The gulf between us

Digital post production is now an established stage of the film and video making process, and has been so since establishing a serious creative foothold in the 1990s. It was a decade that marked a turning point in the film and video industries; things would never be the same again.

For decades, video as a medium, and indeed the whole arena of video production, was the film industry’s poor relation; with analogue video processes and effects reserved for the shockingly cheap, and marginally distasteful, arena of Television. That’s a relative comparison of course. These days, it’s arguably still true, but only just. The likes of HBO have gained kudos, budget and big names in all areas of production whilst modern video quality has advanced so far that celluloid is, for many, no longer needed.

But it wasn’t always this way. The original chasm between the two camps is best illustrated by glancing back to the early 1980s, and comparing ‘82’s pivotal film release: Blade Runner, with anything sci-fi that was shot on video for television at the time. Blake’s 7, on the BBC, had just ended with a festive, mass character wipe-out during the previous December. What a difference a year and a several magnitude increase of budget/production values make. It is an unfair comparison, with the relative resources available to each; but that precisely illustrates the point: TV as the poor neighbour.  

It doesn’t help of course that the (often) stark, even harsh, visual nature of video at the time was particularly unforgiving with low-budget practical/optical effects and sets; rendering them matter-of-factly in all their flawed glory. Don’t forget that by this time we’d had both Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) on the big screen, by way of contrast. The gulf between video and film seemed like the distance between worlds. If video could not compete in terms of gloss and excess, then it had to go small - or play smart.

Going small is undoubtedly a news desk, a talk show, or a weather report; talking heads essentially. Video dramas set in a contemporary frame were also viable; within a modest studio setting, or with the world outside as backdrop. Soap opera’s, kitchen sink bickering and the like; again, all within reach. It seems like Crossroads, Coronation Street, and (relative latecomer) EastEnders have been around for ever.

‘Smart’ on the other hand took nature’s spectacle, pointed the camera at it and amazed us all with revelatory documentaries, that made David Attenborough a household name in the process. No spaceships were required, and reality was the best special effect. Some would argue that it still is. This was a double win for the broadcasting networks concerned, as documentaries were not something that folk went to see en masse at the cinema. They were uniformly for TV consumption instead: an unwritten but widely upheld rule. The twist is that quality docs’ were still shot on film stock, for ‘that’ look, and then transferred to video for transmission. So even on TV; celluloid would still steal the show, where “proper” entertainment was concerned.

If production budgets had difficulty showing us the future, then the past was relatively easy within a nation of stately houses and with copious wardrobe departments to hand. What do some scientists say? You can travel in time; but only backwards? Again though, quality necessitated filming on celluloid before video transfer, as in the case of Brideshead Revisited.

I’d make a case though for the sci-fi/occult series ‘Sapphire and Steel’ (1979-82); as one of the few examples where filming direct to video just didn’t matter. The production often utilised simple, enclosed atmospheric locations, a dialogue of big ideas, creative lighting and understated effects to achieve a sense of mystery and suspense; plus of course; iconic performances from Joanna Lumley and David McCallum as the two leads. With tales of discarnate time-entities, utilising nursery rhymes as stepping stones into our continuum, on a mission to kidnap the living, whilst non-human, psychic chrono-agents chase fragments of living light around; well, frankly the audience wasn’t left wondering about the video quality. So - paradoxically a win then, for the most conceptually vast and intricate show shot on the cheapest of professional media. Who’d have thought it?

Video (the digital variety) is arguably the future of cinema, as the technical specifications continually improve - but not yet. The ‘film versus video debate’ continues, for now. However, as Hoyte van Hoytema (cinematographer on Interstellar) states on - 

"The debate itself is just stupid, you know? One of the worst things has been the debate, because it assumes there is a “better” and a “worse,” that there is a “winner” and a “loser.” That's not the way I look at it at all. That polarization and presentation that there is something better and something worse is just ridiculous. Anybody can give a reason why something is good or bad, in a technical sense. But the reason filmmakers, like Christopher Nolan are shooting on film, has nothing to do with “better” or “worse.”; it just has to do with very personal taste. Everybody wants a different kind of canvas.  "