Emergence >> Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium

[1] 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.”

[2] 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.”



Convergence >> Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium

[1] Making Space:

The first digital format, D1, was released by Sony in 1988.  This signified a revolutionary transformation in the way video was stored.  The digital representation of video became to modern man what Dreamtime songs were to the Aborigines – an “idea space” in a different format from his visual or mental world.  To unlock the potential of the he binary “songs” of the digital format just needed a “translator” to read and communicate visual images back to a user.  This is when the parallel ascendance of the computer came into play.

The convergence of the computer and digital video was not instantaneous.  The incompatibility of the computer to adapt digital video was obvious in the ’80s due to a gap between the large bandwidth of video and low processing capabilities of computers.  More importantly, there was an absence of efficient hardware and software to integrate video with computers.  As always, the desire for better technology drove progression.

[2] Bridging The Gap

In Lev Manovich’s passage, he analyzes the process of conversion from conventional media, like motion pictures, to a digital format.  Data representation in new media, as Manovich explains, is the integration of “old” data, “representations of visual reality and human experience, i.e., images text-based and audio-visual narratives – what we normally understand by ‘culture’,” and “new” numerical data.  The results of numerical representation of film are strange hybrids of past conventions and modern computing power. Manovich gives the following example:

“As computer culture is gradually spatializing all representations and experiences, they become subjected to the camera’s particular grammar of data access. Zoom, tilt, pan and track: we now use these operations to interact with data spaces, models, objects and bodies.”

The evolution of digital video is a strange loop – a deja vous experience that mirrors the original progression of motion pictures.  I’ll let Manovich explain this one:

“My second example of similar aesthetic strategies re-appearing more than deals with the development of moving image technology throughout the nineteenth century, and the development of digital technologies to display moving images on a computer desktop during the 1990s. In the first part of the 1990s, as computers’ speed kept gradually increasing, the CD-ROM designers have been able to go from a slide show format to the superimposition of small moving elements over static backgrounds and finally to full-frame moving images. This evolution repeats the nineteenth century progression: from sequences of still images (magic lantern slides presentations) to moving characters over static backgrounds (for instance, in Reynaud’s Praxinoscope Theater) to full motion (the Lumieres’ cinematograph). Moreover, the introduction of QuickTime by Apple in 1991 can be compared to the introduction of the Kinetoscope in 1892: both were used to present short loops, both featured the images approximately two by three inches in size, both called for private viewing rather than collective exhibition. Culturally, the two technologies also functioned similarly: as the latest technological “marvel.” If in the early 1890s the public patronized Kinetoscope parlors where peep-hole machines presented them with the latest invention — tiny moving photographs arranged in short loops; exactly a hundred years later, computer users were equally fascinated with tiny QuickTime Movies that turned a computer in a film projector, however imperfect. Finally, the Lumieres’ first film screenings of 1895 which shocked their audiences with huge moving images found their parallel in 1995 CD-ROM titles where the moving image finally fills the entire computer screen (for instance, in Jonny Mnemonic computer game, based on the film by the same title.) Thus, exactly a hundred years after cinema was officially “born,” it was reinvented on a computer screen.”

As film was being reinvented in the digital format, modern distinctions of digital video began to emerge.  The inevitable result was the speeding up of the manual techniques of conventional film, as well as the decrease in cost.  Editing, for instance, used to cost so much that many television production facilities could only afford a single unit and editing was a highly involved process requiring special training.  This was during the second half of the 20th century when analog film was the norm.  In contrast, nearly any home computer sold since the year 2000 has the speed and storage capacity to digitize and edit standard-definition television (SDTV).

Editing also adopted the distinctly digital quality of non-linearity.  The first truly non-linear editor, the CMX 600, was introduced in 1971 by CMX Systems. Because videos existed as objects in data space, they could be cut and manipulated in any number of ways without actually damaging the film itself.  In data space, theoretically infinite copies can be made, which also ensures the preservation of the original film.  This characteristic of permanence in digital video is a remarkable achievement in man’s attempts to preserve reality.  (The failure of analog film to do this is why VAFP exists.)  Bill Viola, in 1982, was again right on the money with his prediction about the future of digital video editing:

“The notion of a “master” edit and original footage will disappear.  Editing will become the writing software program that will tell the computer how to arrange (i.e., shot order, cuts, dissolves, wipes, etc.) the information on the disc.”

Before I get ahead of myself, to better categorize the dynamics of the converged medium, I’ll defer back to Manovich.  He claims all mediums which have undergone a digital transition will eventually follow five principles of digital media:

  • Numerical representation: new media objects exist as data
  • Modularity: the different elements of new media exist independently
  • Automation: new media objects can be created and modified automatically
  • Variability: new media objects exist in multiple versions
  • Transcoding: The logic of the computer influences how we understand and represent ourselves.

