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The Medium is Only Half the Message

Technologists and storytellers: Can’t we all just get along?
April 1, 1997

Engineers describe the performance of new media like television or motion pictures in terms of “technical resolution”-measurements such as frame rate, spatial resolution, brightness, and dynamic range. If you design lenses or build projection systems for a living, this technical resolution is likely to be of more than passing interest-it’s usually how your work is judged.

But if you’re a writer or film director, you need another axis-“emotional resolution”-to describe how well you are using the technology to convey a message to your audience. Put more simply, that term measures how effectively you are communicating. Your mastery of emotional resolution is how your work is judged.

While it’s convenient for some of us to think that one can separate the technical performance of a media-delivery system from the content itself, this is useful only to technicians. Everyone else cares about the final result when the two are inextricably merged. Most of us don’t watch test patterns for fun, and moviegoers shouldn’t be thinking about the theater’s projection or sound systems. The engineer should design these systems so well that they are transparent to the viewer. And paradoxically, increasing the technical resolution of an imaging system can sometimes diminish the quality of the viewer’s experience. For example, more detail in a motion picture can hurt the ability to tell a good story.

A key member of the filmmaking team is the director of photography (DP for short). The “look” of the picture is almost completely in the hands of the DP: even if the sets are great, the costumes gorgeous, the makeup amazing, and the performance captivating, if the DP is asleep at the switch, the movie will look bad. This is not desirable when thirty to a hundred million dollars are at stake.

Before starting a film, the DP’s assistants can spend weeks meticulously testing every lens for such attributes as sharpness, contrast, focus accuracy, and color rendering. The name of the game is to avoid surprises when the director says “action.”

I first learned how professionals guard against the deleterious emotional effects of excessive resolution while working on my first big movie: Ken Russell’s Altered States. On the first day of shooting, I observed a ritual that was repeated for the duration. The crew (more than 100 people) arrived very early in the morning-poised, primed, and ready to make a picture. In the first few hours, the set was lit and the camera dragged out and set up. The actors and director rehearsed their performance. And then, just before the first frame (of millions to come) was shot, something peculiar happened. The camera was pointed toward the actors (this part wasn’t too surprising), and the DP-a great technician and artist, Jordan Cronenweth-whispered something to his assistant, who then ceremoniously opened a serious-looking box. Out came an object called a filter, which he placed between the lens and the actor. But this was not just any filter, like a polarizer or a haze filter, which can sometimes enhance image quality, but a diffusion filter. This little item came from the same people, mind you, who had just spent weeks rejecting lenses with the slightest bit of flare or a tiny scratch. A lady’s net silk stocking was then stretched over the lens. And as a final insult, a bit of fresh nose grease was selectively rubbed around the perimeter of the filter. (Yes, nose grease-some use Vaseline, some use hair spray, but many of the Greats use nose grease.) We were now, he announced, ready to shoot.

In less than a minute, these adjustments had reduced the performance of state-of-the-art optical equipment to something less than what you would expect from a ten-dollar disposable camera. But Jordan hadn’t lost his mind; he was just doing his job of compelling visual storytelling. Trust me, you don’t want to pay good money to go to your local movie theater to see an unfiltered close-up of your favorite actor. You would be able to count hairs and skin pores and come to realize that movie stars look just like we do at six in the morning. Your concentration on the film’s story would be disrupted. A technically exemplary job of capturing excessively high-resolution images would produce bad storytelling.

Later during filming, I watched Jordan paint shadows on the walls (this is not metaphorical-he used paint), adjust the lighting to produce reflections and glare, create lots of darkness, add camera shake, and otherwise insult the optical sensibilities of the camera system, all in the service of good storytelling. Incidentally, I thought Altered States was a great-looking film.

When all is said and done, both technical resolution and emotional resolution are essential, and anyone who expects to realize the best results from communications media for living, breathing people needs to understand both.

Thus multimedia designers and story-tellers each require fluency in both the technical and emotional arts. But these groups of professionals are often worlds apart and have little basis for mutual understanding, communication, and experimentation. If you don’t believe this, just spend a day surfing the World Wide Web for beautifully designed, experientially rich sites.

So here’s an idea: we might begin modifying the curricula in our colleges to reflect this diversity. Can you think of a great art and science school? I can’t. Isn’t there room for at least one MIFAT (Massachusetts Institute of Fine Arts and Technology)?

I am absolutely convinced that if we can successfully combine the skills of our great storytellers with those of our creative technologists-for example, those who are building and refining the Internet-the results will be amazing. At the moment, most of these folks still aren’t talking to each other, and usually aren’t even aware that they should. If we get this right, future generations won’t remember the period to come as the Information Age but rather as the Storytelling Age.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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