Television and after

Contrary to the prevailing view that “made for television” signifies an amateurish look, television programs today can be technically quite complex. MTV and TV commercials for instance, involve carefully executed and expensive (dolly & crane) shots, meticulous lighting and décor, intensive post-processing and precise editing. Similarly, successful TV series are no longer the type we see in Seinfeld or Friends, which consist of all studio shooting (mostly American plans), synchronized sound and no action or special effects at all. Today’s TV series (Prison Break, Heroes, Lost) use extensive location shooting, an effective combination of all ranges of shots, lots of actions & special effects, and finally, a very complex soundtrack.

Yet despite these advances that television has made in the last two decades, so far the television and the movie theater still represent two distinctive viewing experiences. Even when their content is the same, for example, a movie, compared to the theater, the television only offers a knock-off of the same product—there seems to be no arguing on that, otherwise people won’t be going to the theaters any more. Interestingly, in the process of evolution, cinema and television has adapted to two different sets of aesthetics according to their physical abilities. Thanks to the bigger screen and its aspect ratio that is more akin to human field of view, cinema is able to create a structure, a tension within each frame. This capacity is largely lost in television. Because the relative smaller size of the screen, programs made for television are obliged to present only one point of interest at one time while in a huge screen, numerous details can be represented at the same time. Montage however, is retained by the television. Moreover, in order to compensate for the compositional insufficiency, television programs tend to use montage in a higher speed level, eliminating in the same time the need for meticulous lighting and mise-en-scene.

In television programs, normally each shot contains either one singular meaning or no meaning at all. Television screen does not tolerant ambiguities. But is this always a bad thing? Not necessarily. In fact, to have a distinctive meaning for each shot and to seek an effective combination of these meanings resembles to Eisenstein’s use of typage, close-ups, and montage of attraction. As you have probably guessed, this can be very impressive in many circumstances. In the light of this argument, early Eisenstein films, Potemkin, October, Strike, etc., are not going to look bad on today’s television since television does not truncate them as it does to say, 2001, A Space Odyssey.

It has to be pointed out however, that television programs are seldom produced with the effectiveness in those Eisenstein films. Aesthetic compatibility is one thing; whether or not a certain program has achieved its maximum aesthetic potential is another thing. Eisenstein’s montage is the refined result of deliberate artistic intentions. Most television programs, on the other hand, copy what they feel like to be attractive and easy. Furthermore, since television relies heavily on dialogue or voice-over, the pure kinetic flow that is typically Eisensteinian is always compromised.


Television is ideal for certain purposes while poor for others. Documentaries, cartoon series, news…these are what the television does best. In The Simpsons Movie, Homer shouted in the theater, “I can’t believe we are paying for something we can get on TV for free!” He makes perfect sense there, except he is also paying for the TV. Television quenches our thirst for news, for information and for stories. On the other hand, what cinema offers is a collective state-of-the-art audio-visual bombardment. Today’s audience is used to pay for the latter by session, but the former by month.

But considering the fact that the history has proved all the time that technical advances will progressively blur the boundaries between existent categories and finally establish new ones, the practical question is therefore not whether the distinctiveness between these two kinds of experiences will still exist in future or not, but probably rather, what is tomorrow’s television (or better phrased as ‘home viewing experience’) and what is tomorrow’s movie theater?

Although the theoretical resolution of celluloid is yet to be matched by digital copies that can be owned by individuals, it is no longer a dream to possesses a home theater that can achieve a high percentage of the sensual impact generated by commercial theaters. In fact, I am willing to believe that today’s high-end home theater owners are already enjoying a better picture and sound than their grandfathers fifty years ago in a movie house. Hence, it is probably not too ridiculous to suggest that home theater has taken over the place of the former theater and the theaters of today are pushed towards higher ends.

What are the higher ends? Among the predicable trends, IMAX and stereoscopic technique seem to be the most promising in visual field. By having a resolution four times over that of the traditional 35mm film, the IMAX establishes again a superiority, although whether or not the human eyes are able to appreciate this is still a question. As for stereoscopic film, since it involves special playback equipment and viewing requirements, it is estimated not to be available soon at home. Not even in theaters. Yet the difference between a two dimensional picture and a three dimensional one is in no way to be underestimated—it is possibly the next major step since the addition of sound. But right now the real obstacle is not the technology, but the business model. It is in this respect that the Real D Cinema system has offered a few characteristics of 3D film production and distribution which will probably become the business model of the future market—to lower both the cost of production and marketing, they tend to re-render an existing film that has a good reputation—another application of the golden principle of cross platform selling.

In the aural field, the commercial theater has an edge that is not easily matched by home theater. The sheer power of the speakers and the acoustic property of the surroundings are admittedly much more superior than any home theater system can dream of, particularly in the lower frequencies. Unfortunately, this superiority manifests only in certain circumstances: earthquake, huge explosion, car crashes, etc. As a consequence, to seduce the audience in a future where HD home theater systems prevail, productions will inevitably focus on these types of sequences that can be better appreciated in the movie theater.


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