From reality to illusion

Web adaptation of the introductory essay for the book:

"Rarely has reality so much needed to be imagined."
Chris Marker, French documentary maker
This book is not about film. Not simply about what we see on screens and monitors. Not just about watching, alone in the dark or together with friends. This is, fundamentally, a book about how we can experience moving image now and in the future.

A century of cinema has passed, and as it has done so, so too has the torch from Lumiére to Méliès; from realism to illusion. The way we are now able to modify and alter images means that everything from subtle irrealities to full-blown fantasy, intimate documentary, and devastating new forms of drama can be portrayed on screen. For the first time in history, if it can be imagined it can become a 'film'.

But between the hegemony of Hollywood moviemaking and arthouse alternatives, very rarely are we able to glimpse the way forward for cinema. The digitization of cinema means elements can be fused and altered by the processor, blurring the lines previously dividing these established schools and their traditions. The 800lb gorilla of moving image, the feature film, is increasingly coming under attack. It needs to shape up, mutate, and evolve if it is to stay relevant in a universe of changing hardware, content, and, ultimately, the thing that matters most: viewer expectations. This is an exceptional time of transition, offering an opportunity to create transformational works. More and more filmmakers are choosing to push their work in this direction.

The End of Celluloid charts and encompasses the array of visions being made possible, and the range of genuinely progressive cinematic works available. In researching this book, I found plenty of material concerned with film criticism, academic analysis, and technical manuals, but was astounded to discover no accessible commentary on this unique time for this dominant visual form. I would hope that this book goes some way to putting this situation right. Cinema's time of transition presents a chance to blend the younger digital arts with 100 years of moving image: a period of flux in which to create new forms of filmmaking that are between experimental and current mainstream ways of seeing.

In 1988, I read a book called Dictionary of the Khazars. The author, Milorad Pavic, labelled it a "lexicon novel"; a series of interweaving fables, stories, and tales made up as dictionary entries. This "hypernovel" was an early form of hypertext of which most of us are now absolutely familiar as the universal navigation of the Internet. The richness and sense of discovery I found in this non-linear way of telling stories changed the way I fundamentally looked at the medium, and how I have looked at all media since. I've been a film critic and created a pioneering digital film festival in search of a similar discovery in moving image. I haven't found that monumental breakthrough just yet, but the works featured in this book give me confidence that it is just around the corner.

How do you rebel against an invasion of an increasingly uniform vision, of a world of double whammies, three-act structures, and happy endings you can predict from the opening scene? Established filmmakers are finding spaces within current entertainment structures, through new uses of technology, and opportunities afforded by DVD and other digital distribution. Other moving imagemakers outside these structures are creating visual experiences through computer games, and by discovering alternative avenues through "nanotainment" and micro-movie forms. Viewers are responding to these new choices because they still want to be lost in a story, to be surprised by it and to be entertained. The safe commercial formulae are breaking down, as current genres have become over-familiar, tired. The old media giants are fighting back by gambling on a new breed of spectaculars and blockbuster event movies. Time will shortly tell whether this is a band-aid applied to a gaping wound or if they can adjust quickly enough to engage with the new narrative worlds that are non-linear, emergent, and extensible.

Over a century, cinema has neatly defined itself into genres, neat boxes of ideas. The U.S. Library of Congress helpfully lists these in the moving image genre form guide. The fact it was last updated in February 1998 gives some indication as to the usual rate of institutional response in keeping up with the pace of change. These genres, even specifically subdivided for experimental, advertising, and animation areas don't feel adequate anymore. This, of course, is in no small part due to the speeding up of creative advances stimulated by digital ways of working.

Essentially, film is steadily being superseded by a strata of digitally-inflected moving image. "Digital video strikes me as a new platform wrapped in the language and mythology of an old platform," notes the novelist William Gibson in an article for Wired magazine. "Lamb dressed as mutton, somewhat in the way we think of our cellular systems as adjuncts of copper-wire telephony. The way we still 'dial' on touchpads. We call movies 'film,' but the celluloid's drying up." [5]

I see this stratum of moving image emerging out of the basic forms of film and TV, as 'advanced moving image'. As it adapts to utilise contemporary digital technologies, hardware and software, existing descriptions become more problematic, less accurate, not adequately explanatory. The Innuits urban myth has them having several hundred words for snow, but in a global culture so profoundly captivated by motion pictures, we have astonishingly few to describe our modes of viewing, and these types of advanced moving image. The End of Celluloid suggests a start to the creation of a modern and accessible lexicon for this domain.

Digital video allows us the promise of truth in the image like never before; it conceals and reveals artifice at one and the same time, and holds the promise of myriad ways of seeing. Filmmaking in the digital age allows us all to create and experience fantasy worlds that are as real as the world we live in. It is for us each to decide whether these encounters with moving image are our own personal route to subjugation or sublimity. This is the paradox and pull of the form. Moving image is being morphed, bent, and warped along x,y and z-axes. This is a book about what we deserve to see along these axes—its content serves as half manifesto and half user guide to the next era of filmmaking, and the rise of advanced moving image.


Copyright © 2004 Matt Hanson. Permission to reproduce quotes or sections of this work is given. The citation must be accompanied by details of the book, author, and, if available on the Internet, a link to The End of Celluloid . Alongside this website link, please leave a record of the citation via comments accompanying this entry, trackback, or intel ((at)) visint ((dot)) tv.

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