The Disappearance of Film － Interview with Philippe-Alain Michaud
(Philippe-Alain Michaud is Curator of the Department of Film at the National Museum of Modern Art -Centre Georges-Pompidou)
‘Personally, I would think that in ten years, all will be shifted into digital but film archive professionals consider that, from now on, the procedures accelerated and that we must envision the transition in a very short term.’
―― Philippe-Alain Michaud (quoted from this interview)
Exhibition view of ‘Movement of Images : Cinema, Art’ exhibition curated by Philippe-Alain Michaud for the Pompidou Center, 2006. The exhibition represents an example of transforming traditional film works into digital formats to create new experience of film-viewing : no longer fixed on the seats of the movie theater, the viewers become flâneurs/strollers in the galleries. Photo – Sylvie Lin
Q. People talk about the disappearance of film(1) which would take place in three years. Can you explain the phenomenon and how we envision the future of film ?
A. Tacita Dean, internationally renowned artist who makes films exclusively with 16 mm, has published a letter on the internet that warns of the disappearance of the last laboratories in England that still make film prints. For her next exhibition in the Tate Modern in London(2), instead of publishing a catalogue, the artist asked curators, critics and artists who use film to send a text or a statement about the disappearance of film.
Laboratories in the world close one after another. Fewer and fewer laboratories develop films, especially in the formats for amateurs or those which are known as such (Super-8, 16 mm). Besides, it becomes impossible to find film for shooting and the choice becomes more and more restrained. The Super-8 has been the first to disappear ; now the 16 mm is in the course of extinction whereas the 35 mm is menaced in turn.
As for commercial movie theaters, in Paris for example, they have stopped distributing films of 35 mm and shifted to digital films : today, we no longer see film being projected except in the independent film theaters (salles d’art et d’essai)(3), the museums and the film archives. In a couple of years, films will even be distributed from servers : we no longer need projector operator. Besides, there is no longer any reason for movie theaters to continue to exist : they will forever be replaced by home theaters. The professionals of film archives are certainly very pessimist with regards to the future of film, whether it is film of shooting or that of impression. Personally, I would think that in ten years, all will be shifted into digital but film archive professionals consider that, from now on, the procedures accelerated and that we must envision the transition in a very short term.
Q. There will not be any production of film at all ?
A. Certainly, we must distinguish between film in black & white and film in color. We could conceive that there will always be a small production of film in color for the needs of the art market for artists who continue (or begin) to work with film. Therefore, there will be a demand in exactly the same way that the vinyl exists in the music market because of the DJs and the culture of mix(4). But if film in black and white is quite simple to produce, film in color, on the contrary, is much more complex and this makes it necessary to have a chain of production which is so heavy that it’d not be viable economically except that it is supported by an industry whose existence does not depend solely on the needs of the art market.
So if we’re optimist, we can imagine that small structures continue to develop and even to develop films in black and white at a quite hand-made level. But for film in color, we’d certainly have to accept the conditions of the digital.
Q. What are the major differences between film and the digital ? Are the qualities of the image on the two backup materials comparable ?
A. For the moment, between silver prints and digital film, there exists a gap in quality except in the case of digitalization of very high definition associated to very sophisticated types of projectors which are therefore costly. Only such equipments can conserve the analogic dimension of image (appearance of the grain, veritable darkness, obvious contrasts, veritable depth of field…). But while the digital becomes prevalent, the projection often remains far inferior to the standards of silver prints (for example, once we approach the screen, we see the interwoven scanned lines appear) and the result is acceptable only on plasma screens.
This difference in nature brings about a series of stylistic differences. Artists or filmmakers working with film must integrate a major constraint regarding the shortage that is constitutive of the filmic experience. Since film is costly, and that we cannot shoot unlimitedly, we must cut at a certain point. The genius of silver prints is probably at the side of montage/editing whereas the genius of the digital is situated rather at the side of the object : it lets the object deploy in its temporality. Film is more activist ; the digital is more contemplative.
When we shoot in digital, we see immediately the images we will obtain and there is no latency, whereas with film, it is only after the shooting and when we project the rushes that we discover the result. Besides, in the system of film, there is the advantage of mechanically accessing the equipment regarding both the camera and the projector which are supposed to be under our control. When the system is broken, we can disassemble and reassemble the machine only with a little technical know-how. On the contrary, the digital material is totally opaque. From now on, the technique becomes completely disassociated from the usage. No filmmaker capable of shooting in digital and knows therefore the techniques of shooting in this way can fix a digital camera. The technicians (i.e. the engineers) and the practitioners belong to two separate parties.
Film belongs to the analogic culture : it functions image by image and each image is constituted of multiple parts. It is a collection of unities. In an image of film, a zone can disappear ; there can be a trace of scratch, a stain, a solarized part… In brief, there can be derivatives of infinite degrees stemming from each situation, while with the digital, the logic is binary : it is there or it is not there.
Q. Will the disappearance of film result in the disappearance of certain kinds of filmic practices/experiences in which film as backup material plays a central role ?
