The advent of digital video

Digital mediums are cinema’s biggest competition, but the same technological processes that drive them will ultimately empower the new digital age of cinema

The advent of digital video

The turn of the century has seen the advent of cutting edge digital video, a revolution that more moderate film purists had initially downplayed. For nearly one hundred years, celluloid-based film stock had been the format of choice for filmmakers and audiences alike. The depth, dynamic range and depth of field of modern film stock superseded parallel developments in digital video.

Banking on technological leaps in storage, resolution and image processing, high-end digital video cameras, such as the Arri Alexa and Red Dragon have streamlined the production-to-projection cycle while making it financially feasible for budget filmmakers. This factor has been the major stimulant behind the revival of Pakistani cinema in the past three years.

But as filmmakers and cinema houses acclimatise to the technological imperative that seizes so many industries, the effect of new technologies alters not only the formats used in projection, but the very act of watching film. At its peak during the Great Depression, 3 out of 4 adult Americans went to movie theatres weekly. Although the quintessential summer blockbuster continues stretch break box office records, general trends have seen a decline in cinema goers since the 1960s.

This is in dichotomy with Pakistan, however, where the digital revolution served a death blow to nearly two decades of low-budget b-grade films wagering on the bankability of the industry’s sole film star.

In small we trust

Modern-day consumption of film occurs within two broad scenarios: cinema theatres and household devices. Benefiting from leaps in storage, high bandwidth speeds and processing power, mobile phones and tablets have provided viable alternatives to the idiot box. In the US, Europe, and much of the first world, online services, such as Netflix and Amazon have become crucial platforms in facilitating producers (film distributors) in meeting consumers (like us) through increasingly imaginative terms. Such business models are a giant leap from the classical supply chain business model that depended solely on cinemas and video stores.

VOD service providers and online streaming services have exploited straight-to-video releases, exclusive content and other market-driven features in successfully turning television into a hybrid device that it is today. This has ultimately served as a death blow for the DVD/VHS industry. In 2003, the market’s leading chain, Blockbuster Videos, operated 9,000 stores in the United States. By 2015, Blockbuster had been sold and only 51 of the original stores remained operational.

The curious case of Pakistan

Cable television and torrents are the principal source of film consumption for the average middle-class spectator in Pakistan. Essentially an unmonitored third-world market, Pakistan camouflages through the purveyance of most international intellectual property watchdogs: the low outlay of the average film consumer makes surveillance a cumbersome and financially inefficient process. Patrolling, therefore, is limited to what can be played on cinema screens.

The consumption of pirated content is also a largely accepted norm unfettered by any moral obligation. Despite the recent efforts in raising awareness of intellectual property rights and enforcing the law, a culture of intellectual plagiarism runs undeterred throughout society -- from advertisement agencies to industrial solutions. This makes social conditioning against piracy a tough task.

Keeping up with change

Despite the competition from online services and other competitors, cinema will remain relevant as long as societies appreciate the communal process of viewing movies in a film theatre. As human beings, centuries of evolution have programmed us into gaining pleasure from group activities, regardless of the superficial benefits of a solo run.

As dynamic leaps in portability and image quality takes place across all mediums, cinema will invariably follow suit as it rides the technological imperative.

Whereas virtual reality, such as Oculus Rift headset may have caught the attention of the industry pundits for the moment, cinema-going audiences will continue to have their needs catered through increasingly ‘immersive’ technologies. Past efforts at 4D systems have largely been delimited to theme park attractions or experimental runs for motion pictures. The establishment of uniform 4D production and projection systems for Hollywood films may in all likelihood be a tangible reality in the near future.

For at least the next two decades, the contemporary film distribution model will remain the most lucrative for producers and other stakeholders. Although platforms, such as Netflix have indicated an encouraging future for non-cinema releases or simultaneous releases, it is difficult for societies to change habits that are deeply embedded within group-based socio-cultural traditions, as is cinema.

Digital mediums are cinema’s biggest competition, but the same technological processes that drive them will ultimately empower the new digital age of cinema.

The advent of digital video