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Filmic Texts and the Rise of the Fifth Estate

Virginia Kuhn, Author
Digital Pedagogy, page 10 of 13

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Digital Complexity

When photographic images are digitized, they lose some of their native information since they must be compressed. Compression is a necessary reduction of an image's information: Certain aspects must be privileged while others are suppressed, as an image is algorithmically deconstructed and reconstituted. As Ron Burnett argues, the need for far more conversation about, and research into these conversions is vital since the "combination of algorithmic formulae and image generation decisively alters what is meant by images," (47).  Though Burnett notes that most of these subtle changes arising from the digitization of images are not visible to the human eye, perhaps we are simply not attuned to apprehend the difference consciously, though this difference may have an impact. As images become widespread modes of communication, this difference may be important in its cumulative effect.  Recent work at the intersection of neuroscience and cinema attempts to map the ways in which viewers receive images, an effort that may take reception theory outside the realm of the anecdotal. For instance, using fMRI scanning technologies, subjects are shown digitized films while their brain activity is recorded (Tika, et al). The analysis is not yet complete, but one of the goals of the project is to chart the ways in which the brain responds to the type of image editing and special effects that defy realistic representation; will the subjects register the changes physically (via brain activity) and will that match their conscious reaction?

If photographic images are simplified however, digital functionality allows complexity of filmic texts through layering, image editing and animation. In particular, words do wonderful things when animated, and serve to remind us that writing has both a graphic and an ideational element. The 8 1/2X 11 inch page with double spaced 12 point Times New Roman font is not an ideologically neutral nor graphically meaningless facet of the conventionally assigned research paper, even if it has been rendered transparent through its ubiquity. Like other shifts in reading - the move from scroll to page, the move from page to screen - words that are time-based (like scrolling movie credits), but which are user controlled by means of digitization (making the scrolling speed less important and confining), represent a form that may shift reading patterns substantially. All of the assignments in IML340 ask students to use text in a way that highlights both a graphic, as well as an ideational facet. The point is to explore all of the affordances of the digital, and to deploy all of its available semiotic resources for communication and expression.

One genre that has emerged is kinetic typography: a type of animation that combines text and motion in ways that impact the meaning of the words, both singly and in concert with the whole. The most prominent examples of kinetic typography blend the soundtrack of popular films with the script graphically rendered in ways that indicate the meaning of the words spoken. One student, Luke Kraman, having explored the language of images in Arabic Enemy 101, decided to confront this word-based genre, learn the editing effects necessary to execute it, and deploy it in the service of an academic argument.

Like Arabic Enemy 101, The American Perspective confronts stereotypes, though this time in the form of attitudes about US involvement in Iraq as expressed by people in the Southern part of the United States. The American Perspective visualizes the voices culled from the project, "Talk to An Iraqi" by Haider Hamsa, aired on Ira Glass's Showtime series, This American Life. The subject of these interviews is the Iraq War and the various people interviewed are mostly pro-war. In his accompanying statement, Luke notes:
I chose not to include any images in this piece since mass media has constantly barraged us with devastating images from Iraq. I believe that due to this overload, we have become desensitized to the statistics, stories and images surrounding the Iraq War. Sadly, the full meaning of these words has been drained as a result of this over-exposure. Through kinetic typography, this project attempts to recover meaning. The project not only comments on the Iraq War but also acts as an exploration of this emergent genre.
Certainly there are similar uses of words in film and we investigate and discuss them in class. These models help to defamiliarize students with the generic conventions and spark their creative and analytic skills as they experiment in their own digital authoring.  Students are asked to demonstrate a productive alignment with genre, so while they should show awareness of generic conventions, they are encouraged to break with them in defensible ways. 
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