Formalising Digital Formalism: An Interview with Adelheid Heftberger and Matthias Zeppelzauer about the Vienna Vertov Project (2015)

The following post is a pre-print version of an interview I made back in 2015 with film scholar and archivist Adelheid Heftberger (then Austrian Filmmuseum, now Bundesarchiv) and Matthias Zeppelzauer (then Vienna University of Technology, now St. Poelten University of Applied Sciences).

Because this interview is not easy to find and, I think, still topical in terms of understanding the developing relations between film archives, film studies and digital scholarship, I thought now was a good moment to make it available on my blog. The interview is preceded by a short introduction that discusses the interview’s aim and place in the research I was doing at the time (and continue to do).

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Introduction

In recent years, film and media historians have increasingly made use of quantitative approaches and computational techniques to analyze and visualize patterns in digitised archival sources. This development has given rise to new visual methods and forms of data visualisation – diagrams, graphs and interactive maps – which scholars deploy to produce evidence in their research. In the historiography of film style, methods such as Cinemetrics and ImageJ/ImagePlot are becoming increasingly prominent for visualizing filmic structure and narration.1 And in socio-economic cinema history, GIS technologies and digital cartography are opening new avenues for network analysis.2 These methods forge collaboration between fields that traditionally have remained separate from each other. In particular, it sees the fields of film archiving, film historiography, computer science, information science and artistic research intertwine to a still greater degree.

This relatively recent development invites reflection on digitisation’s consequences for the epistemology of film historical research, similar to discussions in the discipline of History where the emergence of computational techniques of analysis have received critical attention for decades.3 There is a need to attend to the processes of formalisation which underlie contemporary digital research methods as we still know little about them. In this regard it may be considered an obstacle that film and media theory has predominantly tended to regard digitisation as a ‘deauthorization’ of established notions of history which renders its sources increasingly manipulable and dynamic.4 Or, as media scholar Steve F. Anderson has critically remarked, digitisation tends to be perceived as resulting ‘in the loss, rather than the reconfiguration, of history’.5 Such perspectives have arguably neglected the multifarious processes through which scholars reimagine new methodological avenues for their research tradtions to historicize film and media objects with computational techniques.

To grapple with the challenge of understanding this development’s consequences for film historiography, my own research has focussed to a great extent on the socio-technical operations that underlie digital methods to elucidate how quantitative techniques and data visualizations produce evidence for film historians and reconfigure their traditions. To this end, my research includes theoretical perspectives from philosophy of history, science studies and media archaeology to study how historical concepts and techniques, both digital and analogue, amalgamate in the digital era to create new representational practices and scholarly research dispositifs.6 In this regard, I consider digital film history as the product of both poetic and scientific gestures or – as Michel de Certeau once labelled computational history – as a ‘science-fiction’ which combines historical narration and metaphors with technical practice.7 In doing so, I do not wish to (re)instate a normative view of film history nor of best practices. Rather, I hope to elucidate the epistemological underpinnings of digital film history’s methods to invite scholars to use and critically discuss them and develop new, quantitative as well as qualitative, uses of data visualizations to their own ends while being aware of the inherent contingencies of digitised archival sources and the techniques of visual analytics and visualization strategies.8

In the context of my research I have been particularly interested in the interdisciplinary collaboration and use of scientific visualization software within the Austrian research project Digital Formalism. Digital Formalism was a research project on filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s work and theory which ran from 2007-2010.9 It involved media scholars at the University of Vienna, archivists from the Austrian Filmmuseum and computer scientists from the Vienna University of Technology.10 Though not an official partner, the Cultural Analytics project of media theorist Lev Manovich’s Software Studies Initiative joined forces with the project’s participants in 2009 to create visualizations of Vertov films, based on data collected by the Digital Formalism research team.11

In the conversation below I asked Adelheid Heftberger – project participant in Digital Formalism and then film archivist at the Austrian Filmmuseum – about aspects of interdisciplinarity, scholarly tradition and choice of visualization formats in producing a new historical interpretation of Vertov’s works. Furthermore, Heftberger was joined by computer scientist Matthias Zeppelzauer to answer the first part’s questions on interdisciplinary collaboration. With the interview I hoped to yield a better understanding of the underlying, methodological procedures through which Digital Formalism was formalised focusing on the ways in which it used, imagined and assembled different media technologies to create a new, historical perspective on Dziga Vertov’s seminal filmmaking.

Digital Formalism’s Institutional Background and Interdisciplinary Collaboration

CGO: Could you tell me a bit about the background of the Digital Formalism project? What were the circumstances that made such an ambitious project on Dziga Vertov possible?

AH: The tradition of showing Dziga Vertov’s films at the Austrian Film Museum goes back to its founding years. The first screening was already in 1966.12 Since then, the dissemination of Vertov’s work has been of high priority on the Film Museum’s agenda, so far four of his films and a book about the collection have been published. These activities result from the scholarly engagement with the collection which was nurtured by Rosemarie Ziegler over the years in close collaboration with Vertov’s widow Elizaveta Svilova. When I came to the Film Museum around 2006, the process of building a database with the aim of publishing Vertov’s documents online, was already underway and soon after it became my first task there. That was around the time when the Digital Formalism projects had been accepted in 2007.

Long before that, Professor Klemens Gruber from the Theatre, Film and Media Department at the University of Vienna had been involved in the dissemination and analysis of Vertov’s oeuvre in Vienna. In 1996 he, together with the New York University, organised a symposium named „To the 100th anniversary of Dziga Vertov“, a book publication with the same title followed where rare documents were translated and published.13 Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say that Vertov and Vienna have formed a very strong connection for some time already, and consequently it was not surprising that the idea of setting up a research project came up.

Moreover, Vertov is known for his highly formalized style of filmmaking and although one gets a sense of that whilst watching his films, it was tempting to see if automated video analysis could provide us with more insights into how he actually composed and structured his work. This is how the personal connection of Professor Gruber with Professor Christian Breiteneder from the Technical University and his team came about. The two departments, together with the Austrian Film Museum, developed this innovative research project which was eligible for funding from the WWTF – a funding body in Vienna for technical undertakings and interdisciplinary projects.

CGO: What was your role in the project and how did it relate to your background?

AH: My background is in Slavic (Russian) Studies. At that time I had just finished my MA thesis on Dziga Vertov, in which I had analysed three of his films discussing him as a documentary filmmaker and focusing on aspects of propaganda in his films. Through Thomas Tode, a German film scholar who was working at the Austrian Film Museum at that time, I was invited to help with the work on the collection, which I gladly did.

When the Digital Formalism project was accepted, it wasn’t clear first if my role would be at the Film Museum or at the Theater-, Film and Media Department. Personally, I was keen to be affiliated with the Museum because it suited me best at that time. I wanted to learn more – hands on, so to speak – about film material, prints and film handling, and it was clear that within the DF project the in-depth analysis of the analogue material would be central. At this point I was only just becoming an academic researcher and film archivist, so I was broadly interested in the whole field. I soon began on the annotation of the videos, whilst comparing the digital material with the original analogue material in order to determine aspects such as for instance the original reel splices. I also learned a lot about edge marks, film damages and traces of film printing on the films. A highlight in the project was certainly the restoration of Man With a Movie Camera (Soviet Union, 1929) in collaboration with Eye Filmmuseum and namely with Senior Curator Mark-Paul Meyer. We compared a vintage print on nitrate film stock with our print and later also the digitized versions of both prints.14

Apart from that, my contribution mainly consisted in annotating the films manually using the Anvil Software, in close collaboration with the colleagues from the Technical University. Furthermore I was involved in close readings of selected films, with the aim of correlating Vertov’s writing with the filmic realisation. Together with Michael Loebenstein and Georg Wasner from the Film Museum we published a DVD, which contained not only montage list comparisons and visualizations, but also a video essay, Vertov in Blum, about the re-use of Vertov’s footage in German director Viktor Blum’s work.15 The visualizations that I worked on after the project was finished are in a way a natural next step and after the annotation and the collection of the data, it was logical for me to arrange the results in a useful way. My book Kollision der Kader. Dziga Vertovs Filme, die Visualisierung ihrer Strukturen und die Digital Humanities (Edition text + kritik, 2016) aims to sum up this long process.

CGO: The project is quite unique as a digital humanities project in film studies. There are relatively few projects of this scale and complexity in film studies that make use of new visualization techniques to discern, among other things, relations between archival prints. Furthermore, it is special because it explored a collaborative work form involving researchers from diverse fields; computer scientists, film archivists and scholars. With this in mind, how would you describe the group’s collaboration? What challenges did you need to overcome to develop a shared understanding of archival, scholarly and computational issues?

AH: Nobody was talking about Digital Humanities then, at least not in Austria. It all transpired after the project was finished, when I started to talk to Yuri Tsivian about writing a PhD based on Digital Formalism.

MZ: We learned that when different scientific disciplines collaborate it is essential to define a common terminology, a common language. For computer scientists it is especially important to get precise definitions of film-specific terms and entities, such as for instance shot, take or scene, to enable the development of computer algorithms which can operate for example automatic shot and scene segmentation. Another challenge was to distinguish between syntactic attributes which can be defined in a formal correct way, for example shot, and semantic attributes which always exhibit a certain amount of fuzzyness and requires interpretation. By fuzzyness I mean that there is place for interpretation and the resulting analysis depends on the subject that performs it. An example is ”scene segmentation”. Asking three different people to segment a film into ”scenes” will usually result in three different segmentations, as there is no unique and formally complete definition of the term ”theme”. This makes the development of computer algorithms for such tasks difficult.

AH: I think Matthias decribed the challenges quite aptly. This is a very difficult topic altogether – how to annotate the film material in terms of material characteristics and maintain the specific place on the respective film reel. Everyone who has ever tried to do a proper sequence protocol knows how time consuming this work is and especially when one for example has to mark the single frame or specific place where an occurence has to be annotated, for example a stamp, a tear, a splice, a note from an editor etc. So, the computer scientists had to learn about specific, material attributes. But the process could also be frustrating, among the film archivists and the scholars especially in more fundamental aspects. The scholars for instance had to accept that there exist different versions of films, sometimes mutilated without knowing who made the changes, and that records in international archives are hard to find. It requires patience and stubbornness to dig into archives and collect, evaluate and bring together film material and related information.

One thing we all had to understand, was to respect different scholarly pratices. I think, generally speaking, film scholars and archivists probably take their time to discuss things and concepts, share experience and knowledge as a vital part of the process. Conversely, technicians are trained to quickly get aquainted with the issues at hand, define the task and get moving and work independently, meeting only at neuralgic points in the project.

CGO: But the project’s computer scientists seem to have developed a quite advanced understanding of the archival films’ material characteristics.16 In the articles coming out of the project they show awareness of philological, material aspects in line with the scholarly reflections emerging in the 1970s and 1980s.17 How did you merge your knowledge with their’s?

MZ: We inspected the material and had numerous discussions with our colleagues from the Austrian film museum about the material’s characteristics and the challenges they pose for automated analysis. From these activities we developed a comprehensive understanding of the specific film material. Vice versa, the film archivists developed a better understanding of how a computer ”sees” images and videos and how artifacts, such as instability and flicker, which a human viewer can compensate for are highly disturbing in automated film analysis. In this regard, the interdisciplinarity added an important value to the project and improved the mutual understanding of computer scientists and archivists.

CGO: Could one say that a specific group took the lead within the project to shape its direction and objectives?

MZ: At some point, interestingly, the project’s direction became influenced by the demands and requirements of the computer scientists much more than anticipated. The reason was that the computer scientists required precise and complete annotations of the films for quantitative evaluation of the algorithms, and these annotations did not exist. Subsequently, they were generated by the film scholars and the archivists in the project who provided the necessary background information and knowledge about the film material. This stimulated research in the computer science domain and led to a shift from qualitative analyses to quantitative evaluations. Especially the archivists recognized the great potential of the annotations for visualizations and for developing novel perspecives on the material.

AH: I came later to the project but immediately got interested in annotating the films. The technical side of it triggered my interest in combination with the opportunity to watch Vertov’s films very carefully and measure them. It helps to go through a film frame by frame. Consequently, I worked closely with the computer scientists, which made me realise that they had developed skills in formal film analysis as well, so it was mutually beneficial. I also think Matthias is spot on when pointing out how the annotation work triggered interest in producing visual representations. This was not initially defined as a task within the project.

CGO: What role did existing Vertov scholarship play in these annotations? It seems that the Vertov studies by Vlada Petric and Yuri Tsivian are prominent, in particular their formal analysis of his films were a strong source of inspiration. In an article by project participant Stefan Hahn one can see for example that Vlada Petric’s extensive segmentation and annotation of for instance camera movements in Vertov’s work, included in his monograph Constructivism in Film: The Man With The Movie Camera – A Cinematic Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1987) was part of the annotation scheme devised for the digitised films.18 Could you elaborate on how Digital Formalism in general leaned upon existing scholarship in developing its analytical scope?

AH: Yes, that is right. For our first conference we invited Tsivian, who had met some project members at a conference in Siegen before, as a keynote speaker. Our scholarly input came very much from Slavic studies. With Barbara Wurm we had a promising, well connected young scholar on board. With me and her being Slavicists and knowing Russian, that helped a lot. Manovich, who joined very late, has also written about Vertov before. For the Slavicists there appears to be a natural, combined interest in the Avantgarde, Formalist movement and films and formalist film analysis. Quantitative film analysis is not far away then. My point is that Vertov’s way of filmmaking comes from a very formal approach – he had to organise his material, he didn’t have a lot in the beginning. Many others have pointed to that as well, Manovich for example. In this regard, we used Petric’s segmentation and studied an unpublished manuscript by him as well. Tsivian provided that and was thrilled that we could now measure Man With a Movie Camera more accurately than anyone else before.

As for film studies I am not sure and must confess not being a specialist in Film Theory. Famously Bordwell and Thompson have written about Neoformalism, but I think quantitative film analysis has more in common with other desciplines than film studies, like quantitative linguistics or statistics. A reference point in that regard might be Herbert Birett and the German movement he was part of in the 1970s where scholars got very interested in measuring shots and argued its usefulness for identifying and analysing films.

Imagining Visualizations and Digitality with Vertov

CGO: The famous essay ”WE. A Variant of a Manifesto” (1922) is foundational for Vertov’s and the kinoks documentary approach and conceptualization of rhythm and metrics in cinema. It is also central to Digital Formalism’s interpretation of the textual dynamics and elements of Vertov’s films – or what Vertov refers to as ‘phrases’.19 It appears crucial, as a guideline for your annotation of shot types and the visualization of their relations. Could you tell a bit about the place of this text, or Vertovian documentary theory more broadly, in Digital Formalism and the role it played in your annotations?

AH: Vertov’s film theory is not very concise, stringent or complete, but as you probably know, everyone points to this essay to explain it. Barbara Wurm pointed out that there tend to be a lot of misreadings of it. A reason for this is, that it initially contained a graphical representation of Vertov’s system, which is basically the only one we have. But the wide-spread translations were published without it. Furthermore, the translation’s wording is really very tricky, and we should also keep in mind that he wrote this at the beginning of his career, when developing his way of working with film. So, we talked a lot about this graph, looked at it, and tried to analyze it to understand Vertov’s filmmaking as a system of phrases. However, in terms of classification of sequences it does not give a lot of guidance concerning shot types for instance. His wording is still very ambiguous… you can’t really pinpoint it. Therefore, many of our categories were really defined pragmatically in the end, influenced by very simple, say, conventional film theory and film-formal vocabulary. Although we did try to connect it back to Vertov’s own words. I am not quite sure our interpretation stands but it was good that we tried.

CGO: Can you elaborate on why you think it doesn’t stand?

AH: I think there are several problems in the definition of phrase. We probably over-interpreted its meaning. I think Vertov just means episodes, a wording he also uses, and I am not quite sure that he has a typology of phrases really. We stopped following it quite early, because after doing it with one film and moving on to the next, we got the impression that Vertov tried to work differently with each film. So, even if he had a vocabulary of phrases, it would be very different. We did something very inspiring, you know, but I would not subscribe to it after working a lot with his films.

CGO: Within Digital Formalism you explored the annotations with different types of visualizations and analytics originating from different fields to show patterns in shot lengths and sequences. Yuri Tsivian’s Cinemetrics developed primarily for film scholars and used for visualizing Average Shot Lengths (ASL) and Median Shot Lengths (MSL) in statistical style analysis was for instance used to visualize the internal dynamics of cutting rates in Man with a Movie Camera‘s different reels/acts in various archival prints (see Fig. 1).20 But likewise, the scientific software MatLab was also explored as a way of showing the interplay between different types of segments, ImageJ as well as Lev Manovich’s development of the ImageJ software, ImagePlot, was used to work with the films as image sets and sequences without having to rely on reduced, statistical representations.21 To begin with Cinemetrics, what role did it play in Digital Formalism and what did you find to be its strenghts and limitations in representing Vertov’s formalism?

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vertov_cinemetrics

Fig. 1 Cinemetrics visualization of Man With a Movie Camera’s first reel.

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AH: Yes, this is a very valid question. I almost completely forgot about Matlab, because it was so early on. We were of course eager to share our research and to include Yuri Tsivian because of his pioneering work in semiotics and interpretation of Vertov’s signs, also from before he became interested in quantitative analysis. There was overall agreement in the project that Cinemetrics was a great way to look at the films, and we started our collaboration by working together on Man With a Movie Camera.22

What the DF project could offer, for the first time, was a frame-accurate annotation of the rapidly edited film in Excel form. On the Cinemetrics website the previous, quite heroic attempts, are still saved, which were carried out by using the traditional timing method (basically watching the film in real time and pressing a button when a shot ends). Vertov sometimes cuts shots together which only consist of single frames, so how could a human possibly be accurate here? However, the Anvil software allowed exactly that to be done. Once we had uploaded our data into Cinemetrics, we were rewarded with a visual representation of the film’s structure. This really added something to the project, for instance it helped me a lot to understand at a glance, how the films were edited and if there were trends in the editing of shot lengths. Only by looking at the Cinemetrics graphs, I could compare the different films and see general trends. This is also something which I explain in greater detail in my book where I use Cinemetrics graphs as visual evidence to suggest that one film – Entuziazm (Simfonija Donbassa) (SU, 1930) – did not survive in its original form.

Another small study we carried out with Cinemetrics was a historical analysis of the original reel structures in Man With a Movie Camera. After the examination of the analogue material in the Austrian Film Museum and research on prints in other archives, we could determine the original structure of the film’s five reels. Again, the visual representation of the single reels allowed for a useful visual comparison of the different structure of each reel.

CGO: I would like to elaborate a bit on this latter point. I recall from reading a conversation between you and Tsivian that by analyzing the different reels with Cinemetrics, you could visualize and provide evidence for, what you phrase using a very scientific terminology, an ED-rule – ED meaning Event-Driven – in Man with a Movie Camera.23 Thus, the visualization illustrated how the pace of Vertov’s montage did not support the film as one coherent, narrative structure, but as independent reels with openings and closures and shifting tempi, which tried to capture the rhythm of the depicted events?

AH: This was perhaps a weak point in our discussion, I have to say, because here you could start to use the graphics for developing broader concepts about how some films are created and we did not pursue this further, which is a pity. I myself did not feel confident enough, because I had a lot of things to dive into myself. So, I would leave this for other people to consider. I have the feeling there should be done a lot more, looking at the structure to find or develop broader concepts for describing such film dynamics. You know, Vertov is just not a very representational case for story-driven cinema, so, you would have to have a much bigger sample to develop this.

CGO: For editing analysis, I see the clear relevance of Cinemetrics, but on the other hand I also thought the Matlab visualization was interesting because it is almost like a graphical notation (see Fig. 2), a musical score, which charts the different elements so that you can look further into them and discern relations between events and cutting rates. However, in the end, it seems the ImageJ/ImagePlot montage visualizations became the preferred visualization type within Digital Formalism, especially for the analysis of Dziga Vertov’s Odinnadcatyj (The Eleventh Year, USSR, 1928, see Fig. 3). They are the ones that circulate most widely, and which scholars associate with the project to illustrate the potential of data visualizations for film and media studies. Could you tell a bit about why you preferred this visualization type, or why – according to you – they are the ones most frequently associated with the project?

