Optical Printing and Digital Computers

story © Michael Betancourt, August 31, 2011 all rights reserved.


I have been describing my own working process as 'using the computer like an optical printer' since I made the digital transition in 2000. This approach is based on the fundamentals described by Raymond Fielding at the very end of his book Special Effects Cinematography that I read during the two month faculty strike that happened my first semester as an undergraduate at Temple University. Since I wasn't able to take classes, I spent my time reading things that interested me.

With the revolution in digital video that started in the 1990s, the historical basis for these technologies is now quite distant. But these technologies evolved from an application of the digital computer to historical techniques and approaches, thus enabling ever greater control over the image. Writing in 1984, Raymond Fielding considers the optical printer as a variety of mechanical, analog “computer”. We can recognize the limiting factors of analog media—most especially generation loss, grain, and errors (dirt, etc)—that disappear when producing these same effects with digital means:

There is no question that the introduction and perfection of an electronic optical printer could theoretically revolutionize the process of composite cinematography and optical printing. In addition to all of the capabilities of a modern optical printer, such a system could be able to enhance photographic images, minimize grain, add color to black-and-white images or alter colors radically, multiply image elements to whatever extent desired, correct over- and under-exposure, and remove scratches or wires from within the picture area. It is even theoretically possible that such a device could be separate designated foreground details out of the background without the need for blue-screen backings, and that computer software could be designed to accomplish this, more-or-less automatically, with a minimum of human instruction. With such a system, the images of expensive miniatures, set pieces, props, crowds, water and sky scenes, and the like might be ‘stockpiled’ and retrieved at will for use in new films! In theory, at least, all things are possible with such a system.
[Raymond Fielding, The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography (Oxford: Focal Press, 1984) pp. 405-406.]

Computer software such as Adobe AfterEffects (or, really, any program that allows compositing) is the descendent of the optical printer. This engagement is fundamental to how I make my own movies—the same things that Fielding describes are all common features of digital compositing software, and even the hypothetical library of ‘stockpiled’ materials now exists—available for immediate, digital download from the companies that formerly provided only still photographs as ‘stock’ material for use in print advertising. The emergence of this new technology since 1984 has radically altered the entire production process, rendering the physical optical printer not only no longer competitive, but obsolete: the technology and technical effects performed by the optical printer are no longer done physically, but are instead an entirely digital process. Once the computer became both powerful enough and cheap enough to enable its everyday use in the production of motion graphics and all varieties of visual effects, it replaced the earlier technologies entirely, in much the same way that digital technologies replaced physical typesetting at newspapers and the publishing industry between 1970 and 1990. The development of digital imaging machines such as the one Fielding imagines emerged from steady refinements towards greater control, higher quality result, and lower cost.

I have found that the careful study of these analog, physical production processes and techniques has been invaluable to my conceptualization and theoretical work with digital media. It is too easy to make the fundamental error of assuming that the digital realm is not related to the physical in any way (aura of the digital) rather than simply a translation and extension of what was already being done physically. The need to 'get beyond' the past, I think, only begins once we recognize that most of what the digital technology enables is simply a refinement with greater control, speed and ease of what were physical potentials. Only once we begin to move outside of the limited framework of simply repeating the past in digital form can something new or contemporary actually start to happen. However, I think the key step is to understand what were the extreme—yet potential—applications already being done at the margins of analog media production.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  August 31, 2011  all rights reserved.

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