On Digital Film Grain and Medium Specificity

I believe that – regardless of the viewer’s breadth of knowledge – one has an inherent sense of what is right or wrong in an image. It comes down to a question of ethics. How a recognisable object – a person’s skin, a tree, moonlit skies, light fixtures – can be rendered obscene when the current filmmaking apparatuses cede control over to the technician instead of the object. All the technical know-how and obsessiveness that can come with the camera (whether it’s a vintage fetishisation of analog or the fastidiousness of keeping up with the latest ARRI ALEXA and Blackmagic models) undermines the necessity and resourcefulness mandated by a limited toolset, a limited toolset more closely resembling the stigmatisms/astigmatisms inherent to vision. It used to be an obsessiveness only affecting filmmakers with access to these tools. But the “prosumer” technocracy now inherent to readily accessible, high-resolution cameras make anyone privy to a once desirable and inaccessible standard, a standard contingent on manipulation (once analog, now digital).

Fixating on a favourite cinematographer also seems the wrong way to approach a film, another tendency in this cinephilia-as-technocracy (or vice-versa). A cinematographer’s artistic contributions – like many a director – can best be approached on a case-by-case basis. In many ideal instances, a cinematographer and director push each other outside of mandates they’ve previously set for themselves, even if it’s only for one or two films. Though ideal, many established filmmakers – of the ilk I mention below – remain ignorant of anything beyond boundaries they’ve set for themselves, resulting in maybe one productive shake-up in their filmography at the hands of a canny collaborator. Viewing a cinematographer’s career standalone, however, can limit their role to that of a visual stylist. There is very little writing about cinematographers that expands this categorisation. Even though it’s not the coverage in itself that’s the problem, it’s what it is premised on, being: the technocracy and fetishization of what is both in and outside of the image.

Of the films below, I watched The Twentieth Century and Uncut Gems at the Lido Cinema and First Cow at Cinema Nova, both in Melbourne. As with most films not finished in a 16:9 aspect ratio, each of the above was shown in open matting, the black bars on either side of their aspect ratios as obvious as the images themselves. This is now the norm in Melbourne, as perhaps only a couple of cinemas accommodate the correct aspect ratios. The projector overcompensates in this regard, the only “fault” of a digital projector that changes how a film is seen.

Watching The Twentieth Century, directed by Matthew Rankin, I was instantly suspicious of the 16mm imagery on display, far too “filmic” despite being shot on film. Looking at an on-set photograph confirmed that it was shot on 16mm, but I got no satisfaction from this knowledge. I still couldn’t decide – while watching the film – whether it was shot digitally or on film. And that still seems like the only valid response to what I saw, regardless of what was actually used during production. I felt much the same watching it as I do when watching a contemporary music video or commercial shot on 16mm. At an earlier point in time, 16mm images transferred to DCP’s or digital files felt easier to identify, but now the digitally scanned 16mm image is ubiquitous to the point of illegibility – either as a fully 16mm or 4K scan of an image. It’s an intermediary likely untouched by human hands, undoing the disingenuous drive to shoot on analog formats, often motivated by a desire for “authentic” or “hand-made” qualities. They may have paid and gone through the effort of shooting on 16mm, but this choice is both too evident as a flourish and too distant from its original format to register as anything other than a stylistic showcase; a choice self-imposed, not necessitated.

I was searching throughout The Twentieth Century for two objects/landscapes that maintain – when shot through a digital sensor – characteristics distinct from celluloid (even when treated with artificial grain and extensive golour grading in post-production):

  1. Practical red light sources: These remain difficult to capture with digital sensors, giving off a pink/paler shade than how the actual light source appears to the human eye. Taillights are an example of this discrepancy in an easily recognisable artificial light source. They often appear in digital photography as a pink-ish glow, showing the components of the light’s redness, but not the colour itself.
  2. Nighttime exteriors: Digital sensors have difficulty capturing deep black hues, especially those of the night sky, unless it’s been treated in the colour grade. Night skies appear as slate gray or dark violet with the clouds often fairly legible. The benefit of this clarity at nighttime is one’s ability to digitally capture the illuminated clouds surrounding the moon, not merely the moon itself – as it tends to appear on celluloid. This is because a digital sensor is more sensitive to natural and artificial light, dependent on a video LOG[1] codex instead of a film negative with a limited ASA. The digital camera also has an ASA/ISO limit, but the ALEXA Mini (the camera used in some capacity on most films mentioned below) has a natural ISO of 800, greater than any existing film stock, which are manufactured nowadays at ASA’s of 500T (T=Tungsten, designed for 500 ASA sensitivity under artificial light) or 250D (D=Daylight, or 250 ASA sensitivity in natural light).

On the subject of self-imposed limitations, the process of shooting on film is now one step closer to a digital camera’s workflow as printing processes, film stocks and laboratories scarcely exist for extensive optical colour timing. The still-enigmatic processes and errors that develop an analog image are the camera’s aforementioned (a)stigmatisms. These (a)stigmatisms are further linked to the optical eyepiece that the filmmaker looks through, as all that separates what one and the camera see are a few glass optics. Inside the digital eyepiece is a screen, one similar to the camera’s monitor displaying its RAW codex of what the camera configures, adjusted with either a customized or ready-made Look Up Table[2]. The digital sensor’s capture of red light sources, for example, is an approximation of what was previously – between the optical eyepiece and camera negative – a mediation of recognisable forms. There are no inherent (a)stigmatisms to the process of a 2-4K resolution digital workflow. Now that 16 and 35mm images are – with few exceptions –finished within these resolutions, these analog (a)stigmatisms have also been largely smoothed out (though film’s finer-attuned exposure levels still allow for the aforementioned, reconisably human exposure levels and colour temperatures). Each quality in the image is limited to the intentions of their technicians, a megalomania that now dictates how contemporary cinema and – furthermore – the eyes that watch it process these recognisable forms.

On-set photo taken on the set of The Twentieth Century, with Rankin behind the camera

There need to be new, digital limitations. Once-common Standard Definition cameras, constrained to a 720×576 resolution, limit what can be adjusted within a set range according to a lower ISO and higher contrasts. But with 2-4K cameras, the now outmoded techniques of yore (the old lenses and tungsten lights) don’t properly deconstruct the clarity and control inherent to their high resolutions. Anamorphic lenses mounted onto a digital sensor eliminate the time constraints inherent to a 4-perforation film magazine (3-4 minutes on a portable, 400ft mag). But this discrepancy in time – and consequence – changes the image. With these advances made and costs cut, a digitally captured anamorphic image, as a result, looks cheap. This comes back to the intuition I spoke of above. Regardless of the technical know-how or the preference for film or digital, my conviction remains when an image is “wrong”. Digital-sensor anamorphic images are wrong, as is footage treated with artificial film grain in the colour grade, as is celluloid scanned and overly manipulated digitally from the developed negative.

An egregious example of the three tendencies above is in Uncut Gems. Watching it in the cinema, I determined the digital segments from those shot on 35mm, but felt – as with The Twentieth Century – that I’d discovered nothing more of the images themselves. This is the prevailing disappointment of technical investigations and the dubious images that encourage them. There have been too many articles speaking of the technique involved in these dubious images: The Safdies professing their love for cinematographer Darius Khondji, interviews speaking of anamorphic lenses, the time constraints of 4-perf film stock, focus pulling and single-camera setups.

There was a shift from seeing the film on a TV and then at a cinema, obviously, but not in the way I expected. As with The Twentieth Century, open matted black bars were evident, this time at the top and bottom of a 2.39 aspect ratio. What was more evident in the theatre was a discrepancy between footage shot digitally and footage shot on film. In the aforementioned coverage of the film, celluloid was pushed to the forefront as its aesthetic selling point, specifically long lens anamorphic. On Kodak’s blog and in interviews, it was stated that only night exteriors were shot digitally. In the theatre it became evident that the following scenes were also shot digitally:

  • The opening minutes set in Ethiopia (but shot in South Africa)
  • The nighttime exteriors and interiors, which make up roughly 50 minutes of the film’s runtime
  • The scenes towards the end of the film featuring Julia Fox, in both the helicopter and at the Mohegan Sun casino

But again, I felt neither gratification nor disappointment in identifying these scenes as such. Making up nearly half the film, the key identifying feature of the above scenes was the grain predominant in the image. Reading up on it, 35mm elements were filmed on a grey card and superimposed over the digitally captured images, in addition to the high ISO digital noise that appears as its own, distinct grain element in low light conditions. The digitally captured scenes were shot with the same anamorphic lenses as the scenes shot on film, an attempt at medium consistency that, instead, stretched and broke apart the digital sensor, distorting it with an ease non-existent when large-format celluloid is shot through with the same lenses.

