The Problems of Film

In my last post I argued for a form of “distant reading” that could be applied to film studies, and claimed that such a practice could be just as useful as our current close reading practices. In this post I continue this line of argumentation by considering one such way in which distant reading could take place in film studies: by analyzing systems and patterns across sets of films.

Montage Strikes Back

The Soviet formalists, pioneers in film theory and praxis, are making a comeback. Sure, their influence and canonical status within the discipline means they’ve never left, but there’s a peculiar form of resonance in the fact that the first projects of digital analysis of films harken back to those early film practitioners. Everything old is new again, if you will. I am referring specifically to the Digital Formalism project, a collaborative venture between the Austrian Film Museum, the University of Vienna, and the Vienna University of Technology that between 2007 and 2010 took the Vienna Vertov Collection and developed computational tools to aid in the analysis of Dziga Vertov’s works. Resulting from this project, interesting discussions on issues such as the difficulties of digitizing archival films and meta-data annotation of shots of urban landscapes have come out. Most notably for this discussion on distant watching, this project illustrates the challenges facing any sort of visual analysis of films using computers: How do we make legible for computational analysis the multiplicity of semantic, compositional, and technical aspects of one specific shot? For the Digital Formalism project this consisted of using algorithms for minor tasks such as detecting intertitles and human input for more complicated tasks such as motion tracking and image composition. Read More

¿Qué significará ver el cine “desde lejos”?

En este escrito quiero considerar cómo algo similar a lo que Franco Moretti ha llamado “la literatura vista desde lejos” (distant reading) en los estudios literarios podría funcionar en el estudio del cine. Si nuestro actual método para analizar películas es semejante al close reading, es decir, ver una película o una serie de películas y minuciosamente señalar las escenas que mejor representen los temas o características sobre los que estamos escribiendo, entonces, ¿qué tipo de método podríamos utilizar para considerar simultáneamente un gran número de películas a la vez? Asimismo, ¿qué tipo de proyecto de investigación podría requerir que usáramos este método?

Para abordar estas preguntas y considerar cómo podría existir un método para “ver desde lejos” el cine, permítanme comenzar por describir algunas herramientas digitales para el análisis del cine.

Análisis Digital de Películas

Si consideramos que el análisis de cada toma de una película es el equivalente cinematográfico al close reading, entonces el caso de Cinemetrics sirve como punto de partida hacia un análisis a distancia del cine. Creado por el historiador de cine Yuri Tsivian con un programa desarrollado por Gunars Civjans, Cinemetrics es una herramienta que ayuda a recolectar datos sobre la duración de cada toma de una película y a calcular estadísticas sobre estos datos. Desde su creación en 2005, Cinemetrics ha sido utilizado por investigadores interesados en cuestiones de estilo como, por ejemplo, los cambios en patrones de edición a través de la carrera de un cineasta. Su base de datos ha crecido constantemente gracias a las contribuciones de investigadores y actualmente contiene más de 13.000 entradas. Read More

What would it mean to “distantly watch” films?

In this post I am interested in considering how something akin to what Franco Moretti has called distant reading* in literary studies might function in film studies. If our current method of evidence gathering for film analysis is close reading—watching a film or a series of films minutely and picking moments that best represent the characteristics we intend to write about—then what kind of method would we require to simultaneously consider corpora of films? More importantly, what sort of project would necessitate that we undertake such a method?

To begin exploring how a distant reading method could exist in film studies, let me consider some existing digital tools for the analysis of films.

Digital Reading of Films

If we take the shot-by-shot analysis as the equivalent of cinematic close reading, then CineMetrics is a starting point in the execution of a film’s distant reading. Launched by film historian Yuri Tsivian with a program developed by Gunars Civjans, CineMetrics is a tool that aids in recording data about film shot lengths (and recently, types of shots), as well as drawing statistics from this data. Since its inception in 2005, CineMetrics has been used by scholars researching the history of film style by tracking, for instance, historical changes in editing patterns or across a filmmaker’s corpus. Its database has steadily grown with the help of researchers’ contributions, currently standing at over 13,000 entries. CineMetrics essentially provides a macro perspective of one of the constituent elements of a film—its shots—by presenting them as statistic data, and allows for comparative analysis at a distance. In fact, Lev Manovich’s Software Studies Initiative already did so in 2008 with the data that was available then.

Barcode created from El Infierno (2010)

Another way for looking at a film as a whole made up of representative elements from its constitutive shots is the popular movie barcode visualizations. These barcodes are created by taking each frame from the film and reducing it to a bar one pixel wide, which reduces the entire color distribution of that frame to its most predominant one. These individual bars are then put together to provide an overview of the color palette of the film in sequential order. The Tumblr that popularized these barcodes features dozens of examples, but any one film could be made into a barcode with a simple program (still in beta) or following these step by step instructions. Finally, and decidedly different, there’s the Audio-visual Cinematic Toolbox for Interaction, Organization, and Navigation (ACTION) from the Bregman Lab at Dartmouth. Currently in its initial phase, ACTION creates automatic analysis routines to extract image and sound raw data from films, and then provides a work bench to study this data.


This overview of digital tools for film reading is ordered from that which requires the most human input and guidance to that which requires the least. CineMetrics, in its most current incarnation, is still very much dependent on the researcher to watch a film while simultaneously recording the values needed for analysis. Movie barcodes can be produced automatically, but there’s a lot of refining needed in the inputs for the results to be anything other than colorful bars. Read More

As I mentioned in a previous post, this term I am taking an introductory grad course on digital humanities, and as part of it, I will be writing a series of posts relating this area of humanistic inquiry to the field of media studies. I have chosen to begin exploring these intersections by zeroing in on film studies in particular, for two reasons. First, my educational background is in film studies so I expect having a grounding in one area will be helpful in exploring the other. Second, film studies is notoriously positioned for (if not already in the midst of) a disciplinary self-transformation as a result of the rise of new media studies, the dominance of digital film making, and the general downsizing of humanities in academia. In a way, I expect these posts to serve as a micro level attempt to support the work of the 4Humanities group, which uses digital-based projects to advocate for the humanities at large.

These posts will be centered around what I’m calling the problems of film—problems understood both as the struggles film scholars face as the discipline transforms and as the research questions at stake that film scholars seek to solve. Although I will not presuppose nor argue for a medium specificity, I will focus on questions that I see as more relevant—and, in the face of the alarmist “death of film” debate, more pressing—to film studies than other areas of what could be widely considered media studies. Given the time and scale restrictions provided by constant blog posting as well as the fact that I am still getting to know the tools used in digital humanities, I expect the posts to be more like practice runs than finished products. However, I hope that, by making these public, I will be able to reach others working or thinking through these same issues—or inspire those who aren’t into doing so—and thereby engage in a conversation about the changing times in film studies, and whether digital humanities can play a part in these.


Telescoping, or Distant Reading for Film Studies
Telescopia, o ¿Como Ver al Cine Desde Lejos?
Telescoping, Part Two: How to (Not) Watch One Million Moving Images