The official book review published [here]
Atkinson, Sarah. From Film Practice to Data Process: Production Aesthetics and Representational Practices of a Film Industry in Transition. Edinburgh Univiversity Press, 2018.
Reviewed by Theo Stojanov, Concordia University
In 2012 analogue technologies are rapidly phased out from all sectors of the British film production chain. Media and creative industries scholar Sarah Atkinson chronicles how the continuities and discontinuities brought about by the transition from celluloid to digital are reflected in the traditions and work rituals of filmmakers. The author tracks the making of Sally Potter’s film Ginger & Rosa through interviews and participant observation, drawing attention to how obsolete analogue-era jargon and vestigial industry lore express the cautious hopes and ample fears of an industry in transition. No longer a physical artefact, celluloid nomenclature nonetheless maintains a persistent aesthetic presence, bringing about questions about how digital tools will transform the hierarchies and structures of the British film industry and its cultures of production. Through the prism of one film, Atkinson focuses on this very particular and fleeting historical moment, just as the transition to digital technologies in the UK is just about over. A rich array of analytical perspectives supports the book’s deceptively unassuming research question: what are the characteristics of this temporally circumscribed moment of transition, as the traditions of “film practice” give way to the procedural routines of “data process”? At the same time, this moment of transition is but a part of a continuum of transitions between film practice and data process, which “are not unique to the intervention of the digital, indeed there has been a constant friction between ‘practice’ (as it relates to creativity) and ‘process’ (as it relates to the logistical aspects of film production) since the birth of cinema” (Atkinson 2).
The book contributes to a better understanding of British film culture circa 2012, and for the historiographer it offers an excellent overview of the preoccupations of British academics during the second decade of the 21st century. As, following Bordwell, films become files, Atkinson furthers our understanding of film production practitioners at that critical time. Her fieldwork yields thorough firsthand accounts of how various creative forces within the British semi-independent filmmaking scene adopted or attempted to resist the transition. This book-length case study dedicated to the everyday practices and self-disclosures of creative industry workers contributes to a growing body of work in the Production Studies tradition. One of the book’s important conclusions is that digital aesthetics, having insinuated themselves into every aspect of film production, also demand updated analytical approaches. Research methodology needs to transition alongside its subject, Atkinson suggests, “giving way to interdisciplinary imperatives as the boundaries demarcating film studies erode by the force of powerful waves of new and emerging media and visual technologies” (Atkinson 209).
Atkinson proposes a conceptual framework termed “Digital Film Production Study,” which leans on three interconnected areas of research: Production Studies, Film Studies and the Digital Humanities. Here she follows John Caldwell’s understanding of “production culture research” as an activity that avoids traditional disciplinary zoning. This genre of research can be described as a collection of approaches tailored to case-studies, which pull from various disciplines as dictated by the available evidence, in this case, ethnographic interviews and embedded research. Alongside Banks, Vonderau, Mayer, Holt, and others, Atkinson’s work fits the industry studies research paradigm that has rapidly become an important area of inquiry across film, media, communications, humanities, and cultural studies programs.
The first chapter pays particular attention to the interplay between film and data, process and practice against the backdrop of transition. Atkinson points out that cinema is not so much a physical object as it is a network of institutions and practices. At one point these institutions and practices were indeed associated with, and dependent on, the production and distribution of the physical medium of film. This is no longer the case, yet film institutions and practices persist. In the words of film theorist Stephen Prince, “film is no longer a necessary condition for cinema” (Prince 30). Accepting that there are certain important medium-specific characteristics, the reader is invited to contemplate the possibility that cinema was always a convergence of pre-existing creative practices and not a unified material entity around which new creative practices developed. Atkinson uses the concept skeuomorph to describe how digital film technologies are designed to mimic their analogue predecessors. There is continuity there, just like there is continuity between older and contemporary models of industrial production. Continuity is disrupted when these industrial processes are confronted by the creative practices of film professionals. The clashes between these two concepts are presented from various angles in the rest of the book.
