What a strange and sprawling cybernetic network the contemporary cinema possesses! Writers work with computers to produce scripts to sign with production companies; acting talent perform those scripts in highly-technologised locations rife with complex lighting, mikes, rigging, and cameras; dozens of special effects companies work with further computers, each making a few seconds of spectacle to add to the footage; editors splice it all together with yet more computers; and at the end of the line, robot projectionists screen movies for an audience warned not to use their pocket robots to record what they see under penalty of bringing the law enforcement network into play.
Considering how much of this process is now mediated by computers of various kinds, it is sobering to remember that this entire field of human existence was in operation prior to the existence of silicon chips. That older network had additional elements, such as the manufacturing of celluloid film, and the developing of the resulting reels in a lab. Within my lifetime, digital methods have supplanted almost every step of the production process – even sets and the presented bodies of those acting are frequently produced electronically... only their voices remain exempt from robotic replacement. It is not even hard to imagine an AI for writing a (bad) action movie, even if drama and comedy scripts would prove tougher, perhaps impossible, to computerise effectively.
These changes in the cinema network seem to constitute improvements – certainly if our only criteria is the maximum efficiency of production. Yet at almost every stage of the process, there are casualties of skill, a reduction of the opportunities for excellence thanks to the lure of the convenience of computers. Ian McKellan reduced to tears by the isolation of the greenscreen; editors lamenting the loss of craft associated with flatbed film editing; and while we may never know why director Tony Scott chose to commit suicide, I cannot shake the suspicion that his painstaking commitment to resisting the cheap theatrics of digitally-generated special effects was a key factor in his depression.
Of all the aspects of the cinema network to have been absorbed into computers, the one that saddens me most is the robot projectionist. The art and skill – and also, admittedly, the stress and frustration – of the projectionist is truly a lost art. There is no triumph of a perfect screening now, only pushing a button to start. Whether though lazy design or a simple lack of care, multiplexes now seem unable to execute an elegant close down (prose lights on, curtains to finish, then gently raise the house lights). Often, screenings end with everything just stopping, the clear sign of the total vacancy of the proj box. Feeling this absence is more than mere wistfulness – it is a sign of lost skills, of something barely noticed coming to a certain end. A projectionist was a cyborg with their own excellences; the robots who have replaced them are truly ‘just machines’.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #31