Dark Rooms and Headsets

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I am so legitimately impressed that my overly-specific search term found this image that I don’t even mind the watermarks

When I watch films it’s normally in one of three ways. On a computer, on a DVD player or in a cinema. I feel like that’s basically how audiovisual content is consumed these days by the vast majority of people. However, I have recently had the opportunity to experience a few different forms of moving images and it’s been an interesting journey.

The first that kept surprising me was the idea of film as a physical commodity. I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I always knew this was the case but I hadn’t ever thought about the implications. Now that I study cinema at Uni the implications, I have realised, are wide and varied and they come up when you least expect them. Early manuals on how to edit films talk about how many feet of film a certain shot ought to be. Film was rationed in some countries during the second world war and this helped solidify 90 minutes as the length of a film. Subtitles had to be manually added to every frame of a film print and couldn’t be removed at the touch of a button. All these things blew my small 21st century brain, but at least it got me thinking.

I spent a good deal of time this term watching films projected on original 35mm copies and while thinking about these films (for reasons that will soon be very apparent. Wink wink, nudge nudge) I came to realise how different the experience of watching a physical copy of a film is to a digital copy. A physical film turns itself into an event every time. It can’t be seen without dimming the lights and projecting it from the back of a dark room. Yes, of course, this is still what happens in any cinema projecting any kind of film but it’s no longer necessary. We keep the spectacle of the cinema experience without actually having a cinema experience. Everyone knows that a digital overhead projector works just as well in an open-plan boardroom as a hushed cinema screen. Secondly, a physical film makes noise. Well, the large mechanical projector makes noise as it shows the film. It clicks, it whirrs, it makes a low humming noise and sometimes, just sometimes, the bulb flickers. There’s no point when you can forget the physical presence of the film; especially not when every ten minutes or so the reel needs changing. Here the projectionist has to execute a smooth change or pull the audience out of the film for the second it takes to figure it out.

Apart from anything else, a film on 35mm jumps into life from white, not from black. A dead computer, TV or phone screen is black. Even the default “no media” screen in editing software is black. But a projector, before the film is loaded and blocks the light is a square of white light on a white sheet. The people, places and situations that you see aren’t what’s projected, it’s what’s blocking this pure white light. Very literally a 35mm film is a series of photorealistic shadows telling a story. It’s really no wonder early thinkers likened this to hypnotism and ghosts.

On the other end of the scale I also recently had a chance to see a film in 360 VR. I’d seen 360 videos around but until now had never put on a VR headset and tested the immersive experience. I don’t recommend it for people who get travel sick in trains or cars. If that’s you, you’re gonna have a really bad time in VR. If not, go for it, you don’t really get the hype or potential of the medium until you’ve seen it for yourself, and it is a new medium. The whole experience is different even on the most basic physical level. In a cinema if you’re moving, shifting in your seat, looking around it most likely means you’re bored (or me hiding from the screen in literally any horror film). In a VR headset moving is how you know you’re engaged with the story. You reach out to touch things, you brace yourself for balance when the camera moves and you look around frantically following sources of sound. If a cinema paralyses you when it’s good a VR film is like an invitation to a dance.