Why Netflix Movies Look So Weird
The history of cinema as an art parallels its history as a technology. Have you ever wondered why the color of The Wizard of Oz is so saturated? Well, it wasn’t the first Technicolor film, but it was the first to effectively announce MGM’s new 3-band color process to a global audience. Why announce something at half mast?
This type of technological innovation in cinema is, of course, driven by economic motives. For example, 3D flourished in three waves in direct response to the economic threats posed by new technologies: in the 1950s in response to television, in the 1980s in response to VHS, and in the 21st century in response to the rise of online streaming. (Now we have 4DX, a gadget that’s suspected not to take off.)
In the era of digital cinema, where celluloid is almost replaced by video technology, the latest technological battle concerns image resolution.
A digital image is made up of pixels, small shapes (usually boxes) that are the smallest controllable element of the image. Resolution refers to the number of pixels appearing in an image and is usually measured in pixels per inch. As a general rule, the more pixels there are, the sharper the image, i.e. the outlines of the subject are sharp.
In the digital cinema resolution wars, you’ll often hear people talk about 4K resolution – as in 4000 – or 8K, or now even 12K. This number refers to the number of horizontal pixels. A typical 4K digital cinema image, for example, has a resolution of 4096 (horizontal) x 2160 (vertical) pixels.
Image capture resolution is only one factor in how an image looks – dynamic range, i.e. the difference between the darkest and brightest parts of the image , is another. But most cinematographers and technicians agree that camera resolution is crucial for image sharpness.
In 2018, Netflix was snubbed by the Cannes Film Festival on the grounds that Netflix-produced films are not real cinema. Again this year, there are no Netflix-produced films in the festival competition due to a rule, all films selected to compete must have a local theatrical release.
Cannes is right. Most of the productions made for Netflix don’t look like the cinema we’re used to. Why? There is a technical answer. While the company does stream some movies that aren’t “Netflix Originals,” it does require narrative features made for Netflix to be shot on cameras with a “true 4K UHD sensor.”
In other words, the sensor – which detects and transmits the information necessary to create an image – must be at least 3,840 pixels wide, or “Ultra High Definition”.
Flat and shallow
This technical specification is surprisingly evident in David Fincher’s recent Netflix Original production, mana black and white ghostwriting biopic of Citizen Kane by Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Old black and white film, shot on celluloid, has a grainy texture that draws the eye in and around the image. This is partly the result of degradation of the film print, which occurs over time, but mainly due to the physical processing of the film itself.
All celluloid films have a grainy appearance. This “grain” is an optical effect linked to the small particles of metallic silver that emerge during the chemical treatment of the film.
This is not the case with digital cameras. Thus, video images captured by high-resolution sensors are different from those captured on celluloid. The pictures in man seem flat, without depth, they are too sharp and clear.
It’s not really a problem on a large screen, when the images are huge, but the high resolution is really noticeable when the images are compressed on the kind of home TV or computer screens that most people use to stream Netflix. Edges seem too sharp, shades too clearly delineated – compared to what we’re used to as moviegoers.
The absurd thing is that companies like CineGrain now sell digital movie overlays that can give video the grainy look of film. (Their company motto is “make digital more cinematic using CineGrain”.) The natural result of the physical process has been replaced by video, but digital cinema makers are reintroducing this as an element to achieve a “film look”. “.
Netflix allows limited exceptions to its rule, with the use of unapproved cameras requiring its explicit approval and a “more flexible” approach to non-fiction productions. According to YM Cinema magazine, 30% of Netflix’s “Best Movies of 2020” were made on unapproved cameras. Yet, by stipulating the use of 4K (or better) sensor cameras, Netflix is drastically reducing the aesthetic autonomy of film directors and producers.
If we think of Netflix as a production studio, it’s no surprise – every studio (like every big company) dictates what their products are, including how their movies look and feel. But this requirement means that their productions are similar and that the imagery (for a cinephile, in any case) is too clinical.
All film festivals, distributors and networks request delivery of films that meet their specifications, but this usually has nothing to do with the source camera behind the delivered file. If he looks and plays well, he looks and plays well.
The film The wide (2003), for example, which grossed over $50 million at the box office (on a budget of less than $200,000), was shot in mini-DV, a low-quality and now obsolete video format, but it was perfectly suited to the film and therefore works.
Netflix, by stipulating 4K camera sensors, replicates the assumption that higher resolution is necessarily better, for all (or even most) movies.
But one of the reasons why American film noir always looks so good – or new Hollywood movies from the 1960s and 1970s, like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde – is partly because of celluloid technology itself, in all its glorious granularity. The beauty of these cinematic images has nothing to do with the sharpness of the outlines of the subjects photographed.
Where does this assumption come from that sharper images are aesthetically better and more effective? Art has always sought to say something in its departure from its realistic reproduction of the world, that is to say in its expression.
As with all technological innovation in a capitalist context, this assumption stems from the competitive impulse to appear to be doing something better than everyone else – the bigger, the more expensive, the clearer, the better. But when it comes to aesthetics, it’s a redundant form of economy.
Ari Mattes is a senior lecturer in communications and media at the University of Notre Dame in Australia. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.