Digital technology is allowing cinema to capture the human form with unprecedented clarity. In the era of Facebook, face films are astonishingby Mark Cousins / January 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Right from the earliest days of the movies, audiences must have felt like shouting, “Look how much I can see!” The phrase, and its exclamation mark, express the pleasure of discovering new categories of visual experience in cinema: moving-image travelogues of camels at the pyramids or Tsarist splendour in Russia in the late 1890s; close-ups of the luminous faces of something called a movie star in the late 1910s; the sweeping Technicolor fantasies of the 1930s; the “liquid metal” computer-generated effects of Terminator 2 in the early 1990s. The cinema image began as a pale, fuzzy, flickering, monochrome imitation of the brilliance of human sight, and has been marching ever since towards rendering such visual detail on screen.
In recent years, thanks to digital technology, that march has speeded up to the extent that I now want to shout “Look how much I can see!” at least once a year. Today’s shooting and projection technologies have an unprecedented power of visual mimesis. Perhaps speeding cinema will never match the neuro-retinal complexities of actually witnessing an event, but it is getting close.
I say this because I’ve just watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which stars Brad Pitt (pictured, right) as James and Casey Affleck as Ford. As soon as it started, I felt that I was in a forest in Missouri in 1881. The soundtrack buzzed and hummed with the sound of that forest and the imagery was so clear that it felt like someone had washed my windscreen or given me better contact lenses. I was seeing the texture of bark on tree trunks, the weave of the characters’ clothing and the pores in the actors’ skin in remarkable detail.
The technical reasons for this are worth mentioning, because they show that cinema is halfway through its great transition from photochemistry to digital. The movie was shot by Roger Deakins on super-35mm, a method whereby the area of the 35mm negative usually reserved for the soundtrack is instead allocated to the image, allowing about one third more visual information than standard 35mm, still the industry norm. Then the film was scanned on to a computer, creating a digital intermediate. As some of the scenes were shot in low light, this allowed Deakins and his team to improve this intermediate, adding light to faces and…