Back to the Future

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“For many years technology has been trying to develop resources that could come close, equal, or even surpass the photochemical 35mm film, both for photography and film. Then, when things apparently had gotten even, we’ve got the opposite way: technology trying to copycat film, the photography, the emulsion, and everything connected to the old good 35mm film which for many years had been a part of our lives”, states Alberto Ismael, aka Betão, our senior editor responsible for many of the editing and quality control over at the post production unity of Sincronia Filmes. “It’s funny, because it seems we’re in the middle of all that mess from the Back to the Future movies – where we don’t really know whether we are in the past, in the future, or in a present time trying to emulate both of them”, ponders the editor.

But Ismael’s considerations are not totally in vain: an ex-cameraman of production companies in general – passing by some television networks along the way as well as by Imprensa Oficial (the São Paulo government publishing company) shooting some the entity’s main events – Betão, like many professionals from this medium, has seen, passed and needed to adapt himself to the many transformations throughout an almost 30-year span career. “Check this out”, he says, while sipping a burning hot cup of coffee at Sincronia’s kitchen, “when I started, in the beginning of the 1990s, it was very common to see videotapes like D2, Betamax, U-Matic, some monster-like tapes that you would insert into the cameras or in the editing equipment. Then they became smaller, we had the revolution with the HD, the Full HD equipment, until we reached the cards, which go far beyond the antitheses of those early tapes, so small they are”, says he. “In parallel”, he continues, “of course the image and the way we manipulate it, create it and even edit it, has been transforming, too: nowadays it’s hard to find productions overall, not only for the cinema, but audiovisual productions, where the image is not crystal clear, neat and clean, perfect with no scratches, dirt, or anything like that. I guess that’s one of the reasons which provoked this true avalanche of cell phone apps, filters, and all kinds of effects imitating the 35mm film and its derivatives. There must be quite a nostalgic vibe when it comes to this purer image, with scratches, grain, and all the imperfections it would bring along”, he says.

Nevertheless, the world is analogic, not digital. For centuries man has been doing analogies. Analogy is copying, imitating, trying to reproduce something in the most faithful way possible to the original source. That was the path cavemen started to draw on rocks, trying to reproduce the images of animals they saw and also of himself. Even though literally very primitive, these early images would bring with them the germ of one important discovery for the man of that epoch: that it was possible to create and keep reproductions of life surrounding him. The analogic process involved consisted basically in copying the basic contours of people and objects, trying to reproduce them in the caves through a series of lines, which would then form two-dimensional images. “Today”, continues Ismael, “some of these mobile apps can reproduce very faithfully this copy of the analogic, like the one the folks here used to shoot the making of featurette for the music video Cigarra, from (the singer/composer) Elzo Henschell”, reiforces the editor. “We would even get a little touched by the level of realism of the whole thing – we would pull the frames backwards a bit, then forwards, and it would seem we were really editing it on a moviola”, he sighs.

Later on in the evolutionary scale of man other options came to be for registering images, using for example paint brushes and ink of all sorts of colors. The analogic process would improve: that’s why we have so many endless records of people from times bygone. Kings, queens, and everyday characters had their images painted on canvases – during many years, painting, together with engraving and sculpture, was the only way to capture reality, sometimes mixed up with the artist’s imagination. Then the chemical process is born: with the help of lenses, one can record with great fidelity an image which is projected over a surface prepared with light-sensitive substances. The process, known as writing with light, meaning photography, is based on one fundamental concept for recording any image at all, a very simple concept, so simple it is sometimes necessary a little bit of logic in order to see it. It is the concept of contrast: only through contrast one can clearly see an image. A totally black canvas, or one completely white, will not produce an image whatsoever. The image is formed by different tonalities, meaning the different of light intensity reflected by people and/or objects. This is the tonality which forms the contours, gives shape to the volume and a whole bunch of other characteristics that allow us to see what was recorded. “And that”, adds Ismael, “today’s camera sensors have been capturing more and more and with better fidelity than ever. The other day I saw a test they did with camera manufacturers both for mobiles and the cinema (the professional ones, like Red One and Alexa, from Arriflex) and in all of them the images were very similar – people have really come to a level of sophistication and quality that would seem impossible years ago”, he evaluates. “Of course there are some variations, like the image of some mobiles, whose resolution is very pretty, clear, shiny, where colors seem to jump over at you.” 

But it was this way that any mechanism we own or invent capable of recording, individually, on each point of one determined surface, the bigger or small intensity of light present there, will allow to record any image projected on that particular surface. Projecting images, through the use of lenses, for example, is projecting light, in different intensities for each and every one of these points. The chemical process of photography allows this record, exposing to light silver crystals that would continually change their characteristics with that exposition. Once the light stopped, the change in these crystals would also stop. And here’s the ace in the hole: since images have clearer and darker points (the so-called contrast), it would be enough exposing one surface full of these crystals to the light of one image projected by the lenses: where there was more clarity the crystal transformation was far more intense, where there was less, it was obviously less intense. If the surface would stay a whole amount of time exposed to this light, all the crystals would change equally and thus we would not have any contrast at all – we wouldn’t even have any image at all. So the secret was interrupting the exposition after some time and, without letting the surface receive any more light, take it (protecting it from the light) to a safe place, a dark place, where the crystals would be washed with special chemical products, so they would not change anymore, and thus we would have the developing. “That’s why some photographic films, like the Tri X Noir, were very successful among photographers in their time: they would offer a very contrasted image, strong, sometimes carried with grains. In the editing softwares we’ve been using nowadays there are many filters imitating those films; they even define the kind of image captured by each film camera, defining this way the sort of final look you want to give your project”, says Ismael. 

But today restricted to some sort of cinema elite who still want to use it, the cinematographic film hasn’t lose its space, “and it won’t lose”, ponders Ismael, “what I think will happen in a near future is what happened to all the disruptive products/services or the ones that would have less space whenever something new would come along (like vinyl records, for instance): they will live side by side, one helping the other, one supporting the other, but never, ever, one annulling the other.”

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