Once Upon a Time in Mexico

An account on the difference between celluloid and the nowaday omnipresent digital film experience by Mats Carlsson.

I would argue that the fear of the digital (felt by some) and the claim of a different feel attributable to the digitalized watching experience, grounds itself on a level other than that of actual perception. What we have here is a problem of symbolism. This might sound theoretical and vague, however our language and understanding of ourselves and reality are mediated at the level of the sign.

Russian Ark

Where the photographic image in one frame of film stock is born out of the inscription of light, via a chemical reaction, the digital camera records light electronically. The intermediary, in the form of a computer, organizes this information into digital data. Herein lies the obvious, fundamental difference between the two mediums, not in the perception of the finished image. What do I try to claim here? Well, along the line of Baudrillardian thought and good old-fashioned semiotics, the photographic film image is to be seen as the signifier, that which refers to the event that unfolded in front of the camera. Following this logic the event itself would be the signified; the filmic image and the event together forming a complete sign as it were. However, this process is halted when the inscription of light is interrupted by the interpretation of the computer (the interpretation of light by the intermediary). Between the event and image something is added or subtracted, depending on one’s outlook.


This is the subversion of the digital revolution, not the subversion of images, but of reality itself. This may sound very scary – as if a dystopia of falseness has fallen upon us – all in the guise of the flowering of technology. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. We must remember that reality as such is our’s for the making. The semiological system of signifier, signified and sign, our way of communicating and interpreting the real, is changing.

Is this the transcendence or ruining of reality? One thing is certain, the installment of digital representations of reality reads the implosion of the sign as we know it. What is experienced today is an implosion: the signifier and the signified, one and the same.

Mats Carlsson is an undergraduate at the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University, his special interests include psychoanalysis, phenomenology and critical theory applied within the framework of cinema in particular and the broader media landscape in general.

4 thoughts on “A Note on the Digital Implosion”

  1. Well stated, my friend. This is absolutely true, and fundamentally changes not only the way that movies are made, but also the manner in which we apprehend them. Digital is here to stay, strictly as an economic proposition, but you’re right — with the demise of traditional film, the sign has vanished.

  2. DIGITAL allows films to be screened without scratches,dirt and weave.The quality remains no matter how many times it is shown.At the click of the mouse a film can be transferred to any screen and can be screened in all if require.This saves on print costs.Digital has a lot going for it but I still have a love for film.I understand that the Digital file will have to be re-copied every few years unlike film that has stood the test of time.It is worrying that some films may become non existent before they can be copied.

  3. I hardly think the loss of semiotics would be mourned by many who find it to be a bloated corpse that stomps out fresh analytical close reading in our field.

    Semiotics certainly is not the only way to critique the experience or art or film. It is, for many of us, a dull dated reductionist hermeneutic system – a passing and ephemeral trend that has stuck around way passed it’s welcome.

    I, for one, would welcome the passing of the “sign” or the “signifier.”

    I do however mourn the loss of stability of film, and I find it tragic that many films will not be saved and will become nonexistent before they are digitally copied. But cinema has always been ephemeral and subject to loss and deterioration. The whole age of silent cinema is almost entirely lost, for example – through deterioration, neglect or destruction. Only about 10 % of silent films exist today. Many silent films were melted down for their silver content.

    The age of safety celluloid film is just as neglected. Though much survives on 35 film negative in storage, many films will never again see the light of day because of the expense or myriad reasons that they are not chosen for restoration and distribution on DVD and other platforms.

    With each successive move to another platform, film becomes more ephemeral and subject to neglect. DVDs are a dying platform, and many films never even made it to DVD from VHS or 35mm.

    Yes, digital filmmaking is inexpensive and some say democratizing, but, as David Ellis notes here, digital film is just as ephemeral, maybe even more ephemeral than flammable nitrate film of the silent age. Many presume that digital images are safe in “the cloud.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    What we have here then is not “a problem of symbolism.” There is something more important at stake here – when the very survival of film is threatened, both archivally and as a production medium, our most important task is to hold onto what we have, and project and distribute it, as Joshua Siegel does at the Museum of Modern Art with his “To Save and Project” series.

  4. You are right Mats–this is theoretical and vague, a sophomoric lecture on a topic many of us digested thirty years ago. But you don’t really have a THEORY in the sense of something that can be argued, something testable. So much of what passes for “theory” is obscurantism, or vague generalizations about the nature of the audience, perception, and the like. Wasn’t your topic actually the impact of the digital age, perhaps on tangible issues like making films available to us? We all know about the “signified” and whatnot.

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