Film, Cinema and the Digital

One of the perceived challenges facing film studies today concerns the transfer of film as our object of study into the digital domain. The materiality of film as celluloid is transforming at an exponential rate from the photochemical/analogue medium that it was for approximately the first century of its existence to the digital/coding format that dominates today. Chuck Tryon explains: “The very idea of the film text … is transformed in the digital era, turning a tangible artifact – a filmstrip – into digital code”. He quotes David Bordwell who states “films have become files”. [1] On his blog, Bordwell includes compelling data: “Of the world’s nearly 129,000 screens, over 112,000, or 87%, are digital in some format”. [2] The emulsion on celluloid, the soundtrack on the filmstrip, the film sprockets that thread their way through the film projector have become part of the medium’s archaeology – resulting in what Peter Weibel labels in another context “film without film”. [3] In the contemporary context, the word “film” has become a metaphor for what it once was in a material sense, while simultaneously redefining its signification to embrace what it is also becoming.

It is easier to come to terms with this altered meaning when we compare the word film to another word we often interchange with it : cinema. Film, from the old English filmen (membrane), represents the material nature of the object used by the film camera to record and capture an event. Cinema, on the other hand – much like the other stand-in, movie – signifies the end result: the illusion of movement projected on the screen. Its origins are from the Greek ?????? or kín?ma, meaning movement; and its ancient etymology also meant “to be moved or stirred”. [4] (Liddell & Scott, n.d.). The word expresses the perceptual and affective power of the cinema: to appear to create motion, but to also have the power, through this motion, to move and emote the spectator – a phenomenon so evocatively captured by Giuliana Bruno in her book Atlas of Emotion (2002). [5] If film is cinema, then our object of study is all the more significant today within the changing media landscape. The presence of digital film has resulted in the blurring of media boundaries but, within this blurring of relationships, film and film studies have an important role to play.

As a product within the digital era, film may now be seen and heard through multiple modes of dissemination. We can watch films at the cinema on huge IMAX screens and in 2D and 3D formats. Films are available through cable and network stations, download services, on DVD and Blu-ray, iPhones, iPads, and other handheld devices. In addition to traditional modes of production, films are also being produced through other means using small screen devices, and being shown on YouTube, Vimeo, and online festivals. 21st century screen culture is everywhere, and film is an integral part of it.

Film Studies should, without doubt, continue to research past film practices and forms of reception. At the same time, the current changes should be understood as part of that history, as it transforms and responds to new histories. What are the new modes of production, distribution and exhibition? What are the relationships between the old and the new? How have film aesthetics and narrative forms responded to the changes? In their book Digital Media Technological and Social Challenges of the Interactive World, Megan A. Winget and William Aspray, state: “As the varieties of digital media multiply, scholars are beginning to think about its origins in traditional media as well as ontological challenges inherent in the medium”. [6] Many film scholars have, for example, examined the boom of the digital effects era in blockbuster films by comparing it to the presentational style of early cinema – what Tom Gunning called (adapting the phrase from Eisenstein) the cinema of attractions. [7] In other words, film technology may have changed, but the affective and cognitive impact directed at the spectator has remained quite similar, despite the 100-plus years that separate films and their audiences. However, there are also dramatic differences and, again, there is much to be gained by trying to understand these differences by encouraging dialogues between past and present.

The hybrid nature of film today has meant that film and diverse media have blurred their distinct boundaries – as have the disciplines of film and media studies in response. Digital technologies have made possible intense hybridisation. Films and video games today often share production spaces, practices and technologies (e.g. The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and King Kong films/games were early experimenters of this). This may be driven by economics (sharing production means less costs) but the result is that the final products – the films and videogames – also share aesthetics. In an interview, Andy Serkis, the actor famous for his virtual portrayals of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, and Caesar the ape in The Planet of the Apes films, explains:

There was probably a time when people in the games industry wanted to emulate films, but now it’s very much the other way around: the technology is driven by video games. So, for instance, virtual production, pre-vis, many of the tools we use in the film industry have come out of the games industry. [8]

Mainstream cinema – in particular, big effects blockbusters – have become increasingly reliant on performance in motion capture and the other methods of virtual production of which Serkis speaks; as a researcher whose expertise is this kind of cinema, it is not possible for me to ignore this fact. In order to understand contemporary effects cinema, I need to have an understanding of the technology used to produce it, which happens to also be technology used in video games. My early foray into film/video game hybridisation occurred in 1993 with the release of Doom (id Software) – the cult sci-fi/horror game that has since had numerous sequels, reboots and film adaptations. I see this very much as a turning point in my own disciplinary focus, in that my research about the collisions between the game and film traditions it adapted and reflexively engaged with encouraged me to consider the possibilities of Film Studies within the broader context of Screen Studies – while also including the emerging field of Game Studies within that context. Disciplinary boundaries have become fluid and rich and complex analyses are possible when exploring the dialogic exchanges that happen across and between the borders.

The film viewing experience has also changed. In addition to watching films in one sitting (in a cinema or at home), viewers can now also segment their viewing – for example, by starting to watch a film on one platform (TV), then continuing it on an iPad on the way to work, then finishing it off on a computer at work. The time of the ideal spectator sitting in a cinema is over – this is just one of many configurations. How is Film Studies addressing these shifts? Given its long history with spectatorship theory, Film Studies can offer a great deal by exploring this question. Rather than setting up boundaries around the word film and only considering examples that adhere to a more traditional understanding of it as a medium and institution with its own codes and production/exhibition/distribution practices, it is important to examine its altered and emerging identity within the 21st century context. There will be scholars who prefer to focus on the former rather than the latter, and this is fine. It is all part of film history.

Films today, from all around the world, are more readily available to viewers than ever before in the history of cinema. These are exciting times for Film Studies and its future, both as a distinct discipline, and in the role it will play within the wider media landscape.

[1] Chuck Tyron, On-Demand Culture, Digital Deliver and the Future of Movies (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013), p. 2.
[2] David Bordwell, “Dispatch from Another 35mm Outpost. With Cats”, 14 March 2014,
[3] Peter Weibel, Beyond Art: A Third Culture: A Comparative Study in Cultures, Art and Science in 20th Century Austria and Hungary (Vienna: Springer, 2005), p. 149.
[4] Henry Liddell and George Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Undated.
[5] Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (London: Verso, 2002).
[6] Megan A, Winget and William Aspray, “Introduction”, in their anthology Digital Media: Technological and Social Challenges of the Interactive World (New York: Scarecrow Press, 2011), p. v.
[7] See, for example, Wanda Trauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).
[8] Quoted in Steve Boxer, “How video games are transforming the film industry”, The Guardian, 18 November 2013,

About the Author

Angela Ndalianis

About the Author

Angela Ndalianis

Angela Ndalianis is Research Professor in Media and Entertainment Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology. Her research focuses on film and entertainment media. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (2004), Science Fiction Experiences (2010), The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (2012) and the edited books The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (2009) and Neo-baroques: From Latin America to the Hollywood Blockbuster (2016).View all posts by Angela Ndalianis →