Manovich, Chapter 6: What is Cinema?

What are some of the results of the intersection of the world of motion pictures and the ever-spreading realm of computing? As anyone who has gone to a movie theater, watched a film on television, or even viewed promotional ads on broadcast or cable programming, the transformation wrought by computers on the film industry is immense. It’s a lot of material to digest, leaving the viewer to wonder: What is cinema? That’s the title of the sixth and final chapter in Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, in which the media theorist takes on the new face of the movie theater. By examining new media technology and its radical effects on the cinema world, Manovich brings a close to his 354-page meditation on computerization.


Manovich divides the basic effects of computers on cinema into four categories, of which the first two are easily the largest and most prominent. The first, use of computer techniques in traditional filmmaking, includes topics such as virtual sets, digital painting, and digital composition. For this purpose, Manovich cites James Cameron’s 1997 production Titanic as a fundamental example. In the second category, Manovich lists new forms of computer-based cinematic productions, covering a very broad set of topics. Covering territory ranging from 3-D thrill rides to films designed purely for the Internet to video games that employ movie sequences, he argues that many media forms not traditionally considered cinematic can be viewed as part of the intersection of computing and film. Since the time of this publication, of course, the use of digital media within the film industry has evolved still further, as shown by productions (such as Avatar in 2009) that have mapped out new horizons for the medium.


To Manovich, computer technology offers a possible way for cinema to move beyond the status that he calls an “indexical identity.” In other words, in spite of the wealth of visual effects available to a skilled director, a traditional movie camera has only one basic function – to record the scene that is displayed in front of it. In this sense, it differs little from an old-fashioned camera. Today, however, programmers can generate three-dimensional scenes through a computer, editing the images as they see fit, without any need for a camera in the physical world at all. Thus, rather than the passive recording of an image, cinema in the digital age is now seen by Manovich as a creative genre in its own right, much like painting. Instead of merely an “index” of scenes already present, cinematic scenes are now built from scratch and given animation by means of powerful computers. Manovich sees this as a powerful example of the central theme unifying his entire text: The idea that computerization redefines traditional cultural forms, providing “an opportunity to see the world and the human being anew.”


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