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Did we ever really understand film?

One of the coolest developments ever. But do we know what to do with it?

The word Columbusing has become a thing for describing the phenomenon by which a person believes that he is discovering something that in reality had always existed. It certainly seems possible that this is happening when people try to write reviews of cameras or films. I have now read hundreds of the film reviews in particular, and as an old-time Gen Xer, I realize that these writers are in a position to do one thing: demonstrate whether they as photographers can get a good image out of the material. The rest is of limited use.

Cachet qua cachet

Often, but not always a film review article will take this rough agenda. I think if you go back on my old site via the Wayback Machine, you may even find me doing this (though at the time I was writing about film, the cachet step wasn’t there, since almost all of today’s discontinued films were still sold then… In the early 2000s, when most of those pages were being written, film was just starting its tailspin.

Cachet signaling. This is the prelude. Usually consists of a description discussing how “those in the know” understand Film X (likely discontinued before the author ever picked up a camera, or in some cases was born), some information cobbled together from Google searches, and how the author came into possession of the now-expired film of unknown history, storage conditions, etc.

The low-sample test. Film X is frequently shot with a camera of significant vintage and unknown meter accuracy, sometimes used in conjunction with a meter of a certain age. Film is either commercially processed or done once, whether by the book, by guess, or by the Massive Film Development Chart (which can also be a crapshoot). Bonus points are awarded for random-guess compensations for the film’s age. Double secret bonus points if a restrainer is involved.

Abstraction to what the film is “about.” Author concludes that Film X is magical for xyz reason and that you should pay some scalper (or re-labeler) big time to get it.

Just stop here for a second. I am impressed at how good some of these writers are at photography. They have an eye. They can take a good picture and make a pleasing output. But nothing else they are doing is very instructive because their experience is not accurate or repeatable.

Call it a generational thing (or maybe half-generational) thing. As a group, Baby Boomers walked away from film photography and neither preserved nor transmitted decades of institutional knowledge on the subject. Most Gen X people know film as something you would shoot and take in to be processed. Even for them, unless they made pictures professionally or for a hobby, film photography became disposable as soon as digital became cheap. Which brings us to the millennial children of boomers: a knowledge discontinuity leads to satisfying feelings of discovery. But just as Columbus’ setting foot on Hispaniola did not mean a “new world” for peoples who were already there, superficial film reviews provide little (and really no) novel information.

Do b/w films really have looks?

But let’s back up to something in the cold light of day: with a few exceptions that came really late in the day, film was never really designed to have an aesthetic “look.” It was always designed to have a function. That drove aesthetics. To a point.

Almost 20 years into the 21st century, conventional black-and-white film has no real mysteries. For most of recorded history, film followed a pretty regimented set of tradeoffs: slower film had finer grain and finer tonal rendition. Things got grainier and lost dynamic range as film increased in speed. Although tablet grained b/w films helped increase performance, most of what you see in black and white films is the product of design tradeoffs rather than some deliberate aesthetic proposition.

Recall that the basis of film photography was science. I would suggest that, after a lot of time developing film, the differences between films of a given type and speed are actually relatively minor compared to the effects of varying developer, time, temperature, and agitation. Let’s take an example: Tri-X and TMY are different films, right, Tri-X with an S curve and TMY straight? Here is that classic Tri-X characteristic curve.

Ok, and here is your philistinic, “robot,” “soulless,” TMY, also developed in D-76:

Now develop both in T-Max developer and overlay the curves (black is TX, red is TMY). Don’t have a heart attack, but there are far more similarities than differences in response. Maybe a minute’s difference in developing time. Oh no…

But wow, this was like the holy of holy in differences in “look,” right?Nothing should be very surprising here; tablet-shaped film grains aside, the reaction of silver halide molecules to photons has not changed at all in 150 years of film photography.

So today, some films are grainier than others, some are contrastier than others, some are faster than others, normalized for a developer. But the choice and deployment of developer (if not also every other step of the output chain) can hugely influence or obliterate the “curve” which is the seat of the “look.” In other words, film is just a variable, and from a tone and grain standpoint, perhaps it’s far less of one than we thought.

Did consumers ever actually understand color film?

When you get to color film, things get more complicated because these start with silver halide, which is bleached out and functionally replaced with organic dyes. Color dyes are fickle.

When it was still made in a bunch of varieties, color negative film itself was somewhat inscrutable to anyone but pros and the very serious amateur. Moderately skilled (or more accurately, moderately informed) photographers knew that some types of film were better at skin tones than others (such as Kodak Vericolor III), but for the Joe Average, who had a skill level equivalent to most people writing about film, pretty much every C-41 negative film went through a minilab/printer, which was a highly automated way for drugstore personnel to make magic from your little canister and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process. If you were a pro, you would send your film out to a pro lab where professionals would make magic from your little canisters of film and hopefully not destroy the negatives in the process.

