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The truth’s in the detail

Author: Paul Wyatt

Originally featured in issue 194 of Computer Arts magazine
Illustration by Constanze Moll

I was once told that nostalgia is a condition which affects the old. I’ve recently discovered I have early onset nostalgia a condition which causes me to be reflective in my image making and yearn for the analogue tools of the past. This may account for why I’m stood in a shop which can only be described as a treasure trove of tat, Beano annuals, tea pots, Star Wars figures and wall to wall house clearance ephemera.

Scattered around are boxes of photographs and slides of families, friends, lovers and recalcitrant children all making shapes for the camera. These are memories no longer owned by anyone and yours for only 35p a picture. Sifting through a box of 35mm slides marked “Majorca ‘73” I’m struck by the purity and vibrancy of these Kodak captured moments. They’re also wonderfully framed shots. The people in them were told to “say cheese” and assured by the click of the camera shutter that the moment had been captured. Photographs are such cheap currency today and with the derisive phone camera “lag” you never know what moment is being caught. Facebook is full of grimacing faces seconds after the moment has passed.

The appreciation I feel towards these holiday snaps comes from a mild obsession with image quality and composition and their analogue beauty. I understand composition in an intuitive way. This might not be the “correct” approach as I’ve never studied the rules of photography or cared for grid systems and I’m rather suspicious of anyone who preaches their benefits to me. Fortunately my obsession with Image quality in stills and video is one we’ve all jumped on the bandwagon for. It ties in with a worldwide upgrade mentality which makes us yearn for devices with bigger and better CMOS sensors, better displays and many more mega pixels. If god is in the details then the second coming can found on many a Vimeo channel as footage becomes sharper, cleaner and more detailed. Does this make for a more truthful image than the 35mm slide in my hand? Anything which isn’t HD is now generally thought of as second best. High definition video and photography causes us all a mild gasp as it’s quite literally an eye opener as sadly we don’t notice such detail in our daily lives.

On one level it comes down to us wanting to replicate the dreamy fantastical quality of 35mm film. When halide crystals found in film stock are struck with light the results can be gorgeous photography and film making. But 35mm film is an expensive analogue indulgence so we take our digital footage and wrangle and wrestle with it to create a film look. We add colour and contrast and tweak the real world into something more befitting the story or moment we’re trying to share. What can’t be captured naturally through a lens is more often than not added on in post.Apart from the occasional series produced on Film television was mostly recorded on cheap shiny videotape which was in fact a truer representation of the real world. The dreamlike quality of film and the saturated Technicolor processing was the preserve of the motion picture. It represented fantastical cinematic escapism, higher production values and an escape from the tyranny of common sense which pervades most of our lives. Now with the affordability of high definition image video production the world which is bounced back to us from the television and the internet is one which becomes less and less like the real world and far more cinematic in look and composition.

Most reality TV shows and more heightened in reality than being a true representation of it. They stick a pair of rose tinted spectacles on the audience as footage is coloured and tweaked to show a world where colours are popping, skies are blue and acne never exists. There’s nothing wrong with this and I’m certainly an exponent of it but with our thirst for the higher definition makes me yearn for a bit of crud on the lens, dirt, grain in the film, distortion, flaring all that stuff you’re not supposed to let happen but which gives us a subconscious feeling of warmth to the image. That yearning though is probably just part of that condition called Nostalgia.

Our mission to capture the purest detail and the most truthful images would seem to be at odds to our need to electronically embellish the ones we eventually capture. Perhaps it’s a need for escapism?. Who wouldn’t want to step Mary Poppins fashion into that world and live in colour graded super high definition? I recently took some 3k footage of my flat using a Red ONE camera. The images produced were of such fantastic quality that I’d happily live in that version of my flat than the one that’s been given to me in reality. It’s a distraction from a greyer world of which I’m sure if we could add grades and film like quality filters to our real eyes we’d happily do it. Mondays would be better with a bit of blockbuster style colouring, maybe a Disneyesque colour tweak for a trip to the park – or a soft focus and low lit grade for nocturnal activities?

I bought that 35mm slide. It’s on my desk and reminds me not to become too dependent on the technology and my digital box of tricks in image making. No matter how many geopbytes of data and detail will eventually appear in our work a nicely framed shot with an interesting subject matter and a certain amount of charm will always be where the truth of any image lies.

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