Navigating Algorithmic Editing: Algorithmic Editing as an Alternative Approach to Database Cinema

By Enns, Clint | Millennium Film Journal, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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Navigating Algorithmic Editing: Algorithmic Editing as an Alternative Approach to Database Cinema


Enns, Clint, Millennium Film Journal


Ideas are not separable from an autonomous sequence or sequencing of ideas in thought that Spinoza calls concatenatio. This concatenation of signs unites form and material, constituting thought as a spiritual automaton.

- D.N. Rodowick, The Virtual Life of Film

Database cinema, as introduced by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, is a new media form that takes advantage of the computer's ability to manipulate, analyze, organize and arrange multimedia data. Being less than efficient, traditional video editing software is not the ideal platform for producing database cinema. Despite the fact that video editing software systems allow for direct access to any frame without requiring the sequential navigation through adjacent footage, they are still heavily rooted in a film-based editing paradigm. Database cinema borrows one of its key concepts from computer science: namely, how the computer accesses its database - algorithms. Many artists are already learning from and exploiting the computer's relationship to the database through the use of a technique called algorithmic editing.

As with most new media, algorithmic editing is not new and its roots can be seen in the earliest attempts to formalize/ theorize the practice of cinematic editing. Programming software to interact with and manipulate the digital file and the database provides the artist with direct access to and insight into the files themselves, naturally connecting algorithmic editing to the aesthetic tradition of materialism. In addition, theorizing about algorithmic editing offers new critical cultural insight and the practice of algorithmic editing offers the potential to address, re-invert and subvert the medium.

Algorithmic editing is a term that was first coined by Lev Manovich in an artist statement for Soft Cinema (2002), a collaborative project with Andreas Kratky that attempted to navigate the database in new and innovative ways. In the artist statement, Manovich theorizes about algorithmic editing without providing a concrete definition. Explicitly, algorithmic editing refers to any method of editing based on direct procedural approaches. In other words, algorithmic editing can be seen as a technique for cutting and reassembling raw footage by following a schema or score. Here is an example of a simple, one line algorithm that could be used to algorithmically edit a film. Sequentially use every odd frame from one sequence of film and every even frame from another sequence of film to assemble a new film which alternates between the odd and the even frames. The resulting algorithmically edited flicker film would rapidly alternate between the two sequences. Creating this film using two filmstrips would be difficult without the labored use of an optical printer. On the other hand, producing this film from two video sequences would be difficult without the use of a script or specially made plug-in; nevertheless, a script for this algorithm would only consist of two or tJiree lines of code.

In a broader context, algorithmic art is produced by following an algorithmic process, that is, it is art produced by following a finite list of well-defined instructions or by following a procedure. Although the use of computers is usually associated with algorithmic art, computers are not an essential part of the process. On the other hand, algorithms are essential to computer operation. That is, computer software is merely a collection of computer programs, and computer programs are simply computer algorithms that process and manipulate data.

Despite the fact that algorithms follow a stepby-step procedure, the user cannot expect the same output every time; this is because algorithms often contain random or pseudo-random processes. Equally important, the computer can be programmed to produce results that are unexpected, a feature that is often exploited by artists creating algorithmic art. Finally, algorithms are often designed to require input from the user in order to perform their tasks, allowing the user to maintain at least the semblance of control and providing the computer artist with a sense of authorship - which some might suggest has been lost in the transition from film to the digital.

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