film (medium, form) The term is used in a range of contexts: film as a medium, film as a form, filming as a practical element in film making, which enlarges to the all-inclusive usage, film production. There is also the use of film in relation to academic research and pedagogy, film theory, film studies, and in relation to the theorisation of film making, and across a range of forms the term film is subject to an adjective: realist film, experimental film, avant-garde film, re-modernist film. Non-fiction film making, documentary film, is perhaps the only film practice that has become separated from film and is solely defined by its form and practice as documentary: so we make or watch a documentary, rather than having to include, or say, documentary film.
Film as a medium, is historically defined, beginning in the last part of the 1800’s with the invention of a range of photo-mechanical processes to record moving images on photo-sensitive silver-nitrate based film strips running through a recording device, an optical lens based camera. This photo-mechanical process developed from black and white film stock, to colour film stock, with colour as a final stage of film technology and the development of various film types and formats, 3D film being a minor element in film development and production practice. Video, while recording the moving image, was understood as a separate medium to film, due to videos distinct difference in technology and aesthetics: video being an electrical-mechanical process for image recording, and the use of video being initially and primarily for television programming not narrative film making; meaning drama fiction in the medium of film for cinema screening.
With the development and establishment of digital technology for still and moving image recording in the 21st century, this has resulted in a merging of technologies, using the video technology of the CCD sensor, the electronic charge coupled device to receive the image through the lense of the camera and for this to be recorded, not on photo-chemical film stock, and not on ferro-magnetic videotape, but as digital data. This technological change corresponding with the coining of the term digital film, which does not involve any film in the original sense of using a strip of celluloid film to record a photo-chemical image.
In contemporary circumstances filmmakers may never use or directly encounter film stock as a medium, but the long usage of the term film has remained in place, albeit only within certain categories: digital filmmakers make films as a form and in terms of film making production practices, but not with film technology.
Film as a form and as practice, like film as a medium, is historically defined and codified, with the fiction feature film becoming and being the dominant form of film production for the first half of the twentieth century. The term film will therefore often refer to a feature film, a single story drama, running usually around two hours and until the early 1970’s requiring cinematic projection for an audience to view it, or else with the film being transferred to videotape for TV broadcast, so watching a film on television. The video tape player, VCR allowed for the playing of films on television sets, with the image from the film medium being transferred to video tape through the process of telecine: linking but not merging the technologies of video/tele and film/cine.
The historical usage of the term film leads to and incorporates the terms, feature film, film studio, film production, film industry to link the commercial production practices, the form and the technology to the medium of film. Again, since the development and change to digital technology the term film is still in use, but in relation to the form of film, the feature film, and the organisations of filmmaking, film production. People still shoot films and make films, but there is very rarely film stock involved in this practice. The conflation of film form with the production finance system tends to consider the form of film to be part of the same system: it is, but this can lead to a false assumption that narrative film is essentially and only the dramatic form that is shown in the cinema and as drama on television. Stage drama and the novel have their classic forms, the well made play, the naturalist/social novel, but these are historical determined forms, and there are many schisms, changes, development, in the production of drama and literature that have not occurred with film narrative with film therefore being understood as a more limited medium form. This assumption can be self-limiting for filmmakers who assume that they need to follow the established form of narrative film.
Within the technology of digital film making, digital cameras have replaced film cameras and the editing of film stock, physically cutting strips of celluloid film has been replaced with digital, computer-based non-linear editing. Film as a commercial medium in terms of film technology, survived until the first decade of the millennium only as a method for film distribution, with the sending out of film prints to cinemas and film projection taking place in purpose built cinemas or similar spaces. This distribution of film prints has been replaced by digital projection during the second decade of the 21st century. Film prints are still produced, but this is very exceptional and linked to a nostalgia for film as a medium, rather than as any widespread and available commercial technology. The medium of film is effectively a rarity, and digital technology is dominant and ubiquitous.
Film theory and film studies developed in the era of feature film production, with film theory dominated by the consideration of this form and the cultural and commercial structures of the film industry that produced feature films. As a second strand film theory considered, art based film making, which was non-narrative, gallery or arts laboratory based. These two strands of film making are understood to be in opposition culturally, politically, economically, aesthetically, creating a field of film theory which is underpinned by a conflict that can be understood to limit the study of moving image practices. The two strands of film making being perceived in film theory as ideologically distinct and in an un-resolvable and static conflict. While it is not unusual for fields of theory to be in discussion or dispute, the separation in film theory between narrative and non-narrative film and art practice is limiting, and damaging with film theory excluding aspects of film theory in which it might engage, especially as the medium of film technology shifts to digital technology.
