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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Musing Pictures: Public Enemies

I would like to begin by noting that what I have seen of director Michael Mann's work, I have generally enjoyed. "Public Enemies" is no exception.

That said, what I'd like to focus on here is, arguably, a weak point of the film.

For the past several years, Michael Mann has been working at the forefront of the digital field, shooting features such as "Collateral" and "Miami Vice" in new, digital formats. In "Collateral", the digital medium served the film very well, lending it an additional and appropriate urban grit. "Public Enemies", which was also shot digitally, is a bit of a tougher call.

Before I go in to the pros and cons of the use of digital in this particular movie, I'd like to take a step back, to try to explain what this whole film vs. digital debate is all about.

First, a description of what it is you see when you see a projected film or a projected digital video.

Film is really just a thin layer of chemicals that at one point reacted to light, and that have since been 'locked' in such a way that they retain the very color to which they reacted. Each frame of a film is a photographic exposure, like a slide. When light is focused through that frame, the colors of the chemicals 'paint' the light, so that when it hits a white surface somewhere beyond the other side, an image appears. When twenty four of these images flash up on that white screen every second, they appear to blend with one another, and slight variations from one projected photograph to the next appear like movement.

Now, there are two critical elements to this discussion: Film grain and color depth.

I'll start with color depth, since it is fairly basic. Film has a very broad range of colors and shades that it is capable of replicating. As light changes, the chemical reactions in the film change to match it. Roughly, for any two shades of light, film can react to and recreate the shade in-between. Digital images, as their name implies, rely on digital interpretation of light. Different shades of light generate different numerical signals. Unlike film, video has no in-betweens. There may be millions of colors available to digital video, but since it relies on these absolute calculations, it misses the infinite varieties between those millions of colors (the color must be A or B or C, etc., so if the actual color is in-between, it gets forced one way or the other). As a result, digital images flatten out in low-light or low-contrast situations, where the slight differences in color and light are critical.

Film grain is a little harder to define, though I could probably point it out in a movie theater. When you're watching a film, look closely at the images. You may notice that there is a certain almost invisible 'speckling' on the screen. This is film grain, which is really the random arrangement of chemical molecules in a frame. Some film stocks are very 'grainy' (especially smaller film stocks -- 16mm or 8mm film, like old newsreels (often 16mm) or the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination (8mm)), whereas other film stocks tend to be much finer (most of what we see in theaters today is very fine-grain 35mm film). The most important thing to note about film grain is that it is randomly distributed. If there is a thicker grain in one particular corner of the screen in one frame, it probably won't be there in the next. At 24 frames per second, especially if the grain is very fine, you're not very likely to see it at all. As a result, the colors on the screen blend together more smoothly, and take on a much more dimensional appearance.

Now, digital video functions in a very different way. We've discussed how it records light and color in increments, with none of the nuanced in-between steps that film can pick up. Another difference is the way that digital images are organized. Whereas film has randomly-distributed 'grain', digital images are projected in a neat grid. Row after row of pixels form the organizational structure of a digital image. With each successive frame, all of the pixels change color and intensity, creating the next photographic image. Here's the key, though: the pixels do not change location! This means that unlike film, where the grain's placement is random and constantly shifting, pixels stay stationary, and therefore, they are visible! Look closely at your computer monitor right now (which, chances are, is currently set to a resolution equal or greater than 'high definition' television). See the grid? Even if you were playing a movie, get right up close and you'd see the grid. The same goes for movie theaters. Get close to the screen when it's a digital image, and you'll see the individual boxes of color that make up the image, neatly arranged. Presumably, if there are enough pixels, they become too small for us to really notice. This is why high definition images have more pixels than standard definition images, and why the digital projections in movie theaters have even more pixels than the high def stuff we see at home. But no matter how small the pixels are, the grid itself is still there, and it's still a part of the image that we're seeing. It's like looking out a window through a screen. You rarely think about it, but if you were to move the screen out of the way, the image that you would see would be very different.

Will these issues always be present? I doubt it. There's a lot of innovation happening in the world of moving images. But does this mean that digital images are not as "good" as film images? Well, sort of. Depends on what you need. It's hard to justify shooting film for a TV show (although they do it for certain large-scale productions such as "Lost"). Video is faster, cheaper, more easily tweaked, and in the end, no one is going to watch their favorite sitcom on a big screen with a projector whirring behind them. We watch TV on TV, so why not shoot digitally?

For some movies, the digital option makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, it's an economic consideration. On the independent side of things, it's much cheaper to shoot video than to shoot film, so if you're going to make a movie without lots of money, video is the way to go. On a larger scale, the difference in cost is less substantial. Hollywood-level technologies are extremely expensive, and the personnel required to manage the data aren't cheap to hire, either. That said, digital works for some films (such as Michael Mann's "Collateral", mentioned above), where their content or subject matter or setting interact well with the 'look' of digital.

That brings me, at long last, to "Public Enemies". I saw it knowing it was shot digitally, and I found that I could strongly sense the difference. Some scenes looked 'cheap', with the colors or textures of a daytime soap opera, or of a 1990s action TV show, and others looked a little like they were shot on a camcorder, the darker areas collapsing in to 'noise' (the mess of dark purple floating spots that appear when the camera doesn't know how to differentiate between one kind of darkness and another -- the pesky 'in-betweens'). When I got home, I read this interesting article in Millimeter in which Michael Mann discusses the choice of shooting digitally, and the process of testing the digital process, and comparing it to traditional film. The kind of careful thought and consideration that went in to the choice to shoot digitally has made me wonder if perhaps I might have been thrown off by my own expectations. Mann chose to shoot the film in a way that would specifically undercut the romanticism of 1933 (whereas I expected it would be a highly romanticized story). He wanted it frank, straightforward, almost candid, so he chose a format that is still predominantly used for documentaries and the news.

Unfortunately, I think the way the film was shot may have undermined a little of what Mann was trying to do. There are some outstanding camera moves, fascinating bits of slow motion, very dramatic angles... all of which serve to romanticize the narrative. Also, the depression era was a time that seems to have romanticized itself. I'm not sure that it's possible to look at the high-stakes players of the era without romanticization creeping in. These inconsistencies between the choice of format and the other decisions surrounding the look of the film make the whole effect rather shaky. I wonder what might have happened if Mann had kept all of the beautiful production design (the cars, clothes, buildings, all the little details), but shot the movie with the kind of camera that local news stations use -- and if he had shot it as if he were just a guy in the room with a camera. It would have been totally different, but I think the unglamorized effect he was looking for might have come through more effectively.

-AzS

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