These principles act “not as absolute laws but rather as general tendencies of a culture undergoing computerization.”  As tendencies, they have gradually become apparent over time, some becoming more realized than others and at different rates.  I’ll go through each one in the context of digital film specifically:

  • Numerical representation implies that the once-tangible become abstractions in data space – actions like play and pause, splice and overlay used to be carried out manually, but now are executed by computer algorithms.
  • Modularity exists in the independent layers of components which make up digital film: color bits make up pixels, pixels make up images, images make up a video.  These film modules were adapted to the computer through the development of digital imaging, made possible with the invention of the CCD in 1969, arguably the most vital link between film and computer.
  • Automation became used in digital video to an extent – in the algorithms that create smooth transitions for editing and in automatic camera zoom.  But, as Manovich says, “the computer is kept out of the key “creative” decisions, and is delegated to the position of the technician.”  (more in Emergence)
  • Variability, I’ve already described in the ability to create many copies of digital videos.  Manovich wonders if “tomorrow the principle of variability may also structure a digital film which will similarly exist in multiple versions.” (more in Emergence)
  • Transcoding refers to the interpretation of the human “cultural layer” in computer ontology and the “computer layer” in human cultural terms.  In essence it is the mechanism for what Licklider and Kay envisioned for the computer – complete integration of human culture in the computer medium forming a symbiotic relationship between man and machine.  The scope in which computers have altered the culture of film is obvious when considering all that has emerged from this convergence, as discussed in Emergence.

From the numerical representation of the motion picture medium, new possibilities continue to emerge in the new millennium.  While Manovich’s principles accurately describe the conversion into a digital medium, what Manovich calls a “qualitatively new phenomena,” is the “real-time networking and control” of digital media, made possible by the advent of the internet.  The products of the internet and current computer-video symbiosis are explored in Emergence.


Ascendance<<Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium

[1] Darkness:

The development of the motion picture medium stems from man’s desire to preserve the visual world.  In Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?, Bill Viola alludes to artificial memory systems which use association through mnemonic imagery – early attempts by scholars to augment human memory.  One of Viola’s examples is <a title=”St. Thomas<St. Thomas Aquina’s memory scheme from the 13th century which involved projecting images and ideas on places.  <a title=”St. Thomas<According to St. Thomas, the arts of memory and of placing verse on images is the very essence of remembering: “Man cannot understand without images; the image is a similitude of a corporeal thing, but understanding is of universals which are to be abstracted from particulars.”  Viola also talks about his own experience with an ancient memory system while visiting Japan in 1981.  He described his visit to a temple “perched in the surreal landscape of an extinct volcanic crater” which held a powerful significance to the people – one which allowed them to communicate “through time and space with ancestors long gone.”

(more on Viola’s idea spaces and memory systems in Emergence)

Some form of abstract “idea space,” as Viola calls it, seem to have emerged in every culture in history to preserve aspects of reality: Egyptian tablets, Arabic scrolls, Mayan calendars, Buddhist mandalas, Chinese manuscripts.  My favorite example is Aboriginal culture which created “The Dreaming,” in which people are represented by animal totems and their entire way of life was cyphered into songs.  The songs were strangely intertwined with the visual world, acting as maps and biological guidebooks.  Outsiders have been astonished to find physical evidence of places and things described in these songs, including a giant kangaroo species around 50,000 years ago.  The Aboriginal culture is definitely a unique case of an entirely oral idea space which represents the physical world that leaves Westerners like us scratching our heads.  However, “The Dreaming” is perhaps the best demonstration in history of an abstract idea space which preserves the visual world, and allows communication through time and space.

Although the authenticity in these ancient idea spaces and memory systems leaves us bewildered, the reality is that early preservation was riddled with mythinformation.  An example everyone is familiar with is the notion that the world was flat.  Obviously, maps weren’t of the best quality in those days.  Although most sailors actually didn’t believe they’d fall off the end of the earth, they had no idea what they would encounter because most of their knowledge came from other sailors spinning yarn about just how “big” it was.  Naturally, as fish stories go, the mythical sea monster came to be, and persisted in sailors’ minds and in print for centuries.

Evidently, the “artist’s conception” has never been a trusted source for true preservation.  People needed an unbiased observer to record the world for all to see.  We found this third-party view in camera technology, without any idea that the photograph would soon be set in motion within the most far-reaching idea space that man has ever conceived.

[2] Light:

The first photograph was captured in 1826 by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.  This feat itself was the culmination of many different advances in technology, beginning with the pinhole camera, yet it was just piece of the puzzle of setting pictures in motion.  The concept of the pinhole camera, or <a title=”Camera Obscura<camera obscura, is demonstrated beautifully by photographer Abelardo Morell in National Geographic’s <a title=”Camera Obscura<May 2011 issue.  His photos embody the purpose of the video/photograph medium – to project the outside world into one’s personal environment.

     The first motion picture projector was the Zoopraxiscope (1867), which could create the illusion of motion from a single viewpoint by using photos from multiple cameras.  But it was Edison’s invention of the first true motion picture camera, the Kinetoscope (1891), that really got the reel spinning.  Finally, by the end of the 19th century, the storage and transmission tools which defined the motion picture medium came into existence.