The artificial grain and stretched frame felt empty, despite the noise and grain buzzing around the screen, appearing on top of the image instead of within it. The grain didn’t conform to its corresponding colour or contrast, first of all. From an interview with ASC Magazine, Darius Khondji referred to additional grain elements as “grain ghosts”. Taking this into account, one is looking at dead digital images – or at least an image equivalent of an allograft, surgically injected with cadaver bones to compensate for a life non-existent otherwise. The intent of this grain application – as with the anamorphic lenses – is to help it flow with segments actually shot on film. But the overt intent undoes medium specificity. One would shoot digitally in low light scenarios to get a greater exposure level and ability to adjust highlights in the scenes, but the application of grain – both practically and implicitly – undoes this by muddying the actual image that was exposed in-camera. I’m not interested in confronting Khondji on his logic, but there’s suspicion that arises with technicians like him who very easily bow to questions about their technique – most of them encouraged by the likes of both ASC and Filmmaker magazines.

It was in the screening of Uncut Gems that I also saw a trailer for First Cow, a film I’d already seen at home months before. I was instantly averse to the images, adjusting to footage I never remembered watching. As with Uncut Gems, the grain elements were distracting, to the extent that the film’s exposure was also greatly affected by the grain, sapping out highlights and natural light predominant in the images.

Seeing the film again in a theatre (with the black bars, again), I was reassured by a more consistent image, the one I remembered watching at home and whose artificial grain was applied so as to forget about it minutes into the film. Unlike Uncut Gems, it was shot entirely on an ALEXA Mini, creating a more consistent image than Khondji’s mix of analog and digital formats. Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt also shot Night Moves on the original model of ALEXA with similar amounts of low-light scenarios and grain application.

Colour grading is usually the final step in the filmmaking process, along with sound-mixing, so the trailer’s visual discrepancies may have been from an unfinished grade. Either that or A24 wanted to turn up the levels of exposure, making it more conventionally legible and going against Reichardt and Blauvelt’s intentions.

First Cow (taken from the finished film)

Second First Cow (taken from the trailer)

A more obvious unfinished grade that struck me was in the trailer for Dark Waters. Being the first film Todd Haynes and Edward Lachman shot digitally together, there was a bland uniformity to the images that I don’t associate with either the filmmaker or cinematographer. Watching the finished film, there’s a noticeable difference in the colour grade. The contrast is much more toned down and the image more textured, attributable to the grain applied throughout. Unlike Uncut Gems and First Cow, Lachman utilised a program called LiveGrain, which professes to be a “real-time texture mapping” tool that strategically applies grain to digital footage, advertised as an alternative to shooting on film. Uncut Gems and First Cow applied real grain elements through DaVinci Resolve, whereas Lachman used a more recent tool exclusively licensed to larger-scale productions. LiveGrain’s website shows off a relatively short and exclusive list of productions that have used the software, many of them either Netflix or HBO productions. Because of a lack of transparency on their website, I have no way of identifying a price range for the software nor who could have access to it. Based on the productions that have used it and little else available on the website, it seems more inaccessible than the celluloid it’s trying to emulate – or more likely replace.

Dark Waters (taken from the finished film)

Dark Waters (taken from the trailer)

Reading interviews with Lachman, he expressed resistance towards shooting on an ALEXA Mini, stating that he compensated for the image’s clarity by using Tungsten lights, gels, old lenses and the aforementioned grain software to “deconstruct” the image. I understand his frustrations – likely beyond his control – but shooting a digital sensor through older equipment in no way ameliorates the real (but few) sacrifices actually inherent to high-end digital sensors. Instead of the contrast problems being worked to his advantage, we see it covered up in the finished film, an effect highlighting the absence of celluloid.

