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CIA TECH: The photograph is particularly dark. As we can see, there is a Caucasian man and a Negro woman. The resolution breaks down pretty quickly. The film stock is definitely Russian, low grade.

(Source: 2006 film called The Good Shepherd covering the history of the CIA from approx 1945 to 1961.)

What does "breaks down" mean in this context? The definition of break down has a lot of different meanings, and I'm not sure which one fits this context.

  1. To cause to collapse; destroy: break down a partition; broke down our resolve.
  2. To become or cause to become distressed or upset. To have a physical or mental collapse.
  3. To give up resistance; give way: prejudices that break down slowly.
  4. To fail to function; cease to be useful, effective, or operable: The elevator broke down.
  5. To render or become weak or ineffective: Opposition to the king's rule gradually broke down his authority.
  6. To divide into or consider in parts; analyze. To be divisible; admit of analysis: The population breaks down into three main groups.
  7. To decompose or cause to decompose chemically.
  8. Electricity To undergo a breakdown.
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    Looks like a "misuse" to me. I expect what the writer means is the picture breaks up (because of hardware and/r software problems, the video signal doesn't display properly; often with today's digital equipment, the problem manifests as "blockiness"). OR - if it's a "static" photograph (not a VCR), maybe he just means if he tries to magnify the picture, the low resolution of the image immediately becomes apparent. Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 17:07
  • @Lambie It's unclear to me; I've never seen the movie. It's probably some sort of surveillance film and the tech is referring to a frame as a "photograph". shrug It's Hollywood, the bar is pretty low when it comes to using the correct terminology.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 18:41
  • @ColleenV Ok, I get it: It is a scene in a movie and the characters are looking at photos taken on Russian paper stock. And this has zero to do with video or film per se. It is about the scene. All this is way before video.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 19:39

3 Answers 3

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This might be talking about an attempt to magnify or enhance a photo, or about successive frames from a videotape recording. In either case, the meaning is that as the process proceeds, the resolution gets worse. This use of "breaks down" is perfectly natural, and was probably more common in the 1960s than it is now.

The phrase "The signal breaks down" was particularly common, in regard to both audio and video signals. "The signal breaks up" is now more common.

Addition: When I answered it the question specifically said "in Video tape recorder context". That has since been removed from the question, but my answer is still a perfectly possible meaning for a film about that era. I have not seen the specific film under discussion, and so have no opinion on what was actually shown in that film.

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    I would add that, outside of the context of OP's quote, "break down" in relation to video tape would often refer to the physical degradation of the magnetic tape, causing a degradation in the displayed video.
    – randomhead
    Commented Jul 6, 2021 at 1:18
  • @Lambie There certainly was video in the 1950s and 1960s, including both television and films. Commercial video tape recorders date from 1956, and the CIA was very likely an early adopter of these. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_tape_recorder for more details and history. Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 19:46
  • @Lamnie, look at the editing history. When I answered it the question specifically said "in Video tape recorder context". That has since been removed from the question, but my answer is still a perfectly possible meaning for a film about that era. i have not seen the specific film and so cannot comment on the words used in that film. That does not make the answer "wrong". The "no VCR in that era" was discussed at some length in comments on the now-deleted answer by Michael Harvey. Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 19:57
  • I reread it twice and then realized it was about the CIA tech and someone else examining a photograph in a scene in the film, which the OP saw as a video....That said, the dialogue itself is clear, I think. However, there may have been video tape, but no signals. It is not about the film. It is about a scene in the film. The answer is wrong. However, it is not your fault you were misled by a poorly worded question. I agree with that.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 20:10
  • I'm sorry about not notifying you of the edit, the author was having some trouble with a quality ban and I was trying to help them dig out of the hole.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 23, 2021 at 20:17
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In the film, a "CIA TECH: The photograph is particularly dark. As we can see, there is a Caucasian man and a Negro woman. The resolution breaks down pretty quickly. The film stock is definitely Russian, low grade."

The technician is looking at a photograph. The photograph is on Russian paper stock. These are usually gelatin silver prints. The stock is the paper prints are printed on.

The silver particles break down and fade (deteriorate). That is what is meant by resolution here, I think.

Figure 16: The breakdown of a silver image particle begins with the oxidation and migration of silver ions. film stock particles

Resolution here means how clear the picture is. Its clarity. As the silver particles have broken down, it is no longer clear.

gelatin silver prints

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Without more context than that, I suspect the writer means that the resolution degrades. It’s common to say that a machine breaks down when it stops working, a transmission breaks up when it becomes indecipherable, or that resolution goes down. That note might be mixing two or all three of these together.

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