I’ve never been one to be precious about a “clean” image, and smears and surprises lead to all kinds of interesting places as one makes work of various kinds. However: When I set out several years ago in the Thinking Truck (see the archive), I was working with digital cinema for the first time, learning After Effects and Combustion (video animation and special effects software), and I was also using my first really capable video camera. I’m still trying to come to terms with the “digitalness” of these media after working with 16mm film, paint, and ink, and I’m still trying to articulate what my problem is, when there is one.
In the “organic” world of physical objects and the human mind, sharp differences tend to smudge into soft transitions as materials or processes mix and interfere with each other. Sharp distinctions soften as edges are manipulated. The simplest image for this is a hill. One can cut a vertical face off of a pile of dirt with a shovel, but it quickly becomes a slope over time. One can push at materials and get a feel for how a variable situation responds in the moment, whether one is pushing ink around on a printing plate or overdriving an electric guitar. Properties of clay, wax, ink, and paint vary with the warmth of the day and the artist’s hands. With sensitive materials, it’s never the same tool as the one you remember from the day before, and that need for continual rediscovery leads to all kinds of promising surprises.
In digital media, all gradations are designed and programmed – a tawnier red is simply a different number in a system of colors, and all blending is done with algorithms. There is no “in between” in any situation, except one that is mapped by a programmer with a specific point of view of what, for instance, color, is. Programs like Corel Painter are astonishing in their simulation of color mixing, light reflection, fluid transparency, etc., but in some basic sense, they don’t even come close to the range of possibility of a cheap box of paints. One can try new combinations of options and in some programs one can design new logical procedures from existing components, but at some point, one comes up against a wall: one is limited to the tools and options that the programming team thought of. And the display resolution. And glassy flatness. (In practice, there’s often a sense of limitless possibility with digital tools, which is also real. But I’m following a thread here, ignoring my own obvious objections for the moment…)
Of course, I’m familiar with the other side of this paradox, and if I wasn’t astonished and seduced by the range of possibility that digital cinema, still image, and sound tools provide, I wouldn’t have spent the last several years working with them. There is still something missing for me, and it’s worth trying to articulate. In my experience, few of those who know how to use the tools even perceive a problem. On the other hand, few of the people I know who shun them for more physical media have enough working experience with digital media to be more than petulant or mutely resistant. They’re just not “that kind of person,” which is a lousy reason to choose a tool.
These days, digital “resolution” is astonishing, whether you look at cinema or use sound tools. One can perceive the issue better by looking not at the impressive level of focus and forests of options, but at the edges, at the margins where information becomes distorted as the tool fails to handle the information that’s arriving. In a nutshell, for reasons I alluded to before, physical, or analog distortion tends to be “soft,” while digital distortion is always hard (unless it’s modulated by one or another kind of “simulated” softness. The simulation can be convincing, but it’s not an oil painting or an acoustic guitar.
Why should it be? Well, it shouldn’t, and there’s nothing wrong with these tools. What strikes me as wrong is an emerging society that has no visceral concept or experience of a non-virtual world. I teach students who are puzzled by my suggestion that a good reproduction is not the same thing as an oil painting. A digital version certainly has more “features” (scaleability, portability, etc.), and if the digital print has the same hues in the same relationships, well, what’s the problem? Why would one want to see a piece of music played live? Why watch movies on film?