headlines | about |

Tom Sherman: Cinematic Video


Is the new video 'film,' video or film?
Tom Sherman

Video art has been pushed around and roughed up by a technological revolution throughout its forty-year history. Analog video, rolling through several formats of technological evolution, has been completely replaced by digital video.

Filmmakers, in the meantime, have lost their photochemical medium. Production in 16mm or 35mm film has become cost prohibitive beyond film's perceived advantages over video. Those who still shoot in photochemical film end up editing in and outputting in video. And film projection is a dying art.

Handmade film demonstrates how hopeless the situation actually is. Film remains accessible only to those willing to expose raw film stock to chemicals in their bathtubs. Wearing gas masks and raincoats for protection, filmmakers cling to their disappearing medium.

In 2006 there are 150 million digital video camcorders in operation worldwide. And digital still cameras and camera phones also shoot video. Non-linear video editing is a standard feature on all personal computers. Video streams across computer networks, lighting up tiny screens and laptops, desktops, LCD and plasma screens. Video projection is exploding with LCD and DLP and HDV. 160,000 theatres worldwide are rolling over to HDV projection. LED and OLED (organic light emitting diodes) promise to take video data to all architectural and furniture surfaces, spreading to clothing and the rejuvenation of books, magazines and newspapers. Video display technology is gaining a mobility and ubiquity that film never had.

Filmmakers, displaced and stunned by these developments, have latched onto video. Wanting video to be film they slow video's frame rate and insist upon progressive scan. Video's aspect ratio has been stretched from 4:3 to 16:9. Filmmakers try to slow down and overtake an electronic medium that runs at the speed of light. Major equipment manufacturers exploit this migration, for the time being... The central digital art form is simulation. The goal is the creation of a complete fake: the fusion of the copy and the original. As with 'reality television,' the digital 'film' demonstrates the difficulties of controlling hyper-reality.

Filmmakers collectively attempt to transform the balanced, brutally explicit retinal-acoustic reality of video into an electronic, digital photo-optical simulation of 'film.' They try to blanket the video medium's essential cybernetic characteristics (behaviour shaped and governed by instant replay) with scripts and actors and the conventions of cinematic history. It has not yet dawned on filmmakers that the explicit nature of the video medium undermines the illusions of fictional narrative.

The semantic trail of this awkward takeover is amusing. Filmmakers now say they work in 'digital cinema.' 'Video cinema' or 'video film' are too straightforward and don't sound right (video sounds better as a noun than it does as a verb). Filmmakers, confined to computers and non-linear editing, are attracted to the term 'movies' (as in 'QuickTime movie files') -- but the idea of digital 'movies' is ultimately too small and fails to encompass the grand 20th century scale of cinematic history. The word cinema must remain in a description of filmmaking in video. The millennial practice of making 'films' in the medium of video is exactly what it is: cinematic video. It is filmmakers making cinema using the medium of video. It is cinematic video.


Professor Tom Sherman
Syracuse University
Department of Transmedia
102 Shaffer Art Syracuse, New York 13244-1210

e-mail: twsherma (at)

The three fold problem

Tom starts the discussion. I think there are as many mediums as there are vehicles for presentation. So that a video projected in a theatre is cinema and a video on a cellphone is digital video. Then there's internet video and the elephant in the room, television. I am working on a piece called "Assembled Cinema" that uses some of the cinematic language but it is an installation piece. Well at the moment it's a work sample on the internet as an artist I like to mix and match and mash-up everything. For Assembled Cinema I hired some actors and a camera person. The script is a sort of disater movie but it's based on my experiences during 9/11 as well as several natural disasters that have struck near my home in PA. The concepts is that a computer will randomly select scenes and assemble the piece. I some sense this goes back to the original basis of montage and cutting that Eisenstein formulated.