Categorization of art (such as genre and movements) often feels cheap and reductive, but it does help us make sense of sprawling artistic landscapes and talk to one another about broader patterns and trends. While the lines are sometimes blurry, genre is typically cut and dry: comedy makes us laugh, horror makes us scared, and drama makes us feel. Film movements and eras are a little tougher to call, but with some perspective, the trends throughout history become a little clearer. In the US, we learn about the (American) foundation of filmmaking: Classical Hollywood Style, where a film was akin to a recorded stage play: dramatic, static, and with intricate sets and meticulous staging. In the late 1950’s, the tightly choreographed style gave way to a new wave of instinct-driven, experimental, and anti-formalist filmmaking that rippled throughout France, Italy, Germany, and the US (think The 400 Blows, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, etc.). While it’s hard to identify a movement while we’re in the midst of it, there are speculative murmurs of what the future’s film history textbooks might identify as the definitive features of today’s landscape: franchise filmmaking, flashy style over substance, or gritty superhero. For us at BFF, one thing that stands out in mainstream filmmaking is the role of digital technologies, computerization, engineering, and mathematics in film. So, although they may not seem to go hand-in-hand at first, we wanted to start a conversation of the interplay between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and our fav thing ever, film.
While it’s perhaps easier to spot the role of STEM in today’s filmmaking industry, left-brained thinking has been around from the beginning; it's built into the fundamentals of filmmaking. First of all, film as an art form couldn't exist without film as a constructed, physical, object. Plain and simple, the genesis of film wasn't artistic, it was technological. Before the Spielbergs, the Coppolas, and the Godards could make their name as cinematic artists and industry big-hitters, motion-picture cameras were technological novelties. In the 1880's, a camera that was able to capture motion onto a film strip in real-time, rather than by a series of posed stills (à la stop motion filmmaking), was constructed in order to better understand the gait of a galloping horse. Not long after, the first film was shot - and the years following introduced film not as an art form, but as a technological marvel. Over the next hundred years or so, technological advancements in film stock (and camera lenses) not only allowed for higher efficiency and quality in filmmaking, these different engineering methods permitted a great deal of stylistic control over the look, tone, and feel of a film.
Speaking of look, tone, and feel, any filmmaker understands that while scripts tell a plot, the real story of a film can often get lost without careful attention to a cinematic element that the untrained audience member may hardly even notice: lighting. Lighting a film requires an extraordinary comfortability and knowledge of lighting equipment, cables, generators, and accessories. Anyone that's spent time on a film can confirm that gaffers and their lighting crew communicate in what may as well be another language. Additionally, knowledge of the physics of how light moves, bounces, and casts shadows is fundamental in knowing what the subject of a shot will ultimately look like. Take a look at this video, and see the way one woman's face can change depending on the angle, the brightness, the movement, and the color of light cast upon her.
Similarly, sound design is a meticulous craft that greatly impacts how a film not only sounds but how it feels to an audience. Foley, the reproduction of sound effects added to a film in post-production, not only requires artistry and creativity, but a great and methodical knowledge of how materials interact and how the ear and brain react to different audible stimulus. Today, computers and digital sound-making are added to the equation: sound engineers work with technical aspects of sound during the processes of recording, mixing, mastering, and reproduction. Audio engineers work with microphone technologies, sound waves, frequencies, reverberation, and a whole lot of intimidating knobs and dials to create soundscapes that make up alien worlds, war zones, fantastical adventures, and even an ordinary rainy day:
On the topic of computers, it's time to address the elephant in the room (err, on the screen?). All modern movie-goers can attest to the miles and miles of names and titles that proceed any superhero or action movie that's come out in the last couple of decades: editors, colorists, rotoscopists, animators, visual FX coordinators, and many, many more. Plain and simple, most movies made today involve far, far more hours in front of a post-production screen than they do on set. In addition to hours, these new technologies require training and talent with computing, with coding, with software engineering, and with countless other elements built into STEM fields.
STEM has a place in film - so what? Dialogue about the arts vs. STEM is more polarized than ever: Which should get funded? Which is employable? Which makes for a good college major? Well, we're beginning to think that the line between art and STEM isn't nearly as first meets the eye.
What do you think? Does the role of STEM in film history and production surprise you? What do you think the growing inclusion of STEM fields means for the future of film? And, most importantly, what the heck acronym do we use?!