CLARIAH Media Studies and MIMEHIST in Zürich – A Report

This is a cross-posting of a post I just published on the CLARIAH Media Studies blog on a colloquium I recently participated in in Zürich. I repost it here as the CLARIAH Media Studies blog is still under development and therefore a bit hidden because of a somewhat cryptic URL.

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Early September, Liliana Melgar and I received an invitation from Barbara Flückiger, Professor in Film Studies at the University of Zürich, to participate in the “Colloquium Visualization Strategies for the Digital Humanities”. The aim of the day was to bring together experts to discuss film data visualization opportunities in relation to Professor Flückiger’s current research projects on the history of film colors. Currently, Flückiger leads two large-scale projects on this topic: the ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors (2015-2020) and the Filmfarben project funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (2016-2020). A presentation of the projects’ team members can be found here.

As a scholar, Barbara Flückiger has in-depth expertise on the interrelation between film technology, aesthetics and culture covering especially aspects of film sound, special effects, film digitization and film colors in her research. In recent years, her research has increasingly focussed on film colors, especially since the launch of the online database of film colors Timeline of Historical Film Colors in 2012 after a successful crowdfunding campaign. The Timeline of Historical Film Colors has since grown to become one of the leading authoritative resources on the history and aesthetics of film colors – it is presented as “a comprehensive resource for the investigation of film color technology and aesthetics, analysis and restoration”. It is now consolidating this position as it is being followed up by the two large-scale research projects mentioned above which merge perspectives from film digitization, restoration, aesthetic and cultural history.

These projects are entering a phase in which the involved researchers are beginning to conceive ways of visualizing the data they have created so far and need to consider the potential value which data visualization may have for historical research on film color aesthetics, technology and reception.

In the following we share a few impressions from the day and thoughts on the discussions which arose.

Organising and mining film data

The first speaker of the day was Eric Hoyt, Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In spite of having just arrived the previous day, Hoyt was not visibly jetlagged and gave a fantastic presentation on his research activities in the Arclight and Lantern projects. Both projects work with materials made available through the online Media History Digital Library (MHDL) and offer different ways of visualizing patterns in them. The Lantern project involved the digitisation and OCR’ing of 900.000 pages from public domain trade journals made available in this collection, while Arclight works with around 2 million pages also available through MDHL.

The tools developed in these projects enable data mining and visualisation in combination with simpler, standard search queries to supplement traditional archival research on silent era periodicals – among other periods of media history – in order to advance our understanding of film’s cultural history. Using the visualization options developed by these projects it is possible to analyse word patterns within the MDHL’s journals, so as to understand how certain topics and trends emerged and understand the historical networks of popular cultures that conditioned them. Taking a distant reading approach, the projects thus explore “the great unread” of tradepapers to broaden the horizon of media historians and to open new research avenues. As Hoyt has poignantly pointed out, previous scholarship and access projects on relying on analogue formats, especially microfilm, have established a reference frame in which periodicals such as Variety and Photoplay appear as canonical source material. This has had the effect that a wide range of magazines which were published in large numbers back in the day have been largely neglected in contemporary scholarship on film exhibition, distribution and reception. For example, as Hoyt has discussed in one of his articles, the magazine Film Fun, which – while published in relatively large numbers – was never cited in any article available in the widely used academic journal database JSTOR. There is much more to read on the development and use of Arclight and Lantern here and here.

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Eric Hoyt presenting at the Colloquium “Visualization Strategies for the Digital Humanities” in Zürich.

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Based on his experience in these projects, Hoyt presented a set of concrete and highly intriguing suggestions for further development of the Filmcolors-project and the functionalities of the Timeline of Historical Film Colors. The suggestions ranged from specific ways of organising data in the Timeline’s database so as to make it more searchable to different ways of visualizing the data created by the Filmcolors/Filmfarben researchers.

As Hoyt pointed out, when it comes to allowing users to explore a digitised collection through visualizations it helps their reasoning to be able to do this by making use of a wider range of visualization formats. This allows researchers to see different views and perspectives and make them understand that there is not one finite and ideal representation of data. On the other hand, Hoyt also pointed out that while we tend to favour interactive visualizations and multiplicity of viewpoints because they highlight and facilitate research as (contingent) processes, rather than finite end products, we may also consider whether static visualizations are not sometimes more efficient for getting our point across poignantly to a broader public, in order to create discussion among researchers. In both cases it is key to think about who we are making visualizations for and presenting results to.

Another very interesting suggestion was to enable the comparison of scanned film frames included in the timeline with computational methods. In the Timeline, users can currently select frames for comparison manually based on their impressions of the images’ visual features. To develop this feature, it would, as Hoyt pointed out, be interesting to see how a computer would compare images as a way to both assist and challenge human vision. With these suggestions, Hoyt nicely built a bridge from the more information theoretical parts of his talk to the rest of the day’s presentations which would focus to a greater degree on the visualisation of film data and pattern recognition in images.

Visualising film data

Following Hoyt’s presentation the focus of the day’s program turned to video annotation, analysis and visualization. This comprised a presentation on the Filmcolors project with a general introduction and discussion by Barbara Flückiger which outlined the goals and components of her research projects. As Barbara explained, the research projects’ comprise different steps, in particular off-line video segmentation and annotation, the creation of a Filemaker database based on the annotation work as well as (semi-) automatic color analysis and visualization. This was followed by brief introductions to the programming work which supports the annotation and visualization procedures of the projects’ film analyses.

