A human reflection on filmmaking inspired by Jan Bot’s film “2018–11–10.007-michelle_obama.mp4"
Before the movie plays the first frame, invisible forces have already been set to motion.
These forces are operative commands, scripts, messages, codes, objects positioned along frames on a linear timeline, preloaded with the display code of the movie object.
- we never think about a movie as complex software.
As an extension of the finger, the play button.
This is the igniter that sets the frame into motion,
it turns on the screen.
The frame follows another frame and then
another frame that follows another frame.
The setting, a well-defined zone with determined changes of display values or,
in other words,
oscillations of light.
Eyes, an extreme close up. One fleeting headline, too short to be read.
People in costumes, a party,
A historical event perhaps?
A man with a mask,
the face of a female puppet laying and glancing.
A story created through juxtapositions, interruptions, repetitions.
A reverie of rhythms rather than a narrative of images.
I’ve never thought of archives as collections of software and datasets.
I am rather familiar with physical archives: reels of celluloid.
One meter of 35mm film is about 52 frames, or two seconds long.
One hundred meters is about 4 minutes, if shot on 24 frames per second.
Silent films were shot on 18 frames a second.
Young filmmakers may not recall this knowledge,
but it has remained.
It has been transported with the weight of Griffith’s narrative tradition
for more than a hundred years ago.
A shot as a single unit of content.
The close up of a pair of eyes
may only last two or three meters.
A movie viewed
consists of a group of shots assembled (clued) to create a narration,
a visual statement.
Montage can be associative, rhythmic, symbolic, metaphorical, or simply indexical.
Montage directs the viewers, it conditions their attention.
Hollywood’s style of cinematic storytelling pulls us into a narrative world through
its transparent and fluid editing.
This is the doctrine of ‘decoupage’ or
Decoupage creates continuity between actions. It weaves a story.
Decoupage creates rhythm, it gives form,
it let us look at something from various angles,
it allows shifting place and time,
it creates simultaneity,
it manipulates our emotional responses.
As Andrej Tarkovski wrote in his book “Sculpting in Time”:
Editing a picture correctly means allowing the separate scenes and shot to come together spontaneously, for in a sense they edit themselves; they join up according to their own intrinsic pattern (…) it is not always easy to sense the pattern of relationships, the articulations between shots (…)²
In opposition to Hollywood, Sergei Eisenstein claimed that discontinuity between shots immersed viewers in a dialectical process, forcing them to synthesize images and create new meanings.
Everyone who has had in his hands a piece of film to be edited knows by experience how neutral it remains, even though a part of a planned sequence, until it is joined to another piece, when it suddenly acquires and conveys a sharper and quite different meaning than planned for it at the time of filming.³
What changes if the filmstrips are translated into code?
Blocks of data coupled with metadata,
tags labelling chunks of unidentified images, framed as sets.
Sets of sets defined as sequences,
parts of sets defined by labels
data as an infinite landscape of possibilities,
a big, big digital chunk
inside a storage disk
on a server,
each referring to each other.
In ‘The Language of New Media’ (2001), Lev Manovich proposed five defining characteristics of digital media: Numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding. Understood very simple, any digital media object can be described mathematically and submitted to the scrutiny of algorithms.
But so far digital media objects are still treated just like their analogue counterpart.
Filmstrips have been turned into graphical timelines,
shots into clips organized in digital reels,
and digital folders.
The basic unit of content remained the frame
and the edited film remained
a sequence of frames linked and locked.
A shot, a sequence of images, was and still is the instruction of reading as playing a specific chunk of data from a disk.
The timeline paradigm is just one from many possible approaches towards the assemblage of chunks of data.
Layering tracks over time transforms a computer from a movie player to a movie-making machine,
A signification engine bolstered by interactivity that can be mechanically scripted with finite options or driven by the fluid dynamics of video game methodologies.⁴
In 1937 the composer John Cage wrote “The Future of Music”.
He described the cinematic frame as a basic operational unit for measuring time.
This unit could be the rigorous framing of one single element,
or it could be part of a complex multilayered composition.
John Cage’s ideas meet Gilles Deleuze, the philosopher
in his theories about “cinema-thought”.
While continuing to reflect on movie-making in the digital domain,
we are ending up with the dynamics of a system that is left to “be itself”,
creating the possibility of an artificial awareness.
For Deleuze the cinematic frame is an information system. Actors, places, objects in front of the camera, sounds, effects, durations of takes, all together build the cinematic frame and create meaning.
Sequences of frames with rational connections or assemblages of cause and effect
are called by Deleuze “movement-images”.
Sequences of images that do not describe time through motion, and rather present time in the space between two disconnected images,
are called by Deleuze “time-images”.
In Jan Bot, or in any system that is left to “be itself”, the sequences of frames (basically chunks of data) become events authored from a network of instructions.
They are modular scripts driven by
the element of chance
to create images detached from actions,
substantial sequences that
inherit both cinema and an AI approach to
In a Deleuzian sense, the system produces an image beyond movement and time,
a neural image,
a rhythmical image.
Lev Manovich had referred to Vertov’s “Man with the movie camera” as an example of the indexing character of cinema.
Interactive movie-making software like Florian Thalhofer’s Korsakov applied this indexing character to generate interactive storytelling experiences through image tagging.
But the algorithmic editing capacities of an AI go beyond simple indexing and linking/tagging.
When JanBot searches for trending news and scrolls Eye filmmuseum’s archive,
the two given sets,
one dynamic and one static,
become just one set of data at one specific time.
The resulting experience played back to the human eye is unexpected, surprising, sometimes engaging, somehow strange, someway utterly outlandish.
On first sight, the editing of a movie clip like the one -referenced here- on Michelle Obama, looks like another form of chaos editing, an editing style cropped out of music videos, where time is anytime, and space is any space, with a disruption of continuity and a total support of feeling and atmosphere generating rhythm.
On second sight, a movie like this offers an unexpected juxtaposition of images, a refreshing cinematic moment where the narrative is manifested by a set of algorithms. Retaking Deleuze’s theory of action and time image, this movie offers a third kind of image, one generated inside the human mind: a mental image.
Automation might be seen as a giveaway of the creative process to forms and functions of algorithmic logics in computer systems. With Jan Bot it is not only the giveaway of the creative process to algorithms, but also the giveaway of the archive.
And nonetheless, the non-human element is through the act of the artist linked with the human world. The AI becomes a responding mechanism of human archived truth. The generated videos, inspired by online trending news, paint societal mental images in poetic forms. They demand attention to the machine that generated them, evoking feelings and memories out of this observation.
Here, the third image is a poetic one. Through movement and time, the machine contemplates its inner substance, its “machin-nes” — alive in relation to us.
(1) The starting command of the now obsolete authoring software Macromedia Director for designing and scripting interactive CD-ROMs with the object-oriented programming language LINGO.
(2) Tarkovsky, Sculpting in time. University of Texas Press. 1989.
(3) Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Dobson. 1963.
(4) Goldberg, David. EnterFrame: Cage, Deleuze and Macromedia Director (multimedia authoring software)(Evaluation). Afterimage. July-August 2002.