I finally had a technology which combined superior rendering capabilities with ease of use and low expense. Super 8 was affordable, but technically inferior. 16mm looked better, but was always the stepchild to 35mm which, of course, was prohibitively expensive. So yes, digital video offered a lot of advantages, of which I avail myself all the time.

But. It is easy in the flush of enthusiasm for ever slicker imagery (8K anyone?) to overlook or ignore digital tools’ disadvantages. Digital imagery is bright, sharp and clean, but for all its detail, not particularly tactile. It is simply too slick. Each speck of dirt is rendered as one more detail to be displayed, but not experienced.

That is partly because is it not terribly easy to get a softly modulated image in digital images, and I’ve yet to find a post tool that can make an overcast day on video look any better than a gray smear. I miss grain and while, yes, I can add it in post, there is a difference between adding it later and enabling the physical medium and light to work together to stimulate the haptic, thereby adding a physical dimension to cinematic reception. The mistake is to equate fidelity with resolution, as if we polish life with our eyes. In fact, sensuality requires more than seeing every snow flake.

Moreover the perfection of digital tools is both boring and stifling. By having so much done for them, filmmakers who know only digital tools never learn to deal with scarcity, to transcend limitations. The handsome digital image is too easy, it encourages lazy complacency. Which is not to romanticize the ball-busting intractability of celluloid-based production, just to recognize that the difficulties it introduces force filmmakers to think, to devise creative solutions to unanticipated circumstance.

The overly assertive digital image can only glow in imitation of film’s iridescence, never equal it. Optical technicians and perceptual psychologists can no doubt explain why. Speaking as a filmmaker and viewer I’d insist film almost always wins, often because of its very flaws. Perhaps this is why Super 8 is making a comeback. Deeply flawed and primitive the medium may be, but even low-budget silver halides shimmer in response to light; the most expensive phosphors merely glow.

On the other hand, I have no intention of returning to film unless by some miracle it becomes as inexpensive and versatile as digital video. I’ve paid those dues.