Although competing brands of film within a certain type (color negative, color slide) used different methods of getting to the “right” color, skin tones were the pivot. Color, oddly, never really got more differentiated than high-contrast/saturation (Velvia, Portra VC, etc.) and regular (Provia, Ektachrome, Portra NC…).

Did you ever notice how much people hate on Kodak ProImage 100 for being excessively grainy and undersaturated? Aside from slight desaturation, it’s essentially where 100-speed film was when people stopped putting money into developing 100-speed consumer color film. The point-and-shoot camera – typically with a slow lens – put a high premium on 400-speed performance, and that’s where manufacturers went. The faster film got to the point where Kodak HD200 and 400 were far smoother than good old GA-135. Here is an easy conversion from consumer to prosumer to pro:

  • Gold 100 gen 4 » Extinct » ProImage 100 (rebalanced)
  • Gold 200 gen X » ColorPlus
  • Gold 400 gen 6 » some other steps » Gold Max 400
  • Ektar 125 » Ektar 100 » Royal Gold 100 » Extinct » Ektar 100
  • Royal Gold 200 » Kodak HD200 » Extinct
  • Ektar 400 » Royal Gold 400 » Kodak HD400 » Extinct
  • Vericolor III » Portra 160NC » New Portra 160
  • Portra 160VC » Replaced by New Portra 160
  • Portra 400NC » New Portra 400
  • Portra 400VC » Replaced by New Portra 400
  • Portra 400UC » Extinct

Slide film might have been even more mysterious — and represented a medium that spanned the absolute best professional photography and the worst amateur work feared by man. And nothing in between. You either had it or you didn’t. Transparency film was sold in large quantities to tourists and people wanting to shoot color in the really old days. Which made a lot of sense when a goddamn color photograph was a big deal, even if it took 6/12/36 exposures to get one good one. Kodachrome was a tri-layer black and white film that got an infusion of dye during processing. Slow, sharp, permanent, and capable of delivering a nice looking picture assuming the constellations were lined up. And if they weren’t, blown highlights, blocked shadows, and blue. Slides were the ultimate measure-twice, cut-once medium — but few people bothered to measure. Ektachrome and Fujichrome made it cheaper and easier to generate huge boxes of vacation slides that no one wanted to see — and ultimately faded out transparencies that no one could see.

Today, unless you plan to look at tiny positives backlit by homemade ground glass after the Zombie Apocalypse, or have brought some friends over, Buffalo Bill style, to watch vacation pictures projected on a screen (“it puts the slides in the carousel”), digital photography does everything slide film did – but better. Where you can vary the ISO, get more dynamic range, infinitely adjust contrast and saturation, and crop at will, it’s hard to make the argument that Ektachrome came back for anything but nostalgia and motion pictures. Which is a worthy reason. Let’s just not pretend it’s scientific.

In addition to allowing things to happen that could never happen with a filter-based minilab, the rise of the Fuji Frontier in the late 1990s was really the nail in the coffin of film-awareness. With hyper-sharpening, dynamic range compression, and ultimately, smart automatic operation, the Frontier made every photo look perfect. The technology is not unlike how people deal with negatives today: develop, scan, print (in the case of the Frontier, onto photo paper, using a laser). Today, the Frontier’s weirdly regimented view of the world lives on in the hackneyed wedding presets used on Lightroom by an army of semiprofessional shooters using Canon 5Ds.

And if you remember old film packaging, there is the warning that “color dyes in time may fade” (Gospel of Eastman Kodak, K41:1). Everything on earth is capable of influencing the colors and balance of color films: lot, storage temperature, age, exposure, environmental radiation, magnetic fluids, and phlogiston. The same goes for the output media, which if you’ve seen old Fujichrome slides, can be interesting.

That’s part of why the support infrastructure was so complicated, whether it was a minilab computer or CC10, 20, and 30 filters in cyan, magenta, and yellow. And why pros – once they had a particular lot of film dialed in – like a particular lot of Ektachrome – they stayed with it as much as possible. And even pros sometimes had to lean on color correction experts at labs to make every one of those Glamour Shots® perfect.

Conclusion

Hopefully you have not found this discussion offensive, but as an almost old person, I am not at all hesitant to tell you that everyone in their 20s has a Dunning-Kruger delusion when it comes to the technical aspects of photography. As someone who was there for the twilight of mainstream film photography, I would mostly observe that until the bitter end, film R&D was aimed at making the medium a neutral one that could be manipulated via development, printing, or even scanning – and that today, you can easily mistake random errors for some intentional aesthetic balance.

