Bending Spacetime
The conversion of video into a digital medium has given us the ability to manipulate time in videos like never before. This is made possible by the nature of a non-linear digital framework in data space. Bill Viola explains that when a non-linear array of information, or “matrix” structure, is used, “the viewer could enter at any point, move in any direction, at any speed, pop in and out at any place.” He predicted that this implies the following:
“Nothing needs to be physically “cut” or re-recorded at all. Playback speed, the cardinal 30 frames per second, will become intelligently variable and thus malleable, becoming, as in electronic music practice, merely one fundamental frequency among many which can be modulated, shifted up or down, superimposed, or interrupted.”
Indeed, digital video editing software has emerged that allows the user to perform these feats through non-destructive random access editing. Features in editing software such as the timeline and trimming window, which allow the user to cut and place clips at different “locations” in time, represent time with space and duration with length. The latest in video editing software even allows the spacial manipulation of play speed, called time-remapping, which is represented by a graph in 2-D space. The smooth acceleration of play speed possible with these programs I think would impress even Viola.
The mixing of time and space in digital video editing would surely evoke a response from the Aristotle of comics, Scott McCloud. He might ask the same rhetorical question he posed in Time Frames: “Ever noticed how the words “short” or “long” can refer either to the first dimension or to the fourth?” The blurring of space and time is just as perceptible, if not more so, in the digital video medium as in comics. In fact, digital video editing uses pretty similar techniques from comics to manipulate time and space. For example, digital videos can be overlayed, or combined into a mosaic to show multiple events unfolding at once. Similarly, McCloud describes how comics use combinations of multiple events in space to fold and consolidate time into a single frame. Also, where comics use enlarged or borderless frames to produce a lingering sense of timelessness, video artists use zoomed out landscape shots or overlayed shots for the same effect.
The time-remapping possible in digital film, however, is something not achievable in comics because the reader perceives everything to happen in real time. The amazing effects of this time-altering capability are seemingly endless. Time can be sped up to show motions too slow for the human eye. Such timelapses can be used to document natural phenomena, human activity, or things out of this world. They can consolidate a day, or even years, in just a few seconds. On the other side of the spectrum, time can be slowed to display forms too transitory to glimpse with the naked eye. These examples show how the viewer’s perception of a video can change by manipulating time – something that is static can become dynamic, and something that is uninteresting becomes interesting.
The time-altering capabilities of digital video generally enrich the medium, and allow the video editor to convey new meaning while using the same raw content. As McLuhan would say, “the medium is the message” – media themselves overwhelm the importance of their content. The multitude of tools granted to modern digital editors make them sculptors of their own granite blocks of video – visualizing within them a media masterpiece. Viola says that as we “shift away from the temporal, piece-by-piece approach of constructing a program” and towards “a spatial, total-field approach of carving out potentially multiple programs,” we are “proceeding from models of the eye and ear to the models of thought processes and conceptual structures in the brain.”
 The Digital Eye
The digital video medium is developing an ever-closer symbiotic relationship with the computer user, allowing the user to project his “process of thinking” into the computer “in real time,” just as Licklider envisioned. And coming into reality are Alan Kay’s dreams of a “new ‘metamedium‘” which “is active – it can respond to queries and experiment – so that the messages may involve the learner in a two-way conversation.” (A feature of video editing which exemplifies this is the video playback window.) The result is, as Viola puts it, that “video is finally getting ‘intelligence,’ the eye is being reattached to the brain.”
The aesthetic qualities of digital cinematography with “intelligent” editing can be breathtaking, as I found in the recent film All.I.Can. This film demonstrates the power of digital video, definitely heavy on the editing, to convey a message (in this case it’s an environmentalist message).
Multiply all this man-computer capability by millions and millions of people connected on the web, all purchasing more and more, cheaper and cheaper, smaller and smaller digital cameras and you have something great. The video data space of the web allows the mashing-up of videos into new grotesque forms composed by creative minds. It allows people to share your views, talents and stories, or start a buzz about a new invention.
Soon it seems, almost everyone will have a digital camera nearby. With everyone having a camera in hand, even in the same place, no one person will film the same thing. When digital video medium becomes the summation of all perspectives, it becomes a memory system for the collective consciousness of the world.
Here’s a little of what I’ve collected for my personal memory bank, and shared with others on my vimeo page, if you’re interested to see. They’re all done with basic, free software in very little time, so no masterpieces there, but I think their value to me and others will only increase as they gain a timeless quality.
I’ll end with this last, lingering quote from Bill Viola:
“We are moving into an idea space here, into the world of thoughts and images as they exist in the brain, not on some city planner’s drawing board. With the integration of images and video into the domain of computer logic, we are beginning the task of mapping conceptual structures of our brain onto the technology.”