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NELSON CARVAJAL: Film is dead but filmmaking is very much alive

by Nelson Carvajal
February 7, 2012 5:34 AM
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Film Is Dead: Edges Of The Digital Frame (exhibit promo) from Nelson Carvajal on Vimeo.

For the longest time, I’ve struggled with labeling myself a “filmmaker.” Maybe it’s a feeling of guilt that I have. The fact of the matter is I’ve never made a movie on film, on celluloid. Actually, I can’t think of a single reason for me to ever shoot on film. It’s ridiculously expensive, requires a slew of extra manpower in order to operate those bulky 35mm cameras and then on top of all that, exhibiting a movie through traditional film projection is becoming less of a reality for independent filmmakers. Thus, I always refer to myself as a “digital filmmaker.” Yes, I make movies (albeit short films, usually containing appropriated mixed media) but they’re all pieces of content that exist because of the streamlined workflow provided by digital production tools. “Filmmaking” is something I do and with as much fervor as any 35mm director has to offer but the big difference is that I am willing to embrace the time I live in. That time is an era where I can say out loud that film is dead. It’s dead to me as an artist. Yes, I love the cinema. I love going to movie art houses and listening to reels of films roar from the creaky projection booth. But for me to also say that I want to follow that route of physical creation makes about as much sense as a person going to a museum and saying they want to give the caveman era a crack at it himself or herself.

For the truly independent content creators of today’s filmmaking scene, film should be dead in their eyes. It represents a dying medium that is not only less attainable (anybody plan on buying shares of Kodak Film these days?) but represents—in a more culturally relevant sense—a visual rhetoric of yesteryear. In fact, I’m excited about the new frontier of independent filmmaking. A new wave of radical digital filmmaking will push the envelope of the traditional narrative. We’re seeing traces of it already; from short films being photographed for the tablet-size canvas to tech pioneers utilizing Transmedia to further involve the audience in the film. It is truly an exciting time to step into the movie arena as an independent content creator.

So, for all these reasons above, I have curated a free video art exhibit called “Film Is Dead: Edges Of The Digital Frame” at the I Am Logan Square Gallery in Chicago, Illinois. For the month of February, people can step into the gallery space and experience underground videos (created by fellow digital filmmaker Amir George and myself) that play in loop across several TV monitors. There are also installation pieces (most notably a funeral setting that puts film in a casket) by designer Lea Palmeno. All in all, the exhibit serves as an opportunity to publicly put film on the cutting board. Yes, it’s a radical gesture but a necessary one. If more and more indie filmmakers are shooting digitally, editing digitally and are distributing their films digitally, I just don’t see the point of falling under the revered shadow that celluloid has created.

Thus, for my most recent promo web video, I thought I’d try to tie my angst and aspirations together into a non-verbal confession. In this video you can see my hand turn on an old film projector. As the soundtrack plays out, you begin to see snippets of the exhibit: monitors, pedestals, and nameplates. More striking are the unflattering images of the physical filmstrips. They’re hanging from walls, with no purpose. They’re clumped together on shelves, next to destroyed VHS tapes and empty canisters. And during all this the relentless sounds of film playing in a projector steer the soundtrack. For me, the video speaks to that guilt I mentioned earlier. Yes, I can worry that I didn’t make a single short film on celluloid. Yes, I can stride forward to the new digital frontier with arms wide open and full of excitement. But always, in the back of my head, in the space between my earlobes, is that constant hum of the film projector. It reminds me of where my passion spurned from, even if it’s no longer the platform that my voice and work will evolve into. Film is dead, but filmmaking is very much alive—and it is constantly reinventing itself.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece on the death of the film camera, click here.

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  • Mel Jerison | June 9, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    Digital is dead every time another digital camera comes out with another format that will be obsolete in a year. Anyone who says film is dead has never shot on film, and criticize it because they know their stuff looks like sh#*.

  • Serge | May 20, 2012 10:27 PMReply

    We live in a very exciting time now. Technological advanced have allowed indie filmmakers to flourish. It is getting easier for beginners to start making films. Distribution aspect of filmmaking has also made huge progress via Internet [Kickstarter as an example]. So I really don't care that film is dead; I don't miss it. And I also don't miss it in photography.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  • Trevor | February 25, 2012 6:25 AMReply

    Whatever medium most resembles our own imaginations is the one that we will always desire/demand from filmmakers. Currently that is film and probably always will be. The problem is that every new HD 24p mode, 35mm adapter camera advancement they come out with, they still can't get rid of that "news footage" look. And the new HD cameras cost an arm and a leg so I would think that now is a good time to get some film equipment for cheap. Super 8mm even has that dreamy look to it so it's not about "pixels". Think about it.