Browniegate: In hoc signo vinces

20190103_204435.jpgWell, you have that day where you feel like you want to step off the film train. Oddly enough, it was not because some digital sensor came along with massive resolution, or film hit $8 a roll, or the EU outlawed developing chemicals. Or you name the calamity.

Here, it was the product of well-meaning backward-compatibility. I had this thought as I was looking at a roll of TMY shot with a Silvestri H that probably cost $10,000 new. It uses standard-style roll backs made by Mamiya that are bulletproof and have nicely spaced frames. The pictures themselves were sharp, undistorted, and perspective-corrected. But they were ruined for optical printing because backing paper numbers – useful only to people with red-window cameras – transferred onto the emulsion. I felt like Constantine the Great, kinda. I looked in the sky, and the sign of “Kodak 14” was shining down on me. In this sign you will [be] conquere[d].

Browniegate (let’s give it a good name, at least) occurred because Kodak had an issue with backing paper on 120 film (this affected some lots made between 2-4 years ago). Environmental conditions could cause backing paper frame numbers to transfer onto the emulsion of the film and show up in low-density areas, especially the sky. Lomographers probably loved this. Everyone else, not so much.

Kodak handled this reasonably well (but not optimally),* and it has been very good about replacing defective film. Given that they had few choices for backing paper (1-2 suppliers of this worldwide) and that they probably couldn’t anticipate the full range of environmental abuse film might experience in storage, I cut them some slack. We all accept that any time we use film, we could end up with no pictures. Grab the fix instead of the developer. Leave a rear lens cap on. We’ve all been there. But the backing paper thing is not within user control. Unlike the bad roll of film that comes up every hundred thousand rolls of film, the frame number thing hits more often. It’s not like lightning. It’s more like a tornado ripping through farm country.

The what is one thing. But the why is another. Laying aside bad material choices by the backing paper manufacturer, the underlying issue is that frame numbers on paper backing were last needed for serious cameras in the 1950s (the Super Ikonta C may be the last one), and the ruby-window method of seeing what frame you are on persists mainly in (1) Brownie cameras whose design goes back to 1895; (2) Lomography-oriented products; and (3) current large-format roll holders that should know better. There is actually no excuse for this last category, since there is no patent for frame counters that is still valid, and roll backs are only made in LCCs now. It’s the support of these older and cheaper cameras that requires frame numbers past #1 – and in a weird way, the shadow of the 19th century is still causing problems in the 21st.

The bigger question this begs is this: if backward compatibility is a significant part of the business case for 120, does that mean that when the ruby-window market fizzles out, it will take serious medium-format photography with it? Best not to think about that.

*By not optimally, it would be nice to have a new catalogue number for new backing paper, so that people trying to buy film from B&H for critical use would not get stuck with old product – like I did when I was going to Singapore, bought 20 rolls of TMY in March 2019, got 158xxx TMY, and had backing number transfers on every roll of film, with up to 75% of 6×4.5 frames being affected on any given roll. Or maybe use a laminated paper that has punched-out numbers and not printed ones. 

 

Bokeh gonna burn your eyes

bokehlicious.jpg

Mark my words (as if they are that important): the future will not look kindly on the gimmick-bokeh that dominates the aesthetic of 2000s photography, just as we get a chuckle out of 1970s pictures with excessive sunsets, lens flare, and nipples. People yet to be born will wonder why photographers in the 2000s took insanely expensive lenses, better than any ever designed to date – and cheaper – and then used them to simulate astigmatism, near-sightedness, and macular degeneration. The most charitable explanation will be that photographers were trying to show solidarity with the visually impaired.

The buzzword (today) is subject isolation. But why are we isolating a subject from its context? What’s wrong with the context? Are we creating millions of pictures of the same peoples’ faces with nothing else in the shot? Are they people or products?

In the present, good composition can still be shot at f/16. Small apertures are also obligatory on larger-format film cameras because a lot of those lenses have serious light and sharpness falloff at the edges at their maximum apertures, especially with the focus at infinity. Nobody buys a $3,000+ 6×12 camera to get the types of pictures you could see from a $250 Lomo Belair.

There is a reason that early autoexposure SLRs used shutter priority: if you had to make a choice for what would be in focus, it would be your subject; if you had light to spare, you’d want use as small an aperture as your lowest desired shutter speed would support. And that thinking underpins historic picture-making. Intentionally shallow depth of field is not a feature of most of the world’s most iconic images. Arnold Newman did not need shallow depth of field to shoot Stravinsky. Eugene Smith did not shoot Spanish policemen as an exercise in subject isolation. And David Douglas Duncan captured every crease in the face of an exasperated Marine captain. How about Richard Avedon with his Rollei and every celebrity on earth? There are exceptions, but throughout history, wide apertures were primarily driven by a need to keep shutter speeds high enough to avoid blur. Light constraints are not such a consideration when ISO 6400 is a thing on digital cameras.

