You Can See Me Now – In The Movies

Back before digital photography, the Film used in professional level cameras had distinct qualities in terms of color rendition. Certain types of Kodak tended towards blue, others were “warm” – enriching the reds and yellows. This meant if you were shooting anything with blue, the sky for instance – the rendition was spectacular. Browns and greens tended to be “muddy” and tonal quality – the differentiation between something with multiple greens for instance – tended to wash out into a “middling” color instead of the full spectrum. Fuji Film tended towards yellow, and produced really vibrant greens and, to a lesser extent browns…

Ergo – getting film to “see” black folks, or even render the plethora of skin tones was difficult, if not impossible. Getting fine detail was virtually impossible for darker skin tones.

Since similar film formulations were used to make movies – black folks just all came out as the same color – if you could see an detail at all.

‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the aesthetic politics of filming black skin

In one of the first scenes of early Oscar favorite “12 Years a Slave,” the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor , is seen at night, sleeping alongside a fellow enslaved servant. Their faces are barely illuminated against the velvety black background, but the subtle differences in their complexions — his a burnished mahogany, hers bearing a lighter, more yellow cast — are clearly defined.

Mother of George,” which like “12 Years a Slave” opens on Friday, takes place in modern-day Brooklyn, not the candlelit world of 19th-century Louisiana. But, like “12 Years a Slave,” its black stars and supporting players are exquisitely lit, their blue-black skin tones sharply contrasting with the African textiles they wear to create a vibrant tableau of textures and hues.

“Mother of George” and “12 Years a Slave” are just the most recent in a remarkable run of films this year by and about African Americans, films that range in genre from the urban realism of “Fruitvale Station” and light romantic comedy of “Baggage Claim” to the high-gloss historic drama of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and the evocatively gritty pot comedy “Newlyweeds.” The diversity of these films isn’t reflected just in their stories and characters, but in the wide range of skin tones they represent, from the deepest ebonies to the creamiest caramels.

The fact that audiences are seeing such a varied, nuanced spectrum of black faces isn’t just a matter of poetics, but politics — and the advent of digital filmmaking. For the first hundred years of cinema, when images were captured on celluloid and processed photochemically, disregard for black skin and its subtle shadings was inscribed in the technology itself, from how film-stock emulsions and light meters were calibrated, to the models used as standards for adjusting color and tone.

That embedded racism extended into the aesthetics of the medium itself, which from its very beginnings was predicated on the denigration and erasure of the black body. As far back as “The Birth of a Nation” — in which white actors wearing blackface depicted Reconstruction-era blacks as wild-eyed rapists and corrupt politicians — the technology and grammar of cinema and photography have been centered on the unspoken assumption that their rightful subjects would be white.

The result was that, if black people were visible at all, their images would often be painfully caricatured (see Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind”) or otherwise distorted, either ashy and washed-out or featureless points of contrast within the frame. As “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film’s premiere there, “I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”

Montré Aza Missouri, an assistant professor in film at Howard University, recalls being told by one of her instructors in London that “if you found yourself in the ‘unfortunate situation’ of shooting on the ‘Dark Continent,’ and if you’re shooting dark-skinned people, then you should rub Vaseline on their skin in order to reflect light. It was never an issue of questioning the technology.” In her classes at Howard, Missouri says, “I talk to my students about the idea that the tools used to make film, the science of it, are not racially neutral.”

Missouri reminds her students that the sensors used in light meters have been calibrated for white skin; rather than resorting to the offensive Vaseline solution, they need to manage the built-in bias of their instruments, in this case opening their cameras’ apertures one or two stops to allow more light through the lens. Filmmakers working with celluloid also need to take into account that most American film stocks weren’t manufactured with a sensitive enough dynamic range to capture a variety of dark skin tones. Even the female models whose images are used as reference points for color balance and tonal density during film processing — commonly called “China Girls” — were, until the mid-1990s, historically white.

In the face of such technological chauvinism, filmmakers have been forced to come up with workarounds, including those lights thrown on Poitier and a variety of gels, scrims and filters. But today, such workarounds have been rendered virtually obsolete by the advent of digital cinematography, which allows filmmakers much more flexibility both in capturing images and manipulating them during post-production.

Cinematographer Anastas Michos recalls filming “Freedomland” with Julianne Moore and Samuel L. Jackson, whose dramatically different complexions presented a challenge when they were in the same shot. “You had Julianne Moore, who has minus pigment in her skin, and Sam, who’s a dark-skinned guy. It was a photographic challenge to bring out the undertones in both of them.”

Michos solved the problem during a phase of post-production called the digital intermediate, during which the film print is digitized, then manipulated and fine-tuned. “You’re now able to isolate specific skin tones in terms of both brightness and color,” says Michos, who also shot “Baggage Claim,” “Jumping the Broom” and “Black Nativity,” due out later this year. “It gives you a little bit more flexibility in terms of how you paint the frame.”

Daniel Patterson, who shot “Newlyweeds” on a digital Red One camera, agrees, noting that on a recent shoot for Spike Lee’s “Da Blood of Jesus,” he was able to photograph black actors of dramatically different skin tones in a nighttime interior scene using just everyday house lamps, thanks to a sophisticated digital camera. “I just changed the wattage of the bulb, used a dimmer, and I didn’t have to use any film lights. That kind of blew me away,” Patterson says. “The camera was able to hold both of them during the scene without any issues.”

The multicultural realities films increasingly reflect go hand in hand with the advent of technology that’s finally able to capture them with accuracy and sensitivity. And on the forefront of this new vanguard is cinematographer and Howard University graduate Bradford Young , the latest in a long line of Howard alums — including Ernest Dickerson, Arthur Jafa and Malik Sayeed — who throughout the 1990s deployed the means of production to bring new forms of lyricism, stylization and depth to filmed images of African Americans….

Best Educated Janitors…

Fresh on news that there are 21 million Americans out of work – there is the question of the undremployed–

Why Did 17 Million Students Go to College?

Two sets of information were presented to me in the last 24 hours that have dramatically reinforced my feeling that diminishing returns have set in to investments in higher education, with increasing evidence suggesting that we are in one respect “overinvesting” in the field. First, following up on information provided by former student Douglas Himes at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), my sidekick Chris Matgouranis showed me the table reproduced below (And for more see this).

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

Now I’ve said for a while that one the the great myths of the new depression is the existence of high tech jobs needing high education. At this point there are millions of college educated out of work or substantially underemployed. You cannot fix the roots of the current economic malaise by by generating more job seekers – no matter how well educated or qualified. The brutal fact is, very little of our current economy is actually dependent on new technology. Think of it this way – the leading cell phone platform is dependent on thinking and aa technology concept first developed in Xerox Labs in the 70’s. Very little of the development today of “new technology” is actually “development’ = it is actually execution against old technology. So if you trin them – what would this new legion of scientists and engineers do?

And there is the crux of the problem.

A Faster Internet?

I see MIT has finally caught up with some of the work being done in the late 90’s on Flow Switching, a technology variant of optical switching.  These are not “routers” as described in the article, neither can the be made to operate utilizing the current TCP/IP variants in the Internet today as anything except “passengers” within the core structure.

I don’t believe PC speed drives this. The reason is the software overhead of bloated functions is the principal consumer of processor power in consumer PCs – not network functions. Nor does file size drive the need. What drives it is the evolution of personal and home “cloud” type computing wherein you have clusters of smart, and not smart devices performing various functions in the home and business which interact with each other and data sources on the internet. Instead of 1 or 2 computing devices per person, you evolve to 10 or 12.

Fascinating though…

MIT Researchers Promise an Internet That’s 100x Faster and Cheaper

MIT researchers have developed technology that they say not only will make the Internet 100 to 1,000 times faster, but also could make high-speed data access a lot cheaper.

The trick to such dramatic performance gains lies within routers that direct traffic on the Internet, according toVincent Chan , an electrical engineering and computer science professor at MIT, who led the research team. Chan told Computerworld that replacing electrical signals inside the routers with faster optical signals would make the Internet 100, if not 1,000 times faster, while also reducing the amount of energy it consumes.

What would the Internet be like if it ran that much faster?

Today, a user who has a hard time downloading a 100MB file would be able to easily send a 10GB file, with the Internet running 100 times faster, according to Chan.

“We’re looking to the future when computer processors are much more powerful and we have much bigger downloads and applications,” Chan said. “When we get more powerful processors, people will be clamoring for more speed. The question is, can these new processors and their powerful applications be supported over the Internet? Everyone will be using more high-rate applications, like 3D, interactive games, high-speed financial trading.”

And when that happens, Chan said users of those large applications will run intochoke points on the Internet. And that could happen as soon as 16-core processorshit the market, if not sooner. “I think the Internet will not be fast enough within three to five years,” he added.

The answer, he said, is optical fibers, which carry light pulses.

Optical fibers are used widely on the Internet, spanning great distances and even continents. While they transmit information more efficiently than electrical signals, optical signals are complicated to deal with. A router, for instance, has problems handling optical signals coming from different directions at the same time. To get around that problem, routers on the Internet generally take in optical signals and convert them to electrical signals so they can be stored in memory until they can be processed, said MIT’s report. After that, the electrical signals are converted back to optical signals so they can be sent back out.

That process eats up chunks of time and energy. Chan and his team have developed technology that would eliminate the need for such conversions.

Chan’s architecture, which is called “flow switching,” establishes a dedicated path across the network between locations that exchange large volumes of data — from Silicon Valley to Boston, for instance. MIT explained that routers along that path would only accept signals coming from one direction and send them off in only one direction. Since the optical signals aren’t coming from different directions, there’s no need to convert them to electrical signals for storage in memory.

“If this can truly jack up Internet data speeds by 100 times, that would have a huge impact on the usability of the Net,” said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. “We’d see the era of 3D computing and fully immersive Internet experiences come much sooner…. If this turns out to be practical, it could be a very big step forward.”

Dealing with network bottlenecks would be a huge accomplishment, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group.

“Right now, the network is the bottleneck for hosted computing. This change could transform the industry as we know it,” said Enderle. “We are going to need a faster Internet. We need it now. Currently, we only have about 20% [of available bandwidth] in many places.”

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