Saturday, March 27, 2010

Backwards is Forwards

I want to take a few minutes and look at the process of technological innovation. Some people subscribe to what I think is a misconception about innovations—some think that its all one big move (or a series of small moves) relentlessly forward—BUT my belief is that every time we advance forward we actually take some temporary steps backwards.

One good example comes from the history of movie-making—when sound was first introduced in the late 1920s everyone thought what a great idea—it will take film to the next level—the problem was that no one knew what “the next level” was. Before sound, the silent filmmakers like Edwin Porter, D.W. Griffith, and Charles Chaplin, to name a few, were forced to become masters of camera and editing—they had no choice—they had to learn to tell stories without words—using a purely visual medium—playing with many different camera angles, dramatic lighting, and different kinds of cutting (editing) to get their points across to audiences as quickly and sparsely as possible.

So once we had sound a.) nobody could figure how to creatively use it. Instead we had what amounted to anti-cinema—filmed plays and dialogue-heavy scenes (long, filmed conversations)—where the camera was largely static—this static nature was also due to b.) the early generation sound recording equipment and microphones which were so bulky and cumbersome that they had to be stationary—usually concealed as part of the set—inside plants or furniture—actors sat around tables talking into lamps and floral arrangements—and it looked ridiculous.

So having sound in its early stages actually took filmmaking backwards rather than forwards. It was not until directors and talent became used to the presence of the microphones and more importantly when they became smaller and more manageable could they start to become transparent—so that sound recording became just another element of filmmaking, just like lighting, or camera movement—in other words sound could then take its place as just another tool in creating movie.

In another example, in our time, I can recount the early days of computer video—at the risk of dating myself—I was in graduate school at Ithaca College when the first video-capable Macintoshes came out—the Quadra 900 and then hard on its heels—the Power Mac 8100. The same (albeit much slower coming) on the Windows 3.11 PCs—everyone thinking “wow what a great thing—we can turn our computers into TVs”—NOT!! We were going backwards again—like those actors sitting around floral arrangements, talking into them—computers aren't TVs—and they could offer us so much more when it came to video then the same passive experience of a TV monitor. Once playback and picture quality started to improve and with the advent of software like adobe Premiere—we realized that we could take advantage of CPU power to actually capture and edit video itself.

After that we found out we could take that video footage and integrate it with text, graphics, and all kinds of narration—and lo and behold even make it interactive—a very new word in the mid-90s. But all of this took time—we HAD to go through our backward phase first to get there.

Finally, we've all seen the rapid rise of streaming video on the Internet. How many of us out there are enjoying our favorite TV shows on sites like Hulu—rather than tuning into the network or cable stations that--not so long ago--were our only outlets for viewing? We probably all remember that Internet-based video was—even just 2 or 3 years ago—pretty lousy—not only poor picture quality and low resolution (screen sizes) but they often had to be downloaded to your computer—taking enormous amounts of time—usually requiring special video players that you also had to download (and half the time didn't work) rather than today's ubiquitous Flash Player.

I guess the best way of putting it is that in our business—as in many, we have to go a bit backwards to then go forwards. The other thought that goes along with that is that once we do move ahead with an innovation we almost always forget what it was like before—however, while, as a video maker, I might muse on some of the creative possibilities that working without sound might offer me (and perhaps I will do a silent film one of these days) I have no desire to go back to the early days of postage stamp size computer video playing off of a CD-ROM or to quasi-unwatchable streaming videos—each one using a separate proprietary player.

I will resoundingly say “NO” to that dark past.