The Real Paul Jones

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Duke Moving Image Contest – further thoughts

Just took an email query from Sarah Stirland of the National Journal about Duke Law‘s Center for the Study of the Public Domain Moving Image Contest. Sarah asked what struck me in particular about the winners.

I said:

One interesting thing to me is that only one film really looked to the future. That is the future effects of the current laws or to an imagined future. That film was from Poland! (actually a cartoon) “Music for our Grandchildren”

More often film-makers looked back either in humor as in “Stealing Home” or as documentarians speaking about the extreme difficulty of practicing their craft. “Powerful Pictures” and “Army One by One” Then they were speaking only of the current state of the law and how it has an impact on them as individuals.

This tells me that the story of the documentarians is real and immediate. We’ve been digitizing a lot of folkloric documentaries for our project and had to wonder if such films made in the 60s and 70s could be made again in the current legal climate. The answer as “Powerful Pictures” and “Army One by One” tell us is not without great difficulty if at all. Will all documentarians have to become lawyers?

One other perhaps obvious note. All the winners were in black and white. But these days with digital editing and cameras it’s just as cheap to do color as to do black and white. I am still wondering what that means, but I suspect that it has to do with feeling the past is more compelling, more authentic and perhaps more free (to use images from at any rate). It could also mean an unhealthy avoidance of the future.

For my earlier post on the contest results, see


  1. Many photographers and filmmakers use black and white because they feel that color is somewhat distracting, or let’s say unnecessary. The magic of photography and film is capturing shapes… moments… lapses of time… events. In most cases it’s not a quest for more and more “realism”.

    Another way of looking at it… and this is something I am a bit passionate about… moving picture is a very powerful medium, and people started wielding like crazy any and all technological capabilities that cropped up over the years. Not to say I wish the technology came more slowly. But the language missed out on a lot of potential nuance. You can say so many different things with content selection, framing, editing. We can even leave out cinematography as part of the core language (although there is some really beautiful black and white cinematography and photography out there… some people use light as their main vocabulary (as opposed to the subject).. i didn’t articulate that very well… anyway that’s a different subject). Adding special effects, transitions, or even color to a film drastically changes the way the viewer relates to it.

    Building on all that: if a photo or film looks too realistic, the viewer will become too comfortable and not notice the semantics designed into the work. Corny but apt example: why do we still like paintings of landscapes, even though photographs can capture much more detail and are more easily reproducible?

    And on a technical note, the human eye is much more sensitive to luminance than to color. Consumer dv video cameras lay down video in 4:1:1. (ratio of luminance to … green and red? can’t remember). fancier cameras lay it down in 4:2:2 or if you get into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, 4:4:4. So this means if you use your $2000 camera to produce a black and white film (only using the 4 and throwing away the :1:1), your image quality will be very near to that of much fancier gear producing black and white. I have no idea if this was the case with any of the above mentioned films, just a thought.



  2. All of that is really nice, John. But look at the little moving images that I’m talking about. I don’t think it applies to them. Two use old footage or stills. One is going for an ironic retro-look. The one remaining is a cartoon.

  3. haha, whoops. well, i did rtfa, but i didn’t follow all the links or read the initial entry. cool that the winners are all online.

  4. “had to wonder if such films made in the 60s and 70s could be made again in the current legal climate…”
    I was just watching an interview I did with John Cohen this morning and asked him the same question. He said he didn’t think he could do what he did then and more importantly, probably wouldn’t want to. Back then, he was just a guy who was interested in the music (when he made films like The High Lonesome Sound and End of an Old Song) and just the fact that he was interested was enough for the people who filmed. Today, people are much more media savvy and questions about who’s using who and who’s making money enter into play at the onset. Kind of takes the fun out of the whole endeavor.

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