I rarely miss my self-imposed deadline of Monday morning for posting this blog, but this weekend I had an excuse. I was at a two-day workshop Saturday and Sunday to learn Final Cut Pro, Apple’s medium-level video editing software. It was pretty intense, and Sunday evening felt more like Friday evening, only I had to get up and go to work the next day. So the blog got lost in the shuffle. But the workshop gave me some food for thought about how things have changed over the decades with regard to making and distributing motion pictures.
First there was celluloid. I was charmed to learn that at the Austin School of Film where I took the workshop, they still teach people how to shoot, develop, and cut (literally) black-and-white Super-8 movie film. Until the late 1950s, film was the only way to store moving pictures. Until that time, television was an instantaneous medium with no convenient way to store the images, unless you shot a movie (called a kinescope) from a TV screen. The quality of kinescopes left a lot to be desired, and because film had to be developed, instant replays weren’t possible.
Then Ampex came out with the videotape recorder: first the giant two-inch-reel professional version, followed a couple of decades later by the consumer-grade VHS format. For the first time, the movie medium was cheap enough so that people could actually buy movies and watch them at home whenever they wanted to. And though it was expensive, you could now own your own video-making equipment. Once upon a time in the mid-1970s I was involved in an amateur video production using equipment borrowed from the media department at Caltech. The camera was about the size of a loaf of bread and I had to lug the twenty-pound recorder around on a strap around my neck. And when we got back to the dorm to view the product, something bad had happened to the audio and it wasn’t recoverable. All black-and-white, by the way.
Fast-forward to Samsung’s latest cellphone, the Galaxy SIII, which is predicted to sell 10 million units next month. Not only does it shoot HD video, it allows you to share photos with anybody nearby who has another SIII, and recognizes when you’re looking at it by eye-recognition software. If you just hold two SIIIs close together, you can transfer a 1-gigabyte video file in only three minutes. The technology to do all this even twenty years ago would have taken up most of a good-sized room, but it’s all squeezed into a box the size of a large postcard.
Like most technological developments, the fact that anybody with an SIII can now shoot video of a quality and length that only professional production companies could manage formerly, has both good and bad aspects to it. I think one of the best things that video for the people has led to is the filming of nefarious activities of all kinds, from incidents of brutality to mass uprisings against dictatorial regimes. Like any documentation, videos can be subject to a variety of interpretations and misused, but in general, it’s better to have a video of a situation in addition to eyewitness reports, because the video doesn’t forget or change its tune over time.
But there are downsides too. “Sexting”—the incidence of teenage girls sending suggestive photos and videos of themselves—has become so technologically easy that the child-pornography laws are being rewritten so as to avoid sending millions of otherwise law-abiding thirteen-year-olds into lifelong sexual-predator watch programs. It’s a shame that kids are foolish enough to do this sort of thing in the first place, but it’s clearly in a different category from the hard-core child pornographer, and the law is belatedly recognizing that fact.
Add to the mix YouTube and the lottery-like attraction it exerts on would-be viral filmmakers, and you get indefinite millions of cat videos and the equivalent of a British Museum on your computer to wander around in, wasting time. Only some reasonably intelligent people have selected what goes into the British Museum, while anybody who can push a few buttons can upload their cute cat’s latest to YouTube.
I’ve got nothing against cats personally, but the ready availability of abundant, novel ways to waste time is just one more temptation that people have to deal with these days. I have lost the reference to a saying I came across the other day, but it was to the effect that while watching cat videos for an hour doesn’t actively hurt anybody, it is nevertheless a social ill whose effects are widespread but not easily quantified or even identified. For those who believe in the devil, it represents a success on his part if the person in question is a believer. This situation was captured well by C. S. Lewis in 1941 in The Screwtape Letters, when he described the state of mind that even then, well before the Internet, was a temptation to avoid: “. . . a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that [one] is only half aware of them. . . .” That is an excellent description of the condition that watching random YouTube videos can lull one into. And it wouldn’t be possible unless millions of people were easily able to shoot and post their videos online.
The same thing happened with photography when George Eastman invented the Kodak in 1888. From an expensive, tedious activity of professionals, photography spread to the masses, leading to oceans of snapshots you can still find by the handful in antique stores. Most snapshots result from friends and relatives shooting pictures of each other, and in that sense have no higher goals or ambitions. And many videos posted online are similarly intended for no higher purpose than to be shared among a few friends, and that is a good thing, as far as it goes.
Why was I taking a video editing class in the first place, you ask? In contradiction to the tell-all atmosphere so common on the Internet, I choose to withhold that information until such time that I have made something worth drawing my readers’ attention to. In the meantime, you can just wonder.