The next three chapters are each organized around one elemental component: People, Time, and Space. These chapters feature the bulk of Atkinson’s participant-observation notes and interviews, with ample transcripts. In chapter 2, she introduces one of the central concepts of the book, the ‘Creative Core Personnel Structure and Working Relations’ model. An ongoing challenge in film production scholarship is to define what kinds of tasks count as creative, craft, and common labour, in an effort to acknowledge myriad under-researched professional trajectories that make up work in the creative industries. The Creative Core model brings back to film studies the materiality of cinema. It reminds us that cinema is more than a set of discourse topics—or film texts—and, crucially, the ways of producing, distributing, and representing those texts on the screen is what gives cinema particular meaning and sets it apart from other forms of mediated discourse. At the centre of the Creative Core is everyone responsible for driving the project: writer, director, showrunner, star talent. One layer outwards we find the department heads, followed by creative and technical departments, creative logistics, location infrastructure, project management, and finally, funding and accounting. The model can be adapted to situations where the roles are different, for example when the director is ‘hired in’ (placing the producer or showrunner at the centre), but what is important is that this way of organizing the working relations within a production clearly illustrates the multidirectional nature of creative decisions: when the director’s vision trickles over to finance, budget concerns may bounce back up along the chain to require changes that would ultimately alter the direction and meaning of the resulting text.
The Creative Core Personnel Structure and Working Relations model (p. 40) aims to illustrate “bi-directional flows of influence, which continually emit both from the centre outwards, and from the outwards inwards.” Though the author insists that the diagram presents a reciprocal relationship “specific to a film that is creatively led by the Writer-Director and is funded by a complex range of both public and commercial resources,” the diagram is general enough to apply to just about any other film project. Crucially, at issue here is an ambivalence of where to draw the line between what counts as creative and non-creative film work.
Throughout the various interviews about film production work we witness a frequent concern with increasing demands for flexibility, precarious employment, and a lateral movement of workers from job to job without any real prospect for career advancement or skill development. Emblematic of that critical turning point between analogue and digital technologies, Ginger & Rosa is positioned as a chimeric production in which traditional film industry practices, relationships, and processes translate awkwardly into the new circumstances of global media production. However, Atkinson’s point is not to lament the passing of a beloved technology, nor to vilify its replacement, but to point out that new models of production can be possible once we get past the initial trauma of post-industrial ways of working and being. Significantly, she proposes the idea of ‘collaborative and transitional auteurship’ as a replacement for traditional approaches to film as the product of a single auteur. It is through new technologies, Akinson contends, that production processes become more accessible and collaborative, pointing a way towards new production paradigms.
Chapter 3, Time, continues with a focus on workflow and process. After a brief overview of theoretical work on time management and industrial film making, Atkinson presents each of the production stages of Ginger & Rosa accompanied by a careful discourse analysis of interview excerpts describing the temporal experiences of cast and crew. Through novel terms like workflow-warp, workflow-weft, and daily-ness, she describes how production stages increasingly overlap and collapse into highly fractured simultaneous workflows that require strict oversight. Atkinson approaches this portion of the book with Foucauldian suspicion, deliberating how the logic of production economics and digital task management govern, contain, and control the daily lives of cast and crew. It is worth pausing for a moment to question whether the alleged complications brought about by digital technologies are not perhaps endemic features of film production itself that the moment of transition has only exposed, rather than created. While Atkinson’s analysis does not develop in that direction, it does signal a possibility for future research.
This is the book’s defining illustration, an infographic depicting each day in the Ginger & Rosa production life cycle as an individual segment (based on production schedule and daily call sheets).
Chapter 5, Representations, is a thorough overview of self-reflexive narratives produced by the film industry about itself. These include production paratexts ranging from official making-ofs and feature-length preoccupations with the filmmaking process (‘direct industry’) to independent criticism (‘indirect industry’) or activist (‘counter industry’) commentary on labour conditions, as well as fan-made work. In keeping with the theme of the book, Atkinson discusses how the transition to digital has transformed these narratives. In the not-so-distant past industrial self-reflexivity had taken the form of traditional documentaries. In contrast, contemporary production narratives are presented as happening at the same time as the filmic diegesis. Whether through apps, online, interactive installations, or other immediate-access formats, the viewer is invited to experience the cinematic spectacle and its production simultaneously, perhaps with the intent to capitalize on the commercial drama of filmmaking itself. Today’s self-reflexive narratives convolve, for added value, the reality of production with their own narrative realism: for instance, the risk to actors’ own lives as they attempt to perform their own stunts or work long hours in hazardous conditions.
