With the advent of broadband technology, streaming media and digital projection of filmed entertainment, there has been a current of distress voiced in various cinema publications regarding the death of film, as we have known it. While many independent film producers hail the digital revolution as a democratizing force that will level the playing field for them in their attempts to gain an audience in the face of a marketplace hegemony long enjoyed by Hollywood and its’ boutique-indie spawn, there will indeed be something considerable lost when the term motion pictures no longer refers to flickering images on celluloid. (I would argue that the notion of greater access to viewers through digital distribution is as much of an illusion as is the movement of images we perceive in the succession of still photography that is movie technology, but that’s not my focus here.)  This has as much to do with science as it does the culture of cinema.

More and more of the projects screening at the various film fests I’ve recently attended are being presented on video, most of these originating on video. When the subject matter is documentary in nature this presents no great problem because the inherent drama of real stories is what engages attention; it is in the arena of fiction films, wherein a fabricated scenario purports to be an artful simulation of reality, that the method of pictorial realization is a more critical factor – video being much less attractive and persuasive than film. To fully appreciate the distinction between film and video requires a consideration of optics as well as human biology.

Vision is the process by which a light-sensory organ detects the reflection of light – composed of energy particles called photons – off of any surface. The light source to which humans are evolutionarily adapted being the sun, people instinctively associate light with heat, as well as other properties characteristic of the suns’ rays. (By contrast, there are organisms on earth adapted to different sources of light, such as the bioluminescence emitted by creatures of the benthic depths of the sea.) Though the fiery, gaseous eruptions on its’ surface are constant, solar flares, sunspots and the gradual aging of the sun combine to create an essentially imperceptible glimmering quality in sunlight, even on cloudless days. (The suns’ nearness to us blinds us to this phenomenon, but look in the sky on a clear night and the sparkle of planets and distant stars demonstrates this shimmering aspect.) When you’re in a movie theater the images being projected alternate with black strips on the film between them, so you’re really in the dark for about half of the viewing time – which is fundamentally like earth being in the black theater of space, intermittently illuminated by the sun; that we blink our eyelids on a regular basis to moisturize the eyes increases the flickering quality of light inherent in dwelling on earth or being in a movie house.

Just as photons of light emanate from the sun in a manner that is not precisely regulated, the technology that is the basis of motion pictures is also not a digital medium, with clusters of silver nitrate capturing the lights and shadows and colors of photographed images on film. In this way the surface data of film exposed to light mirrors the fractals of texture on the surface of the objects that reflect light, thus creating a truer perceptual illusion of reality in a photographic image than in a representation achieved through scanning an object or scene with a beam of light pulsated through a digital matrix – the essence of video technology. Even when a videoed image is transferred to film, the telltale arrangement of light in a screened pattern is belied through a characteristically fuzzy quality seen around the depth and edges of objects in the frame. High-definition DV is an improvement, but since with video and other electronic projection systems there isn’t the flickering effect you get when watching a film – rather, a constant beaming of light – the impact of the images is quite different.

Why this matters is that there are considerably different brain wave patterns in people when watching video as opposed to film. Ironically, the two media mimic the two principal processes that occur in the body while transferring sensory input into what the brain assembles as recognizable in the visual cortex. While the shutter of a camera acts like a blinking eyelid allowing light into the eye, once photons hit rod and cone cells (the photoreceptors of the eye) a biochemical reaction takes place wherein light energy becomes an electrical signal that travels through the optic nerves to the visual cortex – a passage of reconstitution suggestive of how digital encryption assorts optical phenomena into an arrangement of ones and zeroes for electronic transmission. So, to speak of a film as being “warmer” than a video is really a tacit acknowledgment of how the human eye (the arena of sensory reception) is the model for photography whereas the neural pathways leading to the brain (the arena of sensory transmission) are the model for how video deconstructs and encodes visual information.

As with all developments in areas of human commerce, the economic advantages to producing work on video should assure the ascendancy of this format as well as advancements in the technology, which naturally leads to certain questions about how these innovations might be put to use. In order to align humans’ visual perceptions of the world with the digital networks we’ll come to use to exchange information, might not there be contact lenses, microchips or other devices implanted in the eyes which would more easily facilitate absorption of digital content? If so, why couldn’t the spectrum of vision be expanded to include ultraviolet and infrared rays of light without the use of special goggles or devices, as are currently required? Considering today’s biotechnology of artificial joints, heart valves, cochlear implants and the like, perhaps someday you’ll be able to pop a tape of a film into your brain or other visual receptor, not unlike Videodrome. The means to transfer data to people through digital portals would seem more efficient on the surface of it, but might also allow for widespread abuse of broadcast or microcast suasion, bypassing the emotional engagement people associate with more traditional ways of seeing things – a potentiality to be none too sanguine about for truly independently-minded filmmakers.