A. In fact, a certain number of works are completely inconceivable in digital terms ; these works could not have existed and will not be able to exist without film as the backup material. For example, Nam Jun Paik’s ‘Zen for Film’ (1964) is unthinkable in digital terms : without the transparent leader that acquires a patina as it ages, that becomes scratched and contains dust, the film does not exist. In the same manner, it is impossible to think in digital terms the scratch film realized by means of incisions directly applied in the emulsion. These films will disappear along with the disappearance of film : they are linked to a certain historic state of techniques and this belongs undoubtedly to the history of form,- nothing escapes the cycles of generation and of corruption.
The film is not the first medium to disappear from the history of representations. Today, we can no longer paint with oil. But the oil painting has existed and because it has existed, it is in a way, eternal. And in the afterlife of its material disappearance, it will remain inscribed in a series that articulates all the forms the ones to the others in the history of representations. It is the same for the film : when there will no longer be any trace of film, the silver prints will remain inscribed, like a phantom, in the history of representations.
Q. How do artist react to the tendency of the digital ? Will they change their approaches and develop new issues ?
A. Today, we see filmmakers or artists who have always used the 35 mm or the 16mm shift to the digital for economic or pragmatic reasons but they conserve their cinematic style or reactions within the digital system. All that we can expect is that in the frame of the digital creation and production, the language and the gestures of film is conserved and that in ten years, we can obtain, in the digital, a restoration of image comparable to that of silver prints : however, there will remain films like Nam June Paik’s ‘Zen for film’ or ‘Rheinmetall Victoria’(2003) (of Rodney Graham) which will no longer be able to function because they are structurally linked to the medium.
Among the artists who have worked with film since long, before ending up shifting towards the digital, we must certainly name Mark Lewis. his films consistently realized in 35 mm were shown in digital in a dematerialized form ; the usage of film was therefore linked to conditions of shooting, to a kind of ideal of spontaneity. The duration of film realized in sequence shots corresponded to the duration of the magazine of the camera, like it was already the case of films by Lumière brothers at the origins of cinema.
To realize his latest films, Mark Lewis has used a camera of very high definition that allows him to obtain a quality that is identical to that of silver prints but changes radically the system of shooting and of production. This produces an extension of the duration of films whose structure becomes complex. Mark Lewis is one of the artists-filmmakers who has undertaken the reinvention of a history of images in motion which would return to the origin of cinema in order to re-inscribe such history in the art history. In shifting to the digital, he moves away from the origin of cinema and paradoxically, returns to the history of cinema understood as a collection of narratives. It is an interesting evolution.
Q. As curator of a collection of film, what do you think of the transition of film towards the digital on the aspect of conservation ?
A. I think that we must eventually give up the conservation on the backup material of film and conserve everything in digital : we will stock all the information on hard-discs. But this will be a great stranger : things will age and we shall reproduce and recopy these hard-discs permanently. In fact, for conservation, the archivists consider that film is more stable and more economic, but the lobby of the digital is extraordinarily strong.
In addition, there is the question of renewing digital formats. We will have to update the standards incessantly. And the phenomenon will accelerate: the more the time passes, the more ephemeral the formats are. Therefore we will be obliged to reproduce permanently and more and more rapidly.
The position that the curators can take is simply to try to accompany the movement – whether it is positive or negative -, and to conserve what already exists in the best possible way in using techniques currently in operation. But I think that it would be dangerous to tense up about preserving film in refusing the digital. We must be prepared for the conversion and accompany it, and save what we can save in film (i.e., the black and white).
As far as the acquisitions are concerned, in principle, we purchase the films in their original format with an internegative whereas the New Media Department (of the National Museum of Modern Art – Centre Georges-Pompidou) purchases video and digital works. In the 1980s, there existed a real cultural divergence between the video and the film. But at the end of the 1980s, the tendencies converged again. Today, the digital is as much the destiny of film as that of video and there is no longer veritable reason to distinguish the areas.
Q. On the aspect of exhibition, will the digital impose a dependence on the equipments ?
A. For the moment, the costs of satisfying technical standards for exhibitions are very high. I’m not convinced that the digital is already cheaper than film. The digital formats which represent qualities of the 35 mm, – to which we shall add the price of projectors, – cost more than film. But the price gets down regularly and soon we will find ourselves in an economically viable situation. This will eventually allow the experimental films and artists’ films to be re-inscribed massively in the context of exhibitions.
(Interview made in May 2011, Paris. Translated from French by Sylvie Lin. Proofread by P.-A. Michaud)
1. Unless specified, the term ‘film’ in the text means strictly the film footage as it is differentiated from mediums such as video or digital formats.
2. The exhibition is entitled The Unilever Series: Tacita Dean, from 11th October 2011 to the 11th March 2012.
3. ‘Salle/cinéma Art et Essai’ is a kind of movie theater in France which corresponds to specific criteria in order to promote independent cinema ; it receives subvention from the government.
4. In terms of music.
(Originally published on Art Taipei Forum Media, 2011/10/05. http://www.atfm.asia/en/article.php?id=80)