I came to the University of Michigan because the film students here really have the opportunity to film. In most other institutions only digital cameras are available. A lot of what is important to me about my studies and this art form is related to physical filming.
The hallmark of a film is the physical grain it leaves in the picture. What is between these particles? what does it mean to say"We're shooting this on film"Or use analog technology at all? To better understand these issues, I spoke to two former professors and asked them to delve deeper into why they teach and use analog technology and what it means to them artistically and philosophically.
Terri Sarris is Professor of Film, Television and Media (FTVM) at the university. She was the first person to put my hands on a 16mm film camera - a Canon Scoopic. As I stood in the basement of the North Quad dorm, about five students in front of a camera, I thought about the remains of 35mm negatives and tiny Kodak slides strewn around my family's house and in every drawer.
When I was little I held them up to the light and saw my parents so young and cool wearing sunglasses in their cream apartment. In the basement we had huge, flat, sealed metal canisters that held the rolls of film, my father's film. My friends and I stared out over my plush orange couch while our parents watched the movie after dinner. As I got older, my father allowed me to see her in real life. They were so unlike anything else - yellow, inviting and vibrant.
Back in the North Quad basement, Terri explained how to focus the cameras and make sure they were set to the correct lighting settings. I knew I had to listen to every word she said because she finally explained to me how to make something yellow, inviting and vibrant.
Terri explained that the first day in a new class using film cameras was special for her too.
"Traditionally, students have had little to no exposure to it, and in fact it's really exciting for a lot of people," she said on our Zoom call. "It can also be kind of mysterious... it's an amazing device."
Terri chooses to teach 16mm film not only because it is a practical skill for the industry, but because she sees the artistic and methodical value in the physicality of shooting, editing and assembling. In fact, the intent is twofold: in terms of film theory and historical context.
"The idea of film as a physical medium, I hope, really gives students an appreciation for the decades of people who worked in film before the advent of digital," she said. “You think back to the early days of Soviet filmmakers making these amazing movies on film. And then all the editors – many women, by the way.”
The film has a purpose. Whatever you do, you do it with the same tools that very serious and talented people have used from the start. It makes me feel like they're with me while filming – like I'm doing something not just for, but with Soviet people and women. It makes me feel like my eyes can see through the same machine and glass lens as people did in the past.
"Besides the historical intent behind analog technology, there is also a specific effect of its use," explained Terri.
"I think it really gets you thinking about the editing, the timing, the pacing...it's really part of the palette of filmmaking," she said. "(Digital recordings only) would be like taking a few colors from an artist." As I listened to her, I began to understand. Yes, film is a form of community or time travel, but it is also a choice of the present moment, like any other variable that a filmmaker can manipulate.
She explained that the choice of footage in her own work is part of the way her projects relate to the past. Different film materials have different dimensions, light sensitivities and color balances. She uses 16mm for her films in which she uses storytelling toys.
"I draw them in 16 partly because it's outdated technology, and that's why I always do the credits on a typewriter," Terri said. "The idea is to consciously use the old stories in these old formats in conversations with each other."
For other films, which are portraits of her friends and family, she uses Super 8 on the same camera she's had since college. A Super 8 camera is a small home use film camera that uses a cassette system for the film instead of a stick-in-the-dark system.
"I use my Super 8 camera to make films... it can be nostalgic because it's often about something that disappears from the world," Terri said. "So they're like elegies for friends who have died or family members who have died or who I know are dying ... to me it's almost religious."
As Terri explained, I saw that she understood and used cinema as both a story and a topical choice. I can't imagine my studies without her or her work without film.
The next day I spoke to Fritz Swanson, a professor in the English department who runs Wolverine Press; He also has a background in film photography. I joined our conversation with Terri's hands-on details and sought someone to explain more about how some of these concepts, like nostalgia or history, relate to the visual signatures we discussed. Now I understood the importance of practice and the choices of artists who want to say something, but I still wasn't sure what we all wanted to say.
Fritz philosophically framed the issue with a discussion of the author Virginia Woolf and her printer.
"She hates being manipulated by men, in a way she probably hates being manipulated by upper-middle-class men when she's clearly better than them," Fritz said. "And then she just goes out, buys the printer and that's it. Owning a print shop and being able to open her own publishing house were prerequisites for her to be able to really achieve her own ambitions as a writer.”
So the choice is with whom – i.e. with which technology – an artist wants to authorize together. And if you have a choice, that means you have the means of production.
Doesn't that apply to every technology, every medium?
"Analogue media is interesting because it resists author interference in interesting and unpredictable ways," Fritz said.
Digital Technologies is a co-author intended to help in its own way and to be simple and attractive to the mass market. Analog technologies are transparent and switchable and can do more harm than good - they are not intended as a helping hand, but as a tool in the kit. Nothing prevents you from using the wrong stock.
Filmmakers use the adjectives “fast” and “slow” to describe the light sensitivity of a particular film emulsion. On the finished product, you can see that in a fast broth, in low light conditions, the grain literally moves faster. If you look, you'll see that it changes over the course of a movie depending on whether the location is brightly lit or dimly lit. When I realize that, a film becomes much more dimensional. In fact, I can look at it like a sculpture and go behind the camera or maybe even inside it.
I don't know if I'm nostalgic or determined to master the film's signature. Maybe both. But after digging deeper, I think those two words are good words to substitute for another concept. The totally random and consequent movement of film grain that an artist chooses is the aesthetic that gives each of us our own unique feeling in relation to the images captured on film. Choosing a kind of motion to create a kind of image, but what each particle does to create that whole is random. Grain. It's a somewhat indescribable aesthetic that, when examined, saysi choose iteI know how and why to use itemy means of production worked with me on it. And that's what looked yellow, inviting and vibrant to me all those years ago.
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Examples of analog devices
Vinyl records and record players. CRT (cathode ray tube) televisions and monitors. VCR (video cassette recorder) players and tapes. Any clock without a digital display.
Difference between Digital and Analog System
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|Analog Amplifier||Analog Computer|
|Musical Instruments||Natural Sounds|
|Sensors (e.g. gyroscope)||Sound|
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