The look of digital

Recently, we griped that digital cinema is too damned ugly to qualify as cinema. If this is what we’re gonna be stuck with until the earth crashes into the sun, give us crayons and Lite-Brite instead.

There may yet be some counterevidence.

Jonathan Nossiter’s digital film Signs and Wonders is reputedly a treat for Charlotte Rampling fetishists, and possibly more so for the vanishingly small number of Stellan Skarsgård acolytes. (Loved him in Ronin!) Apparently:

The mystery, uneasiness and jump-cut nervous transitions of Signs and Wonders all speak to this pervasive sense of anxiety. The unreal quality of the film’s look (it resembles a faded film from 40 years ago, with unexpected bits of brightness jumping out at the viewer) came from another one of Nossiter’s arguments with the modern world – the homogeneity of film stock.

“I wanted to make something that looked painterly, in an intensely manipulated image. Right now, Kodak has a virtual monopoly on film stock and they’ve had a extraordinary effect in limiting our visual possibilities. Everything is ultimately designed for television and has a glossy, advertizing friendly photo-realist look. My favourite colour films, from the fifties through the seventies, showed the human imperfections.”

So he decided “to go the digital video route, not to be more technological but to get a rawer, more human feeling.... There isn’t a frame in this film that hasn’t been manipulated.”


It’s very much a film out of its time, with more in common with paranoid ’70s thrillers like Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View or Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now than any contemporary films. It even looks older – Nossiter chose to shoot the film on digital video not to emulate the rough style of the Dogme posse but to get the combination of rich, saturated colour and grainy texture he loved about colour films in the ’70s. “With the super-slick Kodak film stock and their monopoly,” he says, “it’s very hard to make a film that doesn’t look like a big commercial.”

We are willing to grant this point.

Here is what we want:

We want a festival of recent films shot on digital video. We want a range of works included, from music videos to features (among others, Series 7, Dancer in the Dark, Chuck & Buck, The Celebration and anything Dogmetic, Time Code, and of course Welcome to Sarajevo, mixing video and film). We want an honest discussion of the look of these artworks, with particular comparison drawn against actual films that push the artifices of film effects to the forefront, like Zentropa and its homosexualist derivative, Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss.

We say digital video does not equate to cinema. Filmmakers and propagandists would have us believe the opposite. We want a debate. Æsthetically, the issue is too important to simply sneak in through the back door.

Posted on 2001-03-31