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Skærmbillede 2020-03-17 kl. 14.24.33

Fig. 2 Matlab visualization created by Adelheid Heftberger showing the different types of ‘phrases’ in Vertov’s The Eleventh Year distributed on the y-axis and their temporal duration on the x-axis.

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AH: I think you are familiar with what Manovich claims, that we should explore visualization without reduction and use the image information. In a way this is very tempting, and I think it makes sense with film. There is of course also the point that now we can do it, computer power was just not sufficient previously. We used abstract visualizations on the one hand, plots and graphs and then ImageJ. I think they can of course be complementary. For what I researched later in my PhD, concerning montage, I could analyze and draw conclusions on shot length distribution, using additional statistics that I have, which I think only makes sense with Cinemetrics.

With ImagePlot/ImageJ you really don’t do that. You arrange them in whatever way you want them, and play around with it. It is an explorative way of working and basically there are two ways. Either you can visualize it in a way that you would think would make sense, looking for patterns in, say close-ups, it could be anything. Or, you really visualize a feature you are more specifically interested in. With reduced visualization I think you really need to know what you are looking for. It doesn’t make sense really to fool around, the question has to be a lot more precise. I think you perhaps got the impression we were generally more interested in ImageJ/ImagePlot, because of the euphoria around it, that suddenly you could do it. It is perhaps also because it is a bit like a memory of the film, a condensed memory. If you know a film really well, have a structure in your head already, it reminds you what is happening in it and makes you want to explore it.

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vertov_montage

Fig. 3 Montage ImageJ visualization of frames – the second from each shot – from Dziga Vertov’s Odinnadcatyj (The Eleventh Year, USSR, 1928) organized in sequential order from left to right from the upper left corner.

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What I would underline is that I certainly preferred the montage visualizations for looking at films as time-based structures rather than for content analysis. I want to see the time structure, discern relations and connections between frames. I know that Manovich probably sees it the other way around. Perhaps because in what he is doing now, exploring Big Data sets, using image per image, for example these Time magazines, or Instagram photos, it does not matter really in what order they are taken, there is not a similar sequential connection. I was also not really sure if it made sense to go into the content analsis he did for films. For black and white there is not so much you can do, you know if you analyze greyscales and arrange them according to variations, really you kind of subtract, you calculate the pixels, and you get an image where you see where the greyer areas are, and you have a kind of snapshot of the whole film. I always felt a bit uneasy about that, but maybe this has to be a lot more methodologically supported.

CGO: Well, thinking in terms of methodology one of the reasons the montage visualizations appear successful, as I perceive it, is because they seem to realize some perhaps tentative ideas about style analysis from the 1970s. In that period, Vlada Petric for instance wrote about how the ties between academia and film archives should be strengthened, stressing that scholars need access to editing tables to understand filmic structure more adequately and develop accurate profiles of directors’ works or films. They should develop a ‘visual/analytic’ history of film he wrote.24 In that regard, the montage visualization really allows you to grasp cinematic structure in a way that, although emanating from a different material setting, shares features with the cutting table’s regime of vision. In their organization they also resemble classic sequential, scientific cinematography’s breakdown of movement. You can literally grasp film structures and compare them, and also make philological observations about film prints. This, I think, is also what you do in your use of the montage visualizations in the DVD edition of Sestaja čast’ mira (A Sixth Part of the World, SU, 1926) and Odinnadcatyj (The Eleventh Year, US, 1928) – see for instance the ‘Blum affair’ explained in the release’s Rom-section – by colour coding them to say what footage appears several times in his films or in films by other directors.25 It allows you to discern philological relations that traditionally you could only do in the film archive and to circulate these insights with these visualizations.

AH: Yes, I think the philological function is obvious and that you characterize this very well.

CGO: My next question concerns how Digital Formalism also seems to historicize and place Dziga Vertov as a predecessor to digital forms of image appropriation and visualization. As Seth Feldman has pointed out, since the rediscovery of Vertov in the mid-1950s in the post-Stalinist era, there has existed a branch of Vertov scholarship in which contemporary media imaginaries are mapped onto Vertov’s film practice.26 For instance, Georges Sadoul’s translations and discussions of Vertov’s documentary theory was instrumental to the conceptualization of documentary cinema as ’cinéma vérité’ in the 1960s – a literal translation of the title to his kinopravda newsreel series. More recently, and arguably also more widely known today, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (2001) develops its understanding of contemporary database culture on the basis of Vertov’s reuse and montage of his own and/or stock footage. In your project, you suggested that Vertov’s ideas on machinic vision forecasted visual, computer-generated analysis to motivate your visual analytics.27 How did Vertov’s theory guide your conception of your analytical intervention and understanding of digital techniques?

AH: First of all I should say, that probably a lot of what was written, also the article you refer to, appeared at a very early stage where we tried to define the ‘digital’ in Digital Formalism. It is funny to think back at it now, because none of the people behind that article knew a lot about Vertov at the time. Probably we should not go into that argumentation too much.

Personally, I am not quite comfortable with seeing Vertov as digital avant la lettre. It’s very tempting, but I think we should consider his context and remind ourselves that among his peers at that time there was a strong interest in film’s formal structures and seeing where it could go. You might be familiar with these charts he drew, this famous chart of zero and ones, often taken as an evidence of it and which spawned this reaction of ‘Oh my God, this is so digital, I can’t believe it!’ (see fig. 4). But if you look closer I think you need a different explanation for that. Vertov used formal methods to convey a message, which was the worst strategy at the time, it really was his end.28 That was one of the first things that attracted me about Vertov, his documentary practice, it’s so far away. It really says a lot about us now and our view on what film should be. Probably it was just being a filmmaker, and more importantly a found footage filmmaker that defined his work.

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vertov_table

Fig. 4 A shot chart from Man with a Movie Camera suggesting Vertov as a pre-digital filmmaker. On the chart is written: “Excerpt from a montage phrase from Part 4 of the film Man with a Movie Camera”. Courtesy of the Vertov Collection, Austrian Film Museum, Vienna. Archival number V 80.

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In our project we were primarily interested in Vertov’s way of working from a filmmaker’s point of view, a filmmaker making documentaries more contemporary than anything we see today. Yet, within the project, we did spend a lot of time, discussing how exactly or if Vertov was digital. This is something that drove the computer scientists crazy. You also have to keep in mind that the digital humanities was just not on at the time, so we kind of had to invent the digital!

Visual Evidence in Digital Film History – Between Science and Art

CGO: In Science and Technology Studies, processes of negotiating the visual properties of scientific evidence in research settings are often studied critically, as ’speech acts’ that expose the underlying assumptions of scholarship and reflect inherent contingencies of scientific evidence.29 To take that perspective for a moment, how did you experience the processes of choosing a visualization within Digital Formalism in relation to your research objectives and could you tell about, if relevant, the contradictions and discussions that emerged in this regard?

AH: I think this discussion is needed, especially now after we have created this. You can probably talk about why a certain visualization could help or not, or what you want to do with it. But in the project, including myself, we all accepted something as image evidence – recurrences in motif or cuts – which could be summarized in a visualization. The most difficult discussions were about abstract concepts, like rhythm, montage and political interpretations. I guess we all started from the same point, even coming from very different fields and having our differences we all trusted each other and could talk about things. But in the end this was mainly my own process. I could just explore and do what I felt I wanted to do and I myself started very much from bottom-up.

CGO: If we consider the digital humanities on a more general level, one could also argue, lending the words of Johanna Drucker, that the field’s visual forms of representation can be regarded as a ‘trojan horse’. It uses the natural sciences’ representational practices and may, in doing so, consequently introduce reductionist, scientist notions to the historian’s practice by atributing data visualizations a strong evidentiary role at the expense of complexity and ambiguity. To refer again to Manovich this also brings to mind a question raised in an introduction he has given to his introduction to Cultural Analytics which asks “What will happen when humanists start using interactive visualizations as a standard tool in their work, the way many scientists do already?”.30 Elsewhere, you have briefly touched upon this, observing that the ‘two cultures’ of the arts and sciences (referring to C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede lecture ’The Two Cultures’) are coming together with the digital humanities, but that a lot remains to be done.31 Could you elaborate on this?

AH: I can see the criticism, I just don’t feel strongly about it. Maybe that is just the way I’ve always worked, to try and combine things or at least try different approaches at the same time. Although I can see that it is important and makes our research clearer and more comparable to stick to methods from our own field, I also think it perhaps reflects an undercurrent of institutional structures which need to be followed in order to receive jobs or grants. I don’t want to point fingers, that is just an observation which could also be wrong. I think as a way out we should probably develop convictions and not just waves, you know, science vs. humanities.

As for Johanna Drucker’s reasoning, I think she indeed has a valid point in reminding the humanities of the fact that we have a rich tradition in methods aside from positivist or scientist ones. We could discuss this with regard to data mining, visualization or even interface design, etcetera. For me, this means, that if we take Drucker’s criticism seriously the humanities might want to contribute to the design of interfaces or the navigation and search on websites by drawing on longstanding experience in knowledge design and the expression of complex semantic issues. Drucker foregrounds the interpretative subjective aspect of the humanities, so why not develop individual search entries? Or explore narratives or artistic approaches in this context? Again, I understand the criticism, but then I am curious to hear what could be the alternatives, to see suggestions for a combination of positivist and hermeneutical methods. This is an area still very much to be explored, especially in a theoretical sense.

CGO: If I then understand correctly, what you mean by bringing the ‘two cultures’ together is perhaps simply that these visualization tools can be embraced by humanities scholars without too many preconceived ideas about what they produce, and that we should not be afraid of being lured into the positivist corner?

AH: Yes, probably that is it. There is a very polemical line in which Manovich said that humanities spent so much time discussing what they can or shouldn’t do, and you just can do it, you know, it doesn’t take too much time in the end. I always try to encourage people to just try something and see. Visualization invites that, it is very intuitive I think.

However, while I tend to stress the explorative factor I would say that there is also much visualization with a question behind it though. When I try to produce something I really have to think of what I want to do, which question I want answered. So, in order to use the tool you also develop a theoretical approach. I think it shortens the process if you have to communicate it to someone else. If we focus what we thought we could do with these tools, which questions we really have, I think we would gain a lot more.

Bibliography

Albera, François and Maria Tortjada, ”The 1900 Episteme”, in François Albera and Maria Tortajada, Cinema Beyond Film. Media Epistemology in the Modern Era. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.

Amann, K., and K. Knorr Cetina, ”The fixation of (visual) evidence”, in Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar (eds.), Representation in Scientific Practice. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990, 90.

(de) Certeau, Michel, ”History: Science and Fiction” in Michel de Certeau, transl. Brian Massumi, Heterologies. Discourse on the Other. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1986.

”Cultural Analytics”. See: http://lab.softwarestudies.com/p/cultural-analytics.html. Last accessed 27 September, 2015.

Feldman, Seth. ”Vertov after Manovich”, in Canadian Journal of Film Studies – Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques, vol. 16, no. 1 (2007)

Gruber, Klemens (ed.), Maske und Kothurn, special issue ”Dziga Vertov zum 100. Geburtstag”, Vol 42, No. 1. Wien, Köln, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 1996.

Hahn, Stefan. ”Filmprotokoll Revisited. Ground Truth in Digital Formalism” in Maske und Kothurn, vol. 55, no. 3 (2009)

Heftberger, Adelheid, Michael Loebenstein and Georg Wasner, ”Auf Spurensuche im Archiv. Ein Arbeitsbericht”, in Maske und Kothurn, vol. 55, no. 3 (2009)

Heftberger, Adelheid, Yuri Tsivian and Matteo Lepore, ”Man with a Movie Camera (SU 1929) under the Lens of Cinemetrics”, in Maske und Kothurn, Vol. 55, No. 3 (2009)

Heftberger, Adelheid, ”Ask not what your web can do for you – ask what you can do for your web! Some speculations about film studies in the age of the digital humanities”:, Frames Cinema Journal, 1:1 (2012)

Heftberger, Adelheid. Kollision der Kader. Dziga Vertovs Filme, die Visualisierung ihrer Strukturen und die Digital Humanities. München: edition text + kritik, 2016.

Klenotic, Jeffrey. ”Putting Cinema History on the Map – Using GIS to Explore the Spatiality of Cinema”, in Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst and Philippe Meers (eds.), New Explorations in Cinema History. Approaches and Case Studies. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2011.

Kropf, Vera, Matthias Zeppelzauer, Stefan Hahn and Dalibor Mitrovic, ”First Steps Towards Digital Formalism: The Vienna Vertov Collection”, in Michael Ross, Manfred Grauer and Bernd Freisleben (eds.), Digital Tools in Media Studies. Analysis and Research – An Overview. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2009.

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy, trans. Ben and Siân Reynolds, The Territory of the Historian. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979 [1973].

Lundemo, Trond, ”Towards a Technological History of Historiography?”, in Alberto Beltrame, Giuseppe Fidotta and Andrea Mariani (eds.), At the Borders of (Film) History. Temporality, Archaeology, Theories. Udine: Forum Editrice Universitaria Udinese SRL, 2015.

Petric, Vladimir. ”A Visual/Analytic History of the Silent Cinema (1895-1930)”, paper presented to the 30th Congress of the International Federation of Film Archives, May 25-27, 1974. The paper can be found online at: http://eric.ed.gov/?q=vladimir+petric&id=ED098639

Petric, Vladimir, Constructivism in Film: The Man With the Movie Camera – A Cinematic Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Rosen, Philip. Change Mummified. Cinema, Historicity, Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Tsivian, Yuri, ”Cinemetrics, Part of the Humanities’ Cyberinfrastructure” in Michael Ross & Manfred Grauer and Bernd Freisleben (eds.), Digital Tools in Media Studies. Analysis and Research. An Overview. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2009.

Venturini, Simone. ”Il restauro cinemaografico, storia moderna”, in Il restauro cinematografico. Principi, teorie, metodi. Pasian di Prato: Campanotto Editore, 2006.

Zaharieva, Maia and Christian Breiteneder, ”Archive Film Comparison”, in International Journal of Multimedia Data Engineering and Management, 3:1 (2010)

Zeppelzauer, Matthias, Dalibor Mitrovic and Christian Breiteneder, ”Archive Film Material – A Novel Challenge for Automated Film Analysis”, in Frames Cinema Journal, 1:1 (2012)

Notes

1 See Yuri Tsivian, ”Cinemetrics, Part of the Humanities’ Cyberinfrastructure” in Michael Ross & Manfred Grauer and Bernd Freisleben (eds.), Digital Tools in Media Studies. Analysis and Research. An Overview. (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2009).

2 See Jeffrey Klenotic, ”Putting Cinema History on the Map – Using GIS to Explore the Spatiality of Cinema”, in Richard Maltby, Daniel Biltereyst and Philippe Meers (eds.), New Explorations in Cinema History. Approaches and Case Studies. (Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, 2011).

3 Consider for instance how prominent historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie proposed to ‘learn to live with computers’ in the early 1970s at the height of structuralist historiography, foreseeing that historians were becoming ‘historio-metricians’ and that “tomorrow’s historian will have to be able to programme a computer in order to survive. See Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, trans. Ben and Siân Reynolds, The Territory of the Historian. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979 [1973]) 5-6.

4 Philip Rosen, Change Mummified. Cinema, Historicity, Theory. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) XVIII.

5 Steve F. Anderson. Technologies of History. Visual Media and the Eccentricity of the Past. (Hanover: Dartmouth College Press) 9.

6 François Albera and Maria Tortjada, ”The 1900 Episteme”, in François Albera and Maria Tortajada, Cinema Beyond Film. Media Epistemology in the Modern Era. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010) 37-39.

7 Michel de Certeau, ”History: Science and Fiction” in Michel de Certeau, transl. Brian Massumi, Heterologies. Discourse on the Other. (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1986) 214.

8 For a more in-depth discussion of the latter aspect see Trond Lundemo, ”Towards a Technological History of Historiography?”, in Alberto Beltrame, Giuseppe Fidotta and Andrea Mariani (eds.), At the Borders of (Film) History. Temporality, Archaeology, Theories. (Udine: Forum Editirice Universitaria Udinese SRL, 2015) 149-156.

10 Ibid.

11 ″’Visualizing Vertov’ – new article by Lev Manovich with 33 visualizations for download”, see: http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2013/01/visualizing-vertov-new-article-by-lev.html. Last accessed March 17, 2020.

13 See Klemens Gruber (ed.), Maske und Kothurn, special issue ”Dziga Vertov zum 100. Geburtstag”, Vol 42, No. 1. Wien, Köln, Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 1996.

14 See Maia Zaharieva and Christian Breiteneder, ”Archive Film Comparison”, in International Journal of Multimedia Data Engineering and Management, 3/1 (2010) 41-56.

15 Michael Loebenstein, Adelheid Heftberger and Georg Wasner (DVD-Supervision), Sestaja cast’ mira / Odinnadcatyj (Vienna: Edition Filmmuseum, 2009).

16 See: Matthias Zeppelzauer, Dalibor Mitrovic and Christian Breiteneder, ”Archive Film Material – A Novel Challenge for Automated Film Analysis”, in Frames Cinema Journal, 1:1 (2012)

17 Simone Venturini, ”Il restauro cinemaografico, storia moderna”, in Il restauro cinematografico. Principi, teorie, metodi. (Pasian di Prato: Campanotto Editore, 2006) 24.

18 Stefan Hahn, ”Filmprotokoll Revisited. Ground Truth in Digital Formalism” in Maske und Kothurn, vol. 55, no. 3 (2009) 132.

19 ”My. Variant manifesta” [Мы, Вариант манифеста], Kino-fot [Кино-Фот] 1 (1922), pp 11-12.

20 For background information and introduction to Cinemetrics see: http://www.cinemetrics.lv/, last accessed July 4, 2016.

21 Adelheid Heftberger, Michael Loebenstein and Georg Wasner, ”Auf Spurensuche im Archiv. Ein Arbeitsbericht”, in Maske und Kothurn, vol. 55, no. 3 (2009) 146. See also: http://nl.mathworks.com/index.html?s_tid=gn_logo, https://imagej.nih.gov/ij/ and http://lab.softwarestudies.com/p/imageplot.html last accessed July 4, 2016.

22 See: Adelheid Heftberger, Yuri Tsivian and Matteo Lepore, ”Man with a Movie Camera (SU 1929) under the Lens of Cinemetrics”, in Maske und Kothurn, Vol. 55, No. 3 (2009) 61-80.

23 Ibid., 60.

24 Vladimir Petric, ”A Visual/Analytic History of the Silent Cinema (1895-1930)”, paper presented to the 30th Congress of the International Federation of Film Archives, May 25-27, 1974. The paper can be found online at: http://eric.ed.gov/?q=vladimir+petric&id=ED098639

25 Michael Loebenstein, Adelheid Heftberger and Georg Wasner, op.cit.

26 Seth Feldman, ”Vertov after Manovich”, in Canadian Journal of Film Studies – Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques, vol. 16, no. 1 (2007) 40.

27 Vera Kropf, Matthias Zeppelzauer, Stefan Hahn and Dalibor Mitrovic, ”First Steps Towards Digital Formalism: The Vienna Vertov Collection”, in Michael Ross, Manfred Grauer and Bernd Freisleben (eds.), Digital Tools in Media Studies. Analysis and Research – An Overview. (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2009).

28 For a more thorough discussion and historical context on this chart see Adelheid Heftberger, Kollision der Kader. Dziga Vertovs Filme, die Visualisierung ihrer Strukturen und die Digital Humanities. (München: edition text + kritik, 2016) 346.

29 K. Amann and K. Knorr Cetina, ”The fixation of (visual) evidence”, in Michael Lynch and Steve Woolgar (eds.), Representation in Scientific Practice. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990) 90.

30 ”Cultural Analytics”. See: http://lab.softwarestudies.com/p/cultural-analytics.html. Last accessed 27 September, 2015.

