Palimpsests in 1212 and 2012

The Scriptorium of Mont-Saint-Michel, France. 13th Century.

Our massive 96-page Film and Digital Times NAB 2012 Edition goes online, in the mail, and on the floor of NAB at the opening bell, 9 am on Monday April 16. For the 110,000 of you who may attend NAB in Las Vegas, free copies of this FDTimes issue will be found in our booth, C10549 in the Central Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center. Look for the big, illuminated FDTimes balloon by Airstar above us. Film and Digital Times is also in the publication bins of Central and South Upper Halls, and in the booths of many of our sponsors.

Here’s a peek at the introduction to Issue 47-48 April 2012.


Imagine a monk in the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel. It is April 16, 1212. His name is Jean-Pierre de Beauville. He wrote:

“The coast of Normandy is not known for its salubrious climate. Two large fireplaces do little against the damp wind that penetrates the cold stone walls. I work in the scriptorium, copying scriptures and illuminating manuscripts. It’s tedious work, copying. A friar from Italy described a system they use called Pecia. The entire book is divided into packets. Every scribe in their scriptorium copies a separate section of the book, at the same time. It lets them finish the project much faster. Silly idea.

“Things could be worse. At least we are not on stonemasonry duty. Our Scriptorium Supervisor, Abbot Jacques of Verneuil-sur-Avre, ordered the existing 2K squares of stone on the floor to be replaced in 4K. ‘I want more resolution, more detail,’ he declared.

“We thought the floor of our scriptorium was fine. It consisted of 2048 individual stones across and 1080 down. Then the Abbot decided to improve productivity. He installed glass windows to let in more light. We could see more clearly. All he saw were the cracks in the slabs and things he called artifacts. He became increasingly critical after purchasing a pair of eyeglasses at a conclave in Pisa. Our old scriptorium floor is now  being replaced with smaller stones, 4096 across by 2160 down. I must admit, it looks sharper and more realistic. We’ll probably have to replace it again in 8K. Abbot Jacques says this is the way of the future.

“But enough of mosaic-like floors. My job is scrivening in the scriptorium. The Abbot is meticulous about something he calls workflow. We call it hard work. We write on parchment, which is made from sheep or goat skin. But first we have to obtain the parchment, not easy and very expensive. So we recycle old parchments.

“These are called Palimpsests. We wash the text off old parchment manuscripts with a mixture of milk and oat bran. Then we scrape the surface with flat blades. Palimpsests have another advantage: we can erase and replace the pagan writing that came before. Take our current production, for example. We are recycling the scribblings of an ancient Greek mathematician. I think his name was Archimedes. After my copy is done, it goes to the near-scriptorium archivist copyist and four more copies are made. One copy is sent to the Vatican Library in Rome. One goes to Paris. Another remains here. I do not know where the fourth copy is sent. Some day they will find a way to make this simpler.”


It doesn’t feel much simpler. If our monk of the monastic Mont-Saint-Michel workflow were to time-travel to NAB 2012, he would be amused by the similarities 800 years later. After complaining about the convention center food, and commenting “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” he would find himself on a panel of peers  discussing palimpsest-like data cards, on-set and far-set data labs, archiving, the specter of losing image data forever, and how once labor-intensive pursuits like book-burning have been reduced to the delete key or the mundane hard-drive crash.

Data and images have always been ephemeral. Latent images on film were only as safe as the light-tightness of the camera assistant’s changing-bag zipper. Once processed, longevity increased. Film was not erased and scraped like a palimpsest (despite the scary scene in Hugo where the impoverished Méliès must sell his film and it is melted down to make shoes).

Videotape is easy to erase, but usually inexpensive enough to save as editorial master at least until the project is completed. Unfortunately, many important images are gone forever, as in NASA’s famous recycling of many original first moonwalk tapes.

Our current digital palimsest paradigm feels vaguely medieval. Camera original datapacks, memory cards, and solid-state drives follow the scriptorium workflow. They are wiped clean because the copies are cheaper than the original. Like parchment, technology will improve, cost will decrease, and original may remain archival.

The imagination soars beyond digital dilemmas in a brave new  4K world. I think 2012 may be remembered as the first major “Year of 4K” at NAB, although bets should be hedged with an entertaining look over the shoulder at many previous years proclaimed as the “Year of HD” with sequels alluded to as “The Second Coming of HD,” “Son of HD,” and “HD Episode V.”

We’ll see many demos shot on 4K at NAB 2012 with excellent cameras and stellar lenses, projected in 4K and on 4K monitors.  But, there’s a lot more going on than more K. We are at play in the  fields of exquisite lenses, lighting, filtration, and creativity. We are entering a new arena—sort of like learning to take a car from city streets to racetrack. It’s a fascinating place, in which super-star actors must continue to look beautiful in razor-sharp landscapes. Don’t forget one of the most important members of the high-resolution production team: highly talented, over-scale make-up artists.

A funny thing is happening on the way to the 4K Multiplex. Theatrical production was to be the driving force propelling 4K—higher resolution, higher chance of future-proofability, and the next big thing to bring audiences back into the theaters.

That was before the new iPad-that-has-no-number, with its display resolution beyond HD. Sharper up-close viewing and text may drive demand for 4K origination sooner than expected. As a camera manufacturer’s PR scribe recently told me, “Even my smartphone shoots HD.”

In preparing our big NAB Edition, page count was determined mostly by arrival time of information from the manufacturers, crews, and colleagues. Many companies rushed to provide details and specs on products still in the works up to the opening onslaught of NAB.  Hopefully the ink will be dry by the time our truckload of Film and Digital Times editions arrive at the LVCC on Monday April 16. We were able to stop the presses no longer. After all, we are still printing on paper, not palimpsests.


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