The worst part about bokeh, and the one no one talks about, is that it can actually be unpleasant by causing eyestrain (or maybe brain-strain). In many ways, a human eye – if you looked at the whole image projected on the retina at once – resembles a cheap Lomo-type lens: sharp in the middle (the fovea) and blurry at the edges. It even has a complete blind spot (the punctum caecum). The eye has a slow aperture, estimated by some to be f/2.8. But, dammit, everything looks like it is in focus. That’s because your eyes are continuously focusing on whatever you are looking at. Your brain is continuously piecing together fragmentary information (the blind spot thing is incredible – vertebrate biology beat Adobe to content-aware fill by about 500 million years). The end result is what looks (perceptually) like a scene where everywhere you look, things are in focus. It’s actually pretty amazing that this works.

In every photo, there is a compression of three dimensions into two. More depth of field allows your eyes to wander and allows you to process the scene fairly normally. When you look at bokehlicious pictures, definition is concentrated on one object (and often just a piece of it). You might find your eyes (or visual perception) constantly trying to focus on other aspects of the scene besides the subject. But neither your eyes nor computational photography can remove extreme artifacts once they are “flattened.”

Scroll back up to the picture at the top. Same composition, shot at f/8 and f/1.5 with a 50mm ZM Sonnar. Look left and look right. On the left, you can look almost anywhere n the scene and see whatever visual element you want to scrutinize, at at least some level of detail. On the right, you are always and forever staring into the Contractor Ring®. You can try to focus on other elements of the picture on the right, but the information simply is not there. Need an aspirin?

And it can be fatiguing, more so that the aesthetic is played out and that anyone with an iPhone X can play the game. Pictures with ultra-shallow DOF don’t look natural. They are great every once in a while, or if you need a 75/1.4 Summilux to get an otherwise-impossible shot, but otherwise, get off your ass and move the camera (or your subject) into a position with a reasonable background.

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Digital photography – really photography?

Can you believe that Pullman is used for “bus” in parts of Europe? Jeez, I thought that a pullman was inherently a rail vehicle. How dare usages change! Somebody get on the Rail Transport User’s Group (RTUG) and post a philosophy question. We need to take the name Pullman back!

But really, how many hours of the waning days of old men’s lives have been wasted arguing about whether newfangled cameras grabbing electrons can be “photography” as an art or a craft? How many should? Would that time be better spent arguing about cars, finishing, guns, boats, or wristwatches?

You can spin off into the etymological argument: electrons aren’t photo + graphy because the light is not making the image directly. Or there is transformation. Or something. Reliance on ancient Greek is misguided. Photography was a neologism invented in the 19th century. It was not true to the ancient Greek then (no thing was – or is – drawing or scratching in the sense of γραφή); the 19th-century term was just an arbitrary description for what happens when light was the prime mover in the imaging process. And we have legions of words whose meanings have deviated far from what they would have meant to Greeks or Romans – or even what they meant the first time the terms were coined. Hence the weird crossover between autobuses and rail cars.

Is photography art? If you believe that, look at what the art world says. It’s all photography. That’s what museums call anything that is an image captured by a machine (film or digital) where the substantive content originates in the original image recording process. The only distinction made (and only sometimes) is for pre-silver-halide work, and even then only if it is one of the more obviously exotic (Daguerrotypes, Cyanotypes, and other things that deviate from the look of optical or inkjet paper). Odd that they don’t care what system originated the image; they only care about the medium it is ultimately expressed. Just like other things you see on the walls are “oil,” “watercolor,” “pastel,” “drawing,” etc. A “dye diffusion print” does not differentiate between originating on negatives or a Handycam.

Or maybe it’s not odd. Art requires a visible or tangible expression, and in the end, that is all that counts.

 

Take a stress pill: shutter actuations

What is the maximum shutter actuations for the Nikon D700 [or Leica M9 or whatever]?

There is nothing such as “maximum shutter actuations.” People act as if there were some magic number. People freak out about this. The rated number is unlikely to be reached for most amateur photographers. It’s unlikely to be reached by two amateurs using a camera back to back. Maybe even three or four, unless one used the camera at the beach or somewhere gritty.

