Circadian Cinema: A Working Model

Theory Meets Practice

by John Fucile Volume 7, Issue 6 / June 2003 18 minutes (4456 words)

Author John Fucile’s exploration and research in the Circadian Cinema model explored below has inspired two short digital films which he produced, directed, and co-wrote with Simon Fraser entitled Beat the Blue, which to date has been screened at festivals in New York, Oregon, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida and California; and his most recent digital short, the wide-screen motion picture Zero.

Beat the Blue

Circadian Cinema: A Working Model

This project, which is an attempt to analyze what distinguishes Digital Filmmaking from Hollywood, was ignited by what Siegfried Kracauer called film’s inherent affinities: The Unstaged, The Fortuitous, Endlessness, The Indeterminate, and The Flow of Life 1 . This study proposes a new theoretical and technology-based production approach that explores digital video’s unique aesthetic potential and its inherent narrative affinities.

Marshall McLuhan called film and media extensions and amplifications of our own beings, and that crossing or hybridizing these media can release great new forces. The coming together of film, video and digital moving pictures opens up a host of questions and issues. First of all, what are the similarities and differences between the video/digital image and the traditional analog, mechanical, photographic film formats? What are the implications of the differences in the mind of the viewer? What are the possibilities for a new production model given the seemingly certain transition to digital cinema? What should remain of the traditional, and what will be lost in the transition? As McLuhan put it, a time like this offers an especially favorable opportunity to take heed of the structural properties of these varying media. 2

Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme95 called for a doing away with tradition and a search for the new on a personal level. The Circadian Cinema ‘Model’ for digital narrative production can potentially signal a paradigm shift toward a renewed understanding, and become a fresh production model for the next wave of Narrative Cinema. This decidedly grandiose and comprehensive approach is viable only under the assumption that each medium has a specific nature, which invites certain kinds of communications. 3 Looking back and rooting ourselves in the traditions of motion pictures will provide the ground upon which we may plant our antennae.

Film was originally believed to be the end of photography, with a presumption of a public desire for all things moving. There were early attempts during the 1850’s and 60s to make pictures move. People desired to see clouds float, rain fall, workers move, and tree leaves sway. Devices like the Vitascope, Vitagraph, Bioscope, Kinetoscope, Kinetograph, and Cinematograph attest to this reality and perhaps hinted at the public’s desire for representations of life’s movements and secrets (if not also lending support to the biologically based term ‘Circadian’). Film seemed perfectly equipped to deal with this desire and sprung forth from experimentation in photography.

The photographer was charged with reproducing the objects or persons before his lens, and the power of the medium was exactly this – to open up new and unsuspected dimensions of reality. Unlike the painter who had observed nature, the photographer’s obligation was to absorb nature with all his senses, with his whole being participating in the process. 4 It was and remains a device for ‘revelation.’ Photographers, and thusly motion picture cinematographers, are also able to select the subject, the framing, the lens, the filter, the emulsion, the grain, etc. These examples of artistic choice point to the essence of what a photographer does. They make choices and selections to meet the minimum or effective requirements of the desired message. Films differ from photography in that they represent reality as it evolves in time; and they do so with the aid of cinematic techniques and devices that have been developed and explored ‘over time’.

Early filmic tendencies were split between Realistic (Lumiére Brothers, Staged and Documentary) and Formative (Méliès – Experimental and Narrative), although in the reality of everyday filmic practice of the time they also overlapped, sometimes in the same film. Phenomena, catastrophes, wars, acts of violence and terror, usually dramatized, tended to overwhelm the observer … but film is ideally suited in these cases. Nobody witnessing an event of such magnitude could be expected to accurately account for what they have seen. Only a camera may choose to represent these events without any distortion (unless distortion is the intent). The medium insists on rendering visible what is commonly drowned in inner emotional agitation. “To be sure, any camera revelation involves recorded, but recording on its part need not be revealing.” 5 In Diary of a County Priest, by Robert Bresson, it is the ever-changing expressions of the priest that convey the subtext and true narrative thread. Just as the camera records his written diary entries and voice-over, we extract even more from the images of the young priest’s face and his desire to be loved.

Film, as Kracauer says, plays to its inherent affinities and strengths when it ‘represents’ The Unstaged, The Fortuitous, The Endless, The Indeterminate, and The Flow of Life. Without footnoting Kracauer’s entire study he views the staging of events in film as aesthetically legitimate only if it evokes the illusion of reality. Reality is based in the camera. Early Chaplin and Keaton comedies reveal the long association between film and the outcome of sheer chance.

“In stripping the events of their excess one relieves the spectator from the necessity of judging, bringing him closer to poetic emotion. In consequence, there is a conflict in film between intrigue and poetry. If the intrigue is too interesting, everything passes as in a novel; one would like to jump the description. If the film is designed to teach us a moral truth, it becomes as bad as a didactic poem.” Maurois goes on to suggest that, to maintain the “poetic” element in a feature film its action proper should be preceded by pictures creating atmosphere after the manner of Chaplin in his A Woman of Paris. 6

This is the world of the successful or last minute rescue in the hero movie and is the realm of comedy in all its forms, from slapstick to cerebral. As opposed to the closed world of structured narrative, ‘Endlessness’ implies that the subject of the image exists in a cause and effect chain. The initial stage of any action is allowed, in film, to run its course. ‘The Indeterminate’ is the home of editing, where shots of distinct meaningfulness to a particular culture such as a handgun, a woman’s face, or a car, can be integrated into the narrative in a significant way: free hovering images of material reality 7 . We are left to make the psychological correspondences. This is the major theme of Russian theorist Sergei Eisenstein’s work on Montage. When it comes to emotions, values, and thoughts, the ‘Flow of Life’ covers the stream of material situations and happenings with all that they inspire.

…film gravitates toward a kind of life which is “still intimately connected, as if by an umbilical cord, with the material phenomena from which its emotional and intellectual contents emerge. Cinematic films…capitalize on the suggestive power of these phenomena to convey all that which is not visible and material. 8

When it comes to the stories that films tell, the first early tendencies came from the adaptation of novels and short stories. The problem in adapting novels or any literary form to the cinema is that they are not, by their nature, cinematic forms. The issue of adaptation is one that is far to complex to take issue with here, but suffice it to say that there exists the possibility of cinematic story forms that assert themselves independently of any literary counterparts.

For example, stories can be found in nature itself. If you have watched the surface of a river or a lake for a long enough time you will detect certain patterns in the water, which may have been produced by a breeze, or an eddy. Found stories are in the nature of such patterns. 9 They are discovered rather than contrived. They differ from each other by their degree of compactness or distinctness. They may be arranged along a continuum which extends from the natural story patterns at one pole, to the fairly well contrived stories packed with dramatic action at the other. Robert Flaherty felt that a story must come out of the life of a people, not from the action of individuals. 10 However, even Flaherty’s films contained structured sequences.

A story must emerge from the life of a people, and can be applied to cover human reality as it manifests itself in the physical world, taking its cue from crowds, street scenes, and human events. Flaherty was so averse to letting story requirements interfere with the experiences and with his concurrent camera explorations, that in shooting the story he used a working outline which could always be changed as he proceeded. It is as if the medium itself invited this kind of approach. When shooting a film as long and structured as The Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith “improvised freely as he went along”. 11 Even Eisenstein, as Kracauer noted, changed his script when he saw the actual Odessa steps? 12

Language and phonetic letters are not direct icons of observable phenomena. By contrast, the pictographs of the Egyptians helped root their culture in ways that were related to what they saw in everyday life. An “illiterate” child could recognize it as a representation of a hawk. The phonetic alphabet cannot take root in a culture in the same way. Video can cultivate reflective intelligence based on sharing perceptions of commonplace events in nature without the rootless cruelty associated with literacy. 13


Circadian Theory

Film and moving pictures have, since the days of Muybridge and the Lumiére Brothers’ traveling picture shows, enveloped the audience in a fantasy world most art could only aspire to. Audiences become engaged psychologically before any intellectual stimulation occurs. The motion picture allows us the opportunity to record physical reality not normally seen or available to us, meaning that there is an increased demand on our senses. What does this imply for the cinematic narrative? The spectator, like a reader of novels, can be defined in terms of a similar activity: a quest for intentions rather than shapes, an intense desire for drama, not gestures. Whether the film amounts to a drama, a detective story, a myth, an everyday incident, or a tract, the result is invariably the same.

We have a good historical understanding of how film developed aesthetically and technically, but there needs to be a similar concerted effort towards video’s evolution. In comparison to film, video has the potential to tell different stories as well as tell stories differently. The guidelines for a “Circadian” production model will now be surveyed and dissected under the following headings: The Spontaneous, The Human Mirror, The Fixed Outside, The Coincidental, The Natural, The Personal, and The Sustainable.

Circadian Cinema: Some Rules of the Game Explored

  • 1. The Spontaneous: Locations of Action will be free of written texts or scripts.
  • 2. The Human Mirror: Actors will be used to convey the Narrative.
  • 3. The Fixed Outside: There will be no Video Monitors or Television Assist units used.
  • 4. The Coincidental: All actions temporally occurring within the Narrative will be explored and honored as part of the Present and Master Narrative.
  • 5. The Natural: There will be Music and Sound and the Image will be Moving.
  • 6. The Personal: No shooting day will exceed eight (8) hours and the Technology will serve the Story.
  • 7. The Sustainable Circuit: The Motion Picture will exist in a Digital Format.

1. The Spontaneous

This is the home of Improvisation. It does not limit the use of a script or screenplay proper. Rather it is meant to create an area of action where the whole of the intended narrative can be explored. In their 1999 film The Blair Witch Project filmmaker’s Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick let the lead character “Sarah” wander off into the night and record her own, ‘last will and testament’, which was freely improvised and known only to her. This moment would later become one of the more memorable scenes in the film. Indeed Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots not only follows around a spasmodic group as they move about and improvise, but utilized improvisation in the recreation of the Improvised.

2. The Human Mirror

If the qualities and functions the stage actor and the film actor possess differ based on the requirements of the particular medium, it stands to reason that the same would hold true for those actors brave enough to partake in the video arena. A theatrical actor, because of the physical distance and scope over which they must communicate their character, is limited in the ability to imply subtle nuance or minutia. What is actually ‘delivered’ is only that which is possible and necessary given these conditions. In the motion picture, gesture, costume, voice, staging, and mannerisms are captured in all their pain and glory by the camera and projected mercilessly larger than life. They are representations of life as close as we are currently capable of showing, and because they exist essentially in the realm of camera-reality, they occupy a foundational role in digital narrative. From the early “actualities” and their images of factory workers, train passengers, and babies, the history of cinema is one of drawing from the streets. Portraying what is happening historically, socially or culturally calls for the human portrayal of reality. Digital Video has the potential to bring to an end the traditional star system and schools of acting that claim to ‘recreate reality’ and that have dominated American popular culture for the last one hundred years. The Blair Witch Project, without a single A-list actor, grossed more than $350 million dollars worldwide in 1999-2000. The professional actor becomes, on video, the unit through which reality, for a time, is measured. Disposable and recyclable, however terrified, they are free to work as such, without the burden of superfluous interference. The actor on video finally becomes the light of the bulb – pure by nature, or as actress Parker Posey put it [with video], “there is none of the masking that films bring, none of the softness. Everything is there for you to see.” 14

3. The Fixed Outside

The “Fixed Outside” is the discipline of cinematography as it relates to video. Video needs its own language. Just as Eisenstein named ‘the shot’ and ‘the sequence’ as the building blocks of film in 1929, so too must the video aesthetic grow. In Circadian Cinema the shot is replaced by the moment, so heavily tied to the Coincidental and The Spontaneous. The history of video is different from that of film. It is primarily based in television and video art. Remember the first video camera is less than thirty years old. Riding sidecar to video, like a belated Siamese big brother, is cinema’s history and baggage. While Hollywood spent its time trying to hide the camera with the smoothness and invisibility of the movements (what Deleuze calls the sensory-motor skills of the ‘movement-image’), video is unable and/or unwilling to shake its essence as a technology-based medium whose fluid capabilities force the audience to assume a position unique from that of an observer of filmic content. We assume our relation to the image. We assume the fixed outside because the technology is a shared one. Television and video are familiar to us in ways that film is not.

“The cinema is ambiguous…It is based on the shot – which tends to isolate itself and attract an attention of the inquiring variety – as well as on the sequence, which creates a definite unity of meaning between the shots and arouses in the spectator an intense desire for continuation. From the spectator’s POV one might call this the law of double interest; he usually finds the film too long and the shots too short because he has, spontaneously, the two contrary tendencies to retain the shot in order to exhaust its riches and to relinquish it as soon as he has decoded it sufficiently to satisfy his curiosity and his taste for drama.” 15

4. The Coincidental

In the Circadian Cinema Model Continuity and Script supervision is eliminated in favor of a Narrative Advisor. The duties include those that are familiar to the previous positions in that there is a process of recording ‘occurrences’ such as gesture, placement or positioning. In filmic narratives, however, the technology forces a labour intensive day that requires someone to record the actions because often there are hours or days in-between shots and setups. The speed and simplicity of image capture with digital technologies makes these positions obsolete. The other difference between that of Continuity and Supervisor with that of Narrative Advisor is that the former is always working ‘from’ something such as a script. Since Circadian Cinema occurs without scripts on set, the Narrative Advisor maintains a record of those actions organic to the camera reality. The promotion of that which is accidental differs from the improvised in that the improvised often leads to the accidental and rarely the reverse.

