May 20, 2002
Vol. II, No. 18
"The Attack of the Clones"
Since the release of the newest Star Wars movie, I have been reading interviews with George Lucas who talks a great deal about his use of digital technology in producing his latest film. Here is a choice quote from one of his older interviews:
"Digital in film is just like digital in writing. It makes the medium much more malleable; you can make a lot more changes. You can cut and paste and move things around and think in a more fluid style - and I love that. We're just getting into that on a grand scale in film. I don't think I'd ever go back to analog. I haven't used an editing machine with film on sprocket holes for almost eight years. I hardly even know how to hold a piece of film anymore - I don't think I could do it. It's just too much work: It's too cumbersome, too slow, and you can't manipulate it enough. It would be like going back and scratching things on rocks!"
Then, amidst the Star Wars hype, I spied this interview with Steven Spielberg in which he, too, discussed the use of technology in making films:
"Now the thing I'm most saddened by is the constant talk about the photochemical process becoming a thing of Thomas Edison's past. There's a magic about chemistry and film. Sure, a digital shot is steady. It doesn't have to ride through the gate of a projector. And, sure, it's as clean as the OR in a major hospital. That's exactly what's wrong with it. Film has a molecular structure called grain; even a still of just a flower in a vase has life because of the grain, because of the molecules in the film. Especially if you sit in the first five rows of any movie theater, you know what I'm talking about. The screen is alive. The screen is always alive with chaos and excitement, and that will certainly be gone when we convert to a digital camera and a digital projector. I was one of the first people to use digital technology to enhance my films, but I'm going to be the last person to use digital technology to shoot my movies."
Those are two very different views of the role technology should play in the making of movies. Spielberg uses technology to facilitate his creative process while Lucas' creative process appears to be driven by technology. At this point, you could say, "What's the difference? It's just a movie." But the opposing views of these two great film creators roughly correspond to the old "pipes vs. speakers" debate in the organ world. You could say that Spielberg represents the hand-built, traditional pipe organs using pipes to produce sound and Lucas represents the mass-produced, electronic organs playing digital recordings of pipes through speakers.
What's the Difference? It's Just an Organ.
A digital organ salesman said to a friend of mine, "Stand in front of these two organs. One is digital and one is pipes. I'll play both. If you can tell the difference, I'll buy you lunch." That's not much of a wager, even if you're a big eater, and it makes me wonder how much confidence the salesman had in his product. Anyway, my friend couldn't tell the difference.
At another friend's church, they installed an electronic organ without even considering a pipe organ. My friend said, "We probably couldn't tell the difference." I'm sure my friend was right.
But should the debate really be about whether we can tell the difference? Obviously under the right conditions digital organs can sound surprisingly like pipe organs. And I've never heard anyone claim that digital organs are superior to pipe organs so maybe the debate should center on the claim that pipe organs are superior to digital organs. At least then you could start to identify the kinds of things that are lost when a pipe is replaced with a speaker. For instance, to return to our film discussion, is there an equivalent to "grain" in the sound that pipes make that disappears when it is recorded and played back from a digital organ. In this way, perhaps a more substantial defense of the pipe organ could be offered to those who ask, "Who can tell the difference?"
Here's a final thought courtesy of Steven Spielberg:
"Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful because we're too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone."
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