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The story below was originally published on Theo’s Roundtable, for which I am contributing writer.
The other day, while evaluating a product in my theater, I kicked on David Fincher’s breakout hit, Seven, which, for me, is still one of the best thrillers of all time. I own many copies of the film—seven to be exact—though this particular one was the recent Blu-ray re-release. It wasn’t my intention to watch the good majority of the film but rather only a snippet, as I was supposed to be evaluating another product’s audio performance. But alas I couldn’t help myself because, as good movies have a tendency to do, Seven sucked me in. After a while, I began taking notes not about the sound quality but rather the image itself, noting that for some reason it looked “exceptionally good.” While some may say what I was seeing was merely a result of it being a Blu-ray transfer, for me it went beyond that. There was an organic quality to the image, one that felt “real-real,” versus some hyper-realistic portrayal of real. I know that might not make a great deal of sense but nevertheless it’s how I felt. I began to rack my brain as to why this was the case when I remembered Seven was originally shot on film.
In today’s digitally-dominated age, we’re not supposed to like film, for it is cumbersome, difficult, and, well, old. No doubt digital does have its advantages, but is it somewhat removing the “charm” film possessed? As if spurred on by the smartphone, Instagram revolution, digital film, which once aspired to merely mimic film, has now become a sort of pop-culture facsimile of what we remember film to be. But is it better? I argue not. For practical reasons, I say digital is unequivocally better, but the end result of all that convenience—the visual image—may not be. The human eye is imperfect, and it’s often in imperfection do we find beauty. Digital sensors on the other hand aspire for perfection, for the designers behind these technological marvels don’t want you to miss out on anything. Instead, digital sensors endeavor to show you everything—every nook, cranny, and gruesome detail. As a technical exercise, these sensors are often impressive, but, long-term, we find ourselves actually pining for less.
Take, for instance, a few of the demos I frequented while at CES this past January. Sharp, for example, was showcasing its prototype 8K display by showing various one-off clips captured inside a train yard. The detail was impeccable as the whole image had what looked to be an HDR-style filter applied to “pop” contrast and make the image seem that much more three-dimensional, and without glasses. While this sort of material is good for a show floor, it’s not what we choose to watch long-term. Sure enough, after a few seconds or maybe a minute, even the most impressed viewers soon drifted away—almost disappointingly even after witnessing “the greatest” modern technology had to offer at that moment. While that last observation could be its own special commentary on the effects of a digital culture, one whose shelf-life is measured in seconds or maybe minutes rather than days and years, I found it to be a telling, non-verbal, commentary on content as a whole.
But there are instances where the two—digital and film—work beautifully together…
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