First Cow and Dark Waters are the least egregious, recent examples of films using digital grain that I know of. But it remains that, through the examples above, I’m no longer interested in arguments of film vs. digital, especially if those advocating for film – like Lachman/Haynes and Reichardt/Blauvelt – are willing to sacrifice the image they’re capturing, so as to sublimate it with the ever-aspirational “filmic” look (a word used to describe everything but images shot on film). Inversely, film itself is also distanced from its material condition by the digital phases required for their editing and exhibition. These methods only seem to be ways of distancing one from their given tools, tools that capture the surrounding light in the little amount of time that permits it, the simplest way I can try to articulate the practice of being a filmmaker.

Through these now-standard practices, filmmaking seems far more distant than it actually is. Even the beneficial immediacy of a digital camera’s images needs to be stretched out in phases and finished in a studio, if we were to go by the films above. The technicians feel it necessary to elongate the process of creating an image either out of habit or by dint of the growing pains still evident in these still-nascent digital apparatuses. The question of a “look” and how it can be manipulated bemuses in the end as – with all the self-imposed and pre-existing hurdles – I struggle to find an image beneath the affects.

[1] LOG (Logarithmic) – The raw, unaffected footage of a digital sensor. Essentially the camera negative, but more neutral and unaffected than its analog alternative.

[2] LUT (Look Up Table) – Used to manipulate a digital sensor’s neutral LOG (seen either through the eyepiece or on its display screen), according to a look decided upon in preparation by the cinematographer and/or director.


why do you look at films and not at the sky?

an answer to Héctor Oyarzún’s video essay reaction to a critic’s debate in which I took part at Woche der Kritik.

why do some people speak on a pedestal and other people listen to it?
why isn’t there more silence after a film?
why do you think a person working on a film set has more to say about a film than your closest friend?
why don’t you write to me in person if you have a question?
(why do you use a chat format proposed to you by a festival?)
why do I talk about things I don’t understand?
do you understand?
why do you have to wait for weeks until you are allowed to use images from a film for your video?
why do you speak in English? why do I write in English?
why do you make a video for a blog for too little money?
why do I speak about a film I don’t like for too little money?

why don’t we speak about money?

why do you look at films and not at the sky?
why can’t you touch the film you are seeing?
why is there a viewer in cinema? (is there a cinema?)
why does the viewer become a fan?
why do we interpret films?
why do I sit in my sleeping room and speak against a wall behind a screen?
why do I write this?

why do I watch a film I do not care about? (twice)
why do you think this film questions hierarchies?
why don’t I play with my cat? or read a book?
why don’t I remain silent?

is there a film without a viewer?
is there a text without a reader?
is there a debate without expressed opinions?

but there are films without extras

what is a spectator’s place within cinema? (you ask)
first row, second seat?
demanding a new cut?
kissing in some dark corner?
getting out of the cold?
being a slave to dominant taste?
being attentive for an hour or three and finally be able to shut up?
(think, feel, dream)

are they critics? (is being a critic the emancipation of the spectator?)
are they fans? (is being a fan being the vulgarisation of the spectator?)

are you a fan or a critic and who gave you the right to speak out like that?

am I a fan or a critic and who gave me the right to speak out like that?

Der Sessel im Gartenbaukino

Gartenbaukino, innen / Detailaufnahme von gepolsterten Kino-Klappsesseln (Lucca Chmel / Robert Kotas, 1961) Quelle: ÖNB, Bildarchiv Austria, CHM 2338.

Man kennt ihn. Nach einer halben Stunde, also etwa nach Ende des ersten Aktes, macht er sich bemerkbar. Manchmal aber auch schon direkt nachdem man Platz genommen hat. Jedenfalls immer dann, wenn man es sich gerade richtig gemütlich machen will. Ein hölzerner oder vielleicht stählerner Balken drückt sich allmählich durch das Polster auf den Rücken, während gleichzeitig die Knie davor an die Rückwand des vorderen Stoßen. Das alles, nachdem der Kampf um die Armlehne befriedet wurde. Mit ein wenig Glück hat man freie Sicht. Meistens jedoch verdeckt ein Hinterkopf einen nicht unwesentlichen Teil des Bildes. Wenig später schafft es noch ein Nachzügler in den Saal. Missmutig erhebt sich eine Gruppe, von zehn Personen. Eine unruhige Mischung aus Peinlichkeit und Empörung macht sich breit. Doch bald sind die Wogen wieder besänftigt. Irgendwie gehört das ja auch dazu.