  • The rating itself is the MTBF, or Mean Time Between Failures. That means that on average, Nikon’s rated shutters last 150,000 cycles. You don’t know whether that means most last to 250,000 and relatively few go 50,000 or whether all of them are somewhere around 150k.
  • There is no warranty that a shutter will get to 150,000. Your two year factory warranty will expire one day, and it could be at 18,000 exposures or 180,000. Doesn’t matter. Nikon is not fixing it for you for free.
  • Inside the factory warranty, Nikon does fix it for free, shutter count notwithstanding.
  • Likewise, Nikon is not fixing your used camera, even its original sale was within 2 years ago, or even if the shutter failed at 8,000.

It’s all marketing.

By the way, when Nikon was coming up with its 150,000 exposure MTBF, that was 4,166 rolls of film, which was more than most people shot in their lifetime. For a pro, a new shutter (which in those days was a $250 repair) cost nothing compared to the cost $12,000 in film you shot before you got there!

Opiates of the masses: bokeh

26.jpg

As close as you will ever get to bokeh with the Konica Genba Kantoku DD (@40mm)

[2008-11-02] I have heard only one good argument for hunting marine mammals to extinction.  It came from my friend Leo, who pointed out that mammals spent millions of years evolving from sea life – so what kind of perverse animal wants to go back to the ocean?

The idea of perversity comes to mind when people criticize current optics as being attacked as “too sharp,” “too contrasty,” or having “bad bokeh.”   This seems to happen most with new rangefinder optics coming out of Leica and Zeiss.

As a preliminary matter, it is totally OK to buy a previous-generation lens because it is all one can afford (or all one wants to spend for a particular focal length).  But now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the seals and the whales.

The inexorable tide of history

Query whether at any point in optical history any optical designer pulled back because a design exhibited too much sharpness, too much contrast or too little uncorrected spherical aberration.  To the contrary, if Berthele, Berek or Mandler had been able to incorporate mass-produced aspherics, they no doubt have been building aspherical Summicrons and Summiluxes instead of Sonnars, Elmars or 35mm pre-aspherical Summicrons.  By the standards of yesterday’s optical designers, today’s multicoated, aspherical, retrofocus wideangles would seem like gifts from the gods.

One can always dumb-down a lens that is sharp or contrasty by stopping it down until it diffracts, using a softening filter, diluting your developer, going down a grade in optical printing, changing the RAW development curve, or even simple mis-focusing.  If you are consistently do the opposite of any (or all) of these, you probably really want a lens that is sharper and more contrasty.  One would wager that of all of the Photoshop or Lightroom controls, the most popular are the ones that make pictures more snappy.

Some people would make the argument that lower-contrast optics maximize dynamic range on digital cameras, but this is an argument that only carries water in scenes with 500:1 contrast ratios – and even then would assume that anything of interest lay in the shadows (hint: take a look somehow how JPG compression is set up – to preserve highlight detail, which perceptually is where the interest generally is).  Uniformly low-lighted scenes generally call for higher-contrast lenses because those scenes actually have a very limited brightness range.

Bokeh or baka?

If the justification for looking at old lenses is “bokeh,” question why it is even a concern.  Bokeh seems to have become an end only in the past 15 years – and it is legitimate to question why it merits so much internet bandwidth.  My personal observation, based on the existence of things like the Nikon Thousand and One Nights site, is that it originated in the nostalgia of some older photographers in Japan: “When I was 18, I really wanted a Nikon SP…”

But there are practical reasons to ignore the bokeh question altogether.  First, most of the discussion of bokeh seems to revolve around the use of lenses 50mm and shorter (or 35mm or shorter on a camera with a crop factor) for purposes of taking close-range pictures.  Many of these pictures just as easily could be taken with  lenses twice as long at twice the distance (example: a portrait at a meter),  Consider that:

– A 50mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2 and a meter has a depth of field of 36mm (about 1.5 inches)

– A 90mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2.8 and 1.8m has a depth of field of 50.6mm (about 2 inches).  Even shot at f/2 (assuming it has that aperture), it would still have 36mm depth of field.

With a longer lens, one is not crowding human subjects or hitting their faces with the unflattering distortion that comes with short lenses.  And we don’t see systemic complaints about bokeh with longer lenses (no doubt because with four or five elements they are less corrected in general), so if one has the light to use one, why not?  What’s that you say?  You don’t have enough light?  Can’t afford a telephoto?  Even if your only available optic is a short, fast, hypercorrected aspherical lens, the look of the background can be vastly improved by manipulating the relative distances from camera to subject and subject to background.

