Computers & Texts No. 14
Table of Contents
April 1997

Computer-Assisted Film and Drama Studies

17th March 1997, Oxford

Michael Fraser & Sarah Porter
CTI Textual Studies

On Monday 17th March, CTI Textual Studies hosted a Computer-Assisted Film and Drama Studies conference, at St. Anne's College, Oxford. The philosophy behind the conference was to bring together those with expert knowledge of the use of digital resources within Film and Drama Studies and practitioners who wished to broaden or build upon their existing knowledge.

The day consisted of presentations by key figures from the Film Study Centre at Oxford, the British Film Institute, the Performance Arts Data Service, the Royal Holloway Multimedia Shakespeare Project, and the Open University Interactive Shakespeare Project, interspersed with interactive demonstrations of a staff-student collaborative project from the University of Luton, and a number of other computer-based resources. A final session was devoted to a panel discussion, where the Consortium for Drama and Media in Higher Education, the British Universities Film and Video Council, the Standing Committee of University Drama Departments, and the 'LiveArt' project were represented.

Old Films, New Media?
Ian Christie, Oxford

Ian Christie has accumulated a range of experience within the broad area of film studies, giving him an advantaged position from which to address the relationship between film studies and new media technologies. At the British Film Institute (BFI) he was head of distribution (including shortlived video distribution); for three years he worked with Voyager on a number of their laserdisk film releases; currently he is the first visiting lecturer in film at the University of Oxford. His presentation traced a chronological path from the recent past, through the present, and into the future of the development of the often uneasy relationship between film and new media.

Setting a sobering context for any vision of digital film, Ian described the negative response which met his endeavours to guide the BFI into video publishing. There is, he explained, a very strong coherent purism built into film studies which believes in the sanctity of the 35mm print, so much so that many in the field feel their culture being threatened by digitization.

Turning to the recent past Ian described developments in 'obsolescent' media, namely the laserdisk and CD-ROM. The laserdisk is a technology which has made little impression upon the market in the United Kingdom, whilst carving a substantial niche in the home-entertainment and educational markets in both the US and Japan over the last ten years, where new films are released on laserdisk as standard. Voyager Company had grasped the Laserdisk and exploited it to its full potential. From a starting point of distributing entire films on laserdisk, Voyager pre-empted the standard multimedia publishing format of today by employing hitherto unused space on the laserdisk to add contextual information. A demonstration of Raging Bull on laserdisk, for which Martin Scorsese contributed a full commentary soundtrack, illustrated the value of direct input by film makers. Terry Gilliam's Brazil on laserdisk, with which Ian has been closely involved, gives three versions of the film, including a newly edited version. Ian Christie pointed out the educational value of these approaches, but also questioned its viability: researching and obtaining quality resources is expensive; producing expert commentary is extremely time-consuming, hence perhaps not sustainable for all but the most mainstream of products. Laserdisks, he believed, still offered a fantastic tool for film studies, making available high quality film reproduction together with the possibility of navigating frames and clips through a software interface.

Turning to the CD-ROM, the audience was shown a clip from The Salt of the Earth. The CD-ROM, an example of Voyager's real sense of interest in cinema history, contains a QuickTime version of the film alongside a full film script together with a range of background information to the film. This type of production, admittedly easier to licence than mainstream films, was described by Ian as a 'dream come true for film studies'. However, once again the time and cost involved is substantial with a small potential market.

CD-ROM technology is, however, a dying medium. Digital Video Disk (DVD) and Video On Demand (VOD), for film studies at least, is likely to supersede the CD-ROM. Much hinges on whether DVD will take off as a popular consumer medium. VOD (or Near-Video on Demand) holds great potential, but experiments so far have concentrated on a narrow repertoire. Some digital equivalent of the Videothèque (as found in Paris, for example) is probably required.

The presentation concluded with a description of the possibilities afforded by the digitization of secondary materials. Databases, particularly those which integrate printed works with either CD-ROM or Internet-based material (for example, the BFI's SIFT database), provide flexible searching of indexed materials and the possibility of more frequent updating.

Salt of the Earth Screenshot

The Salt of the Earth CD-ROM from Voyager Company (

The Performing Arts Data Service, AHDS
Celia Duffy, Glasgow

Celia Duffy gave an informative introduction to the services of the newly formed Performing Arts Data Service (PADS), one of the five service providers under the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS), which was established to respond to the increased use of computers in humanities teaching and research and ever increasing outflow of digital resources. The AHDS' general remit is to establish a strategy for the preservation of these resources, with guides to resource discovery and retrieval, good practice, and training; each service provider contributes to rights management, the establishment of standards, and an integrated catalogue to aid retrieval. The AHDS will not itself digitize data, but will provide a place where data can be properly catalogued and preserved, for use by the HE community, and will also provide guidance to those wishing to capture data. The Performing Arts Data Service's specific remit is to collect and make available digital material for music, film, video, drama, theatre and dance.

The AHDS wishes to provide a standard 'one-stop shop' for the access of digital resources, with interoperability between catalogues and general standards. They also wish to help establish standards for documentation of digital data, with descriptive metadata to be included with a resource. This will prove to be particularly difficult for PADS since the provision of metadata for cataloguing film and sound has to contend with a number of competing standards. PADS will be running a series of workshops to tackle this problem.

PADS is encouraging researchers to deposit 'homeless datasets' with them; unlike some of the other service providers, they are an entirely new service and do not have an already established collection. They are very keen to find out the needs and wishes of their constituency of potential users, and so shape the service accordingly.

PADS' principles for collection have a broad definition, currently encompassing any material which is in computer-readable form, ranging from databases, to images, digital versions of works (audio, video, multimedia, compressed formats) or secondary materials pertaining to works. Given the disciplines which they support, computer-based representations of a work (such as a digital representation of dance) would also be a possibility, as would constituents of works, such as film scripts, costume illustrations and so on.

PADS next activities include metadata workshops, to be held in April and May, and the publication of Guides to Good Practice on digitization and data documentation (funds are available for commissioning works). Workshops are also planned on rights management and licensing.

The presentation evoked a great deal of interest amongst the conference participants, and confirmed the importance of PADS in providing a central, objective role in establishing standards for digital resources.

The BFI's Digital Vision
Richard Paterson, British Film Institute

Richard Paterson described the BFI's status as being in transition, partly due to changes in public sector funding but also partly due to the opportunities offered by lottery funding. This situation brought further pressure to bear on envisioning a digital future. He alluded to Ian Christie's earlier comments regarding the opposition within the BFI to the introduction of video as an illustration of the current situation regarding the digitization of film. The digital vision will have to fit into a hierarchy of precedence currently established around the accepted media. There are contradictory pressures between access and preservation, 'between analogue past and possibly digital future'.

The BFI holds an enormous (and growing) collection of data in traditional formats, and is undertaking labour-intensive processes to save ageing (and potentially dangerous) nitrate film by replicating it on a more stable medium. Richard addressed the issue of whether there is an equivalent standard format for the archiving of digital film, drawing attention to the issue of future-proofing. He observed that whilst the BFI is very keen to explore digital access as one route, its implementation, in the form of the Imagination Network, had been delayed by the failure to attract funding from the Millennium Commission. The quality of digital output was also an issue: MPEG-1, for example, was preferred over MPEG-2 not only due to issues of network bandwidth but also because the lower quality was more likely to satisfy the rights holders.

The original conception of an accessible digital database was to be centred around British television programmes, the easiest to clear as far as rights are concerned. The BFI's SIFT database would be used as the search engine integrated with shooting scripts, stills, personal papers and possibly digitized clips. The BFI views the role of the universities as essential participants and Richard called for suggestions from the HE community concerning the possible subject areas to be covered by the digitisation programme.

Another area which urgently requires addressing is Intellectual Property Rights. The BFI is looking into ways of giving universities special access to restricted collections. Whilst the American Film Institute is currently delivering public domain material over the Web the BFI does not view this as the way forward. There is a certain tension within the BFI between those who wish to make the material accessible and understood, and those who would prefer to hold on. Richard pointed out that sometimes life is too short to ask permission and the fair dealing clause in the 1988 Copyright Act, lobbied for by the BFI, has never actually been used by the BFI though the clause received some prominence in a case between Channel 4 and Warner Brothers over clips from Clockwork Orange. On the whole, the BFI is keen to maintain services which are 'curated and restricted' in accordance with the rights granted to the BFI. They are, however, considering involvement in a number of ventures including bids for the forthcoming digital terrestrial channels. The BFI has a large amount of primary and secondary material and they are exploring ways in which this might be exploited to generate income for the further growth of the collection.