Das letzte Mal als ich das Vergnügen mit den Sesseln des Gartenbaukinos hatte, liegt schon ein paar Monate zurück. Ich sah mir den neuen Film von Hong Sang-soo, Domangchin yeoja während der Viennale an. Es war eine Spätvorstellung und ich hatte an diesem Tag gearbeitet, war also entsprechend müde. Dankbarer Weise ließen mich der Sessel nicht schlafen, vielleicht war es aber auch der Kaffee, den ich zuvor noch trank. Der Saal war nahezu leer, geradezu ausgebrannt. Er vermittelte den Eindruck, als hätte auch er unter den Strapazen des Festivals gelitten. Die vielen Menschen, die mir noch im Foyer entgegen strömten, hatten ihren Abdruck hinterlassen. Sang-soos Film endete im Kino. Es war ebenso leer, wenngleich steriler als das, in dem ich mich befand. Ein paar Tage später unterhielt ich mich mit Kollegen über den Film. Ich kam nicht umhin, mich über die Sitze zu beschweren. Lächelnd stimmte man mir zu.

Seitdem ist einiges geschehen. Die sterile, gähnende Leere aus Sang-soos Film hat gänzlich auf die Säle der Stadt umgegriffen. Der Angst, die die Kinolandschaft noch im Frühjahr 2020 erfüllte, ist einer Resignation gewichen. Es ist still geworden und die Zukunft ungewiss. Doch nicht für das Gartenbaukino. Ein paar Wochen nachdem die Kinos wieder schließen mussten, las ich eine Meldung, welche die Renovierung dieses altehrwürdigen Kinos ankündigte. Wie automatisch versuchte ich mich zu erinnern, wie es aussah, um dieses Bild für mich zu behalten. Ich hatte Sorge es nicht mehr wiederzuerkennen.

Ist es denn wirklich so schlimm um das Kino bestellt, dass das notwendig ist? Gibt es denn nichts wichtigeres für das Kino als eine Renovierung? Womöglich ist es doch notwendig. Auf Facebook startete vor einiger Zeit ein Aufruf nach Bildern der Sessel aus den 1960er Jahren. Nun ist März 2021 und von den siebenhundertsechsunddreißig Sesseln fehlt jede Spur.

Stattdessen öffnet das Haus seine Pforten für eine Pressekonferenz, welche die Planungsschritte der Sanierung vorstellt. Auf der Bühne stehen verloren ein paar Buchstaben der alten Leuchtreklame, dahinter mit Abstand Geschäftsführer Norman Shetler, die Wiener Kulturstadträtin Veronica Kaup-Hasler, Staatssekretärin für Kunst und Kultur Andrea Mayer und der Architekt Manfred Wehdorn. Nach den obligatorischen Zahlen hat Wehdorn das Wort. Er schildert das Konzept der Sanierung. So wolle man das Kino wieder in den ursprünglichen Zustand der 1960er Jahre versetzen. Damals, als die Zeiten nach den ‚schlimmen Kriegsjahren‘ endlich wieder ‚gemütlicher‘ wurden. Jene ‚schlimmen Kriegsjahre‘, von denen auch in den persönlichen Annalen des Gartenbaukinos, zwischen „Einbau der Tonanlage“ 1930 und „Übernahme der Kino-Konzession durch die KIBA (Kinobetriebsanstalt Ges.m.b.H)“ 1947 jede Spur fehlt. Man will zurück zu dem Kino, das Robert Kota 1954 umgestaltete. Dieser Robert Kota, der an einigen Projekten ab 1933 von Carl Wittmann (baute Theaterinnenausstattungen für Propagandazwecke und erhielt nach Ende des Zweiten Weltkriegs Berufsverbot) mitwirkten. [1] Es soll schließlich alles werden, wie es einmal zu Zeiten von Robert Kota war – damals, in der guten alten Zeit. Alles soll wieder in dem festlichen Ambiente und Glamour erstrahlen. Und das alles bis zur kommenden Viennale – „Das geht nicht anders!“

