Thursday, August 26, 2010

IN SEARCH OF PHOTOGENIE

In a series of essays, Jean Epstein limns out what he believes constitutes the essence of the cinematic, which he calls "photogenie." This proves to be an elusive concept, yet one that gets to the core of what I believe makes it so much more compelling to watch a movie recorded on film than a movie recorded on digital video.

In Epstein's "Fall of the House of Usher", there is a scene where curtains blow in and out of open windows as the camera completes a tracking shot down a long hallway. The curtains become animated, alive with the spirit of the house, and more importantly the spirit of the movie. This scene brings to light that the essence of Photogenie is movement. However, it is not just any type of movement that creates a sense of photogenie. No, it is only hypnotic movement. What makes this scene so photogenic is the hypnotic effect of the curtains blowing combined with the hypnotic effect of the slow tracking shot. Why do the curtains have a hypnotic effect? Because they are repetitively blowing in and out of the windows. Also, not only is their motion repetitive, but it is slow. This combination of slowness and repetition causes the viewer to enter a meditative state and become hypnotized.

Discussing rhythm and photogenie, Epstein says "At certain times without being in any way synchronous all movements...in a group of individuals yield a certain rhythm...a sort of euphony. It is known that crowd scenes in the cinema produce a rhythmic, poetic, photogenic effect. The reason is that cinema can pick this cadence up better than the human eye." Epstein's curtains behave like the crowd. They are not blowing in unison, and yet this creates "a certain rhythm." This "certain rhythm" is created when there is an central rhythm with many thousands of variations off of that central rhythm. As a drummer with 20 years experience of professional playing, I know that repetition with lots of small variations is what makes jazz drumming so mesmerizing to listen to. It is also one of the elements that makes dance music hypnotic.

This hypnotic state is so crucial because in this hypnotic state, the spectator enters into the film in a way they are unable to in a waking state, and entering into this dream state is the basic element of the cinematic experience.


Photogenie and Digital Formats

The question is can digital video create this same sense of hypnotic photogenie? This is particularly relevant to the current era of "digital cinema." However, it is a complex question as the relation between digital formats and the cinematic experience is still being explored.

In my experience, digital formats do not allow for photogenic movement to be created for
many reasons, one of the biggest being that digital video formats do not record motion correctly. Instead of capturing movement smoothly, motion recorded on digital cameras results in either choppy little blurred segments or streaks. This is mainly a problem for cameras which use CMOS sensors, including the Red Camera, Sony's EX series, and Cannon's 5D and 7D, among others. When the information the sensor receives changes too quickly, important data is discarded, and the camera fills in the gaps with approximations based on what the camera saw immediately before or after the missing moment. The crucial factor is that the kind of motion that is photogenic - repetition with millions of small variations - cannot be captured accurately by these cameras.

The result of watching a movie that does not have a hypnotic effect is that the viewer becomes hyper aware of the process of the film being made. When the viewer is this aware of the production, they cannot enter into the story and suspend their disbelief. Thus, films made on digital formats lack a cinematic quality. There is no chance for the viewer enter into the hypnotic dream state.

Unfortunately, the cameras that use CMOS sensors are the ones that are being marketed to independent filmmakers as being "as good as 35mm film at a fraction of the cost." Thousands of low budget films are being shot with these cameras every day. Many of them are excellent films. However, they lack a certain photogenie, that crucial element in the cinematic experience.