     Around the turn of the century, the motion picture medium took root in commercial society and grew into a form that is still recognizable today.  The film industry pioneered concepts in editing and presentation that still remain throughout the digital mediums of today.  Lev Manovich explains in New Media from Borges to HTML how these old cultural conventions persist to become the norm throughout new media.  What lacked in cinema throughout the early half of the 20th century was interactivity.  Alan Kay criticized this early stage of cinema in Personal Dynamic Media:

“For most of recorded history, the interactions of humans with their media have been primarily nonconversational and passive in the sense that marks on paper, paint on walls, even “motion” pictures and television, do not change in response to the viewer’s wishes.”

The film industry had a strangle-hold on the camera because the studio system of production was too vast and expensive for any independents to compete.  Controlled by only five big studios and projected through only one medium – movies, motion pictures held tight to certain genres featuring big movie star actors – the medium was stagnant.  The “Golden Age of Hollywood” had to come to an end in order for the medium to progress.  Change came in the form of a federal antitrust action and the advent of the television.  The latter I bring up because it’s a contrast to the federal antipiracy action of today.  The television marks the first significant medium that motion pictures merged into.  Although television brought the medium to the masses, Alan Kay’s dream of human interaction with the medium had yet to be fulfilled – technology needed to push further.

     Progression of camera technology continued to accelerate through the 20th century.  Cameras became less expensive, more compact and easier to use.  This trend inevitably led to the production of the first consumer camcorder in 1983.  Even though this brought the average person and the video camera closer than ever, the two spoke completely different languages.  The linear editing techniques for analog film required great amounts of money, time, skill and patience – too costly for the common person.

     To make the interaction of man and video possible required the convergence of motion pictures with another medium – one which J.C.R. Licklider envisioned in 1960 to be “coupled together very tightly” with humans in the future.  Such a “fast information-retrieval and data-processing machine” could potentially aid the cinematographer in storing and editing videos.  The machine of course is the computer.  Its convergence with motion pictures coincides with the creation of a prolific idea space – the digital medium.

     Bill Viola realized the significance of this point in history when he wrote:

“Something extraordinary is occurring today, in the 1980s, which ties together all these threads. The computer is merging with video. The potential offspring of this marriage is only beginning to be realized.”

Pictures in Motion: The Evolution of a Digital Medium


My project focuses on the evolution of a digital medium in motion pictures.  My interest in digital cinematography arose from witnessing friends and family using digital cameras, which inspired me to purchase my own – a GoPro HD HERO.  Although my interaction with the camera has been basic, as is the camera itself, I have come to a new understanding of modern digital film through my experiences.  It’s a snowballing effect that screams the “r” word.  As soon as I understood how certain shots are filmed, I began to analyze other videos with a more metaperspective, thinking about how cinematographers do what they do, and how I could attempt to do those things myself… and the cycle repeats.  I’ve learned that a good cinematographer must be a great epistemologist who understands how we perceive the visual world.  It’s opened up a whole new world for me, and its all way too meta not to share.

I arranged the content of my project into three categories, which I posted as subblogs.  The three categories are three stages of the evolution of digital film, ordered sequentially: Ascendance discusses early concepts and developments which gave rise to the motion picture medium; Convergence focuses on the marriage of the motion picture and the computer in a digital medium; and Emergence analyzes modern production in this digital medium.  All of these subblogs gather links from the web, and information from various contributors to The New Media Reader.

I used the metaphor of evolution, and three general stages to allude to the progressive, interconnected and cyclic nature of new media development.  I intentionally used broad terms for the stages to illustrate that they could actually be applied to any evolving medium which emerges at some point in time.  The evolution of different media aren’t mutually exclusive.  The forces of aggregation inevitably lead to convergence of multiple media, and the emergence of an entirely new media – and this repeats throughout history.  The result is a branching structure, the nodes of which can be identified by defining these three stages.


  1. Ascendance
  2. Convergence
  3. Emergence

RE: RE: A Pirate’s Life for Nobody / Riding a Dead Rocking Horse

Last night’s episode of the Colbert Report featured a lot of content about online piracy.  Colbert showed that the FBI has similar high numbers to those reported in Europe as Alex postedThey report that about $200 to $250 billion is lost to piracy in the U.S. every year, but they admit they have “no record of source data or methodology for generating the estimate that it cannot be corroborated.”  It appears as though all this buzz in Congress to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act is generated by lobbying money from the music industry and the Motion Picture Association of America as Cody said.  It’s obviously not generated by actual concern about the economic damage or copyright issues related to online piracy.  (I don’t think it’s any secret that money is running the show.)

Some somewhat good news is that there is now a draft proposal of an alternative bill that will put enforcement in the hands of the ITC, rather than the court judicial system.  So at least if there is going to be litigation, it will be decided by an informed, independent agency instead of a judge who favors the side who can buy a better lawyer.

Still, I think this is just another case of fat cats dipping their dirty paws into government – trying to ensure that the rich stay rich.  I for one think the downfall of the music industry is a necessary loss in order to progress as a whole.  Rock stars will just have to learn to limit their quotas of helicopters and Ferraris (single tear).  We need to adapt to the modern way of doing things instead of riding a dead horse.