Ziel sei es in erster Linie die Technik zu erneuern und die Räume zu restaurieren. Dieses Vorhaben am denkmalgeschützten Objekt soll so gewissermaßen ein Paradebeispiel für die Zukunftsfähigkeit des Kinos sein, gleichwohl haben nicht alle Wiener Kinos dieses Privileg. Aber sieht so die Zukunft des Kinos aus? Leider behält Lars Henrik Gass womöglich schneller recht, als uns lieb ist, wenn er fordert, dass man das Kino nur in die Zukunft retten kann, indem man es zum Museum erklärt. Aber muss die Zukunft des Kinos in der Vergangenheit liegen? Das Kino ausgerechnet in einer Zeit zurückzuführen, als es noch nicht um seinen gesellschaftlichen Stellenwert bangen musste, lässt einen gewissen Zynismus durchscheinen, der vor der Realität die Augen verschließt und sich in eine sorgenlose Vergangenheit flüchtet. Es heißt von Seiten Shetlers, es zähle der Komfort. Der Komfort, der leider zu gut nach Wien passt, wo Kino nur für die Privatangelegheit der eigenen nostalgischen Sehnsüchte dient, wo Moderne nicht gelebt wird, sondern fetischisiert wird. Mir scheint, bald schon soll der Film beginnen, bevor der Projektor überhaupt angeschaltet wurde. In eben dieser glorreichen besungenen Zeit der 1960er Jahre hielt Christian Metz in den Cahiers du Cinéma fest:

„Die Summe der Eindrücke teilt sich nach Henri Wallon bei der Projektion eines Filmes in zwei völlig voneinander getrennte Reihen, die ‚visuelle Reihe‘ (d.h. den Film, die Diegese) und die ‚propriozeptive Reihe‘, d.h. das Bewusstsein vom eigenen Körper – und damit das der realen Welt –, das nur noch eine schwache Rolle spielt (nämlich dann, wenn man sich in seinem Sessel bewegt, um eine bessere Lage zu finden)“[2]

Gerade jetzt vermisse ich diesen unbequemen Sessel, der auf den Rücken drückt und einem mitteilt, dass man immer noch in irgendeinem Kino sitzt. Wenn man Filme wieder „kollektiv“ schauen und vor allem im Kino „streiten“ will, wie es Andrea Mayer in Aussicht stellte, dann sind die neuen Sitze wohl kaum eine Hilfe dafür, es sei denn, sie meinte mit „streiten“ gemütlich plauschen oder lästern. Eher will man, eine „Bindung“ zum Publikum herstellen. Diese Bindung gibt es, soviel Spätmoderne darf sein, bei Startnext zu erkaufen, kostet 360€ und sichert einem eine Sesselpatenschaft, die darin besteht, seinen Namen mit einer Plakette für fünf Jahre an einen Kinosessel anzubringen. Dies wird stolz am Ende der Pressekonferenz verkündet. Danach flimmert über den ORF-Livestream von der Pressekonferenz die Projektion des Kampagnen-Teasers auf der riesigen Leinwand des Gartenbaukinos  – ein bisschen wie das Ende in Sang-soos Film. Wo einst vor ein paar Monaten die Wiener Unterwelt vergangener Tage zu sehen war, sieht man nun zusammengetrommelt die Größen des österreichischen Films, um dort mit ihren Erinnerungen für das Kino herzuhalten, als wären sie Zeitzeug_innen einer längst vergangenen Epoche. Ob „Gartenbau Forever“ ein glücklicher Slogan für den Aufbruch in die Zukunft ist, wage ich zu bezweifeln. Es bleibt am Ende doch alles, wie es war.

[1] https://www.gartenbaukino.at/das-kino/die-geschichte-des-kinos.html. Im Online-Geschichtslexikon der Stadt Wien finden sich leider auch nur spärlich Information. Die einzige Notiz über die ominösen Jahre, war „eine Gedächtnisfeier für den verewigten Bundeskanzler Dr. Engelbert Dollfuß“. (https://www.geschichtewiki.wien.gv.at/Gartenbaukino)

[2] Christian Metz, „Zum Realitätseindruck im Kino“ in Semiologie übers. v. Renate Koch, München, Fink 1972, S. 30. Orig.: „A propos de l’impression de réalité du cinéma“ in Cahiers du Cinéma, Paris, de l’Étoile. – Nr. 166-167, Mai-Juni 1965, S. 75-82.