In the first short presentation following Barbara’s introduction, Gaudenz Halter, programmer in the Filmcolors project, explained how he is currently developing an extension for the video annotation software ELAN, used in the projects for film segmentation and labelling, to tweak it in such a way that it better fits the project’s purposes. ELAN is a video annotation software developed at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen in the Netherlands used mainly for annotating video and audio material in linguistic research. For this reason it is not the best suited for film and media historians’ purposes, and has some drawbacks in particular when it comes to color analysis (this is a topic which Barbara discusses in an article forthcoming in the Moving Image journal). However, ELAN is attractive to work with because its userbase and institutional backing secures its sustainability, something which has not been the case for the otherwise excellent annotation software programs such as Anvil, Lignes de Temps and Advene which were tailored to film and media analysis to a greater degree.

Subsequently, Enrique Paredes gave a presentation of the work he is currently involved in carrying out at the University of Zürich’s Department of Informatics’ Visualization and Multimedia Lab to support the projects’ visualizations work, which explores the YOLO (You Only Look Once) detection method. This extremely exciting work entails the use of computational procedures to detect and distinguish between foreground and background and to visualize patterns in their interplay as a basis for film analysis.

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Enrique Paredes explaining principles of foreground detection.

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The interplay between foreground and background in the use of colors in mise-en-scène may be seen as a particularly important one as Flückiger explained, for instance in the way they contrast each other. The results achieved with these procedures also seem to support this assumption. The detection of foreground and background allows the researchers to produce image sets consisting of respectively foreground and background categories. Subsequently, the researchers can use ImagePlot to visualize the interplay between foreground and background color schemes throughout a film’s duration, making visualizations of the respective image sets separately or in combination as a basis for comparative analysis. So far the team has experimented with ImagePlot analysis of three films, among which Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (dir.: Howard Hawks, US, 1953) and Jigokumon (dir.: Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan, 1953). These visualization results are still not published and can therefore not be shared here. But they were impressive and striking in their ingenious use and appropriation of ImagePlot to reflect film’s temporal dimension and in their support of a close reading analysis of films attending to color patterns in foreground and background.

Following up on this presentation after a break, Everardo Reyes, Associate Professor in Digital Humanities at the Paris 8 University, gave an introduction to his work with ImageJ and ImagePlot, which he has carried out in the context of media scholar Lev Manovich’s Cultural Analytics Lab. As a trained semiotician and highly skilled Java programmer, Reyes has tweaked ImageJ to be able to give shape to his image sets in multifarious ways experimenting with shapes, different levels of interactivity and interface design. His work is absolutely stunning and explores a broad range of subjects in visual culture from the covers of the skater magazine Trasher, the visual features of rock album covers and bands – in particular of Nirvana – to the history of modern art works and painters and patterns of hue, saturation and brightness in them. Reyes’ work can be explored here.

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An example of Everardo Reyes’ interface design and visualization work for navigating Paul Klee’s paintings.

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Considered in connection to Paredes’ presentation, Reyes’ work seemed to underline the versatility and broad range of possibilities offered by ImageJ for media studies. While ImageJ has been in use for approximately a decade now in media studies – if not more – it is intriguing to see how scholars find new ways of tweaking it to different analytical ends and reach a level of theorization of the visualizations they produce which can accommodate for the reflexive and ambiguous perspectives which are cherished and necessary in humanistic interpretation. Reyes’ visualization work for instance, as was discussed after the presentation, show how scholars may try to display their work processes and procedures rather than producing finite epistemic images.

In this part of the workshop, Liliana and I also presented on our work in CLARIAH. Liliana presented the Media Suite and the research pilot projects, and we made a short demo of the video annotation functionalities that are being built as part of the CLARIAH research infrastructure. This was followed by a presentation of the MIMEHIST project which has previously been discussed in depth on this blog.

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Closing expert panel discussion at the Colloquium “Visualization Strategies for the Digital Humanities” in Zürich.

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To conclude the colloquium, the presenters answered questions from Professor Flückiger and her team about the interrelation of her project with the tools we presented, and inquired about our opinions of what the next steps should be in relation to video annotation – manual, semi-automatic and automatic – in a collaborative perspective.

Film Scanning and/as Source Criticism

Outside of the colloquium program, and benefiting from the fact that we had almost a full day available before going back to Amsterdam, Bregt Lameris, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Filmcolors project, helped us organizing a visit to the lab where Giorgio Trumpy, also Postdoctoral Research in Filmcolors, is currently carrying out his research on illumination and film scanning techniques. The Filmcolors project is working closely with the Cinegrell film development lab (formerly Egli Film) located on the outskirts of Zürich, which is the last exisiting film lab in Switzerland. Here we were given a tour by staff members who generously shared their time to show the lab’s facilities and talk about their work.

At Cinegrell, Giorgio Trumpy – together with Martin Weiss, Senior Researcher and Restorer in Filmcolors – have their own work space where the project’s Kinetta Archival Scanner is being used and modified to experiment with different scanning techniques for the films selected for the project. This work is fundamental not only for perfecting existing restoration methods but also in questioning and reconsidering already established practices.

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Liliana Melgar and Giorgio Trumpy at the Cinegrell lab on the outskirts of Zürich together with staff members who kindly showed us around and explained their work.

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Inspecting the set-up of Giorgio Trumpy’s experiments with lenses and illumination for scanning silent color films.

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Basically, one of the fundamental hypotheses being explored in Trumpy’s research is that the scanning techniques which are currently used for archival films are not the best suited to bring out the visual properties of the material of films stocks used during the silent period. Consequently, film restorers and historians may need to rethink their assumptions about present-day color film restoration a great deal as well as the way in which we understand silent films as historical sources. The results of this research are extremely illuminating (pun intended!) in terms of understanding the intricate relations between film scanning and the appearance of historical film colors.

Yet, these results – while partially published – are not entirely public at this point and – as Trumpy explained – still need a firmer empirical foundation, so the details of this work will have to wait until they are presented by the team in media studies conferences and in the archival film festival circuit. As with the research team’s visualization work this is really something to look forward to!