31 Adelheid Heftberger, ”Ask not what your web can do for you – ask what you can do for your web! Some speculations about film studies in the age of the digital humanities”:, Frames Cinema Journal, 1:1 (2012), see: http://framescinemajournal.com/article/ask-not-what-your-web-can-do-for-you/

Paris 1900 Archive Piece in Early Popular Visual Culture

Last year I wrote two blog posts about the acquisition and distribution of Nicole Vedrès’s Paris 1900 (France, 1947) by the Nederlands Filmmuseum in the late 1940s. These posts were based on the research I carried out at the Eye Filmmuseum as scholar in residence in the academic year 2017-2018. The material from these two posts have now been turned into a short article titled “’This is our first big experiment’: Paris 1900 (1947) and the Eye Filmmuseum’s early collection-building” for the journal Early Popular Visual Culture – a so-called Archive Piece which each issue of the journal features.

The title I gave the piece – “This is our first big experiment” – is a quote by Jan de Vaal, the Filmmuseum’s director between 1946-1987. He used these words to describe the role that the acquisition of Paris 1900 played in the institution’s early collection building and film distribution. In case the film would become a success for the Filmmuseum it would allow for acquiring more films and build a collection/distribution library. You can read more about this and much more in the piece that can be found here (open access!). The original blog posts can be found here and here.

I would like to thank Sarah Dellmann for suggesting to include this piece of research in Early Popular Visual Culture and for her diligent editing work.

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Excerpt from interview with Nicole Vedrès on Paris 1900 in L’Ecran Français – Paris-Cinéma, 2 Mars 1948the full interview can be read on the sempre in penombra blog

Travelogue: DFI Film Archive, November 2018 – encounters with Kubelka and Dreyer

A few weeks ago, I made a brief visit to Copenhagen to participate in a one-day conference about cities, films, digital scholarship and film archives. The conference was organized by the European project I-Media-Cities and hosted by the Danish Film Institute’s Cinematheque. The program can be accessed here. It was a great day with several inspiring discussions.

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Cans and boxes at the DFI Film Archive.

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The day after the conference I got to visit the DFI Film Archive in Glostrup to watch a few films preserved in the collection – Peter Kubelka films in particular – and got a tour. The visit had been kindly prepared by film archivist and historian at DFI Katrine Madsbjerg, with help from curator Thomas Christensen in the preparation of prints. Below I share a few impressions and pictures from the visit.

The DFI Film Archive’s Peter Kubelka prints

I had known for more than ten years, that there were prints of filmmaker, preservationist and co-founder of the Austrian Filmmuseum Peter Kubelka’s films in DFI’s archive. For some reason I have forgotten where exactly I became aware of that fact (I am still searching in old notes to find out), but I remember becoming eager to see Kubelka’s films after familiarizing myself with and reading about Peter Tscherkassky and the Austrian avant-garde around 2007, and subsequently trying to find out where I could get to see the titles discussed. Yet, back then I never found a good occasion to seek out the Kubelka prints at the DFI, ended up moving abroad and finally got the chance to attend Kubelka screenings elsewhere (and was deeply fascinated by what I saw). However, my curiosity for the prints in DFI’s archive and their history remained intact. For this reason, I was thrilled when I was told I could request titles from the collection to watch during my visit at the DFI and, as a no-brainer, immediately asked for the prints of Kubelka’s films.

To understand why (some of) these prints are preserved at DFI, it is important to mention that there is a Danish-Austrian connection. I learned this in February 2012 when I took part in a film and food workshop with Kubelka in Amsterdam, organized by the Sonic Acts festival. On this occassion I had the possibility to briefly converse with Kubelka after his lecture (and get my copy of Christian Lebrat’s monograph on his work – Peter Kubelka (Paris Expérimental Editions, 1990) – signed), who affectionately told me about his friendship with Danish filmmaker Jørgen Roos (1922-1998). From then on, my assumption was that Kubelka’s connection with Roos was why and how some of his films had entered DFI’s film archive. In part this indeed turned out to be a correct assumption. For instance, while the DFI bought a print of Adebar (Austria, 1957) already in 1959, their print of Arnulf Rainer (Austria, 1960) was Jørgen Roos’ personal print and was acquired in 1997 the year before Roos’ death. Here are the Kubelka titles that the DFI has in its collection:

  • Mosaik im Vertrauen, Peter Kubelka, Austria, 1955.
  • Adebar, Peter Kubelka, Austria, 1957.
  • Schwechater, Peter Kubelka, Austria, 1958.
  • Arnulf Rainer, Peter Kubelka, Austria, 1960.

Getting the opportunity to watch the DFI’s Kubelka prints during my visit to the DFI archive filled a gap in my cinephile curiosity for Kubelka’s work and its preservation, while giving me the chance to watch some personal film favorites again. I had only seen Mosaik im Vertrauen once before – as part of a program curated by filmmaker Milena Gierke, one of Kubelka’s former students – at the old Filmmuseum in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam in November 2010. I was surprised to see (again) how great a film Mosaik is. While the grey Danish November sky was brooding outside, there were pure fireworks to be marvelled at in the viewing room in Glostrup! Below, I share a few photos I made of Mosaik im Vertrauen.

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Dreyer’s Editing Table and Set Designs for La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

The work of Carl Theodor Dreyer occupies one of the most central places in Danish film history and in the DFI’s preservation work. Last year, the DFI obtained the copyrights to the films of Dreyer produced by the company Palladium, when Palladium decided to donate their collection to the DFI. In addition to this, DFI has many film related materials which document the life and work of Dreyer. I also got the chance to see a few of these during my visit.

Perhaps the most incredible thing to see was Dreyer’s personal editing table, which is pictured on the two photos here below. I could not gather in which period exactly he made use of this table, but it is an editing table for sound films.

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Another set of interesting items preserved at the DFI are set designs for La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). As conservator Katja Rie Glud explained to me there is a great degree of uncertainty in establishing the creation date of these objects. The objects’ materially heteoregeneous composition suggest they are original set designs which have later been repaired and modified – sometimes haphazardly and heavy-handedly – in order to exhibit them. There still remains some research to be done before that can be established.

At this moment, the designs are kept in French security boxes made for an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in the 1990s. I post a few photos below. The DFI has also made a beautiful photo gallery with professional photos of the items that can be viewed here. Moreover, the designs can be seen in a short film from 1965 here, shot at the Danish Filmmuseum on the occasion of Dreyer being handed over a plate of honour for the selection of La Passion as one of the twelve best films ever made during the Expo 58 in Brussels seven years earlier. The plate is handed over by Ib Monty, then Director of the Danish Filmmuseum. (Thanks to Lisbeth Richter Larsen and Maria Knude Oldhøj Nielsen for pointing me to these resources!).

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All in all, I could hardly imagine a better way to spend a grey November Friday morning. Infinite thanks again to Katrine Madsbjerg for setting up the visit!

Paris 1900 and the Filmmuseum: discoveries in Eye’s business archive

In this blog post, I share some of my findings on the history of Nicole Vedrès’ early landmark of archive-based filmmaking Paris 1900 (France, 1947) at the Filmmuseum. The findings result from my research as Scholar-in-residence at the Eye Filmmuseum which I am wrapping up at the moment. As I wrote in my previous blog post on my research at Eye I was surprised to discover that Paris 1900 played a key role in the Filmmuseum’s early collection building in the late 1940s – back when the Filmmuseum was not yet the Filmmuseum but still two separate institutions, led by Jan de Vaal, the Nederlands Historisch Film Archief and the Uitkijk Archief (NHFA/Uitkijk). Paris 1900 was one of the first films bought by the Filmmuseum and was a high-risk acquisition because it was by far the institution’s most expensive acquisition so far. Beyond being a film which Jan de Vaal obviously liked, Paris 1900 was also acquired to make the case for film archiving in the Netherlands and as a starting point for building the institution’s circulating film library from the income the film’s screening fees would generate in the Netherlands.

Because the film’s history at the Filmmuseum seems both a bit forgotten today and is certainly not widely known, I wanted to dig deeper into the specific circumstances of the institution’s acquisition and distribution of it. To this end, I have been doing extensive research in the Filmmuseum’s early business archive. In total, I have gone through the business archives from four years – 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1950 – looking for mentions of Paris 1900, Nicole Vedrès, Vedrès book Images du cinéma français (Editions du Chêne, 1945) and relevant correspondence with the producer of Paris 1900 Pierre Braunberger and his production company Panthéon. The business archives from these years amount to five boxes, of which the contents are ordered alphabetically – but nevertheless not very easy to navigate as there is no clear index. Moreover, the business archive also has many gaps, for instance missing letter attachments or sometimes entire letters, which is something I kept in mind when studying the material. The image below shows what the business documents from 1949/1950 look like today.

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Research at the Eye Collection Center. This is what the NHFA/Uitkijk’s early business documents look like, in this case documents from 1949/1950.

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I proceded by going through all of the documents from said years and transcribing every relevant letter in full, with the exception of two-three handwritten letters that were too hard to fully decipher. This has resulted in a document of transcriptions which is currently 115 pages long, divided into five sections – one for each box. This document maintains the order of the letters in the order in which I found them. At a later stage, I am planning to make a different version of the document of transcriptions where I order the letters into different categories – in particular acquisition and distribution – and arrange them chronologically.

In doing this research I found a lot of useful information on Paris 1900‘s history at the Filmmuseum and also made some rather unexpected and exciting discoveries. Below I share four of the findings that I found particular interesting. I hope that sharing them may help scholars abroad in understanding the circulation of Vedrès’ work internationally to a greater extent than hitherto, and that in doing so I can also contribute to broadening the perspective of the current (and much needed) rediscovery of her work.

1. Acquiring Paris 1900

The first finding concerns the dating of the acquisition of Paris 1900 and its circumstances. Based on my research I assume that Jan de Vaal and other staff members saw Paris 1900 for the first time in Edinburgh at the International Festival of Documentary Films in August 1948 – the festival’s second edition – and subsequently decided to acquire it. In a letter from 27th of July to Norman Wilson – one of the festival’s early key figures – Jan de Vaal asks:

…if it is possible to see the most important films, such as THE LOUISIANA STORY, EDGE OF THE WORLD, GERMANY, YEAR ZERO, THE GREEDY BOY, PARIS 1900, and eventually other important films during that week.