Second, many photographers appear to emphasize (and rely on) bokeh to make up for what are really severe compositional defects in photographs (point light sources in frame, relatively busy backgrounds, etc.).  The use of bokeh for this purpose goes hand-in-hand with the “wide-open, close-up” school of photography that not only leans on bokeh to tidy up backgrounds but also uses shallow depth of field to increase interest in what ordinarily would be unremarkable subjects.  Shooting with a camera on shutter priority is an excellent discplinary exercise.  With far less conscious control over depth of field, one composes far more carefully.

Finally, perhaps best way to forget about bokeh as a factor is to ask oneself just how many of the great pictures in history were ruined due to bad bokeh.  The answer is is, “none.”  No one even thought of the concept until the late 20th century, and it is arguably more wrapped up in romanticism than anything that has ever been validated as sound photographic practice.

Blade Runner 2049: image and inconsistency

BR2049elvis

First, the real motive for this is to avoid finishing a piece on three or four Canon p/s cameras from the 1990s and 2000s that you must try.

Let me start by saying this is a fantastic movie. Definitely worth 3 hours. If you liked the original, this is a distant continuation that is within bounds for narrative. And if Roger Deakins does not get an Oscar for this, there is no God, and many of us therefore will be able simplify our planning for the future.

But… I can’t resist taking Villeneuve’s masterpiece to task for some of its strange inconsistencies, not the least of which have to do with photography and technology. I am going to avoid discussing things I have seen elsewhere. Don’t read this if you want to avoid spoilers. Or if you want to read something coherent and not written in a sinus medication fever dream (thanks, autumn weather…).

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Where are our black-border Polaroids? A central reference point of the first Blade Runner was photographs: Leon’s pictures of his friends, Rachael’s snapshot with her mom, and Deckard’s oddly anachronistic picture with an (iced tea? beer can?) and his ex-wife (or maybe that was his dad and mom?). Of course, the hard copies were all Polaroids with black borders and really cool red imprinting. The Blade Runner Curse, of course, would drive Polaroid out of business some 26 years later. Ok, not.

Photographs played a central role in the original movie – so much so that characters like Leon would risk death to retrieve collections of them. They stood in as a proxy for history – and a past. Replicants used them like holy cards. These elements are completely missing in BR 2049; the past is prepackaged – so much so that its consumers like Officer K even know it is fake. That seems to defeat the purpose of fake memories, does it not?

One of the coolest pieces of “not-quite-yet” technology you see in BR 2049 – related to the Sapper Morton scene and visible just for an instant – is a printed still photo with motion. That comes up but once. This would require one of the thinnest and most elegant power sources ever invented. Despite this super-cool print technology, photo drones are somehow larger than they are in backward old 2017, except for Niander Wallace’s vision drones, which looks like a combination of massage stones and every cheap electronic device sold on Ebay in 2003. The one constant is the massive and invasive image advertising; in the original, it was made up of blimps and Jumbotrons; now it is enormous holograms that know you’re looking – and interact with you. They even managed to jam a Frank Sinatra hologram into a Sony bottle. But by far the most incredible use of images is in the flickering holographic slugfest that Officer K and Deckard have in Las Vegas. This a perfected version of the distraction technique used by Scaramanga in the Man with the Golden Gun. And by “perfected,” I mean that Hervé Villechaize is not providing color commentary over a loudspeaker.

Through an eyeball scanner darkly. This whole thing at the beginning is actually absurd. Officer KD6-3.7ABCDEFGHIJK (no wonder Joi wants to call him “Joe”) goes to a remote location, the last known location of Sapper Morton. He sees a photo of Morton’s face on his car computer. Police procedures then (weirdly) require him to get close enough to a heavily-built, military-model, killer clone to scan a serial number on his sclera with a UV light whose bulb has to pulse for some reason. The clone will display this number this voluntarily, of course. Right. Then K has to cut said eye out and put it on a little scanner. To get paid. After killing a guy three times his size, of course.

The problem is that none of this is actually necessary. Morton is a manufactured product, and if there is no other way to identify him, facial recognition computing should have identified him within a reasonable doubt. And K should have aired Morton out as soon as he saw him.

But why the eyeball cutting? LAPD is coming out to close out the crime scene anyway (remember how Officer K comes back to a sealed scene – which he then violates?) Presumably a digital photo of a dead Morton would suffice until backup arrives to provide reinforcement. Except that we need the visceral thrill/horror. Because Chew’s eye shop in the first movie.

Also, did you notice that police body cameras don’t exist in this universe? I would think that if you have humanoid slaves running around with guns, you’d want to make sure that Miranda rights are being read and that no one is getting killed for a broken taillight on a Spinner.

Wood. We learn late in the movie that wood is so valuable that you could trade a small amount of it for a “real” goat. Niander Wallace’s office is full of it. So why didn’t we see Officer K strap Sapper’s tree to the top of his Spinner and take it? Ok, maybe a stretch, but somebody would have taken it.