Concluding impressions and thoughts

We got back from the colloquium with many fresh perspectives on what it means to do film history in an increasingly digital age with new research tools and methods in a process of interdisciplinary collaboration. From the hermeneutical work which goes into a close reading analysis of films through segmentation and labelling to the scientific processes through which the evidence – the films – we work with are shaped, Filmcolors promises – and will surely also deliver – a fundamental historical reconsideration of a significant aspect of film technology and aesthetics. It is impressive to see an entire research area being reviewed and scrutinized on so many levels in such a large-scale research project, something which is also the goal of a “high risk” funding scheme as the ERC Advanced Grant.

Moreover, from a film studies perspective, where archival research is often a lone endeavor which produces exegetic readings of a microscopic area and body of evidence it is intriguing to see how a project such as Filmcolors allows for thinking media history on a grander scale in a large team. In particular, in a time when it is customary for researchers in film studies to cautiously add an “a” before history or to use the plural “histories” to distance oneself from the universalizing aspirations of historical research in early film studies – think for instance of the recurrent critiques of Georges Sadoul’s world film histories or the universal filmographies of a French historians such as Jean Mitry – the presentation of the Timeline of Historical Film Colors as a comprehensive resource may initially seem bold. Yet, it is justified and exciting exactly because of the wide range of scientific activities, processes and critical theoretical perspectives it covers: spanning innovative scientific research on spectroscopy to cultural studies perspectives on film colors. The Timeline is certainly the most qualified and convincing attempt to produce a comprehensive resource on historical film colors to date.

Beyond the Timeline of Historical Film Colors one may also tentatively ponder if the project can be seen as reflecting an emerging renewed interest in the comprehensiveness promised by encyclopedic formats for the exploration of film’s technological history. For instance, the recently launched project of the Canadian research program Technès to develop an encyclopedia of cinema techniques (Encyclopédie raisonnée des techniques du cinéma) seems to share ambitions with the research projects currently being carried out under Professor Flückiger’s supervision in its aspiration to cover the broad historical lines of film technology in a multi-authored, interdisciplinary database format.

Based on these examples, one may contend that one of the great advantages which the digital humanities’ emergence has had for film studies is that it allows for collaborative forms of database creation which brings notions of comprehensiveness back into historical research in refreshingly dynamic and engaging ways by involving a greater number of researchers in the creation of reference resources and by nurturing critical discussions of the foundations of previous and current historical research across disciplinary boundaries in this process. This will be extremly interesting to follow in the coming years, especially with regard to the Timeline’s future development and results.

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References

Durteste, Pierre, “Faut-il oublier Georges Sadoul ?”, 1895. Mille huit cent quatre-vingt-quinze, no. 44 (2004), 29-46.

Hoyt, Eric, ”Lenses for Lantern: Data Mining, Visualization, and Excavating Film History’s Neglected Sources”, in Film History: An International Journal, Volume 26, Number 2 (2014): 146-168.

Hoyt, Eric, Kit Hughes, Derek Long and Anthony Tran, “Scaled Entity Search: A Method for Media Historiography and Response to Critiques of Big Humanities Data Research.” IEEE BigData 2014 Proceedings. (October 978-1-4799-5666-1): 56-64.

Flueckiger, Barbara, “Material Properties of Historical Film in the Digital Age”, in NECSUS – European Journal of Media Studies, no. 2, vol. 1 (2012)

Stutz, Olivia Kristina, Algorithmische Farbfilmästhetik. Historische sowie experimentell-digitale Notations- und Visualisierungssysteme des Farbfilms im Zeichen der Digital Humanities 2.0 und 3.0. MA Thesis, Universität Zürich, 2016. 

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Introducing MIMEHIST: Annotating EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection

After successfully defending my dissertation in May, I have been busy working on and preparing a few new projects which I will be involved in, in the next couple of years and which are all very exciting. Now that a new academic year is beginning I thought it was about time I began telling a bit about them. The first project I will discuss here is the MIMEHIST project, which aims at developing a scholarly annotation environment for EYE Filmmuseum’s Jean Desmet Collection.

There is a very brief presentation of MIMEHIST on the website of CLARIAH (Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities). However, the description is very general and not very detailed which was also a reason for me to write a blog post. In this post I will describe how our project builds on earlier multimedia annotation projects in media studies, discuss some of its theoretical underpinnings and how these may nurture new ways of using annotation in film historical research. The focus in this post is mostly on theory, methodology and functionalities. The historical case studies of the project will be described in greater detail in another post.

CLARIAH and MIMEHIST: Annotating EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection

Towards the end of February I received a grant for a video annotation project which will last a bit more than a year – from April 2017 to June 2018. The project is called MIMEHIST: Annotating EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection and is a pilot project within the larger research program CLARIAH (Common Lab Research Infrastructure for the Arts and Humanities) which aims at developing a national research infrastructure for  humanistic disciplines and the arts in the Netherlands. Within this research program there was a call for pilot projects last year, which invited applications focusing on digitized collections and different historical research questions and case studies. The cases and collections will be embedded in the Media Suite developed by CLARIAH in order to advance digital research methods in media studies. It will be available for scholars in the Netherlands with a Dutch university login.

With help from Liliana Melgar, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam, I wrote an application in the fall of 2016 focusing on developing an annotation environment for the Jean Desmet Collection of EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The project officially started in April and I am working on it together with Liliana Melgar who is in charge of defining the user requirements with me, as well as Willem Melder from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision who works on data interoperability and Roeland Ordelman and Jaap Blom who are taking care of the software development and engineering within the project. After the project’s beginning we also had the great luck of being joined by Ivan Kisjes, who works as an archaeologist and programmer at the University of Amsterdam’s CREATE project, and who will be doing OCR work and text mining in our project.