In addition to this correspondence there is little to be found on Paris 1900 in the NHFA/Uitkijk’s business archive from 1948. However, there are several significant letters from late December that year. In that period, Jan de Vaal writes to various film societies and cultural and educational institutions in the Netherlands – for instance the Volksuniversiteit in Rotterdam or the Katholiek Instituut voor Filmscholing in Delft – asking if they would be interested in showing Paris 1900 and, if so, how many screenings they would be interested in organizing. The idea in asking this was to get a sense of whether it would be financially feasible to acquire the film with loans and pay it back by with money earned with screening fees and, subsequently, acquire additional films with the income generated. Jan de Vaal received positive reactions to this inquiry, and the decision to acquire the film must have been taken at a point in early 1949.

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Promotional material for the first edition of Edinburgh’s International Festival of Documentary Films (now Edinburgh International Film Festival) in 1947. Paris 1900 screened at the second edition in 1948.

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Subsequently, de Vaal asked the Dutch Ministry of Education, Arts and Sciences for permission to take out a loan amounting to 200.000 French francs at the Dutch Bank (Nederlandse Bank) for acquiring the film (I am still trying to find a good historical calculator to figure out how much exactly that would be today). The permission for the loan was given by the Ministry’s Department of the Arts in a letter from 25 April, 1949, signed by Dr. N.R.A. Vroom.

It is clear from correspondence with film societies and educational institutions in 1949 that the acquisition of Paris 1900 was associated with a high financial risk and was intended as a foundation and test for the future Filmmuseum’s success. In a letter from June 20, 1949 to the secretary of the Volksuniversiteit Rotterdam Ida van Dugteren – who was particularly enthusiastic about the film and with whom de Vaal frequently corresponded and organized several screenings – Jan de Vaal writes in response to van Dugteren’s inquiry about a possible future collaboration:

We must attempt to overcome the acquisition costs of Paris 1900, first then does a collaboration (…) become valuable. This is our first big experiment. If we manage to cover our expenses for it, then we as well as you and other film groups who are participating will have won in the first attempt, and then it will be possible to continue working with greater confidence. I sincerely hope I can count on your co-operation. (Own translation)

2. Subtitling attempt at Haghe Film

The Filmmuseum’s copies of Paris 1900 were initially not subtitled, but were given a short Dutch introduction at screenings, which was added by the NHFA/Uitkijk. The reasons for this were mostly technical and – to a lesser extent – aesthetic. In the correspondence from 1949 between among others Jan de Vaal, Ida van Dugteren and Haghe Film – then located in The Hague – it is discussed at great length if the film should be subtitled and if it was possible at all to do it. Technically, it turned out not to be possible for Haghe Film to do it – as staff members at the lab explain in a letter to Jan de Vaal from 5 October 1949 – Pierre Braunberger did not provide a soft print of the film, which they needed in order to do a subtitling. The correspondence with Braunberger is not in the business archive, but it is quite clear from other letters, that the delivery of the print was heavily delayed and initially not of a quality which the NHFA/Uitkijk had expected and which allowed for subtitling according to the most standard procedures at the time. In the end, the print was therefore not subtitled. The business correspondence suggests this solution was mainly a compromise, but was also perceived to have the advantage of not tampering with the film’s aesthetics. While the NHFA/Uitkijk initially seemed to be in favour of subtitling the print, Ida van Dugteren – who was one of the first to rent the film, on behalf of the Volksuniversiteit Rotterdam, after its aquisition – preferred it without subtitles. In a letter to Jan de Vaal from 30 June 1949, she expresses that she is happy to hear the film will not be subtitled, as she finds it would destroy the image. At the first screening of the film in Rotterdam on 30 September 1949 – also announced as the film’s Rotterdam premiere – Jan de Vaal was present himself and gave a commentary in Dutch. In this respect, the Filmmuseum’s prints of the film differ from other versions.

3. Paris 1900 and Philips Experimentele Televisie

This is perhaps one of the findings I am most excited about. In a letter sent by Jan de Vaal on 23 June 1949 to the Philips department for Experimental Television (Philips Experimentele Televisie) in Eindhoven, it appears Paris 1900 was used for an early television broadcast on film archive work (filmarchiefwerk) on 21 June 1949. In the letter, de Vaal thanks the staff at Philips warmly for their hospitality and a great organisation while noting that Paris 1900 was delivered back on time.

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An impression of what it looked like to watch Philips Experimentele Televisie together in 1950 in the Eindhoven region (available via this concise historical timeline in Dutch). Might these viewers  also have seen parts of Paris 1900 when it was featured in one of the broadcasts in 1949?

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That this broadcast happened is quite intriguing for several reasons. Television in the Netherlands at that time was in its earliest, pioneering stages and still far from being institutionalized (and certainly not held in high regard). As detailed in several historical overviews Philips Experimentele Televisie broadcast three times a week and could only be received by people in a 40km (or approx. 25 miles) radius around Eindhoven who happened to own a television set in that region (that is: very few people). Between 1948 to 1951, Philips Experimentele Televisie made 265 broadcasts before television became considered a medium with a future and television production moved to Hilversum where the radio industry had flourished since a couple of decades already. I am still looking for sources and accounts which document the broadcast on film archiving from 1949. Recordings of some of the Philips broadcasts still exist, but the material I have been able to locate so far is not the easiest to access and does not give a clear answer as to what is preserved, so this requires a bit more research – something I am extremely excited about doing.

4. Henri Langlois’ research trip to the Netherlands for Paris 1900‘s sequel

Another interesting find relating to Paris 1900 is a correspondence which involves Jan de Vaal, Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque française and the newsreel film company Polygoon. In a letter to Polygoon dated 31 August 1949 de Vaal details that Henri Langlois is currently conducting archival research in preparation for a sequel to Paris 1900 (Henri Langlois had been a possible candidate for the direction of Paris 1900 but was ultimately not assigned the task). The idea of this sequel was to go beyond a French context to cover the time during and after World War I from a European perspective, including the Netherlands. In his work for the sequel, Langlois has asked de Vaal if Polygoon would happen to have material depicting various events in their possession – among others WWI insofar as it involves the Netherlands and Germany, the Hindenburg disaster, Dutch popular life and material thematically related to inflation. On behalf of Langlois, de Vaal passes this request on to Polygoon to plan a research meeting between Polygoon and Langlois. In the answer which de Vaal receives from Polygoon dated 5 September 1949, the director Brand Dirk Ochse replies that Polygoon unfortunately does not have footage of these events as the company was only founded in 1919. Yet, Ochse kindly agrees to meet Langlois all the same, but on the condition that de Vaal communicates a precise time and date well in advance because, as he points out, Polygoon has not been able to rely on Langlois when previously setting up appointments.

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As part of his archival research for a sequel to Paris 1900 Henri Langlois inquired the Polygoon company – via Jan de Vaal – about material relating to specific events and aspects of Dutch culture and life.

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At this point I have not found other letters relating to the archival research for this sequel – this is where the business archive seems to have some gaps. Yet, it is interesting to see that there was an interest from the NHFA/Uitkijk to partake in the research for a sequel to Paris 1900 in collaboration with the Cinémathèque française and – on a more general level – a willingness to support the making of (poetic) compilation films at a very early stage.

Conclusion and Further research

All in all, it is safe to say that Paris 1900 was an extremely important film in the Filmmuseum’s collection building and key to the institution’s very existence. Beyond the findings I have discussed here, I am also discovering paper clippings at the Filmmuseum and beyond to create an overview of the reception of Vedrès film-related work in the Netherlands. I plan to write more about this at a later stage either on my blog or in an article. I am also currently making my way through the small corpus of (extremely interesting) literature which has been published on Vedrès work in the past few years. A few months ago I read Laurent Véray’s recently published Vedrès et le cinéma (Nouvelles Editions Place, 2017) and am currently diving into to the fascinating research which Catherine Russell and Paula Amad have done on Vedrès.

In other words, there is more to come and more to discover about Vedrès’ deeply fascinating work. However, one thing which surprises me is that I have found no direct correspondence with or reference to meetings with Nicole Vedrès in the Filmmuseum’s business archive – although Jan de Vaal went to Paris to sort out the acquisition of the film and posters for it. Usually, Jan de Vaal did not seem to hesitate to contact filmmakers directly (Jean Cocteau or Hans Richter for instance, to name some of the many directors I have come accross), to inquire about rights for or copies of films as well as related material, but not in this case. I guess that is to be continued…

Synoptique special issue: Institutionalizing Moving Image Archival Training: Analyses, Histories, Theories

Together with my good friend Philipp Dominik Keidl – who is pursuing a PhD in Film Studies at Concordia University in Montréal and with whom I studied in the University of Amsterdam’s MA Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image between 2010-2012 – I have had the great pleasure of co-editing a special issue of Concordia University’s open access film studies journal Synoptique on the institutionalization of moving image archiving programs.

Since we graduated in 2012, we have met many graduates from other programs as well as film heritage professionals with different perspectives, gained experience and acquired new theoretical insights through our research. Building on those experiences we had wanted to work on a publication together for a while in order to reflect on the field’s status today and, hopefully, give something back to it. We wanted to do this by inviting people involved in training moving image archivists to reflect on the histories and philosophies of the programs they work with while mapping future challenges, directions, hopes and dreams. On Phillip’s suggestion this idea ended up taking the shape of a special issue of Synoptique which he has been involved with in the past few years through his research at Concordia. We are very happy with how the issue has turned out, the phenomenal line-up of contributors which we managed to put together, and the hard work (and patience) of the managing editors Philippe Bédard, Giuseppe Fidotta and Patrick Brian Smith in the making of the issue. I include the table of contents below. The entire issue can be accessed here.

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Institutionalizing Moving Image Training: Analyses, Histories, Theories

Philipp Dominik Keidl & Christian Gosvig Olesen, “Introduction”

Is Film Archiving a Profession Yet? Reflections 20 years on

Ray Edmondson, “Is Film Archiving a Profession?: A Reflection 20 Years On”

Caroline Frick, “What Price Professionalism?”

Eef Masson & Giovanna Fossati, “Interdisciplinarity, Specialization, Conceptualization. Archival Education Responding to Changing Professional Demands”

Benedict Salazar Olgado, “What Do We Profess To?”

Caroline Yeager, “The Jeffrey L. Selznick School of Preservation: Changing the Field”

Peer Review Section

Alejandro Bachmann, “Multiplying Perspectives: Reflections on the Role of a Curatorial Perspective within Academic Film Studies”

Simone Venturini, “Learn then Preserve. Historical and Theoretical Notes about the First Fifteen Years of the University of Udine’s Archival Training Program (2001-2006)”

Adelheid Heftberger, “The Current Landscape of Film Archiving and How Study Programs can Contribute”

Forum Section: Programs, Philosophies

Thomas Elsaesser, “A Look Back: The Professional Master’s Programme in Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image and How It Came to Amsterdam”

Sonia Campanini, Vinzenz Hediger & Ines Bayer, “Minding the Materiality of Film: The Frankfurt Master’s Program ‘Film Culture: Archiving, Programming, Presentation'”

Ulrich Ruedel & Martin Koerber, “The Materiality of Heritage: Moving Image Preservation Training at HTW Berlin”

Oliver Hanley, “Upholding Tradition: The Master’s Program in Film Heritage at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF”

Juana Suárez & Pamela Vízner, “Education Through International Collaboration: The Audiovisual Preservation Exchange (APEX) Program”

Rossella Catanese, “Learning From the Keepers: Archival Training in Italian Cinematheques”

Reviews Section

Giuseppe Fidotta, “Thomas Elsaesser, Film History as Media Archaeology”

Andrée Lafontaine, “Iwan Morgan and Philip John Davies, Hollywood and the Great Depression”

EYE Residency 1 – Research and encounters with Vedrès’ and Crama’s visual film histories

This academic year I have been invited by the EYE Filmmuseum to be the institution’s first scholar in its new Artist and Scholar-in-Residence program. A press release was send out to announce this end November last year. The programme has been launched to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Collection. It gives one scholar and an artist the opportunity to work on and with material from the collection with access to its facilities and the great expertise of the Filmmuseum’s staff. Besides me, the artist Alexandra Navratil – whose work you can read more about here – has also been invited.

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A picture of me at EYE Filmmuseum’s Collection Center in Amsterdam Noord.

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It is a great honor for me to accept this invitation and also a unique opportunity for me to do research on parts of the collection which I have wanted to look into for a long time. The research I do in this context – while it is a small independent project on its own – nicely ties in with research I am currently doing within a few other projects which also involve EYE Filmmuseum. These projects are the video annotation project MIMEHIST which I have previously written about here – as well as the project The Sensory Moving Image Archive (SEMIA) – which I am yet to write about (blog posts about that will follow and are in the making). SEMIA is a project which aims to enable artistic and creative reuse of parts of the collections of EYE Filmmuseum and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. In SEMIA media historians and heritage professionals collaborate with computer scientists to extract data on different image features such as colour, movement, shape and texture to enable artists and creative users to make data visualisations of patterns and similarities in the collections in a non-evidentiary manner. Roughly this means that they can create video works and visualizations based on the collection which, rather than visualizing data for the purpose of supporting stylistic or aesthetic analyses – what scholars refer to as stylometry – seeks to visualize patterns in more intuitive and exploratory ways so as to potentially challenge the patterns which scholars observe. Yet, the project will also benefit media historical research in that it seeks to produce a search interface which allows to browse films and videos in the two collections based on visual features extracted with visual analytics software rather than with descriptive metadata. The SEMIA project’s emphasis on appropriation and artistic research offers the point of departure for my current research as Scholar-in-Residence at EYE Filmmuseum.

In this post I will offer context on my research, discuss some preliminary findings and comment on a few works by filmmakers Nicole Vedrès and Nico Crama which I have been looking into.

Research during my residency at the EYE Filmmuseum

My project as a Scholar-in-Residence takes the cue from the SEMIA project and builds on my longstanding interest in experimental found footage filmmaking, recycled cinema practices and current videographic film studies. After encountering filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky‘s work sometime in 2006 I became interested in the Austrian avant-garde and the ways in which found footage filmmaking keeps mutating and productively yields new insights into film historiography and archival collections and challenge traditional written scholarship and its assumptions. Reading Nicole Brenez’ succinct Cartographie du Found Footage (2000) around that time – one of the most formative film studies essays I have ever read – I have since sought to understand how film history and its development may be depicted and analyzed with various audiovisual means. This is something I have previously written about here.

Such filmmaking practices are particularly topical today as it becomes increasingly accepted for scholars to make audiovisual essays as actual publications and research output as a consequence of the emergence of videographic film studies in recent years. While scholars may not be as artistically acute as the pioneering found footage experimentalists it is certainly refreshing to see how practices developed in an artistic realm inform contemporary scholarly audiovisual essays, videography and audiovisualcy and have paved the ways for new types of scholarship.

In a way, I feel the emergence of videographic film studies allows scholars today to explore a kind of audiovisualcy – to use the term advocated by the Vimeo group created by film scholar Catherine Grant – which cinephiles and film scholars have made the case for since the very early days. There are many examples which one may cite to illustrate how scholars have wanted to understand film with its proper means throughout the history of film scholarship. Personally, I find the following quote from G.-Michel Coissac’s 1925-monograph Histoire du cinématographe. De ses origines jusqu’à nos jours (Éditions du “Cinéopse”, 1925) fascinating in the way in which it highlights the instructive nature of Julien Duvivier and Henri Lepage’s film on film history La machine à refaire la vie (1924) (which I translate to the best of my ability here):

In the beginning of the year 1924, two young directors, Misters Julien Duvivier and Henri Lepage, made La machine à refaire la vie, a film approximately 3000 metres long, which, better than any text, allows to follow the accomplished progress and to observe them, by letting the different productions obtained from each period follow each other in succession on the screen. Nothing is more eloquent and instructive than this view of scenes from the same films made at years of distance and which are the best demonstration of cinema’s technical evolution.

Since that point in time, multifarious ways of exploring film history through filmmaking and videography have emerged and I feel it is pertinent to say this is a particularly crucial moment for film scholarship because we can finally rework (digitized) films quite easily to present arguments about them, instead of only writing texts.

Working on the SEMIA project – which will enable new data-driven artistic and historiographic practices of reuse – raises the question on how the outcome will complement current videographic practices and the appropriation works associated with the EYE Filmmuseum. Historically the Filmmuseum has been at the forefront of inviting artists to work with their collections to various ends – among them historiographic. It holds a special place in the history of found footage filmmaking, in particular because of its Bits & Pieces collection and the appropriations of its archival material in the works of artists such as Fiona Tan and Gustav Deutsch. Thus, taking the SEMIA project and my interest in found footage and videographic film studies as departure points, my research during my residency aims to critically understand the project in relation to earlier filmic appropriation works associated with the Filmmuseum. The goal is to offer historical context to the project so as to elucidate its historiographic potential and indicate productive future research avenues. In this regard, my research does not only look back at the found footage practices which emerged in the 1980s in a new light – which numerous scholars have already studied in great depth – but also considers the Filmmuseum’s earlier compilation films and documentaries which made use of its collection or which it programmed, so as to hopefully yield a more encompassing cartography of the reuse practices which the institution has engendered as a basis for comparative analysis of past and present practices. When the research is over this summer I aim to have produced a concise article which discusses three different practices and periods: first, compilation films and documentary works from (or acquired in) the 1930s to the 1960s; second, the 1980s and 1990s found footage practices mentioned above, which I will study in a new light by attending to parts of EYE’s business archive; and third more recent artistic data-driven projects such as Jan Bot and the outcomes of SEMIA.

In the remaining parts of this post I offer a few preliminary observations on the first focus of my research, compilation films and documentary works from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Compilations and compilation films at the Filmmuseum – Forgotten Histories?

The first part of my research looks at early compilation films on film history acquired or produced by EYE Filmmuseum between its earliest years and up until the end of the 1960s. In this period, the Filmmuseum made or acquired numerous films which reflected on film history to screen to audiences both to teach film history and emphasize the value of its preservation work. This could take the form of compilations of scenes or new works. Regarding the former, film scholar Bregt Lameris writes:

…the Filmmuseum deliberately chose to isolate specific fragments from the rest of the film because they considered them to hold specific importance for the discourse on the history of cinema. (Lameris, 2017, p. 50)

These works tend to receive little attention. They are seen as reflecting purely documentary and educational aspirations and as coming across as too overtly didactic, rather than exploring (film) history from subjective perspectives. Furthermore, they are often dismissed because of what scholars today  qualify – and in many cases for very good reasons – to be simplistic views on film history and unnecessarily teleological accounts of film history’s masterpieces.

Yet, as scholars increasingly embrace videographic film studies there seems to be a renewed appreciation of such films, in a pursuit to establish alternative origin points for contemporary practices in order to understand them in a broader spectrum of educational, scholarly initiatives. For instance, in a recent article film scholar Volker Pantenburg has made the case for going beyond the canonical essayistic works of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard as touchstones for videographic film studies to reconsider the educational television documentaries of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk in relation to contemporary videographic film studies. Along these lines, Pantenburg makes the case for doing new archival research to dig out and critically reconsider works which we seldom consider important.

It is in a somewhat similar fashion that I have been digging into the Filmmuseum’s archive to see what what films on film history are in there and what views on film history they represent, looking both at analogue and digital copies. In my research so far I have created a (yet non-exhaustive) list of compilation films and documentaries from the Filmmuseum’s Collection, which consists of the following titles:

  • Veertig jaar cinematografie (B.D. Ochse, Willy Mullens, Cornelis Simon Roem, NL, Haghe Film, 1936)
  • The Beginnings of the Cinema (UK, British Film Institute, 1938)
  • Film and Reality (Alberto Cavalcanti & Ernest Lindgren, UK, British Film Institute, 1942)
  • La naissance du cinéma (Roger Leenhardt, France, Les films du compas, 1946)
  • Uit de oude Doos (NL, Nicolaas Körmendy, 1948, Haghe Film (Den Haag))
  • Paris 1900 (Nicole Vedrès, Frankrijk, 1948 – 1949, Panthéon)
  • Eerste stappen (NFM, NL, 1954)
  • De Geboorte van een nieuwe kunst (Nederland, Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1954)
  • Het gebeurde gisteren (Wim Povel, NL, Polygoon Profilti Producties, 1957)
  • Aan de wieg der jongste muze (NL, Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1961)
  • Images fantastiques (Nico Crama, NL, 1962)
  • Het witte doek (Nico Crama, Nederland, Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1964)

Several of these films have been easy to find because they are labelled as “Film historical reflections” in EYE’s catalogue (“filmhistorische reflectie”), while others that deal with film history as a subject are less obvious even though they could clearly fit within this category.