Richard Paterson urged the education community as a whole to respond to the European paper on rights in the information society, which had at present had little response from the British community. He also invited suggestions for the 'digital storehouse'. One suggestion from the floor was that television viewing statistics be made available in digital form. These are, Richard explained, obtained, for a fee, from David Graham & Associates ( It is, of course, possible they might freely release outdated figures.

Shakespeare Studies in the Multimedia Age
Christie Carson, Royal Holloway and Bedford New College

Dr Carson's presentation fell into two areas: an overview of computer-based performance projects, and a short paper discussing issues raised by the Cambridge Shakespeare on CD-ROM Text and Performance series. Digital representations, she said, could never replace the live theatre. The technology should be exploited to create new possibilities rather than simply recreating what is already done (better) in another medium. The perception that technology-based projects are money-spinners is not very likely to apply to theatre departments and the teaching of performance. There is, however, a great deal of potential and motivation for theatre departments to become involved in the digital world but it is a new resource and its place has yet to be decided.

Christie's very useful summary of performance-related ventures in the UK included the Virtual Globe Theatre at Reading, the Chameleon Project at Salford, LiveArt at Nottingham Trent University, the Scottish Theatre Project at Glasgow, the Archive of Greek Performance at Oxford, the Virtual Theatres project at Warwick, and the Shakespeare in Performance Project at the Open University, with references to the experiments in live theatre at Hull and Lancaster. This extensive list highlighted the range and diversity of computer-based performance activities which are currently taking place; they include architectural, archival, and some experimental projects creating new works of performance.

Performance resources for the study of Shakespeare are particularly prevalent, due to the wide market which they serve. The majority are available on CD-ROM, a format which Christie believed was not in its death throes yet, at least not in this subject area. Examples of useful resources include the Voyager Macbeth, the BBC series of CD-ROMs based on their own television dramatisations, and a number of WWW sites tied to recent film versions of Shakespeare, which hold contextual resources.

Whilst it seems both simple and natural to combine textual and performance history the technical implications are dramatic. The current phase of the Cambridge Shakespeare on CD-ROM Text and Performance Series is to combine a history of King Lear in performance with text, new scholarly annotations, and a range of different performance interpretations (no single performance is included in its entirety, to guard against dictating a single reading of the play). The overall intention of the project is to 'reintroduce ambiguity into the play's performance history'.

The broader remit of the project is to examine how multimedia technologies might be used to enhance the study of performance. The general success of the project, explained Christie, lies in the keeping both design and research inextricably linked. The successful integration of performance and textual history requires a sophisticated understanding of the materials, areas of concern, and the capabilities of the technology.

King Lear Screenshot

King Lear CD-ROM from the Shakespeare Multimedia Research Project

Multimedia Shakespeare in Performance
Lizbeth Goodman & Stephen Regan, Open University

Continuing the theme of digital performance resources, and more specifically performances for the study of Shakespeare, Lizbeth Goodman and Stephen Regan gave a lively demonstration of two interactive Shakespeare CD-ROMs. The distance-learning expertise built up by the Open University over a number of years, and the guaranteed audience, have provided guidance and impetus for the project. The intention is twofold: to make 'live' performance available to fulfil the needs of a distant audience, including those might otherwise have difficulties in accessing live performance (sign language, for example, is included on the King Lear CD-ROM), and to allow all users a high level of interaction and control. A pilot CD-ROM, As You Like It, provides a specially commissioned 'live' performance of selected scenes from the play, which allows the user to manipulate stills from the performance to cut their own interpretations. Digitized commentary from expert directors is on-hand within the package. The King Lear CD-ROM, also a pilot, further expands this concept, by offering a wider range of perspectives including footage of workshops and interviews with directors, designers, and players. The student's control over the play is further increased with tools to make production decisions about elements such as lighting and design. The student becomes aware of the importance of interpretation throughout the staging of a play: different lighting and design, for example, can dramatically alter the message of the play. The interviews with directors illustrate the interpretation process which results in different directorial approaches. One example was the decision to cast a profoundly deaf actor in the part of Fool, in the 'junkyard' cut of Lear, illustrating the relationship in Lear between power and the spoken word.

No complete performance of Shakespeare will be made available on CD-ROM. It is difficult to view video on CD-ROM. Instead the project uses multimedia to do what it does best - making connections. Having said that, the total output of the project has been more diverse and prolific than imagined with the result that further disks are to be released, one concentrating on audio interpretation, and a third one on design.

Panel Session

The panel consisted of Nicholas Arnold (Consortium for Drama and Media in Higher Education), Lizbeth Goodman, Luke Hockley (Head of Media Studies, University of Luton), Richard Paterson, Barry Smith (LiveArt and the Standing Committee of University Drama Departments), and Murray Weston (British Universities Film and Video Council).

The final session saw some lively discussion between members of the panel, prompted by questions from the floor. Issues raised included agreements for the archiving of media, collection policies, and the role of computers in the analysis of film and drama. Murray Weston of the BUFVC set the first hare running by re-addressing the issue of the Department of National Heritage's Legal Deposit of Publications Consultation Paper, which he described as 'leaving a black hole regarding film and television'. He argued that all BBC programming should be archived and made available to the public who paid for it via TV licences, and urged the academic community to respond to this deficit. The BUFVC already has plans to create a file server of on-air material (including radio) and make it available on-demand to the academic community. In response Richard Paterson observed that a certain amount of TV is already being archived. There would be much opposition from production companies if a negative of every film released in this country had to be deposited with a library or archive. Radio, on the other hand, had been largely ignored and the BFI had at one time sought funding to explore the historical and cultural dimensions of radio in this country. He reiterated Murray's point that the education sector should lobby for established archiving procedures, in both traditional and electronic forms.

Why, asked a delegate, should only highbrow TV be of interest; surely 'junk' should also be collected for future use? The answers from the panel were varied. Barry Smith reminded us that one generation's junk may be another's valuable social phenomenon. Nicholas Arnold alluded to a need to 'redefine the artefact' in a culture where the sociology of theatre is often disregarded whilst Lizbeth Goodman pointed out that a lot of her own work has been in an area which many people would consider to be junk (contemporary feminist theatre). On the other hand she hoped to use the marketable material (i.e. Shakespeare) to fund the experimental. Murray reminded the audience that section 35 of the 1988 Copyright Act would permit a university to set up a unit to record any broadcast signal received in the UK (with the exception of Open University programmes).

The final question of the day related to the availability of software for the analysis of digitized film. Serious work is being undertaken in area by or on behalf of those who deal in movie stock. The Getty Foundation are currently cataloguing around half a million (out of a possible 14 million) stills using a thesaurus of around 2,000 words. The BFI is also looking to the creation of a small corpus along similar lines. However, the cataloguing of film, particularly digital film, was extremely labour intensive and as more control is given to the user, the more complex and time-consuming this process would become.

LiveArt Screenshot

The LiveArt Archive at


The conference demonstrated current projects together with incisive insights into the authoring, production, and use of digital resources. It was made clear that in both performance and film studies the term 'digital resource' can describe a multitude of different materials, ranging from the digital encryption of an entire film or performance, to a searchable encyclopaedia in digital format, to a production rich in multimedia and user interaction. Each type of resource holds potential but, equally, their use in a teaching and learning context needs to be considered with care; the substantial expert input needed at the authoring stage of a complex resource should not be underestimated.

A number of other themes emerged from the day's discussions, particularly the role that digital technology might play in the archiving and collection of film, television, and radio. The future-proofing of the encoding and dissemination of digital material has central importance. Whilst the criteria used to collect materials may be a sensitive issue it was generally agreed that the higher education community should be vociferous in making their requirements known to those who control the materials and funding.

Finally, Barry Smith suggested that the subject areas covered by this conference could benefit from a further event lasting for up to four days, similar to the CADE conference (art and design), which would provide opportunities for longer demonstrations and poster sessions.


The CTI Centre would like to thank all those who made the conference possible. In particular, the conference office at St Anne's College, the Oxford Centre for the Deaf, Oxford's Centre for Humanities Computing, but most of all the presenters, panellists, and delegates who participated so enthusiastically in the day. The full proceedings together with commissioned essays will be published in late 1997.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 14 (1997), 11. Not to be republished in any form without the authors' permission.

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