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Jean Conrad Ferdinand Theódore Desmet (1875-1956)

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The Jean Desmet Collection, preserved at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, contains the archives of film distributor and cinema owner Jean Desmet (1875-1956) who was active mostly in the early period of silent cinema and its transitional years. The collection consists of approximately 950 films produced between 1907 and 1916, a business archive containing more than 120.000 documents (these will be OCR’ed in our project), some 1050 posters and around 1500 photos. Parts of the collection were acquired by the Filmmuseum shortly after Desmet’s death in 1957 and then gradually expanded throughout the years with additional acquisitions. The Desmet Collection is unique because of its large amount of rare films from the transitional years of silent cinema, and because of the richness of its business archive holds extensive documentation of early film exhibition and distribution practices in the 1910s. These features contribute to its immense historical value which was one of the main reasons why it was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2011.

Most of the material in the Collection has been digitized in different projects throughout the years. In the past few months I have worked on a report to outline exactly how the digitization work for each of the Collection’s subcollections was carried out which will provide a fundament for embedding it in the CLARIAH Media Suite. For more information on the Desmet Collection, EYE Filmmuseum has made a dossier on its website. And, for a more elaborate history of the Collection, film historian Ivo Blom has written a beautiful monograph on Desmet’s business activities and life which is available as an open access book from the Amsterdam University Press in the OAPEN Library.

Scholarly background: Audiovisualcy, multimedia editions and film segmentation as interpretation

Where do the methods and assumptions of MIMEHIST come from and why are they important for media historians? This is what I will try to answer in this section.

Readers of this blog will know that I have a great deal of enthusiasm for multimedia editions of archival film which facilitate analytical interaction with film – or video versions of films. These formats work with audiovisual media in media res by insist on a certain kind of audiovisualcy – as film scholar Catherine Grant has aptly called it – as a basis for scholarly interpretative processes – be they critical or historiographical. A fundamental key tenet in this kind of scholarship is that scholars, instead of only writing about film, cite, segment and re-edit films in different ways and to different ends as a foundation for their reflection and interpretation. There are several projects and theoretical writings which MIMEHIST finds inspiration in, in this regard. I would like to highlight some of them here.

In particular, I have been inspired by the Digital Formalism research project carried out in Vienna. This was a research project on Dziga Vertov’s work and theory which ran from 2007-2010 involving media scholars at the University of Vienna, archivists from the Austrian Filmmuseum and computer scientists from the Vienna University of Technology. Through extensive manual segmentation and data visualization the project explored Vertov’s montage style in relation to his theories on film montage and rhythm. Moreover, I have previously written enthusiastically about the Hyperkino DVD series which aimed at developing a historical-critical presentation format for annotated versions of Soviet classics or rarities.

Before these more recent projects, there have been several advanced efforts to conceive scholarly multimedia projects for film historiography in the past decades. In the 1990s, for instance, there was a rich experimentation with what was then referred to as hypermedia in CD-Rom formats in film studies, in the US in particular. Several groundbreaking projects were developed such as Lauren Rabinovitz’ The Rebecca Project (1995), the multimedia textbook The Virtual Screening Room developed at MIT by Henry Jenkins, Ben Singer, Ellen Draper and Janet Murray between 1992-1999, as well as Yuri Tsivian’s CD-Rom on pre-Soviet silent cinema Immaterial Bodies: Cultural Anatomy of Early Russian Cinema (2000). The latter was released by the University of Southern California’s Labyrinth project in its groundbreaking series of Cine-Discs edited by Marsha Kinder.

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An original order form for Yuri Tsivian’s Cine-Disc Immaterial Bodies: A Cultural Anatomy of Early Russian Film (2000) which Marsha Kinder has uploaded to her great website.

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Conceptually however, one may trace the urge to work directly on films as a historicizing working method even further back, for instance to the 1920s when Parisian cinephiles would be making compilation films of moments of particular cinematic beauty – or photogénie – to mark the end of a year spent at the cinema with a critical hit list. Or for instance – as film scholar Michael Witt has discussed with great insight – to Jean Mitry’s Film sur le montage (France, 1965), as well as to a great deal of compilation and found footage films.

There are also several interesting texts written in the 1970s, which tend to be considered hermeneutical antecedents in today’s digital humanities and discussions on audiovisualcy. In particular, Raymond Bellour’s classic article Le texte introuvable (1975) – in English The Unattainable Text – is often cited as almost prophetic in its heartfelt plea for a format or situation which allows film scholars to cite audiovisual fragments and to manipulate playback speed and direction as a way to interpret films through segmentation and scrutiny. Elsewhere in his writings on film analysis – to be precise in the article “To Segment/To Analyze (on Gigi)” – Bellour has also beautifully highlighted film segmentation as a process of interpretation in which one constantly finds new meanings and layers:

…segmentation is a mise-en-abîme, a ‘plumbing of depths’, a process that has no end theoretically – which does not mean that it has no meaning, in fact, that is its whole meaning.

In recent years, Bellour’s ideas to a large extent provided the fundament for the brilliant scholarly video annotation software Lignes de Temps, developed by the Pompidou Centre’s Institut de recherche et d’innovation. Unfortunately, this software is no longer being updated.