  • Serge | May 20, 2012 10:30 PM

    Trevor. Digital has surpassed film in resolution. As far as looking to "news-like": Cameras with big sensors dont have that problem. So a full-frame HDSLR will have that shallow depth of field that's associated with 35mm film. Problem solved. Also Arri Alexa is the answer in the higher indie tear:

  • John | February 24, 2012 10:29 AMReply

    What cheap digital cinema has given us most, is a trash heap of really bad movies. I'm a big supporter of independent cinema, at least I used to be before the avalanche of the talent anemic, time wasting, "films" crushed my soul. I used to be able to take a chance on the independent film on the shelf. Now I find myself going back to the studio films. At least there I know there is some real talent attached to the projects.

  • Ron | February 12, 2012 4:27 AMReply

    Pure ignorance. Film is just as, or is more, viable than any now or later released digital "trend". Those who care shoot on what fits best, not on what is cheapest or so-called easiest. Film is what allows real experimentation more than anything other format. Also this writer shows some grand ignorance and lack of any real film-making study. It DOES NOT take any extra people at all to make a movie on film. Nothing could be more simple than loading an Aaton S16mm camera with film and one battery that will last ALL day. You get something that makes you connect and think about your subject on top of getting more, truer color information than ANY digital camera can even dream of, and more life than any format that is out.

    Facts, Regardless.

    A working DP who has used just about every model of cinema camera made from 1970-2011

  • NELSON CARVAJAL | February 24, 2012 9:49 AM

    The very fact that you called me "ignorant" twice within a comment that, for the most part, glosses over film technicalities (preferences, even) and then completely negates the core of my argument--"A new wave of radical digital filmmaking will push the envelope of the traditional narrative"--again shows the kind of pompous, tunnel-vision mindset behind the typical "film purist." I fully believe you are a talented and more than experienced artist behind the camera. But the next time you read a headline that makes you sweat, try to cool down before shooting (no pun intended) yourself in the foot.

  • ted | February 10, 2012 11:04 PMReply

    Dead!!! My ass!

  • Amir George | February 10, 2012 3:09 PMReply

    save the critiques for your own blog. embrace the concept of the DIY underground. I shoot on whatever I can get my hands on. Super 8, VHS, 16mm, and multiple dslr's SD and HD. Make work consistently and exhibit it constantly thats what this all about. 97% of work produced is not on film, the medium is obsolete. Accept that, film what you want however you want. Word to Keanu.

  • NELSON CARVAJAL | February 10, 2012 3:11 PM

    ALL DAY. Love it. #FilmIsDead

  • digital sucks | February 10, 2012 7:53 AMReply

    but your "digital" filmmaking sucks... lame lame lame

  • NELSON CARVAJAL | February 8, 2012 12:50 PMReply

    If you read the piece, you'll notice that instead of disdain for the medium, I actually have sincere affection for "film." It's just that I'm more interested in pushing the envelope and embracing innovation. It's about continuing to shake bushes. And my "Film Is Dead" declaration isn't an overnight flight of fancy either. You can see that I even declared this a year ago when DIY Film interviewed me:

  • Robert Teetsov | February 8, 2012 10:52 AMReply

    I agree with the comment above. Film is not dead. I believe that film--super 8mm, 16mm, super 16mm, 35mm--is an important creative medium that can be used into the future. I do not think that I am the only filmmaker who thinks so. Sadly, new technologies often try to eliminate everything that came before them.

  • Tim Rhys | February 7, 2012 9:08 PMReply

    Nelson, one of the reasons artists create art is to have a lasting legacy of ideas.... a record of what they felt when they were on this planet. The problem with your crusade is that it's premature. There's every probability that FILMS being shot today will still be around generations from now. The digital videos you shoot, on the other hand, will likely have vanished from the landscape even before you have. I applaud the democratization of the medium and celebrate every moviemaker's ability to create cinema by whatever means available. But we should not be too quick to cast film aside. It's very much alive with moviemakers who know that not only are its aesthetics still unsurpassed, its staying power remains unchallenged.

  • Kristian | April 4, 2012 9:56 PM

    Both sides of the discussion is discussed but If film was as cheap as digital, which would you choose? And Black Swan was shot on s16, not digital. And Avatar is digital because of 3d, which is a nightmare on film. Everyone needs to remember why George Lucas wanted this to happen, effects, effects... I for one am glad Annie Hall was not shot on the Red, 5D, Alexa, etc...Plus look on Vimeo, everything has already started looking the same, if i see one more test of some guy walking around shooting his blurry living room or the latest weather with some commercial rock song over it i am going to yell even harder that digital filmmaking for the masses is weak and please go see your therapist for a cure.

  • bguest | February 8, 2012 5:53 PM

    "The digital videos you shoot...will likely have vanished from the landscape even before you have."
    Wrong..."digital videos" like Avatar, Black Swan and little shorts shot by no-names will be around different that other old media like phonographs, super 8, vhs...they're all still here, idiot.

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