Slaves clones that have holographic AI girlfriends? Let’s get back to this “getting paid” thing. Officer K is a Replicant, and a Nexus-9 “obedience” model at that. The entire K story is weird because we are told right at the beginning that he is a Replicant. It is implied that Replicants are second-class citizens. And yet K:

  • Gets paid above his living expenses, hence the emanator.
  • Rents and inhabits human housing (and a fairly big place by Manhattan standards) with no supervision.
  • Has a full suite of home automation.
  • Gets to drink the same whisky his human boss does.
  • Apparently has enough leisure time to read books.
  • Gets to smoke.
  • Gets his 2 seconds of pure water in the shower, which is probably as much as anyone gets.

In light of this, you can only wonder what the legal status of Replicants might be. It would actually have to be pretty good. I guess they have to do what their bosses tell them to (“join the club,” said every 20th century office worker ever) and can’t reproduce. Given where we saw Replicants in 2019 in the previous movie, you know, in offworld kick murder squads, mining colonies, garbage collection, you would think Officer K should be living in the basement of police HQ, eating gruel, living like a monk, reciting his Nabokov and liking it. Right?

So K is basically a human for all external intents and purposes. But then his department apparently tells his colleagues that he is a clone (so much for HIPAA… thanks, HR) and his memories are baloney. Coco the Mortician even uses the term “skin job” in front of him. That’s pretty gutsy considering that K could probably kill him with his little finger. But somehow it also becomes known to K’s neighbors that he is a “tin soldier” (ahem, who leaked this?). Wouldn’t you want your hunter-killers to stay on the down-low? When you’re going to out your employee/slave, why would you even bother making blade runners look like average people? Other Replicants seem capable of detecting their own kind, so it’s not even good cover.

Joi but no Luv. Ok. Back to the point. Part of K’s home automation is his AI girlfriend Joi. Understand that in this universe, there has been a history of violent mutinies by past models (due in part to their emotional explorations…). Clearly this is such an issue that you have to put the Baseline Test on even the new submissive models. And yet they allow K and his friends to have a technological toys for which they might develop affection? Granted, there are many who would become clone slaves if Ana de Armas was part of the deal. But still. And speaking of which, what the hell kind of holographic technology would allow Joi to appear outside a vehicle, through an opaque door? There is technology. And then there is physics. And then there is the need to write in a touching scene when Ryan Gosling is knocked out and in danger?

Replicant escorts but no pimps. Okay, so Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) looks really weird and crazy-eyed all the time. Because Mackenzie Davis. And the idea of a Replicant-Replicant-Hologram (RRH) ménage-à-trois is only slightly more weird – because it requires a variety of wraparound projection that does not exist in our universe. But who is Mariette’s pimp? Remember, in this universe, all Replicants are (expensive) capital goods owned by someone or some company.  They don’t reproduce (I guess that saves money on birth control for the escorts?), and as far as anyone knows, they are never freed from their non-human legal status. If Mariette’s a Nexus-8, she should be on an, um, kill list. If she’s a Nexus-9, she should have never left her employer. And who is that? The government? LAPD?

Let’s back up a step. How does an AI hologram hire an escort for her owner (or licensee, I guess….)? The ability to enter commercial transactions, to live in your own house, and to associate with whomever you like are rights associated with humans. Or Replicants. But now computer programs?

And for all of her baseline testing, it doesn’t freak Chief Joshi out that her would-be sexbot is letting his virtual girlfriend spend all of his paychecks on cheap booze and hookers? Is she even detecting that? She’s pretty much the worst detective ever (where’s the eyeball of the child   But her outfits are good. Not as good as Luv’s, but still respectable.

Bald man in the yellow box. This dude is not a Replicant? He claims to have remembered the blackout as a child. But this is the most android-looking guy ever to show up in this film series. Also, can “born humans” actually see in this color light?I guess if you’ve worked in a Philippe Starck hotel in the early 2000s.

Optical memory. Ok, so a background assumption is that there was some massive EMP event that eliminated all electronic records. Which is fine, except for the fact that Tyrell (and now Wallace) apparently stored everything in optical format immune from electromagnetic pulses: cats-eye marbles. Shooters, from the size. Why not just say that everything was stored on magnetic tape and that it got wiped by the pulse? If Pan-Am and Atari still exist in that universe, I’m sure that 4mm LTO does.