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Screen cap from Lignes de Temps (here I was busy analyzing the fantastic concert scene with the Yardbirds in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (UK/I/US, 1966))

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Another text which is less frequently cited today, but which I find immensely interesting, is an article written by film scholar and co-founder of the Harvard Film Archive Vlada Petric in 1974-1975, “From a Written Film History to a Visual Film History”, published in Cinema Journal in 1975. Different from Bellour’s hermeneutical approach to film analysis, Petric suggested a more scientistic, quantitative approach to especially the study of montage and style, as a way to create a more accurate empirical basis for film historiography. While the canon of films and historiographical assumptions underpinning Petric’s article may seem dated today, I think the article is hugely interesting in the way it articulates a special role for film archives and insists on an analytical situation in which scholars scrutinize film prints in archives to develop a “visual/analytical” approach to film analysis. As Petric wrote in his article:

…the appropriate methodology of film history cannot be attained in our time without the full cooperation of the film archives, which possess the prints and have access to technical facilities, without which it is impossible to grasp the cinematic structure of a film.

In many respects, these projects and theoretical texts underpin the MIMEHIST project’s development of annotation functionalities for media scholars, working with the example of EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection. It would undoubtedly sound a bit grand to claim that MIMEHIST will fulfill all the ambitions articulated by them. However, it is certainly a theoretical lineage which we feel indebted to and find inspiration in, in developing video annotation for historical analysis in new directions. Working from these theoretical coordinates we try to nurture a historical methodology relying on video annotation which we may qualify as more open-ended and dynamic, something we will also try to achieve by drawing on annotation practices in other disciplines.

Open-ended and dynamic historical representations in annotated film editions

How are we planning to achieve this and how will this differ from previous multimedia editions of (archival) films or annotation software/projects?

There are several aspects in which we could say that our project wishes to create a research situation which allows for doing audiovisual analysis reminiscent of the projects discussed above but which also builds on them by drawing on annotation software and practices in other disciplines.

First of all, we will facilitate and encourage segmentation and labelling of films as a basis for interpretation of, in particular, stylistic and formal aspects of films. The annotation environment resulting from MIMEHIST should ideally allow scholars to analyze digitized films from the Jean Desmet Collection – and audiovisual material more broadly – through a process of segmentation and labelling. It will allow scholars to engage in a process of coding through labelling, in a manner which we consider congruent with the “plumbing of depths” of film segmentation as suggested by Raymond Bellour; a subjective interpretation process which is not finite, but which may have different end points for different scholars because they observe and annotate different aspects of a film. By creating different layers and timelines in the CLARIAH Media Suite’s Segmenting Player scholars may categorize shot types, scenes and sequences following a personal coding scheme. Furthermore, scholars may also use such a coding procedure to get a better grasp on the structure of films, as suggested by Petric, in order to establish firm empirical evidence for their interpretation. MIMEHIST will not facilitate statistical functionalities however – for instance shot boundary detection – but may allow scholars to annotate and count film features as they like.

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A first glimpse of the CLARIAH Media Suite Segmenting Player in its early development phase.

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In order to develop this, MIMEHIST also looks beyond film theory, and finds inspiration in qualitative methodology and Grounded Theory approaches used for coding video or audio interviews in the social sciences, anthropology and ethnography. What scholars in these fields often do is to use video/audio editing software to tag and label interview bits and organize them into different categories and color-coded layers on a time-line, while linking them to related materials. This work lasts until the researcher feels the material is exhausted in a subjective – or collaborative – coding process. The coding procedures of qualitative methodology may be considered somewhat similar to the mise-en-abîme-feeling of film segmentation as described by Bellour because it is an analytical process without a logical end point. For MIMEHIST this is interesting because it allows us to draw productively on a lot of expertise and practical experiences on interpretation of audiovisual material from qualitative methodology in order to develop film and media annotation further.

Beyond labelling and tagging, it is also the idea that scholars should be able to present an annotated version of a film with MIMEHIST and synthesize the main findings of their work in an edited and staged version for peers as a last step in their historiographical operation. This may be reminiscent of the kind of presentation format which Hyperkino developed. In particular, it will rely on links made between films and related material in the Desmet Collection which researchers can organize in a personal user space. Furthermore, the presentation format of MIMEHIST should ideally offer a kind of video playback mode in which annotations – or footnotes as they were called in Hyperkino – may be accessed by clicking on an icon. It will also differ in several fundamental aspects from a project such as Hyperkino. First of all, MIMEHIST will allow scholars to make different versions of the same film. Scholars may thus produce different – perhaps competing – interpretations of the same title. This should allow for a greater multiplicity of viewpoints to be expressed about the films in the Desmet Collection from various theoretical angles and will also, hopefully, nurture a more open-ended and dynamic historical interpretation of the films as well as representations of them. Whereas Hyperkino relied on the closed DVD-format to present one interpretation, MIMEHIST will not have the limitation of such a format. Furthermore, we also aim to make the scholarly annotation work more transparent. For instance, in addition to making an edited, annotated version available to other scholars, a researcher may also offer access to the work folder and coding underlying a version so as to allow other scholars to critically scrutinize exactly what they did or to engage in collaborative annotation.

Hopefully this will all work out. These functionalities are now in the development phase and what I have discussed above is the goal we are working towards. I will write more about the case studies which the project will focus on later. But as it looks now, I have lined up two types of cases: one case, which will focus on non-fiction films in the Desmet Collection, with particular attention to the representation of war during WWI and the films’ distribution in the Netherlands in this period. A second case study will focus on an incomplete film, to analyse how its form and distribution life may possibly be better understood by linking it to film-related material in the Desmet Collection. More about that later.

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References

Bellour, Raymond, ed. Constance Penley. The analysis of film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Gauthier, Christophe. La passion du Cinéma. Cinéphiles, ciné-clubs et salles spécialisées à Paris de 1920 à 1929. Paris: AFRHC and École des Chartes, 1999.

Grant, Catherine, ”Film and Moving Image Studies: Re-Born Digital? Some Participant Observations”, in Frames Cinema Journal, vol. 1, no. 1 (2012)

Olesen, Christian Gosvig, Eef Masson, Jasmijn van Gorp, Giovanna Fossati & Julia Noordegraaf “Data-Driven Research for Film History: Exploring The Jean Desmet Collection” in The Moving Image, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2016)

Petric, Vladimir, ”From a Written Film History to a Visual Film History”, in Cinema Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2, Symposium on the Methodology of Film History (Winter, 1974-1975) 21.

Singer, Ben, “Hypermedia as a Scholarly Tool”, in Cinema Journal, vol. 34, no. 3 (1995)

Witt, Michael. Jean-Luc Godard. Cinema Historian. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

PhD Defense 10 May, 2pm

I am very happy to be able to announce the upcoming defense of my PhD dissertation. March 15, the PhD Committee approved my dissertation and with that also the defense date. In the Netherlands, the defense usually takes place approximately two months after the approval of the dissertation and is held as a public ceremony.

The defense will take place on Wednesday 10 May, 2pm at the University of Amsterdam’s Agnietenkapel. On the committee will be  – apart from my supervisor and promotor Professor Julia Noordegraaf (UvA) – the following distinguished members:

Prof. dr. Vinzenz Hediger, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Prof. dr. Frank Kessler, Universiteit Utrecht

Prof. dr. Barbara Flückiger, Universität Zurich

Dr. Eef Masson, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Prof. dr. Patricia Pisters, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Prof. dr. Charles Jeurgens, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Prof. dr. Giovanna Fossati, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Below is a glimpse of the cover of the printed version prepared for the defense. The cover image is a so-called summary visualisation of the film L’obsession du souvenir – a Gaumont production from 1913 starring Suzanne Grandais – which I created with the scientific visual analytics software ImageJ. There is more info about how and why this visualisation was created here.

More info on the event can be found at the University of Amsterdam’s and the Research School for Media Studies’ websites here and here.

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Update: Digital Film Historiography – A Bibliography

Since 2014 I have been putting together a bibliography of scholarly literature which in one way or another addresses aspects of using and analyzing digitised archival film or film-related sources in research. In particular I have been interested in how scholars currently recast old traditions of film historical research or imagine new ones with digital techniques and tools of analysis. As the bibliography kept growing bigger I began to feel it was necessary to turn it into a thematic bibliography which in a clearer way shows which publications belong to different research traditions. To achieve this, I have recently grouped the publications into a few categories – eight in total. The categories are:

  1. Audiovisal Essays, Found Footage and Remix Culture
  2. CD-Roms, Historical-Critical DVD Editions and Annotation
  3. Stylometry and Cinemetrics
  4. New Cinema History, Databases and GIS
  5. Online Collections, Presentation and Curation
  6. Digital Film Restoration and Historiography
  7. Scientific Visualization, Visual Studies and Epistemology
  8. Digital Exhibition Design and Museology

While I find these categories fairly accurate and productive they are of course debatable, but this is how I felt the publications should be grouped together at this point. I think most of them speak for themselves but my choices of which publications to include in which sections do perhaps require some explanation. On the most basic level, it is a condition for me that a publication offers – in some way – a reflection on film historiography by discussing either a theory, model, method or representational practice which is computer-based or which uses digitised sources or digital means of analytical intervention. As a consequence many publications which discuss these categories/themes but which do not address digitisation or computerised methods have been left out. For instance for section one on “Audiovisual Essays, Found Footage and Remix Culture” there are many essays and monographs which in the past decades have dealt with the interrelation between filmic appropriation practices and film historiography but which fall out of my bibliography’s scope because they do not discuss for instance digital video editing techniques or the use of digitised film collections. The same goes for a section such as “Stylometry and Cinemetrics” which does leave out some of the fundamental reference literature for statistical style analysis from BC (Before Computers) in favour of more recent publications. Of course, it goes without saying that the bibliography is not comprehensive (suggestions and comments are more than welcome on c.g.olesen_at_uva.nl !).

When reorganising the bibliography I also updated all the links associated with the publications, when applicable, so they should – at least for the moment – be working fine and forward you to additional, useful information. In addition, this update provided an opportunity for me to add more publications which have recently come to my attention. One title which I am particularly excited about is the recent monograph by film scholar and archivist Adelheid Heftberger (Austrian Filmmuseum), Kollision der Kader – Dziga Vertovs Filme, die Visualisierung ihrer Strukturen und die Digital Humanities, on the computer-based visualization of structures within Dziga Vertov’s films. This is the outcome of Heftberger’s fascinating doctoral research and the Digital Formalism project in which she meticulously annotated the shots in a group of Vertov films using the open source software Anvil. By doing this it became possible to visualize structures in Vertov’s work using different kinds of scientific, visual analytics (such as MatLab and ImageJ). In her book she discusses the broader implications of these methods both for Vertov research and for the digital humanities. The book is published in a new series on Film Heritage (Filmerbe) directed by Professor in Audiovisual Heritage Chris Wahl at the Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf in Potsdam. Somewhat related – but fundamentally different in its approach and scope – I have also added and recently acquired film scholar André Habib’s book La Main gauche de Jean-Pierre Léaud (Les Éditions du Boréal, 2015). Habib’s book aspires to combine a more anarchic, cinephile tradition of film appreciation with contemporary, representational practices opening with a reflection on the evocative potential of the beautiful visualizations of among other films Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (USA, 1960) created by San Francisco-based artist Jim Campbell. Made with ImageJ techniques (or, at least entirely reminiscent of scientific visualizations created with ImageJ techniques) Habib, I think, may with his book possibly be opening a path for film scholars who draw on cinephile theory to historicize films and who wish to define and appropriate such visualizations to their own ends within this tradition. It undoubtedly promises an exciting read in the near future!

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Ken Jacobs and Early Cinema Studies

Tuesday next week I have the great honor of presenting a film program titled ‘Ken Jacobs and Early Cinema Studies’ around Ken Jacobs avant-garde classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (USA, 1969-71)in the EYE Filmmuseum’s E-Cinema Academy screening series. Apart from Jacobs’ film the program will feature works by Noël Burch and Peter Tscherkassky. Below you can read my description of the program and background essay which were posted on E-Cinema Academy’s blog.

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EYE on Art

Program Description

Tom, Tom

This evening presents a program dedicated to Ken Jacobs avant-garde classic Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-1971). The films in the program highlights its contribution to the revision of early cinema’s history, which occurred throughout the 1970s, and its repercussions in contemporary experimental filmmaking.

Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son appropriates cameraman Billy Bitzer’s homonymous film from 1905. When Jacobs rented an archival print of it for teaching purposes in the late 1960s, he was astonished by its composition which, not containing the conventional analytical editing of later mainstream cinema, made it difficult to discern the central action and characters. To explore and understand its form and modes of address, Jacobs began performing with the film on an analytical projector with a variable-speed function in reverse and forward projection mode, and to focus on details in the image by filming it from behind a translucent screen. The…

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Du cinéma autrement – 50 Years of La Cinémathèque de Toulouse

During the Christmas break I went to Toulouse in the South of France. I have family there so I go two-three times a year. Excitingly, this year my vacation coincided with the 50th-anniversary of the Cinémathèque de Toulouse which was marked by the exhibition ”Du cinéma autrement – 50 ans de cinémathèque à Toulouse”. As the Cinémathèque’s building in Rue du Taur does not have an exhibition space large enough for hosting an exhibition of this scale, it had been installed at the Médiathèque José Cabanis, close to the Gare Matabiau, on three floors.

The exhibition provided an insight into several of the core aspects of preservation and presentation in a cinémathèque with an emphasis on the collection building of one of its founding figures: Raymond Borde. Divided into ten sections the exhibition covered topics and collections as diverse as late-nineteenth century optical devices, the relationships between a cinémathèque, amateur collectors, directors and foreign institutions and their role in collection building, posters in different languages and the contribution of a regional cinémathèque in the creation of a local film culture.

Below are some notes, impressions and photos.

Raymond Borde and La Cinémathèque de Toulouse

The Cinémathèque de Toulouse was founded in 1964 and is today the second largest cinemathèque in France. Apart from La Cinémathèque française it is the only French film heritage institution with the status of a national cinémathèque (yet, there are plenty of other smaller cinémathèques in France in Nice, Perpignan, Marseille, Brest and Lyon for example…). As most cinémathèques it branched out from a ciné-club or film society – in this case the Ciné-club de Toulouse – and its foundation is mostly associated with its leading film critic and historian Raymond Borde (1920-2002). Borde was in particular an authority on Soviet cinema and on film noir, subjects on which his studies remain groundbreaking still today. Especially the monograph Panorama du film noir américain. 1941-1953 (translated into English as A Panorama of American Film Noir. 1941-1953) which he co-wrote with film critic Etienne Chaumeton is a defining film noir genre study.

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Borde was also a fervent surrealist belonging to the circle of André Breton and a communist who wrote sulphurous critiques against practically any kind of bourgeois institutions and conventions. In this respect, Borde’s pamphlet from 1964 – L’extricable – had wide repercussions both in surrealist circles and in French mainstream culture. It was enthiusiastically acclaimed by Breton and Luis Buñuel and provided great inspiration for Georges Brassens whose enthusiasm for the pamphlet made him buy around fifty copies which he would hand out to good friends with dedications. Written in a deliberately cruel, aggressive and anarchist tone L’extricable contains ridiculing of anything from family structures, academic culture and consumerism.

The scholarly part of Borde’s literary output is more low-key and rigorous compared to his surrealist writings. Yet, there remains a distinct directness to his style which reflects his ideological and political concerns. In general, Borde was not a person to filter his opinions. Ironically, this would cause a backlash when as a consequence of 1968’s ‘Langlois affair’ he was excluded from surrealist circles because he went against Henri Langlois, La Cinémathèque française’s director, when the French ministry of culture, then headed by André Malraux, wished film critic Pierre Barbin to replace Langlois.

For the field of film preservation, Borde’s importance as a writer and historiographer has also been immense. His monograph Les Cinémathèques (L’age d’homme, 1984) arguably remains the most thoroughly researched and comprehensive historical account of the film preservation movement’s emergence from 1920s cinephile culture, its institional antecedents in scientific film archiving and the transformation of cinémathèques into state-subsidized institutions (in Europe at least) which created stronger ties to for example UNESCO to promote their mission of preservation.

Du Cinéma autrement – The Exhibition

With such a status and rich legacy the Cinémathèque de Toulouse certainly has something to celebrate with its 50 years anniversary and a good reason for creating an exhibition to mark the event. Not surprisingly, the role of Borde in the institution’s history was highlighted by showing how the different facets of his interests and activities have shaped the collection building of La Cinémathèque de Toulouse to this very day. The cinémathèque for instance has an exceptional collection of Soviet cinema, arguably the most important outside of Russia. As the current director Natacha Laurent – herself a great authority on Soviet cinema, author of a monograph on film censorship under Stalin L’oeil du Kremlin. Cinéma et censure en URSS sous Staline (Privat, 2000) – explains in the accompanying booklet which accompanies the exhibition, Borde and the Cinémathèque de Toulouse developed exceptionally strong ties to the Gosfilmofond and the Cinemateca de Cuba which its film and poster collections benefited immensely from. It was also via its connection to the Gosfilmofond that the Cinémathèque de Toulouse managed to repratriate the camera negative of Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (France, 1937), which, according to legend, the Russians had taken with them from Germany immediately after the second world war.

As the photos below testify to the cinémathèque’s collection is however far from limited to its rich collection of Soviet cinema.

