By Adam Mandelbaum
John Belton may be an English professor, but the storytelling he specializes in does not take place in books. Professor Belton teaches and does scholarly research about film. He was on the National Film Preservation Board, and served for over a decade as Chair of the Archival Papers and Historical Committee of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. He teaches classes on Film Theory and the history of American cinema, and has published five books about movies and film history, including a popular textbook called American Cinema/American Culture.
Although Professor Belton is clearly very invested in the history of film, he is also interested in the medium’s future, and is currently planning a book about the use of digital technology in the film industry. In fact, Professor Belton will be working on his new project all next year, thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship.
The study of film is an important part of Rutgers English. English majors can even choose to concentrate in Film Studies, an approach which combines the ability to interpret narratives with practice analyzing visual images, with knowledge of the history and technology of film also included. Filmmakers have always used the versatility of the medium to reflect social and cultural concerns in new and powerful ways. With the advent of digital technology, filmmakers have easy access to a wide range of options in visual effects, editing, sound, and even distribution, changing the way movies can tell stories and communicate with audiences.
Professor Belton argues that digital cinema, and our digital age in general, have inspired completely new methods of storytelling. “The digitization of the cinema permits filmmakers to manipulate the image from within to make it do whatever they want it to do,” he says, leading to a level of artistic control previously unattainable in film. By combining the limitless imaginative possibilities of books with the visual power of moving pictures, he says, digital cinema can tell us traditional stories in new ways, or force us to think about narrative in completely new terms.
According to Professor Belton, this transition is still in process, in an industry where creative goals are always balanced against economic factors. For example, by working with digital data instead of chemical celluloid, filmmakers can edit scenes together and alter images with much greater ease and lower cost. Artistic intentions and commercial results will combine to determine the future of digital cinema.
Professor Belton argues that the evolving details of this technology will influence the art that is produced by it, eventually changing the way we think of movies the way that photography changed the way we think of painting. As a film scholar during this moment of transition, he is interested to examine digital cinema’s history while it is still in the making.
The prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship allows its recipients to take a year off from teaching to work on important new research. The Fellowship, given by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, provides scholars, writers, and artists with an immense amount of creative freedom to pursue new projects. Rutgers English would like to congratulate Professor Belton on his achievement. We look forward to his new book – and perhaps the companion DVD.
Professor Belton’s American Cinema/American Culture, 2nd edition
The National Film Preservation Board
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation