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Film, Video and Movies: What’s the difference?

Film, video, movies. The differences between these formats have always been a target of unnecessarily heated debates. Such a topic takes me back several years ago when digital video was just becoming available to the masses. During a time-based media class, we had an extremely long conversation regarding the difference between film, video and movies. To spare you the 3 hour paraphrased synopsis of our collective insights, I’ll delve right into my personal, unbiased conclusion. Without trying to undermine any artists’ perspectives on the subject, the following will touch on historical, artistic and technological facts, presented not as a definite argument, but merely an objective conveyance of my understanding about motion-graphics.

These terms like many technological labels, reflect their specific media hardware or software. I believe now more than ever, we may be comfortable using any of these terms interchangeably, as long as they are referring to the delivery, intent or format of the motion picture. This wasn’t the case in the early years of motion pictures, however. Film was our first practical method to both capture and present moving pictures. The first forms of film were so radical and innovative, that they were only used by scientific observers and even practitioners of performance magic. Magicians had already used other methods to present moving pictures such as those based on the concept of persistence of vision or zoetrope – like devices. Traditional storytellers had little use for such technology, as the mere concept of moving pictures was too amazing, mechanically impractical, seemingly impossible and distracting to the story itself.

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As film emerged and was more accepted and used by both storytellers and entertainment venues, the magical nature of film soon turned into just another technology. The further acceptance of film allowed for stories to be told more easily. Although we understand the technology behind film, much is still a mystery – we still don’t understand the illusion of motion created by film. While persistence of vision may play a role in other forms of moving imagery, the theory actually goes against how film provides the illusion of seamless motion. The mere fact that we do not see a flicker in the picture is an indicator of the much more complex process.

While this underlying magical process has been thoroughly ignored, the hardware, science and material continue to evolve. Decades passed, with little opportunity for change in the format. Other than sound, color and picture quality, the physical and optical process remained the same. With the invention of magnetic film, moving imagery became available to a larger user base, requiring less expensive media and hardware. Although the optics were the same, the quality suffered, since the magnetic tape was limited, producing the over-saturated, distinctive look of typical early video. Performance artists once again embraced motion picture production, using video as a platform to convey their ideas. Dali, among other artists, combined video with rudimentary special effects, which were already used in film. They used this video to create works of art which were not directed towards story telling, as all traditional filmmakers were using motion pictures for. This inspired other types of creative artists to incorporate the dimension of movement into their endeavours. Performance musicians and early music groups not only capitalized on this trend, but made it their own with the first mass-distributed music videos of the late 60’s. Analog magnetic video contributed to the development of a mainstream market from a smaller group of creative professionals. This new field of imaging used a new form of motion-picture capture technology for a purpose other than what high-quality traditional film was used for.

Through intended purpose, quality and tradition the line was drawn between video and film. Amateurs and professionals who only used imagery as a supportive element to their art generally preferred video, whereas serious filmmakers worked with nothing other than their beloved celluloid film.

Video, as well as film technology continued to evolve, eventually leading to digital processors, new optical sensors and a variety of storage media. Today, there is little difference between high quality raw video and high quality film in terms of picture integrity and delivery. There are distinct differences in the image itself, since film grain and pixels produce quite distinctive characteristics in the components of the image.

The continued confusion between film, videos and movies lies mostly in the definition of ‘video’. Film has always been a motion-picture format and movies are a genre, or application, of a given format while video is often used across the board.

Although video had its beginnings as a linear, magnetic-tape based storage system, it has since “bled” into other media. The difference between these forms of media, lie in both storage formats, as well as in the interpolation of information. While analogue video may rely on fields and lines, digital based video relies on pixels. If an analogue video is played on a computer screen, its lines of resolution are interpreted into and displayed as pictures. Similarly, when film is digitized for editing, the optical and chemical based grains of each frame are converted and interpolated into pixels, also making the film digital. The film quality and grain may still be visible, but in digital form, the characteristics and grain of the film are presented as a digital representation of the original.

Since there are so many formats which can overlap one another in capture, process and delivery, it can be safely stated that any motion-picture is in one way or another, a video. A film can be a video if, in its process, included the use of materials other than optical camera and celluloid film. Once it is delivered and seen by a viewer, it can be perceived as a video. Lying in a tin with nobody to see it, its inactivity makes it a film.

If all motion-picture can be video, that would mean that any form of technology or process delivering the illusion of moving imagery is also video. The large fluorescent signs which turn on and off to give the appearance of moving stars on a motel billboard and the highway signs made up of a grid of incandescent light bulbs flickering in sequence are also video. The fluorescent components can be seen as an analogous line of resolution, while each light bulb in the grid can be seen as a pixel. Again, the process of creating movement is similar to the oldest forms of video, both analog and digital. Just like a digital display, the moving arrows on the LED or light bulb field can represent any image, only being restricted by the number of light bulbs, which corresponds to the resolution of the video. Although these devices are used primarily for practical, informative or marketing purposes, the moving images they represent are a form of moving images and thus a video. However, these sliding arrows, scrolling text and flashing stars are hardly movies – nor are they film. One could programme a character with a story line into these systems. Delivering the sequence on the low resolution ‘screen’ to be viewed would change the purpose of the medium and would thus enable it to display a movie.

A movie generally refers to a fictional or scripted, edited motion-based story. Film generally refers to the motion-picture media format, whether it be celluloid, digital video or magnetic tape. Video generally refers to the hardware used as the initial capture process of the moving footage, and the conversion of other media into its many editable formats. Film and video, especially digital film and digital video differ only by terminology, especially as of late. Since most movies, documentaries and animations which are shot on digital video or on film are digitized and encoded to facilitate non-linear editing, most forms of film are at one time, digital in format. When, and if the digitally edited film is returned to celluloid, the information on that film, although presented in analogue, is digital in nature as well as by creative process. Although this will never be conclusive, with today’s integration of technology, optics and software, the word video has become a blanket term reaching beyond its initial magnetic, low quality, amateur format. Video today, describes the motion aspect of the picture, a film is the intent, or storytelling purpose of the motion picture and a movie is the genre of the completed motion-picture.

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