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Poster for Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (France, 1937). The blurb to the left of the poster explains that the Gosfilmofond decided to give back the film’s original negative in the mid-1970s some 30 years after the Red Army – at least that is how the story goes – had brought the elements with them from Berlin as a war trophy. In the display case are exhibited cans from the Gosfilmofond as well as correspondences with Raymond Borde. It can be read in these letters that Borde would for example give copies of the film journal Positif, which he was involved in for many years, in exchange of elements from the Gosfilmofond.

la grande illusion

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As a surrealist collector who did not distinguish between high and low culture – an approach which is arguably in the very DNA of cinephilia – it is perhaps not surprising that Raymond Borde showed a great interest in the work of Jean Rollin, prominent French director of vampire sleaze (very often referred to simply – and somewhat unjustly – as the ‘French Jess Franco’). Next to the section on La grande illusion and the Gosfilmofond a display case with props and film related material from Rollin’s La vampire nue (France, 1970) had been installed.

Jean Rollin

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The section ‘Aux origines du cinéma’ displayed objects from different periods of silent cinema and optical devices dating from the period prior to cinema’s emergence. Below a manual for film tinting and toning (I believe from the mid-1920s and probably a Pathé manual but I did not write it down).

colour manual

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One of the most urgent tasks facing film heritage institutions in an era of transition toward digitisation is to convey the materiality of analogue film. The exhibition had gone for a very simple, pedagogical but also effective solution. Snippets of film in different formats from 8mm to 70mm had been mounted on a lightboard and could be touched and examined with magnifying glasses hanging next to it.

film formats

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A special, limited edition copy of the surrealist film journal L’âge du cinéma published under the direction of film critic and director Ado Kyrou. Six issues appeared in 1951-1952 focusing on avant-garde and experimental cinema. The signatures on the right page include among others Man Ray, André Breton, Jean-Louis Bédouin and Jindrich Heisler who contributed to the issue.

lageducinema

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Letter from Robert Aldrich to Raymond Borde from 1956 in response to Borde’s questions on Aldrich’s television works from 1952-1954.

bordealdrich

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The exhibition also included a section on the relationship between amateur collectors and the cinémathèque. For the Cinémathèque de Toulouse the extensive stills and poster collection would not have been quite the same without the indefatigable work of collectors such as Max Montané and Thomas Hill. Max Montané for instance build up a considerable collection of Hollywood still photographs of which he received a large part from Robert Florey. Often the relationships between cinémathèques and collectors are not widely discussed or transparent and yet cinémathèques have traditionally relied heavily on the idiosyncratic collection building of passionate individuals to enrich their own collections.

Lescollectioneurs

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This is what the facade of La Cinémathèque de Toulouse’s building in Rue du Taur 69 looks like. Once the home of Ciné Espoir which had close ties to the Spanish socialist movement that gained a strong foothold in Toulouse after the Spanish civil war, the Cinémathèque’s cinemas and research library are now located in this building. In the summer months the court yard is used for the annual open air screening series ‘Cinéma en plein air’.

ruedutaur

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Below is an image of the new film and DVD shop of the bookstore Ombres blanches (not a part of the Cinémathèque, but I had to post it here). Ombres blanches is a legendary bookstore in Toulouse founded in 1975. It has always been renowned for its extremely wide assortment and specialized staff who know exactly what they are talking about when they give advice. In the past five-six years Ombres blanches has kept growing and especially its cinema section has become more and more developed. Going to Toulouse at a 4-5 months interval I have been able to follow this first-hand and see how the book and DVD sections only expanded and got more specialized. This development has now culminated in the opening of an entire bookstore devoted only to cinema at a separate location (just in front of the old shop in Rue Gambetta) named Ombres & Lumières: shadows and lights. Below a frieze containing a list of classic auteurs one enters a haven of film books both classic and new. This is quite incredible in a time when specialized bookstores are often regarded as belonging to a bygone era. A must for the cinephile visitor!

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Data-Driven Film History at the FIAT World Conference 2014, Amsterdam

I am currently busy working on the project ‘Data-Driven Film History: a Demonstrator of EYE’s Jean Desmet Collection’ which is a small pilot project funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) running from September 2014 till May next year. The aim of the project is to develop a demonstrator tool which proposes new ways for scholars to research and visualize the Jean Desmet Collection held at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, a collection which has been almost completely digitized.

The Jean Desmet collection is an immensely important collection, recognized as UNESCO World Heritage in 2011, which contains approximately 950 films from cinema’s early years from between 1907-1916, 2000 posters, 700 posters as well as some 120.000 business documents. It is a collection which especially in the 1980s and 1990s through screenings at the silent film festival Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone in  Italy made film scholars aware of the great variety and richness of for example film colours in the silent era, and has been crucial in understanding the cinema distribution networks in the Netherlands as well as in Northern Europe. The Dutch film historian Ivo Blom who is one of the most knowledgeable scholars on the collection has written in more detail on this in blog posts and in book form (which can be downloaded for free!) here and here.

It is exactly the aspects of film distribution and colour that we wish our tool to address and which we are currently figuring out how could be done best. I will write about this later in more depth, when we have gone beyond the phase of deciding on the research design and determining exactly how the programming will be done. Yet, for those who cannot wait and are eager to know more about our project, I will be co-presenting a paper on the research questions and methods we have lined up so far, tomorrow at the world conference of the International Federation of Television Archives (FIAT) at the Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam with my colleague Jasmijn van Gorp from Utrecht University. The paper is co-written with Eef Masson (University of Amsterdam), Giovanna Fossati (EYE Film Institute Netherlands/University of Amsterdam) and Julia Noordegraaf (University of Amsterdam) and a livestream can be followed here, so there is no excuse for not tuning in at 3.30 pm CET!

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