This chapter expands upon the concept of “Production Aesthetic,” developed throughout the book. The Production Aesthetic is a behind-the-scenes narrative account of how a film was made. For instance, it can recount the mood on-set, report on social dynamics, unique conflicts, work conditions, ingenious solutions, as well as bring attention to less visible features of pre- and post-production labour. It is the sum total of the author’s ethnographic observations. We discover two new terms that focus particular attention to how the industry acknowledges the visibility of underrepresented creative work and workers:
“Pseudo-visibility refers to the over-representation and saturation of certain roles and certain types of spectacular production work. Hyper-invisibility on the other hand, is the paradoxical corollary, where film production professionals deny or render themselves invisible through their own production practices” (Atkinson 161)
Visibility and representation are central questions of interest in industry and production studies, and this chapter can be read alongside the work of Erin Hill, Sue Harper, Phil Ross, and Miranda Banks, authors who have taken important steps to shift our understanding of traditional film industry professions. Atkinson introduces the idea of “collective authorship” to celebrate the making of Ginger & Rosa as a departure from other self-reflexive industry texts: in its own making-of featurette, Potter’s film is “conceived as an antithesis to traditional making-of materials in its inclusion of a variety of above- and below-the-line production personnel” (Atkinson 169). Potter herself is described as a “collaborative auteur” who successfully “manages to nurture innovation and experimentalism within [film’s] seemingly inflexible structures.”
In the penultimate chapter on Preservation and Access, Atkinson presents several archival models and compares their merits for film production research. The physical and ideological dimensions of ‘archiveology’ function in tandem to construct the future of the archive: to set the stage for future research, to identify the subjects that research will privilege or occlude, and how the archive will be made accessible to future scholars. The author points out that the traditional structure of the BFI, or the Kubrick archives, for instance, neglects a major trait of contemporary film production: that it tends to generate a copious volume of information that exists “in a continual state of forward motion.” This process can only be meaningful when presented as a continuum, rather than a flat database of documents sorted by media type under the fonds of a key figure, typically the director, as is traditional archival practice.
Atkinson writes: “the innate problem of data complexity [. . .] is that the links between the media data, are only made meaningful by the logic of the film-production process itself. That logic is one of market imperatives, where files are chronologically linked in a workflow that is in a continual state of forward motion [. . .] the dominant imperative of all those involved, is to move efficiently through the film-production workflow, on schedule and on budget.” She goes on: “There is no imperative to archive, save or preserve data or the film” in its preliminary stages, while at the other end, once the film is complete, production data is not stored or maintained because there is no need for it anymore. The problem “is even further compounded by the rapid obsolescence of different file types and compressions associated with digital film, and the inability to open and read files without access to appropriate storage and playback media, and the associated compression/decoding software, which in turn leads to the vulnerability of its preservation and future access” (Atkinson 183, original emphasis).
The crucial insight of this chapter is that early on during the second decade of the 21st century, when digital technology fully replaced the physicality of analogue, was the moment when archives began prioritizing Process rather than Object as an organisational principle, and began to be organized around the film title, on a project-by-project basis, rather than around a specific individual. This focus on project and process makes evident the roles and contributions of individuals who have been largely invisible in official film production histories: women, members of the working classes, minorities. Atkinson demonstrates that besides archiving artefacts, production histories also need to document processes or else they risk reproducing familiar self-congratulatory narratives of efficiency and singular creative goals that are disconnected from real experience.
This book can be productively used as an object lesson in applied production research and ethnography. It offers a way of looking at films with a greater appreciation for the materiality of production processes, without sacrificing the analytical rigour that comes with film and media industry theories. Here, Atkinson presents an abundant variety of approaches to inspire future work. The book is meticulously researched and helpfully references a wide theoretical terrain, which can be useful in graduate and, with some adaptation, undergraduate classes. Chapter 5, for instance, contains a rich history of the self-reflexive film industry genre. In expanding the scope of her work on Film Industry Studies and the Digital Humanities with a host of other useful approaches, the author demonstrates the flexibility and potential of Production Studies.
Methodologically, one observes that instead of discussing the various incompatibilities of approaches and frictions, she embraces and accepts them all. Take, for instance, the (typically for British academia) insistence on celebrating the flattening of hierarchy, the “non-directorial” is a confusion of two related but separate concepts. One is that film is a collaborative process, and indeed, there is a dearth of research on some of its “lower” mechanics and the work of everyday craftspeople, technicians, and those creatives who are several degrees removed from the limelight. The other concept is the concept of hierarchy. Hierarchies are complicated because they are highly context-dependent, but for the sake of this review suffice it to say that numerous sociological studies point out that the lack of leadership (hence hierarchy) in creative projects frequently leads to confused, messy, and inferior outputs.
With Rodowick-inspired nostalgia, Atkinson acknowledges the “intrusions” of digital technology, but it is worth questioning whether the ongoing “discourses of imperilment,” or allusion to current and inbound technologies as always already disruptive and unsettling, tainted and corrupting, and of old ones as “resistant,” offers a productive analytical direction, especially since at the same time the author also points out that thanks to new technologies hitherto under-represented film workers and filmmakers were finally able to claim some recognition. Certainly, the dialectics of the situation leave the reader much to think about.
The hyper-attention paid to digital processes overstates their role compared to the equally complicated but largely invisible ones in the analogue domain. The analogue had seemed familiar because of the rather straightforward correspondence between “reality” and its likeness on a film print. Early film theorists often chose to subsume the whole transitional process by comparing film to photography, a convenient shortcut that brought them closer to the topics about genre, narrative, and form that interested them. However, in between one and the other lay myriad obscure methods of chemical development, highly complicated mechanical editing equipment, sound and colour synchronization and copying technologies almost completely inaccessible to the common observer. By comparison, digital technology discloses much more about itself (largely as a marketing ploy), creating the illusion that there is now, suddenly, an unsettling onslaught of new stuff on the market.
The problem with overarching models is that they tend to translate poorly from large-scale studies to small ones. Therefore, one must be clear about whether the topic of discussion is industrial organization, political economy, or cultural studies. As the author discusses herself, transitions of various kinds have shaped and reshaped the film industry numerous times. Digital technologies exist in a continuum of technological innovations that industry workers have had to adapt to over the decades. It would be uncommon to encounter a working professional who has experienced both the transition to sound as well as the transition to digital throughout their career. At the individual level workers experience such transitions infrequently, but for each of them the impact is dramatic. Just as technological transitions are presented as chronic events which are part of the professional landscape, so are they uniquely unsettling at the level of the individual. It is this shift in scale that gets lost, that feels insufficiently accounted for in this volume.
My greatest criticism is that there is something I would describe as a category error, in which the economic and social roles of film workers are confused with craft and creative considerations. For instance, the idea of Fordism and standardization: on the economic side they are can be seen as agents of capitalism; on the craft side however, regardless of the tools, the editing process is a laboriously repetitive task that requires standards if it is to service a collective creative enterprise such as film. As it happens, perhaps strangely for some, repetition is also a part of the pleasure of the work. Adhering to professional standards to help one figure out how to make the best out of the materials available, I would argue, has nothing to do with the more ominous “disciplining” performed by the industry. Coincidence does not guarantee causality. While the industry does employ standards to control, an important fact to acknowledge and expose, care must be taken to examine the context within which this disciplining is said to occur. Another example might be the notion on hyper-invisibility, the idea that film workers are complicit with the erasure of their own labour. The daily reports required by certain professionals (wardrobe, camera, editing departments) can be suspiciously described either as “monitoring,” or more simply, as necessary to maintain narrative continuity the next day of shooting. Is narrative continuity necessary? I suppose the answer to that question would indicate whether reports are considered necessary and whether, or not, they are seen as tools of discipline. Scholars such as Laura Mulvey have made cogent arguments about the illusion of narrative continuity that can be brought as a counter-argument against standardization and task management at the level of production itself.
A weakness of the ethnographic approach is that it becomes easy to get bogged down in descriptive detail and lose the overall analytical thread. The ethnographic method has served the author well, but frequent references to fieldwork in the form of interview passages are not necessary and are at times stylistically undesirable. Having established her authority as a researcher the author is not required to reproduce quite as many transcript excerpts as proof. It would suffice to include only the ones expressing unusual or highly original opinions. At the same time, references to Geertz’s “thick description” methodology notwithstanding, the author’s focus on this one film marks only the beginning of the “deep hanging out” required for full immersion into the lives of film professionals, and hence for understanding them on their own terms.
Although a close ethnographic survey like the one presented in this book is untenable for most film projects, Atkinson demonstrates its importance in establishing meaning in a data-saturated mediascape. Digital information accumulates quickly can become unwieldy, which makes historical research difficult. One way around this problem is to rely on testimony and direct observation. With this book, the author uses ethnographic methods to give meaning and direction to documents that, on their own, remain a static collection of shapeless data.
The attempt to bring in everything about production studies and its attendant fields under one roof demonstrates some of the book’s challenges. There is quantifiable breadth of references and background research, yet wide coverage should be approached cautiously if we want to avoid continuously rehearsing the epistemological paradigm of always surveying the emergence of a new field.