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.

Nearsightedness

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.

Posts

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

It’s no surprise by now that Twitter has become a central medium for TV stars and creative types to interact with fans, critics, and potential audiences. It has also become commonplace for said actors to engage with audiences through live-tweetings of their shows, especially if they’re just starting out. In following the live-tweets of actor Robbie Amell during the first two episodes of his new show The Tomorrow People, I was struck by the prevalence of tweets calling attention to his shirtless appearances onscreen, and I began to wonder whether these might be symptomatic of particular types of practices in current social media usage.

robbie tweet 1

#AmellWednesdays is a (surely intentional) piece of promotional convergence set up by the CW on Twitter to promote two shows in its Wednesday prime time lineup: Arrow, starring Stephen Amell, and The Tomorrow People, starring his cousin Robbie Amell. On one level, the reasons why these shows are placed together include this incidental extended family connection between their male stars and a broad thematic grouping of superheroes and/or people with superpowers. However, Robbie Amell’s self-referential tweeting about his shirtless appearances—the constant foregrounding of his physicality—provides another level on which to think about the connection between the shows. Arrow is notable among CW shows because of how central the main character’s physical fitness is to the narrative. As an (extremely wealthy) every man who trains himself to become a superhero, Oliver Queen has to be an impressively fit guy to carry out his adventures, and Stephen Amell’s body has to bear the representation of this character feature. The show rewards the actor’s commitment by constantly showcasing his character’s (and therefore his) body. The Tomorrow People requires no such specific character attributes since the main characters have superpowers unrelated to their physical prowess. Robbie Amell’s tweets, then, are a way to capitalize on the precedent set by his cousin’s show, and extend it to his own. #AmellWednesdays becomes not only a promotional gimmick, but a brand wherein the protagonist’s noticeable physique is intrinsic. Read More

The time is now ripe to join the insights of decades of film and media studies with the new modes of information management, visualization, and dissemination that digital technologies are enabling. Who better to reimagine the relationship of scholarly form to content than those who have devoted their careers to studying narrative structure, representation and meaning, or the aesthetics of visuality?

Tara McPherson, Cinema Journal 48.2

This term I’m taking the course Digital Humanities: Introduction to the Field with Prof. Alan Liu. The course brings in people from a variety of fields, and as a reflection of such, one of the things we will work on is to think through the intersections between our discipline and the field of digital humanities, and write blog posts on them. Since I am taking the class with two fellow media studies colleagues, I figured as a start I would collect as many cases of media studies projects that fall under the umbrella of digital humanities, as well as what others have said about the relationship between these two fields, in order to help us get a sense of these intersections and depart from there.

The above quote from Tara McPherson nicely illustrates the sentiment fueling many of the recent conversations on media studies and digital humanities. If we media scholars are dedicated to study some of the tools being used by digital humanists, why are we not using them ourselves? Or, if we are, why are we not thinking of them as such?

Read More

I’ve recently taken to Prezi less as a presentation software and more as a space for creating visualizations -concept maps, timelines, etc – that help me work through my readings and research material. This particular visualization is inspired from a seminar presentation I prepared on Brian Larkin’s Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Life in Nigeria, a book I have encountered multiple times in the course of my grad career so far, and whose themes and methodologies speak to my own research interests quite a lot.

Prezi

The visualization in full Prezi mode can be accessed here. I hope to keep developing this visualization, and adding concepts and theorists that speak to the same interconnectedness of infrastructure, piracy, and breakdown/repair. Comments and suggestions are most welcome.

Organization

The horizontal funnel created by the two thick blue lines represents the space of technological possibilities created by the development of infrastructure. Moving from left to right represents the passage of time, and the funnel becomes bigger to illustrate the notion of mediation “enhancement” (Graham and Marvin 1996), how new technologies do not simply destroy older forms of communication but, by bringing in new ones, they may in fact intensify older forms as well. Read More

Last year I participated in the 4th FLOW conference in a roundtable titled “Micropolitics in a Digital World“. Given the conference’s scheduling just before the 2012 U.S. elections, the panel sought to ask what were the implications of digital media for local, fringe, or other alternative publics and politics. Its two guiding questions were: How do we bridge the gulf between the scale of national party politics and the intensely local political practices that may more directly shape our lives? How do these kinds of political organizing shape our understanding of the multiple interlocking public spheres we inhabit?

yosoy132

Although the roundtable was clearly geared towards American politics, I was interested in it because earlier in the year Mexico had had its own presidential elections, and for the first time, Twitter (and social media generally) had become a notable component of the public debate. I applied with a response paper on the role of class and access within the digital public sphere, and specifically focused on the #YoSoy132 movement, which had rapidly gained notoriety in the months leading up to the election. The full position paper can be found at Academia.edu

My contention at the time was that the lack of access and the varying degrees of media literacy within Mexican society transposed the class divides of the offline world into the digital realm. I would argue that this view still holds, with two major caveats. First, I neglected to consider the fact that most new online connections in Mexico were mobile, so the contrasts between those with access to the internet and those with a television might not have been that large—though still considerable.

Second, and partly as a result of my participation on the roundtable, I’m more hesitant to assume that a lack of total inclusion in debates occurring in online social media necessarily translates into an unsuccessful political endeavour. At FLOW, another panelist suggested that politics in social media were, intrinsically, not as useful as offline political movements, that the only—or, at least, the most meaningful—change would come from people on the streets making demands and changing public policy. I remember disagreeing with such a characterisation, principally on the grounds that effecting change on a large scale to the lived political reality of a select group—for instance, teens lobbying and getting a GSA group in their small, rural community—would be as valuable as large-scale shifts to public policy, albeit in a different way. In retrospect, this argument could be used to counter my own initial proposition that lack of inclusion in social media debates was tantamount to a failed political project.

To be sure, the fact that access to online social media is highly stratified is a huge problem, and one that will continue to shape what social media can be and could do. What I would now hold is that, this problem notwithstanding, there is considerable value from engaging in the sorts of micro politics that social media currently allows. That is, as questions around impact are geared towards measurements of breadth versus depth, I’m beginning to wonder whether Twitter’s impact could be better theorised in terms of the latter rather than the former. And I’m interested in understanding how this would affect how we study social media’s impact in our daily lives. How are measures such as impact, success, or change more dependent on abstract ideals rather than real-life results? More importantly, to what extent are these ideals based on incorrect, or incomplete, understandings of the reach and strength that social media interactions can have on people’s daily lives? I hope to continue these lines of thought as I continue to study Twitter and its political uses.

During the winter term, I took a class on sound and struggles with Prof. Kay Dickinson at Concordia University, and for my final project I created three video essays for a series entitled The Drag Queen’s Throat, where I explored issues of space, time, and representation related to sound studies through the cultural figure of the drag queen. The project description and statement can be read here.