Why Netflix Movies Look So Weird

The history of cinema as an art parallels its history as technology. Have you ever wondered why the color of The Wizard of Oz is so saturated? Well, it wasn’t the first technicolor film, but it was the first to effectively advertise MGM’s new 3-band color process to a global audience. Why announce something at half mast?

This type of technological innovation in the cinema is, of course, stimulated by economic reasons. For example, 3D flourished in three waves in direct response to economic threats posed by new technologies: in the 1950s, in response to television, in the 1980s, in response to VHS, and in the 21st century to the increase in online streaming. (Now we have 4DX, a gadget that is believed to not take off.)

In the era of digital cinema, where celluloid is practically replaced by video technology, the latest technological battle concerns image resolution.

A digital image is made up of pixels, small shapes (usually boxes) that are the smallest controllable part of the image. Resolution refers to the number of pixels appearing in an image and is typically measured in pixels per inch. As a general rule, the more pixels there are, the sharper the image, that is, the sharper the edges of the subject.

In digital cinema resolution wars, you’ll often hear people talk about 4K – as in 4000 – or 8K, or even now 12K resolution. This number refers to the number of horizontal pixels. A typical 4K digital cinema image, for example, has a resolution of 4096 (horizontal) x 2160 (vertical) pixels.

Image capture resolution is only one factor in the appearance of an image – dynamic range, which is the difference between the darkest and lightest parts of the image. , is another. But most filmmakers and technicians agree that the resolution of the camera is crucial for the sharpness of the image.

In 2018, Netflix was snubbed by the Cannes Film Festival on the grounds that the films produced by Netflix are not real cinema. Again this year, there are no Netflix-produced films in the festival competition due to a rule, all films selected to compete must have a local theatrical release.

Cannes is right. Most productions made for Netflix don’t look like the movies we’re used to. Why? There is a technical answer. Although the company does show some films that are not “Netflix Originals”, it requires that narrative feature films made for Netflix be shot on cameras with a “true 4K UHD sensor”.

In other words, the sensor, which detects and transmits the information necessary to create an image, must be at least 3840 pixels wide, or “Ultra High Definition”.

Flat and without depth

This technical specification is striking in David Fincher’s recent Netflix Original production, man, a black and white biopic about the ghost writing of Citizen Kane by Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Old black and white film, shot on celluloid, has a grainy texture that draws the eye in and around the image. This is in part the result of degradation in film printing, which occurs over time, but mainly due to the physical processing of the film itself.

Any celluloid film has a grainy appearance. This “grain” is an optical effect linked to the small particles of metallic silver which emerge during the chemical treatment of the film.

This is not the case with digital cameras. Thus, the video images captured by high-resolution sensors are different from those filmed on celluloid. The images in man appear flat, shallow, they are too clean and clear.

This isn’t as much of a problem on a big screen, when the images are huge, but the high resolution is really noticeable when the images are compressed on the kind of TV or home computer screen that most people use. to stream Netflix. The edges look too crisp, the nuances too clearly outlined – compared to what we’re used to as moviegoers.

What’s absurd is that companies like CineGrain now sell digital film overlays that can make video look like grainy film. (Their company’s motto is “make digital more cinematic using CineGrain.”) The natural result of the physical process has been replaced by video, but digital cinema makers are reintroducing this as an element to achieve a “cinematic look” .

Netflix allows limited exceptions to its rule, the use of unapproved cameras requiring its explicit approval, and a “more flexible” approach to non-fiction productions. According to YM Cinema magazine, 30% of Netflix’s “Best Movies of 2020” were made on unapproved cameras. Yet by stipulating the use of 4K (or better) sensor cameras, Netflix is ​​drastically reducing the aesthetic autonomy of filmmakers and producers.

If we think of Netflix as a production studio, it’s no surprise: all studios (like all big companies) dictate the nature of their products, including the aesthetics and feel of their films. But this requirement means that their productions resemble each other and that the imagery (for a cinephile, anyway), too clinical.

Glorious granularity

All film festivals, distributors, and networks request delivery of films that meet their specifications, but this usually has nothing to do with the source camera behind the delivered file. If he looks and plays well, he looks and plays well.

The film The wide (2003), for example, which grossed over $ 50 million at the box office (on a budget of less than $ 200,000), was shot in mini-DV, a low-quality and now obsolete video format, but it suited the film perfectly and therefore works.

Netflix, by stipulating 4K camera sensors, reproduces the assumption that higher resolution is necessarily better, for all (or even most) movies.

But one of the reasons American film noir still looks so good – or the new Hollywood movies of the 1960s and 1970s, like Easy rider and Bonnie and Clyde – is in part because of the celluloid technology itself, in all its glorious granularity. The beauty of these cinematic images has nothing to do with the sharpness of the outlines of the subjects photographed.

Where does this assumption come from that sharper images are better and more aesthetically effective? Art has always sought to say something in its deviation from its realistic reproduction of the world, that is to say in its expression.

As with any technological innovation in a capitalist context, this assumption stems from the competitive impulse to appear to be doing something better than everyone else – the bigger, the more expensive, the clearer, the better. But when it comes to aesthetics, it’s a redundant form of economy.

Ari Mattes is Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media at the University of Notre Dame in Australia. This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

About Monty S. Maynard

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