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September 2003, Week 4


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Leo Enticknap <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 28 Sep 2003 12:50:58 +0100
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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Kenneth Harrow writes:

>...i hope that this example demonstrates how inadequate a discussion on
>purely technical grounds would be, is, for most of the world.

But I also think it shows the inadequacies of considering a specific
cultural phenomenon in isolation from the specific technical opportunities
and limitations of using specific technologies in specific contexts and, in
this case, a misunderstanding of the technologies themselves.

>...celluloid is dying because of the costs.

Celluloid in fact died around 1950-52.  Film is made of polyester now.

>all that started to change when the first nigerians and then ghanaians
>dared to pick up a video camera [...] in short, digital has saved film in

These statements show a fundamental misunderstanding of these
technologies.  'Video' and 'digital' do not mean the same thing, and
certainly wouldn't have done when Nigerians first picked up a video
camera.  There is a vitally important difference between 'digital [video]'
as in representing a television-compatible signal (i.e. with X lines of
horizontal resolution with a scanning rate of Y and with some mechanism for
separating luminance and chrominance, e.g. PAL or NTSC) and 'digital' as a
means of replacing photographic film with digital data (i.e. a picture size
of X times Y pixels and with a frame rate of Z fps).  I understood the
original enquirer to refer to the latter.

I'm not denying that videotape technology has impacted on developing
countries in a different way to that of the developed world.  But that
doesn't undermine the validity of the comparisons I was making, which
related to different technologies which were designed for the same
application.  The fact that Nigerians and Ghanains are using video
technology as a medium of theatrical distribution and exhibition raises
some important issues, but does not mean that the technology itself is the
answer to all their problems.  In fact, it creates some rather frightening
new ones.  The tape elements themselves undergo physical decomposition over
a much shorter time scale than film, the hardware either breaks down and
becomes obsolete, and if you really do mean 'digital' (as distinct from
analogue videotape), there are software compatibility issues too, not least
as regards compression.  If what you say about the scale of video use in
Africa is correct, then I'd guess that almost all the productions being
made now will be lost forever within 5-10 years, analogous to the 80% of
film production in the nitrate era which is now believed to have been lost
for good (interestingly, the highest proportion of lost nitrate features
are from African and Asian countries: e.g. 90% plus of the features made in
India and Japan before 1930 do not survive).  The reason we have the other
20% is mainly because, if stored in reasonable conditions, nitrate film is
at least good for 50-150 years of storage.  Videotape is not, and even if
it were, the hardware and software needed to play it will be obsolete in
10-20 years at most.

Furthermore, the preservation work needed to rescue a video element on a
format that was widely used once upon a time but which is now obsolete
(e.g. EIAJ-I or 2" helical Ampex) would cost a hell of a lot more than
having made the production on 16mm film in the first place and then stored
the master elements properly.

This is just one of the fallacies which 'digital' enthusiasts (who, 90% of
the time, are actually referring to analogue videotape) promote: that
because this technology is quick, easy and cheap to use now, it is a
permanent record.  Those who see their production as representing a
long-term asset (be that defined as cultural, economic or both) as well as
something for short-term production continue to use and will continue to
use film despite the cost, because no other medium can offer the same
guarantee of longevity.


Dr. Leo Enticknap
Curator, Northern Region Film & Television Archive
School of Arts and Media
University of Teesside
United Kingdom
Tel. +44-(0)1642 384022
Fax +44-(0)1642 384099
Email: [log in to unmask]

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