5. The Natural

Music and sound in all their forms are inherent in an oral or electronic culture and medium. Therefore all music and sound must come from the diegesis of the image. Where film sound relied almost exclusively on sound from reality proper and reality as defined by the narrative (diegesis), video finds itself in a unique historical position. Perhaps because of television, a spectator tends to define the sound associated with a video image as being more based in ‘reality proper’ than the narrative or filmic construct. So when video is used in a traditionally narrative arena there are different possibilities, expectations, and ramifications for a filmmaker to exploit.

Sound permits us to absorb the visuals in ways that would not be possible were it not for the sound, but can also affect what is necessary visually. Although seemingly inconsistent or artificial, music in film also assumes that the picture aspires to a naturalness in which the image and sound share equal billing. However, it is more likely that music helps maintain emphasis on the image, especially when, for psychological reasons, vision becomes the dominant sense used to create the emotion within. We seem most immersed when the music and image throw into relief the other, and at this moment we may appreciate either for their powers alone.

The narrative or dramatic arena is traditionally built on the model of the theatrical or literary work; that is the minds of those accustomed to verbal expression. Sound and our ability to hear is one of the senses utilized. The camera and our eyes scan the image with anticipation and with the hope of fulfilling our desires. Disregarding that the relation of the music to the image may imply priority, the important thing is that this inseperable relationship enliven the visuals to the point of evoking a more material representation of camera reality.

6. The Personal

Sources of inspiration for Circadian Cinema should be original and not filmic or literary. They may come from art, or philosophy, or poetry, or a postmodern mix. They may document or experiment in the tradition of the avant-garde artists who broke away from the commercialized cinema, not only because of what they perceived was the inferior quality of the adaptations, but more out of the conviction that the story as the main element is alien to the medium. In fact, a story is often seen as the only industry insisted prerequisite of appreciable box-office returns. 16 The technology of video has given us the ability to tell a story about many – to many, but the language particular to video will emerge out of the personal telling of stories. Techniques and devices will arise and without the distracting elements of artifice. Paul Ryan, an early video pioneer writes:

Whatever the electronic camera takes in passes through your eye to the brain. The term scanning is much more appropriate for video camera work than the term shooting, borrowed from the world of film. That implies selecting a target and pulling the trigger. Scanning implies searching for events in the alpha state. 13

He goes on to explain one of the fundamental differences in recording between video and film:

Video perception is the absence of parallax. Normally with two eyes open we take advantage of parallax to gauge how far away from something we are: that is distance. Looking through a video camera with one eye, and closing the other, leaves you without the advantage of parallax. The triangulation of an object in space contributes to our normal tendency to identify and name objects and then jump to another object to name and classify. This process of naming, classifying, jumping, and judging is part of our common everyday awareness. A video camera enables one to push the envelope of perception into a way of seeing that is free of triangulation, naming and classifying. This is different in film technology where you are taught to measure exact distance prior to a shot for lens, f-top and lighting concerns. Without the redundancy of two eyes providing triangular positioning in space, the one-eyed video mind seeks redundancy over time. Returning to the same patterns in different ways, at different times, creates redundancy over time. 18

The filmmaker must stick to appearances to render intelligible – incidentally, in an inevitably schematic manner – the interior, personal world.

7. The Sustainable Circuit

This is not the strength of big budget Hollywood movies. In fact, the bigger you are the slower and less often you change. Change is at the core of the Circadian Model and is necessary for its survival. The “Sustainable Circuit” is about smaller, more personal cinema in an electronically connected society, sharing the cultures of others via digital exchange. Shorter production time = Smaller, Personal, responsible motion pictures that challenge and experiment, not only with techniques of production but that can focus on continuance, revenue and profit.



As Hollywood moves into producing movies that become rides, and sequels that occur temporally prior to the original, they have also discovered that personal reactions and opinions are irrelevant when it comes to predicting how the shares of a company that produced or distributed a film might be treated on the stock market. 19

Entertainment industries produce things we experience, and that we emotionally carry away with us long after the lights have come up. Standard cookie-cutter accounting and forecasting methods don’t seem to work very well when applied to this industry. Even a distributor’s brand name doesn’t matter anymore; with the possible exception of Disney, no one goes specifically to see a film because of who distributed it. 20

Napster proved that old dogs could be taught new tricks even if they did file for “Chapter 11” and even if those old dogs stole the trick and are making billions of dollars out of it.

