Handicap breeds excellence?

By Razib Khan | April 28, 2012 1:13 am

There’s a wide-ranging story in LA Weekly on the decline of 35mm film. It covers a lot of angles, but this one issue jumped out at me:

No wonder, then, that directors like Christopher Nolan worry that if 35mm film dies, so will the gold standard of how movies are made. Film cameras require reloading every 10 minutes. They teach discipline. Digital cameras can shoot far longer, much to the dismay of actors like Robert Downey Jr. — who, rumor has it, protests by leaving bottles of urine on set.

“Because when you hear the camera whirring, you know that money is going through it,” Wright says. “There’s a respectfulness that comes when you’re burning up film.”

This particular variant of critique of new technologies is very old. It is famously well known that writing and printing both ushered in warnings that these were simply crutches, and might diminish mental acuity. But I’m 99% sure that when bow & arrow become common, some hunters warned that the skills and traditions associated with the atlatl would decay. The piece highlights some genuine advantages of analog over digital. I do not think making filming more difficult is an advantage, to state the obvious.

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  • Daninthai

    It’s strange that Nolan would worry about such a thing. If he wants to retain the use of 35mm film, he just has to use it himself in his own movies. If he chooses to use digital cameras, obviously a single perceived benefit for 35mm is not enough.

  • Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ

    I haven’t fully read through the article (joys of having a saturday morning with a 3 year old). However there does appear to be alot of fear-mongering in it. For example:

    — “Fast-forward to Toy Story 2, which was almost erased from history. Pixar stored the Toy Story 2 files on a Linux machine. One afternoon, someone accidentally hit the delete key sequence on the drive. The movie started disappearing. First Woody’s hat went. Then his boots. Then his body. Then entire scenes.” —

    This just sounds like sloppyness, any IT Dept worth it’s salt would be doing proper backup to tape/offsite on such critical data. That and the list of users who could potentially do a “rm -rf *” would be tiny. Huge amount of FUD going on in that article.

    The moaning about file formats is funny as well. As long as you have a working parser you can open files that are ancient. Of course if you used at least openly documented formats then there should never be an issue.

  • http://www.textonthebeach.com Seth

    I’m reminded of the scenes in Boogie Nights that marked the transition from film to video in the pornography industry. There is some truth to the idea that the difficulties of filming with 35mm breeds excellence. Of course, that’s just putting it the wrong way around. Excellence breeds the use of 35mm film. The prohibitive and expensive nature of working with 35mm or even 16mm–the camera, the lens, the stock–essentially locks out all but the most committed would-be filmmakers. If you’ve gotten your hands on (or your creativity in control of) 35mm film on a shoot, you have proven yourself to be already “excellent” in the eyes of others. Will there be a loosening of standards with the rise of digital filming, being that it’s more forgiving, cheaper, and easier to fix in post? Maybe. But all that means is that perhaps the highest standards and tightest gatekeeping in the industry will no longer be on set but in the editing and effects bays. The most committed (“excellent”) filmmakers may be drawn just as readily to these other areas of production as to assistant director or camera operator positions.

  • Sandgroper

    Yeah, it’s all bollocks – the moaning you hear from any dying industry, thinking of any possible reason why better technology is a ‘big mistake’.

    We have to use film still cameras for forensic investigations, and it’s a pain in the neck.

  • Richard Harper

    Handicap screens for excellence. (Think Zahavi and Zahavi The Handicap Principle.) Sad to say, a lot of talented but too-flaky people try to go into movie making. Financial backers needs ways to screen out those who lack minimal levels of discipline and other important traits that function well in making movies. Eventually perhaps the importance as a fitness-indicator of technical expertise in one area (film) gets replaces by newer areas, but it takes time.

  • Darkseid

    it’s like how a certain group still thinks LPs are the standard. “all those cracks a pops add to the flavor!” i usually mention how they sound pretty bad to me. and i always noticed how much dust and hair were on 35mm films at the theatre, it pretty annoying to this particular viewer.

  • http://www.jimspofford.com Jim Spofford

    I think there is something to this issue in some cases. Sometimes when you take away effort/responsibility from the human mind, it is free to take on other thoughts. Mostly I think this is a net positive for society, but there are arguments that seem to indicate this is not always the case.

    Two examples come to mind, one is the traffic light verses traffic circle argument indicating the increase in cognitive awareness needed to navigate the latter reduces accidents. The second, for me, is when I develop software to handle tedious business processes. After running for a few months, the responsibility for understanding the process starts to evaporate at the operations level. Then when something fails or an unusual “out of specification” event occurs, no one has a clue what to do.

  • marcel

    For Darksied: LPs my ass. The real standard is quarter inch thick disks played on a gramophone with a big horn to project the sound. They couldn’t be easily dubbed or corrected, forcing everyone involved in producing them, both musicians and technicians, to be at the top of their game!

  • Sandgroper

    A similar problem happens with engineering software, but it’s not a reason not to use it. If you don’t permit use of computers there are whole fields of numerical analysis that are just unavailable – no one ever did finite element or finite difference modelling manually, they couldn’t. You just have to screen to make sure the user understands the mathematics, otherwise you’d be winding back 40 years of advances in analytical methods, which would be very detrimental.

    I’d say the test of musicians now is to have to play live.

  • JOnh

    70mm film is even more expensive and makes even cooler movies (IMAX).

  • Harold

    Another example of the supposed discipline inducing effects of handicaps regards the compilation of computer programs. Once, in the days of punched cards, you could only get your program compiled perhaps once or twice a day, with the ability to recompile much more often came arguments that such had a deleterious effect on discipline.

    A quick search did not uncover such an argument as such, but I did find this quote by Alan Kay about Donald Knuth: “…he answered, “When I learned to program, you were lucky if you got five minutes with the machine a day. If you wanted to get the program going, it just had to be written right. So people just learned to program like it was carving stone…””

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #11, i’ve heard the same. it was also given as a reason russian programmers were superior in the 1990s, cuz the computers they had access to during the communist era sucked so bad.

  • AG

    Good old days mindset – classic. For hunting season in USA, bow is the longest, Muzzle loader second, rifle shortest. No atlatl season. Well, it is considered `sport’ to enjoy our primitive skill and instinct.

    If some one missing good old days, they can go out on such sport with tasty benefit.

    Also there is reason that calculator is not allowed for some grade school kids. Internet not allowed for SAT, or other tests since their primitive skills (g) are examed.

  • IA

    The difference between shooting on film and shooting on video is much less than the difference between hunting with a bow and arrow and Atlatl, and the differences are subtler. Video tends to breed self-indulgence in actors and directors (and overloads editors with excess footage), whereas the ten-minute window given by film forces directors and actors to focus and intensify their efforts. Discipline is mandatory for anyone seeking to improve their artistic skills, provided that discipline isn’t crippling, and constraints are a central means of testing and fostering creativity. Any writer who’s worked in journalism, for example, knows that it can be an excellent way of enforcing concision and brevity to one’s prose. Art should not be a democratic process–making it easier just leads to more bad art. The results are already evident in all the sludge online from people who think picking up a camera obviates the need for the hard work inherent in mastering a craft. Technology can also retard artistic progress in movies. Physical comedy has not regained the heights of silent period Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton, and I don’t know anyone who’d claim that the current CGI-driven blockbusters are any better than those of, say, the 60s. Lawrence of Arabia would not be improved with CGI duststorms.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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