A few days ago I read an article in Indiewire that announced: "Film is Here to Stay!" I emailed it to a colleague at NYU and he responded almost immediately, "get back the flatbeds!!!" referring to the Steenbecks we had finally retired in our undergraduate film program. This started me thinking about the ever-changing film and television technologies educational institutions such as ours, as well as the film industry, depend on to make movies. Film is an art form dependent on many technologies, but as educators we focus heavily on film's relationship to literature, music, and theater as well as painting, sculpture and photography.
For some time now, we've been led to believe that the word film, as it relates to the material initially used to capture moving images, was no longer a factual term. Everyone in our community felt as if they were experiencing its extinction and we awaited the final word. Film was dead. Since its invention over a century ago, when we said the word "film" it was a literal representation not only of the perforated end product screened in theaters, but also true of the coated celluloid material that was used exclusively to render and project the moving pictures. Celluloid was invented in the mid to late 1800s and credited to an English chemist Alexander Parkes, "who in 1856 was granted the first of several patents on a plastic material that he called Parkesine."
With this invention came other chemical and technological advancements that would eventually contribute to the production of the actual material we first started calling motion picture film. "In 1882 John H. Stevens, a chemist at the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, discovered that amyl acetate was a suitable solvent for diluting celluloid. This allowed the material to be made into a clear, flexible film, which other researchers such as Henry Reichenbach of the Eastman Company (later Eastman Kodak Company) further processed into film for still photography and later for motion pictures."
Image capture technology (cameras) and projection technologies have also been changing over the past one hundred and fifty years and nowadays we have evolved away from projecting that celluloid material and are now watching movies captured on and projected via the various digital technologies currently in use. High Definition or HD and 3D images for example have replaced 16 millimeter, 35 millimeter, and 70 millimeter film stocks and projection machines in most movie theaters. Many makers of these celluloid film stocks, who also developed the material after exposure, are now out of that business.
The original term for what we now call films, movies or the cinema was motion pictures and this gets us to the heart of what we mean when we speak about the art form called film. Pictures that move, a sequential set of high-speed photographs, photographs that moved 24 frames in one second to recreate motion. The cinema as an art form came into being because some very curious and extremely talented practitioners were experimenting with various photographic cameras and contraptions trying to capture motion and render moving images. This was happening in the 1800s in both Europe and the United States of America. One of the first motion pictures cameras was made by E. J. Marey, a French physician for his study of motion.
In America Thomas Edison was also at work making machines that could project moving images. His "Kinetoscope" was the "forerunner of the motion-picture film projector." Without the curiosity, extensive resources, and time for experimentation, these people would not have contributed inventions that enabled the cinema we currently enjoy today whether in movie theaters, at home, on laptop computers or on-the-go in airplanes and on a variety of hand-held devices.
To complete the film viewing experience, as we know it now, we have to thank the Lumière Brothers, Louis Jean and Auguste, who invented the Cinématographe. This was the first machine to capture, print and project moving pictures. As this new art form began to take hold in America the need arose for suitable places to show and view these films. People made due with whatever spaces they had until one of the first film theaters was built in Pittsburgh in 1905. They charged only a nickel for admission, and the theater was called the nickelodeon.
What the Indiewire article suggests however is less about technology and more about the importance of influence, the power of the artist on the technology and not vice versa. Filmmakers, although always curious to experiment, were seemingly just adapting to the new technologies to tell their stories. Educational institutions followed suit to prepare students for the industry.
The full title of the article says it all I think. "Film is Here to Stay! Studios and Kodak Strike a Deal: Apparently, all that pressure from Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams made a difference." I'm thrilled to see that while we advance into the future we do not need loose touch with our past because what we see in films is not only about the technologies that capture and reproduce the images. What films are really about is found in the content, not just in the form. Film is about the characters, the story, the subject or themes of the story, the mise-en-scene, the cultural or political information provided via the director's perspective and so on. This content is the essential material-not what it is rendered on. The content is what audiences go to see, what filmmakers, critics, historians, academics and theorists contemplate.
"The cinema began with a passionate, physical relationship between celluloid and the artists and craftsmen and technicians who handled it, manipulated it, and came to know it the way a lover comes to know every inch of the body of the beloved. No matter where the cinema goes, we cannot afford to lose sight of its beginnings." - Martin Scorsese