30 December 2006

Boy Game Boy Game

"Video games are the first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race, the only plan that offers a future for intelligence."
— Chris Marker, Sans Soleil

The Quantum Studio Theater

You arrive at the quantum theater, a vast contemporary black structure with no windows. On the digital marquee is a silent trailer for the current season's production. You approach the ticket counter and enter your credit information into a terminal. A small plastic ticket-card is dispensed to you. This ticket doubles as your access to the lobby and the theater. You enter the lobby and sit down at the bar. At the quantum studio theater the show starts at the beginning of the season and ends at the end of the season, so there is no rush. Did I mention its 4 in the morning? The quantum studio theater is 24/7.

At the end of the bar is an aging man you recognize as an actor from the last season. He gives you a nod and as you finish your drinks you slide down to converse with him. Seems as if this season is even better than the last he says. Last season was written by Greenaway, Lynch and the Coens. This season showcases some new talent; a collaborative effort between Jonze, July and Coppola. Now it hits you as the man's words slide out of his mouth between sips of Whiskey; you are conversing with Dennis Hopper.

The polite chit chat between you and Dennis subsides and he gets up to enter the theater. Again your ticket-cards grant you access to the voluminous darkened room. You follow Dennis as he stumbles into the middle row center seats past a pair of teenage girls and a sleeping old man. You begin to get lost in the story. A story that lives because you are there watching; a story which is assembled cut by cut based on information stored in your ticket-card; a story which modifies its emotional dynamics the way an orchestra will crescendo and dimenuendo at the command of the maestro. And yet the maestro's skull has been digitally peeled back, with the genius brain now receptive to the subtle variations in the audience. Each audience member is a variable in an elaborate equation.

The drama hits a soft spot and Dennis coughs out a raspy laugh. The scene is of a boy asking his mother about the effects of global warming on the family hamster. The boy has accidentally substituted "radiation" with "aviation". You wonder on a subconsious level about the alternate takes of this scene. If the boy had said "vacation" or "salvation" would Dennis had found it as funny? Closeups of the hamster running in its pathetic metal wheel are strangely symmetric, as if the hamster is running in a perfect loop. Perhaps it is a perfect loop. Perhaps the duration of that loop is chosen from a matrix of possibilities by a logic that is dependent on your own ticket-card. It's hard to say. Moments later the father character arrives home from a long day at the office and pours himself a whiskey. He interrupts the conversation between his son and his wife with a raspy laugh. A raspy laugh that you swear you've heard before...

29 December 2006

Zbigniew Rybczynski

When I was a kid my parents used to rent me Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation which included Tango by Zbigniew Rybczynski. It's funny that the first video I ever cut was called Small Room Tango. This could have been an alternate title for Zbig's film. Zbig has to be the master of the blue screen.

Why Don't You Listen When I Scream At You?

80s era cutup of dialogue demonstrating the minimum threshold of sound being smaller than one frame of video.

Theater's Legacy

So theater has been with us since the ancient Greeks. It has endured and refined itself over time, constantly adapting and reinventing different aspects to new technologies.

Cinema (ancient Greek: movement) was initially presented in the theatric context with big movie palaces and grand openings. Today Hollywood has become so formulaic and predictable that big-budget movies are often not worth seeing. Yet theater has perservered. There are still interesting plays produced. Why? Because despite its scripts and rehearsals, theater is always live and therefore subject to subtle variation.

I would posit that this subtle variation is what has kept theater popular over hundreds of years. Audiences feel the thrill of the possibility of nuance. Its similar to the feeling of going to see live music insofar as many bands sound different on stage than on CD. Ironically today's pop music is often performed in such a way as to imitate the sound of the CD, removing musical nuance, or even worse, making musical nuance something to which audiences are trained to dislike.

For cinema to survive perhaps we need to make it more like theater. Perhaps each time you see a film it should be different. I think solid-state memory will go a long way towards this goal. No more moving parts means closer-to-instantaneous random access. Not like a DVD or harddisk that is spinning. Alternate takes, scenes, and entire montages might be swappable or transposable.

28 December 2006

Frame Rates

Let's hit the ground running, so to speak.

This afternoon I was hanging out with the Vasulkas and we were discussing video frame rates. Basically most of us have to choose between 24, 25, or 29.97 frames per second. While these frame rates allow us the persistence of vision necessary to perceive motion, it is interesting to think about the potential of high-speed video to produce other perceptual effects.

Steina said she believed that higher (read much higher) frame rates might actually trick the brain into forgetting that the images we see are video. Perhaps create an immersive cinematic image so realistic that the brain would no longer be able to discriminate between it and reality.

Yet naturally just as there is a low end on the perceptual threshold of movement in video (two frames) there is probably also a high end. Is it 50 fps (frames per second) 100 fps, or is it way up there in the tens of thousands like audio? My guess is its somewhere below 100 fps.

Economic forces have kept us from being able to experiment with high-speed video. High-speed film has the problem that just a couple seconds takes up valuable physical space and expensive resources (film stock). Yet in today's world of relatively affordable gigabyte harddrives, the prospect of storing high-speed video is not so intimidating. Perhaps the bottleneck today is the processors and video cards we would need to playback such higher frame rate material. Ideally we would have dedicated high-speed hardware and software.

Film sound is standardized at 48,000 Hz sample rate. This means that audio is sampled forty-eight thousand times per second! And yet for video we only "sample" our images at 25 frames per second (for the sake of simplicity I will assume the PAL frame rate). When you get down to 1/25 of a second there can still be an abundance of variation and movement in sound, yet you have only a still image.

Here we have the audio information from 1/25 of a second. Seems like a lot of variation right? At this duration we get a rumbling dirty wave pattern. If we go to the smallest grain of audio we end up with a pure high-pitched tone. These fluctuations in sound are interesting. So interesting, in fact, that granular synthesis is a very popular method of contemporary electronic music composition.

Think about what Martin Arnold might have done if he had had higher frame rates. While you are pondering this, enjoy this little clip of one of my favorite things he did, despite these arbitrary limitations: