Case Study: Chained to a Vision
Posted Mar 1, 2003

In the little-seen (but much-beloved) science fiction cult classic, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, the film's namesake hero—winningly played by Peter Weller—wryly observes that "wherever you go, there you are." A Yogi Berra-esque observation, perhaps, but one confirmed by the landscape of strip malls, highways, and franchises that permeate the communities in which many of us live. As corporate culture continues to make its way across this and other continents, and the unique qualities that characterize a region continue to recede, it's becoming harder and harder to differentiate one locale from another. Whether or not that's a good thing depends on whom you ask.

These threads of sameness—indeed, of corporate homogeneity—that characterize today's world order are the subject of a three-channel, synchronized video installation that recently completed a six-week run at the Eyebeam Museum's Chelsea facility in New York City. Built from documentary footage shot on four continents, CHAIN is the first release in a continuing series of interrelated projects that will culminate in a feature film.

A project of Brooklyn, New York-based Gravity Hill Films, CHAIN unites malls, highways, franchises, and corporate centers across the globe in a "superlandscape" that serves as the backdrop for a series of linked stories. The film's "panoramic triptych" of images—shot at a number of indeterminate sites in Australia, Europe, and the United States—combines documentary footage with hints of narrative as voices and current events filter into the landscapes. (Scenes include a man and woman stuck in a skyscraper during a blackout, a runaway living under a giant highway overpass, and a traveler sharing memories of a California earthquake with a young stranger.)

According to CHAIN's creator, New York filmmaker Jem Cohen, the project will take various forms, including the museum installation, a series of numbered shorts, and a feature film. (Cohen, a Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellow with a number of documentaries and film festival prizes under his belt, was one of several artists to participate in Eyebeam's inaugural Artists-in-Residence program in 2002.) The installation was co-presented by Eyebeam, which made the DVD edit possible, and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, which originally commissioned the work.

"I hope people get a renewed sense of the way that the world is changing, and I hope that the three-screen movie gives people a more vivid, panoramic sense of these changes," Cohen says in explanation of the message he tries to convey in CHAIN. "The piece shows how much regional character is disappearing and being replaced by interchangeable [corporate entities]. I didn't want to take any cheap shots, but I do think we need to look more closely at how much the geography of the planet is getting to be similar."

One Link at a Time
Eyebeam's mission is multi- layered—to initiate, present, support, and preserve artwork created with computers and other digital equipment; to expand the public's appreciation of new media art through education programs, exhibitions, and equipment access; to expand and improve artists' and the public's access to electronic, graphic, network, and moving image arts; and to research and develop new technologies that will catalyze the creation of these artworks. The Museum's Moving Image Division is dedicated to supporting the creation of new art forms arising from digital film, video art, and computer graphics. Among other things, Artists-in-Residence have access to a state-of-the-art technological facility, including a Discreet Logic Flame/Smoke system, high-definition Final Cut Pro system, and routed serial digital video rack with a full complement of decks.

"Jem applied and was accepted to the Moving Image Artists-in-Residence program to do the post-production work for CHAIN in our studio," recalls Melanie Crean, Eyebeam's director of moving image. "He had accumulated the footage over the past several years and needed an editing facility that could also provide technical support."

"I was able to use Eyebeam's Final Cut Pro setup and to composite all three videos together on one monitor so that I could see how the three screens would work together," Cohen adds. The film "is never a random selection of three images. Sometimes, an image will travel across the screen, sometimes three related images appear, sometimes I drop one or two screens so viewers will focus in on one thing.

"As an independent artist, programs like Eyebeam's are absolutely vital," Cohen continues. "I don't think I could survive without grants and residencies, and this was a pretty ambitious piece for all of us."

Indeed, it was six years of filming that culminated in the 40-minute film that made its debut in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound on three synchronous DVDs. Crean says DVD quickly became the medium of choice because the project required "a media format that was loopable" and that could be controlled over three decks simultaneously.

The three Pioneer DVD-V7400 industrial DVD players used for the CHAIN installation worked in conjunction with a serial control box that caused the players to start and loop at the same time—a necessary effect to ensure that Cohen's images were delivered as intended. The box in question, known as a DVD synchronizer, is designed to control multiple players in repeating loops. The DVDplay series of synchronizers developed by New York's Dave Jones Design support all three Pioneer industrial DVD models, including the DVD-V7200, DVD-V7300D, and DVD-V7400. They may be used to play a multi-channel program in a continuous loop (with the players being re-synchronized at the start of each loop) or may be hooked up to an external trigger device (such as a switch or sensor) so the program starts on cue. The synchronizers also may be equipped with an optional Black Burst generator that ensures frame-accurate synchronization; otherwise, delivery is accurate to within two frames.

"DVD technology makes [multi-screen filmmaking] much more practical, especially for an installation," Cohen elaborates. "The piece was shot in fine-grain, color 16mm film, and I needed to maintain that clarity, and to add a complicated soundtrack [courtesy of Godspeed You Black Emperor] that would make the viewing space open up to viewers. I needed a facility that would allow me to master from DigiBeta, and I also needed to maintain perfect sync. DVD allowed for all of that."

As the project evolved, Cohen found himself on the hunt for an authoring facility that would fit his budget and adhere to the demanding deadlines he was facing. "I work as an independent filmmaker, often solo, and the cost of the discs was out of my pocket," Cohen recalls. "I heard that Mark [Ashkinos, president of ScreamDVD] had been in the DVD arena for quite some time, and was impressed by his great turnaround time and reasonable pricing. Because the edit was so complicated and the deadline was tight, I needed to guarantee high-quality results and immediate attention, which Scream was able to provide."

"I've been in the post-production business for what seems like my whole life. My father is an Avid editor who still cuts every day," says Ashkinos, who spent two days encoding, authoring, proofing, and burning several sets of discs for CHAIN. "I have done museums, trade shows, and independent movies, art galleries, concerts, and commercials."

Ashkinos' New York-based company, ScreamDVD, is a full-service DVD facility equipped to provide all creative aspects of a DVD project, from scripting to storyboards to shooting and packaging the final DVD, including compression, authoring, graphics, and replication. (Past clients include Hewlett- Packard, the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Sharper Image, and Showtime Networks.) After meeting with Cohen to discuss the particulars of the film, Ashkinos reviewed the three DigiBetas Cohen had provided to ensure that the times codes matched. He then encoded the material with Sonic Solutions' SD-2000 MPEG video encoder at 8Mbps using a two-pass encode; transcoded the six AIFF audio tracks first to 5.1 surround sound and then to an AC-3 file; and authored the three discs with basic chapter points using DVD Creator v.2.1.7.

"The discs were not authored as a loop," Ashkinos explains, noting that the synchronizers installed at Eyebeam were programmed "to loop forever and ever. With Pioneer's DVD-V7400 player, the DVDs could loop in sync for years."

Breaking the Chains that Bind
Cohen loved the technology so much that he hopes one day to transfer his other work to DVD. "DVD has all of the benefits of laserdisc, and then some," he says. "Still, I wish there were more, and more affordable, decks that had the sync capacity.

"I was in Spain recently for a film retrospective, and it was a nightmare getting everything onto PAL Beta SP and getting all of the tapes to the festival," he continues. "I was able to show a few pieces, including one channel of CHAIN, from DVD, and the quality and ease of operation was really helpful."

Ashkinos, a life-long technology junkie, also envisions a DVD-filled future—one in which the format's capacity expands to 25GB and beyond. "Imagine the entire Godfather trilogy on one disc," he marvels. "With greater capacity comes an infinite number of applications, including the archival of everything from commercials to data to photo albums.

"Over time, compatibility will be a non-issue as all manufacturers of DVD players will make their DVD players play any flavor of DVD," he adds. "The killer app today is movies. If I knew what tomorrow's killer app was, I'd be doing it today."

(Dave Jones Design, www.djdesign.com. Eyebeam www.eyebeam.org. Gravity Hill Films gravityhill@mindspring.com. Pioneer Electronics www.pioneerelectronics.com. ScreamDVD www.screamdvd.com.)