Wallace’s phantom security video. One of the more screwy things in the original BR is the lack of security cameras. I mean, Roy Batty manages to smoke Tyrell by getting in through an elevator with no camera – and without ever being seen by a security camera in the Grand Poobah’s bedroom? Same with Leon and Holden earlier in the movie (where are the metal detectors?). We see video of the VK test, but apparently no one is able to track Leon on the way out of the building. And yet, when it’s time to research Rachael when K comes to corporate HQ, here are a bunch of security videos that were taken in Tyrell’s office. And conveniently, they are shot from the POV of the original Rachael-Deckard introduction scene. Not from the Voigt-Kampff machine, which only scans eyes.

Gaff. I am so glad that they fixed the color balance on Gaff. I mean in the first movie, Edward James Olmos must have had jaundice — or someone had swung the Lightroom tint slider the wrong way to “acting in yellow-face.” Also, it’s apparent that in the 30 years between the movies, they taught Gaff how to speak in accent-free English and got him that surgery to fix those weird glowing yellow eyes. The LAPD must have great continuing education and awesome health insurance.

Props qua props. In Vegas, note that the readout on K’s scanner says that radiation is “nominal.” Which means normal. So the fact that Deckard is there does not bear on people’s weird need for him to be an android. And when Luv & her henchmen show up, the henchmen, inexplicably, are wearing gas masks. Why? If they are replicants, they would not be bothered by anything on site (because humans would not). There is no reason for them to be human, since Luv presumably would not be commanding human bodyguards. If they’re human, they also would not need the masks at all. So this is just for optics, so to speak? To make the guys faceless?

Stelline’s lab and that Zeiss thingie. So we get to Ana Stelline’s office. It’s like the holodeck from Star Trek: the New Generation. She’s got this thing with dials. Not sure I got a good look at it, but the number of settings and third-stop increments mean that it must have been made by Zeiss. When K comes in, she is generating a memory of a 20th-century birthday party. Which she could not have seen. It gets weirder when you realize that she programmed the wooden horse memory in the third person. You know, like in Rocky IV when Apollo Creed died and Rocky remembered running with him on the beach (in a completely heterosexual way). How did Stelline know what she herself looked like? I don’t think the San Diego orphanage/dystopian Foxconn plant had a lot of mirrors.

Syd Mead! Las Vegas is pretty clearly either a Mead design or Mead homage. The influential industrial designer (exported from Detroit, FYI) left his fingerprints all over this movie. But a really nice touch is that the K’s spinner looks like a DeLorean (n.b., it’s a Peugeot, which supplied DeLorean with engines), but the bad guys drive spinners that look like 1963 Lincolns that would have been in design when Mead was at Ford. That said, I don’t want to be the one to say it, but the production design of BR 2049 is not very consistent with the original. The Mead/Scott design for the original involved recycling and retrofitting old buildings. So unless the original was all shot in the Fourth Sector, there is a lot of explaining to be done about where all the pipes and ducts have gone – as well as what happened to all of the Asian people.

The law. Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”….The gatekeeper often interrogates him briefly, questioning him about his homeland and many other things, but they are indifferent questions, the kind great men put, and at the end he always tells him once more that he cannot let him inside yet. The man, who has equipped himself with many things for his journey, spends everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper. The latter takes it all but, as he does so, says, “I am taking this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything.” (Tr. Ian Johnston). 

It’s common knowledge (at least among people who pretend to have remembered college lit) that Joe K is like Josef K of Kafka’s Trial. What you may not have connected is that visually, K’s approach to Deckard’s casino is actually an homage to the cartoon short that opens Orson Welles’ adaptation of the Trial. Except that Welles is narrating from “Before the Law,” an unfinished short story. I don’t know who in the production is channeling Melville and Eco, but at some point you come to the realization that this story has cadged half of all religion and western culture (for starters, Moses; Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; Pinocchio; Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist; Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, World War II soldiers and aviators (“[GI] Joe”), tech moguls…)

The starsSo an image that appears early on is where Niander Wallace makes a statement that “we should own the stars.” Stars only appear once visually, in the peyote-and-are-they-eating-Deckard’s-dog? scene. But Ana Stelline is a reference to “little stars,” meaning that the key to this mystery is on earth.

Elvis! No comment on what went on in the casino, and it’s an awesome sequence, but are the holographic projectors of the future really a bunch of projection TVs from the 1970s with R, G and B lenses? Or are these DLP projectors gone really, really wrong?

Joi (the reprise). This is just a nerdy technical point – when Joi appears naked in the huge billboard near the end, did you notice that her color scheme is that of a person shot in 720nm infrared? Including the black eyes? It’s actually pretty impressive, when you consider that the scene was shot live and optically, not composited in with a computer.

Ok. Back to writing up some Sure Shots. If you want to see a fantastic deconstruction of the original Blade Runner, check out Typeset in the Future. That article even shows you what is in the dummy text used in props.