Commercial television is being used as advertising propaganda for industrialization, but this is not inherent in the technology. The bias is not toward advertising but toward monitoring. What it allows us to do is to monitor events simultaneously with others. Modern culture as we know it is not sustainable. We deplete soil, exhaust fisheries, pollute air, foul waters, and warm the planet. There are ways to create cyber cultures where the circuitry of human-to-nature connections is rich enough to identify and eliminate these traditionally negative consequences. 13

Circadian Cinema seeks to join in these goals. With the video revolution only just begun, the possibility of electronic, digital access to narrative motion pictures makes the chances of equal play, survival, and even profitability that much greater.



Kaplan, Robert. The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero., Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kelly, Richard. The Name of the Book is Dogme95., Faber and Faber Limited, 2000.

Cohan, Steven & Hark, Ina Rae (Eds.). The Road Movie Book., Routledge, 1997.

Brakhage, Stan. A Motion Picture Giving and Taking Book., Frontier Press, 1971.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image., The University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality., The Oxford University Press, 1965.

Bazin, André. What is Cinema?, University of California Press, 1971.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse – Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Cornell University Press, 1978.

Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media, Pantheon Books, 1988.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form, Harvest Books, 1969.

Godard, Jean-Luc. The Cinema Alone: Jean-Luc Godard in the Year 2000 (Film Culture in Transition Series), Amsterdam University Press, 2001.

Pierce, Charles. The Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings, 1893-1913, Indiana University Press, 1998.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1964.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy – The Making of Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Rhodes, Richard. Visions of Technology – A Century of Vital Debate About Machines, Systems and the Human World, Touchstone, 1999.

Mead, Margaret. New Lives for Old : Cultural Transformation—Manus, 1928-1953 Morrow, 1956.

Vorkapitch, Slavko. On True Cinema, Fakultet Dramskih Umetnosti, Beograd, 1998

Worth, Sol. Studying Visual Communication, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia Pennsylvania, 1981


Lumiére Brothers catalogue

Stan Brakhage

Intolerance (1916) D. W. Griffith

Ballet Mécanique (1924) Fernand Léger

Potemkin (1925) Sergei Eisenstein

Man with a Movie Camera (1928) Dziga Vertov

Les Regle du Jeu (1939) Jean Renoir

Diary of a County Priest (1951) Robert Bresson

Umberto D. (1952) Vittorio de Sica

La Strada (1954) Federico Fellini

Pull My Daisy (1958) Robert Frank/Alfred Leslie

Shadows (1959) Cassavetes

The Flower Thief (1960) Ron Rice

Faces (1968) Cassevetes

David Holzman’s Diary (1968) Jim McBride

Playtime (1971) Jacques Tati

A Woman Under the Influence (1972) Cassavetes

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) Cassavetes

The Idiots (1998) Lars Von Trier

The Celebration (1998) Lars Von Trier

The Blair Witch Project (1999) Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Mifune (1999) Søren Kragh-Jacobsen

Dancer in the Dark (2000) Lars Von Trier

The King is Alive (2000) Kristian Levring

Time Code (2000) Mike Figgis

Center of the World (2001) Wayne Wang

Tape (2001) Richard Linklater

Chelsea Walls (2001) Ethan Hawke

The Anniversary Party (2001) Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Tadpole (2002) Gary Winick

Personal Velocity (2003) Rebecca Miller


  1. Kracauer, Siegfried, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, 1965. p. 60
  2. McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964. p. 49
  3. Kracauer, Siegfried, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, 1965. p. 3
  4. Ibid., p. 15
  5. Ibid., p. 41
  6. Ibid., p. 175 – 76. Kracauer, quoting André Maurois, “La poésie du cinéma,” L’art cinématographique, Paris, 1927, vol. I pp. 1-37.
  7. Ibid., p. 69
  8. Ibid., p. 237
  9. Ryan, Paul., Video Chi
  10. Kraucauer, Siegfried., Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, 1965., p. 248
  11. Ibid., p. 141
  12. Ibid., p. 226
  13. Ryan, Paul., Video Chi
  14. Hundley, Jessica., Director’s Guide to Digital Video: Acting for DV, p. 2
  15. Kracauer, Siegfried., p. 176. Again quoting André Maurios
  16. Vogel, Harold, L., Analyzing Movie Companies. from The Movie Business Book., 1986. p. 161
  17. Ryan, Paul., Video Chi
  18. Ibid.
  19. Vogel, Harold, L., Analyzing Movie Companies, from The Movie Business Book., p. 164
  20. Ibid., p. 163
  21. Ryan, Paul., Video Chi

Volume 7, Issue 6 / June 2003 Essays film stylefilm theorygilles dele