Yet, beyond their place within this category it is not always easy to determine for some of the Dutch titles whether a film has been produced by the Nederlands Filmmuseum or just acquired by it for screening and distribution purposes. For instance, the two films Eerste stappen and De Geboorte van een nieuwe kunst are archived as Filmmuseum productions and also cited elsewhere as such. However, the prints’ physical appearance suggests something else. As Mark-Paul Meyer, Senior Curator at EYE Filmmuseum, who assisted me in the viewing of these prints, pointed out to me, it is rather peculiar that these two films – both dated 1954 – have a variable density soundtrack. This indicates they could be made much earlier. We tried to determine this by going back to the old title cards of the films to see when they had been acquired. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that one. For this reason, some of the list’s Dutch titles cannot in a clear-cut way be considered as one corpus of films produced by the Filmmuseum, and I am currently still trying to establish the exact filmography details of them. Yet, their existence in the collection certainly reflect how films acquired and screened by the institution in a certain period also reflected specific views of film history.

Content-wise, several of these films do show a very traditional, teleological view of film history in the way they establish a birth-maturity pattern in their appropriation of the material they work with. One such instance is the film Aan de wieg der jongste muze, produced by the Filmmuseum in 1961 using materials from its collection, which states in its introductory title: “Film is only a lifetime old. At birth she was only futile and helpless as a baby”. This is not an isolated example and one can certainly see how this invites an understanding of them as quite old-school in their understanding of film history.

However there are also titles which do not fit into this picture at all. This concerns the works of Nicole Vedrès and Nico Crama which show more playful and essayistic approaches in their appropriations of archival sources. In the past few months I have been doing a bit of research on their work and am currently writing it up. In the concluding two parts  I share a few preliminary remarks.

Nicole Vedrès Visual Film Histories

During my research I came across a film which I have wanted to see for years since first reading about it but never got the chance to: Nicole Védrès’ Paris 1900 (France, 1947). This film has often been referred to as an early example of an archive-based production in a vein of essayistic and/or found footage filmmaking. For instance at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna where it had quite a revival in a recently restored version as part of a retrospective of Vedrès work curated by Emilie Cauquy and Bernard Eisenschitz  (a video recording of a round table discussion with Vedrès’ son Laurent Vedrès, Cauquy and Eisenschitz can be viewed here). Unfortunately I could not attend Il Cinema Ritrovato last year, but now I got the chance to make up for this by watching the Filmmuseum’s print which contains a Dutch introduction and titles.

Paris 1900 is a work consisting of archival footage which depicts Paris’ belle epoque and its intellectual and cultural life and habits, while tracing its decline and the emergence of conflict and war sentiments in the pre-WWI years. As such it interrogates a brief defining transitional moment in the twentieth century which invites us to think about the passage of time, our changing collective memory and power structures.

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Watching one of EYE Filmmuseum’s copies of Paris 1900 (Nicole Védrès, France, 1947) at the EYE Collection Centre in Amsterdam North.

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This title is particularly interesting for my research in several ways. First of all it intertwines in interesting ways with the Filmmuseum’s own history. As one can read in film historian and preservationist André Stufkens’ monograph Redder van de tiende muze. Jan de Vaal en het Nederlands Filmmuseum 1946 – 1987 (Uitgeverij IJzer, 2016) on Jan de Vaal – the Nederlands Filmmuseum’s director from 1946 to 1987 – the film was one of the first films bought by the Nederlands Filmmuseum – a very significant budget post at the time which necessitated loans – as a way to advocate the importance of film archiving. I would refrain from reading too much into this circumstance by aligning Jan de Vaal’s acquisition decision with Vedrès visionary appropriation of archival footage. Yet, I do find it exciting to think of this film’s early acquisition by the Filmmuseum as serendipitously establishing a beginning point for the institution’s strong commitment to lyrical and associative forms of filmmaking in the archive. The film’s simultaneously poignant historical portrayal and lyrical appropriation seems to nicely encapsulate the Filmmuseum’s origins in two very different collections which it merged with in 1952; the artistic and avant-garde repertoire films of the Uitkijk collections and the more overtly documentary collection of the Nederlandsch Historisch Film Archief. In any case, it is certainly a strong example of the richness of early filmic appropriation as a means to understand film history.

Going beyond the institutional frame of EYE Filmmuseum, Vedrès’ historiographical approach also, I feel, deserves much more recognition and attention for the visionary approach it articulated during WWII and in the immediate postwar years. In particular her monograph Images du cinéma français, which consists almost entirely of film images of French cinema’s history up to that point is a deeply fascinating work. Made as a dream-like exploration of film images in a surreal fashion – the book includes a foreword by surrealist poet Paul Éluard which stresses these qualities – the juxtapositions  of the images associate motifs of image features across periods, genres and styles. For instance, the volcanic eruption of Méliès’ 1902-film L’Éruption du Mont Pelée (if I am not mistaken also known as Éruption volcanique à la Martinique) is associated with images of the exploding Eiffel Tower in Luitz-Morat’s La Cité foudroyée (France, 1924).

As Eisenschitz has highlighted in an eminent background article on Images du cinéma français  in Trafic, the book suggests an a-hierarchical visual film history which may be considered as a counter-point to the more traditional masterpiece histories of the time which – in the way in which it used material from la Cinematheque française – also offered a blueprint for especially Henri Langlois’ exhibition practices. In brief, this is truly an astonishing and important work which Paris 1900 should be related to, in order to understand its visual analysis. I include a few scans from my own copy of the book below for an impression.

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Nico Crama’s Film History Films

Another filmmaker’s work I am looking into in my research is that of Nico Crama. In the Netherlands, and in Dutch film scholarship in particular, Nico Crama is a quite well known filmmaker because of his significant and pioneering contribution to animation and documentary film as well as his work as a producer, for instance of works by Frans Zwartjes and Paul Verhoeven. Crama made a few films – Images fantastiques 1962) and Het witte doek (1964) in collaboration with the Filmmuseum which highlighted different aspects of the institution’s activities while offering reflections on film history’s development. While the didactic aspirations of these films are clear they are far from being stale teleological tales of cinema’s birth but are rather playful in their approach showing clear affinities with the New Wave sensibilities of the time.

Het witte doek – which can roughly be translated into the white screen (or canvas to be exact) – is a four-part documentary which focuses first on early cinema, then on the relation between film and literature, la nouvelle vague and the human on film. The first part is particularly interesting as a film historical reflection in the way in which it takes the cue from the Lumière brothers first train films to dissect a contemporary documentary production taking place at the Gevers Deynoot square in Scheveningen, The Hague, where a tram is seen arriving and the activities on the square filmed. The film takes a reflexive approach almost reminiscent of contemporary cinéma verité filmmaking as a way to pedagogically show what film production entails and where it came from explaining it to contemporary audiences in a historical perspective.

Images fantastiques is, I think, a little gem. In its first part, Images fantastiques playfully incorporates archival material from the Filmmuseum’s collection – for instance poster material from the Jean Desmet Collection – into an animated sequence which shows differences in cinema-going at three points in time: first early cinema, then at around 1930 and finally at the point in time the film was made, when New Wave and modernist filmmaking were prominent in film programming. The film’s second part documents a screening of the Filmmuseum’s traveling cinema installed in The Hague, focusing on the encounter of a modern audience with a museal restaging of early cinema exhibition practices. In its depiction of the differences, the film is at the same time instructive and highly entertaining. In the animated sequence, the three different eras of cinema-going are depicted in three episodes where a spectator is seen leaving home, entering a cinema hall – richly illustrated with typical cinema posters of the time – to watch different films and responding to them in different ways. These episodes go backwards in time from the 1960s to early cinema. In the 1960s sequence, a glass-wearing deadpan intellectual is seen watching Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour (France, 1959). In the early 1930s second sequence, a spectator is amused by Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel (Germany, 1930). And finally, in the early cinema sequence, a spectator laughs out loud from watching the Pathé Frères comedy Rosalie et son phonographe (Roméo Bosetti, France, 1911). While clearly indebted to the time’s New Wave filmmaking, Crama’s Images fantastiques seems to suggest that film-going might have been more fun in the early days and may thus be taken to challenge the view that saw this period as merely a primitive forerunner. I include screen grabs from the three sequences below to give an illustration.

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While EYE Filmmuseum has a few titles by Crama and also holds his paper archive in its collection, Crama’s filmic work is preserved by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum. The institute has made several of his works freely available for viewing online here among which both Het witte doek and Images fantastiques.

These are just some of the films I have been looking into and which have surprised me in my research. By considering these titles within a broader reflection on moving image appropriation and artistic reuse I hope I will be able to yield a more fine-grained picture of the Filmmusuem’s commitment to videographic film studies in a past and present perspective, from its early days and leading up to the SEMIA project.

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Eisenschitz, Bernard, “Le film de papier (Images du cinéma français de Nicole Vedrès, 1945)”, in Trafic, no. 100 (2016)

Lameris, Bregt. Film Museum Practice and Film Historiography – The Case of the Nederlands Filmmuseum. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Pantenburg, Volker, “Towards an alternative history of the video essay: Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne” in Necsus, Vol. 5, No. 12 (2017)

Seligardi, Beatrice. “Cinema Ritrovato 2017: “Paris 1900” e Nicole Vedrès, pioniera del found footage”, blog post on Cinefilia ritrovata, July 1, 2017.

Stufkens, André. Jan de Vaal en het Nederlands Filmmuseum 1946 – 1987. Utrecht: Uitgeverij IJzer, 2016.

Vedrès, Nicole. Images du cinéma français. Paris: Les Éditions du chêne, 1945.

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.