Indeterminable Frames

A digital humanities + film and media studies project re-examining the moving image.





Works Cited

About This Project

Film barcode of Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) (1971).
Figure 1. The resulting image of Hollis Frampton's (nostalgia) (1971) revisualized with Image Macroanalysis in Javascript (IMJ). The film is visually composed of a number of photographs slowly burned by Frampton. The resulting image allows us to distinguish the 13 separate sequences within the film.

Indeterminable Frames explores a method of re-examining the moving image using the field of digital humanities and its intersection with film and media studies. It seeks to expand our understanding of moving image works, provide new directions for exploring the visual qualities of what lies within the ubiquitous rectangular frames, and interrogate our understanding of frames and their sequential formation of moving image works.

Alternative media theorist Gene Youngblood argued in his seminal book Expanded Cinema for an expansion of the notion of cinema in order to develop a new vision and form of consciousness. He claimed aesthetic application of technology would be the only means of achieving new consciousness to match our new environment, in what he defined during his time of writing as the dawn of the "Paleocybernetic Age." By translating films into visual captasets, we can derive an alternative visualization of a work and a new understanding of cinema.

The visualizations in this project present a new form of film and media analysis, and thus, avenues for a new consciousness. This project seeks not to define these methods of viewing and interacting with film as a new, "absolute truth" for film spectatorship but proposes the methods used as a form that warrants more critical investigation, use, and ongoing discussion.

Related scholarship and projects such as Kevin L. Ferguson's "Volumetric Cinema"(opens in a new tab) claimed we should no longer be bound to cinema as truth existing within the fleeting 24 frames per second. Rather, we should be able to hold and grasp frames as long as we want. Dave Rodriguez's Particles in Space(opens in a new tab) and Colors of Ozu(opens in a new tab) built upon ideas within Ferguson's work and raised additional important and relevant questions, particularly advocating for the avenues opened by advancements in visual processing technology in order to extend beyond traditional notions of access to audiovisual materials. I aim to continue the ethos of their work and similar ideas they have brought forward, while intersecting other frameworks.

Background and Foundations

This project is grounded within an intersection of moving image works, histories, disciplines, and theoretical works by a range of scholars. Indetermininable Frames utilizes four foundations: the history of the moving image, the practice of deformance, moving image works as capta, and revisualization through digital means as a continuation of aura.

Black and white home movie of a bride and groom leaving the church. Origin of film unknown.
Figure 2. Two frames from a home movie shot on 16mm. Origins of film unknown. Dated around 1939 or later. From the author's personal collection.

A Very Brief History of the Moving Image

Studies of the moving image started as early as the late 1800s, with experiments in protocinematic devices such as magic lanterns, zoetropes, flip books, and phenakistiscopes. While the devices had variations in design and technical components, they all contributed to the formation of the persistence of vision—an optical illusion creating the illusion of motion perceivable by the human eye and cognitive mind. Centuries-old science in the study of the camera obscura, a precursor to the optics of modern-day cameras, also contributed to the idea light could project images for the enjoyment of a broader audience.

With ongoing advancements in manufacturing, Eastman Kodak was able to make celluloid film strips first commercially available in 1889. The birth of 16mm film by Eastman Kodak in 1923, a less expensive alternative more accessible to amateurs, changed the consumer market and professional industry for decades to come. It is important to distinguish the foundation of the moving image is itself an accumulation of individual still-images, hereby known as frames, brought together to depict movement. See Figure 2 for an example of individual frames in 16mm film.

A Practice of Deformance

Given the aforementioned knowledge and the physical qualities of film as a celluloid medium, it can be argued a translation of a physical celluloid form with a frame-by-frame light projected structure and a specific frames per second exposure rate as determined by the original filmmaker is translated into a new form by digitization, created into new "frames" via tools such as FFmpeg, and then (re)presented here. I agree. However, I do not believe these ways of viewing or the practices conducted within this project are inherently reductive, as some may argue.

The analysis for this project utilizes the critical practice of deformance as defined by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels in their article "Deformance and Interpretation." Deformance is the act of disrupting or re-organizing a work's original order to bring to attention possibilities of meaning not seen otherwise. Through the use of the digital tools in this project, we conduct deformance to allow a new approach of experiencing and understanding to come to fruition.

The methods used allow both scholars and audiences to consider new avenues for exploration within film and media studies and continue an ongoing conversation in this practice. While viewing a celluloid film projected in its analog form versus as a scanned and digital rendition remains a different experience, the given work is still the given work as it's objectively understood as a philosophical entity and product of creative thought. For simplicity's sake, I won't conduct the wider "digital versus analog" dualist debate here.

Moving Image Works as Capta

According to scientific method approaches to inquiry, we can equate the accumulation of derived still-images from these moving image works as our "datasets." However, Johanna Drucker's definition of data as capta provides a more suitable definition for the inquiry conducted within this project. According to Drucker, "humanistic inquiry acknowledges the situated, partial, and constitutive character of knowledge production, the recognition that knowledge is constructed, taken, not simply given as a natural representation of a pre-existing fact." Data is assumed to be a "given"—recorded and observed; capta is "taken" actively—to engage and analyze.

The use of capta per Drucker's definition grounds the use of the moving image work case studies first and foremost as artist-made works used primarily to answer humanities-based questions about film as aesthetic creations. In addition, understanding the information we use as having an active process rather than a passive existence is key to our interpretation of these works within the analysis. It allows the works to keep their visual and historical richness inherent to their existence during the process of inquiry rather than being reduced to static objects for the sake of digital technicality.

Reproductions vs. Revisualizations

The essence of authenticity as processed through the methods of mechanization and digitization has been commonly debated over time (Benjamin 1968; Davis 1995). When discussing technology and art during the process within these purviews, one must consider the relationship between the two and the influences of one process over the other. Mechanization through the use of computer tools and methods, otherwise known as the process of introducing machine-based methods for a generated output, encapsulates the method conducted within the project.

Scholar and critic Walter Benjamin argued in his seminal essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that while the act of reproducibility brought copies and replications to new physical places, and thus, increased modes of access—it also presented something new. The aura, the unique aesthetic authority of a work of art crafted through historical testimony and the domain of tradition, could be absent from a mechanically generated copy. In the vein of Benjamin's line of thought, the process of inquiry proposed here does not aim to reproduce the works through the digital means, therefore works in question keep their distinct auras within their presence in time and space. The visual elements included here are what I define as revisualizations, rather than reproductions. Revisualization illustrates there are more visible qualities to understand about these works. When contexualized through the many frameworks introduced, this is where the digital humanities can step in and help fill a gap.

Frames, "Frames," and Still-Images

Frames are the individual frames as we've come to understand them within celluloid media forms, as seen in Figure 2. Through the act of deformance, we generate derivatives for this project. Thus, the derivatives mapped on ImagePlot are "frames" and derivatives are created through FFmpeg are still-images. You can read more about the tools used in Methods.

The word frames itself is used in various contexts, which is why it's important to define the terms and draw boundaries here. The use of the term within the media industry and its related fields can be far different than what many traditional users and consumers may understand it to mean. Notably, born-digital video also uses frames per second standards as units of measurement. However, for the purposes of this project, we'll stick to the definition of frames as it's understood within celluloid mediums.