Film studies has worked to consider film narrative, but almost exclusively within the form of the feature film and within the medium of film, so that film as narrative is not considered to any degree in relation to drama narrative, literary narrative, or practices of oral and non-literary narrative forms. To a large extent film studies teaches the form of the feature film and then moves on to consider its cultural context and sets aside the possibilities for the development of narrative film forms. This is unlike the study of the forms of the novel and the forms of drama and performance, which have engaged with developing and changing forms, promoting change, rather than codifying any one particular form and practice.
The model of the classical narrative film dominates in theory as an essentially static concept based on an industry production model of film making which was in place for a few decades, and film theory, by not engaging with television drama, stage drama, printed comics, radio drama, or digital narrative in video games has further closed off the development of critical studies of narrative; image based narrative, and moving image narrative in relation to a wider understanding of narrative, and in doing this has failed to consider the possibilities and development of narrative film forms. The tendency in teaching film practice within film theory and film studies is to teach narrative film as one kind of film and experimental and art film as another, rather than creating an open, diverse and inclusive field.
The feature film can be understood as one form of dramatic narrative in one medium that was dominant at one time, and to centre an academic and theoretical discipline based on this might now be considered out of date and problematic. This would be especially the case as the mediums of photo-chemical film and ferro-magnetic video have merged into digital film, with at the same time the film and television industries combining, with production practices and technologies being shared. Digital film has changed film making and the cinema feature film which was and remains one of the two major concerns of film studies is just one type of a range of forums and formats for digital narrative.
There might and should be academic specialisms within a field of theory, but to limit the field because of its historical origins limits and flaws the field. If the field of history were to concern itself only or primarily centre on the Renaissance in Europe as the essential element of History, this would be understood and judged as a false limitation, and if Art theory only concerned itself with representational painting this would be a similarly false parameter.
Film, rather than being understood as a 20th century phenomena in terms of narrative, defined by that time frame, should be understood as a medium in which narrative was gathered and exchanged as part of centuries of prior development: the study of literature and drama understands its contemporary forms as a development of narrative in oral, performed and written form across millennia, and film narrative even though a different medium is part of this continuum. Within moving image technologies there was and are linear narrative forms and now there are interactive narratives in the playing of video games which have 2D, 3D, VR, virtual reality, and CVR, cinematic virtual reality. Narrative is not defined by medium and form is not limited and static.
While the feature film still has a place in societies and cultures, this linear narrative form, based on mimetic stage drama, performed as a single story is not how contemporary narrative functions socially and culturally and it is not how contemporary societies are engaging with narratives. This reshaping of narrative in the modern and postmodern world is recognised in critical theory, which included as part of film of the theory of studies, but the focus of the field of film theory is still on one particular form and practice of narrative filmmaking, sometimes labeled mainstream film, with this term having an implicit bias, indicating the commercial and economic production of film, rather than considering film as narrative. Conflating the narrative form with it institutions, effectively limits and misconstrues an understanding of narrative and narratives across mediums.
Digital narrative has combined film and television production practices which is a significant change in terms of the economies of film production and the control of narrative forms. The streaming services that now commission film and television have opted for a single dominant form: quality film drama, when there might be a divergence of forms within the expansion of film content. In drama there is the well made play, a particular form, but drama practice and drama theory has not been limited by this, and this diversity would extend to music, with a wide range of forms and styles being produced and consumed. Film theory argues for divergence and inclusivity in film, but not a divergence and development of forms and practice. The concept for multi-cultural filmmaking is not considered in film theory as it is in music or literature where there are cultural specific and local forms, each with their own history and development.
For film theory, the film festival film, offers social and cultural inclusion, films from all over the world can enter and win film festivals and so gather cultural prestige and a degree of economic success due to this, but the global film festivals limit form to the drama feature film. This bias is based in part on commercial practices, but also on the limitations which are self-imposed and regulated by film theory and film studies favoring the mimetic feature film narrative. Because film theory is taught in a particular way then films are judged from this perspective. The term glocal is offered to suggest that there can be local films that are also global, suggesting that there should be one enveloping form or aesthetic standard and quality which can include all filmmakers, but there is no need for this to occur. The economies of film making and exhibition are now such that there is no need to use the industry based model or feature film form of the mid-twentieth century.
There might be narrative studies that encompass mediums, and which considers story and narrative as the main areas of concern rather than the medium in which the narrative is narrated. There’s a strong tendency for theorists and institutions to hold and be dogmatic, to claim to want to move forward and change, but this actually only happens generationally and aspects of theory which is held to be canonical and essential are supported and sustained even though they have become arcane. Film as a photo-chemical technology is no longer the medium of moving image narrative in the twenty-first century, so film theory needs to theorise digital theory: different forms, modes, models and practices of narrative.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019