The Science of Cinema

26-Feb-09 3:36 PM by
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While hosting some out-of-town friends last weekend, I tried to get us into the Boston Museum of Science's IMAX theater. It was sold out, which isn't all that great a shame — the movie we were going to see, Roving Mars, has been on DVD for almost two years anyway. But it did remind me that I'd previously downloaded an episode of the MoS podcast titled "Inventing the Movies" (iTunes), which is also the name a book by Scott Kirsner, who is interviewed in this podcast.

This 23-minute episode covers the same topic as that book: the inventors and technologies that have shaped Hollywood in the last century. I was intrigued by this insider's perspective on the effect various innovations have had on the industry. If you're of a younger generation, it may be unfathomable that the lack of VCRs and DVD players meant that movies used to be seen in theaters and nowhere else — once they were gone, they were gone. But Mr. Kirsner's book eschews that consumer impact to look instead at how movie studios viewed such developments as threats. For example, Thomas Edison discouraged the invention of a projector, preferring his kinetoscope, which allowed silent movies to be seen through a hole in a box, creating a solitary and unshared experience. Later, silent movies were seen as a quiet respite from the busy world that "talkies" would disrupt. Often, it was competition from other markets that urged Hollywood to accept change: Technicolor (named in 1915 for its inventor's alma mater, MIT) was not widely adopted until seen as a response to the widespread adoption of black-and-white television.

The threat of progress extends to more recent times as well. I was a Blockbuster Video employee at the advent of DVDs, which had massive ramifications for the industry. You may not remember that movies used to become available for consumer purchase 3-6 months after they were released to rental outlets. Back then, each VHS tape would initially retail for more than $100, which only commercial entities could afford, before being lowered to a more reasonable mass market price. Once movies moved from tape to disc, their reproduction became much cheaper, allowing for simultaneous release to both rental and consumer venues and eliminating the window of exclusivity formerly the domain of companies like Blockbuster.

What changes chafe today's film industry? Digital cameras and projectors have spotty adoption records, but neither significantly changes the movie-viewing experience. The most volatile aspect of movies appears to be in the delivery mechanism. YouTube, Hulu, and the like are, within and without copyright, bringing chunks of video to your computer; Netflix and the Microsoft Xbox bring feature-length content right to your television; and, in a less technical manner, Red Box adds cheap rentals to your grocery list.

The podcast packs much information into a short period, encompassing not only the founding moments mentioned above but also more recent milestones, such as TRON (which I've already written about extensively and the sequel to which I am eagerly anticipating) and Terminator 2. This teaser has moved the book to my short list. The complete history of Hollywood is, of course, yet to be written, as technology will never stop progressing to meet (and create) new needs. Where do you see movies going?

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