Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on December 4, 2011
In case you haven’t heard; 2012 will be known as the official date when most celluloid projection will be tossed into a fiery and remote pit. Film, “reel” film, the stuff made of organic emulsion that unspools through a projector at 24-frames-a-second, is going the way of the dodo bird. Roger Ebert wrote a eulogy on November 2nd (Chicago Sun Times; The sudden death of film). A.O. Scott followed his lead a couple weeks later on Nov 18th (N.Y. Times; Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?). Leo Enticknap, a cinema director at the University of Leeds in the U.K., went even further on Nov. 20th (INDIEwire; The 35mm Battle Continues) when he facetiously ridiculed a recent petition to save 35mm film with this opening salvo: “OK, and let’s petition Ford to reopen the Model T production line, and ban all performances of Mozart’s piano concertos on anything other than an eighteenth century fortepiano while we’re at it.” (Links to all three essays are provided at the bottom of my post.)
Respected cinephiles from all walks of life have been covering the topic of digital projection’s eminent domination for over a decade. The writing has been on the wall for a long time. In this case, that wall is that screen in your local cinema. Did you notice the change? Or, I should say, the disappearance of the change-over cue from one reel to the next? Most people did not, and many said it was overdue. Few seemed to notice lens issues that radically dimmed the brightness in many digital venues. (See Ty Burr’s link at bottom.) They also didn’t seem to care when the full range of shadows and darkness that were easily captured on celluloid transformed into flat blacks that bled like ink-splotches between raincoats and dark spaces.
Audiences did, however, notice glitches when they were paying film festival ticket prices only to be subjected to a standard DVD projection with watermarks due to hardware issues related to machinery in need of updates. (See link at bottom.)
Despite many pitfalls, ultimately, there is no stopping convenience, speed, and the new high-definition palette that is the mark of contemporary work.
Put another way: when director Nicolas Winding Refn released Valhalla Rising in 2009, it was shot digitally with the Red One camera and was pretty fantastic – but all the mud, blood, and darkness was, well, kinda muddy. It was obviously not film. Two scant years later he comes out with Drive, and his 2K digital cinematography looks almost exactly as rich as film. I’m pretty sure I’ll always be able to single out the distinct beauty that is evoked from either Technicolor or Kodachrome film, to name but a few memorable film stocks, but the point is that digital enthusiasts have finally gotten to the point where the majority of people don’t know the difference at all.
But in their rush to push film to extinction, they seem to have forgotten that there is also a third option. Let some of us keep it alive, like the dedicated bibliophiles at the end of Fahrenheit 451 – only we’ll do for film what those literature-loving holdouts in Bradbury’s story did for books.
Film projection will, soon enough, be an endangered species. Moving Picture Machine Operators – like J.T., pictured above – are already near-extinct. For precisely this reason there should be incentives, now, for their preservation and survival. Instead, the opposite is happening; digital profiteers want to kill film projection completely and then get rid of the body as quickly as possible. It’s like burying the corpse of an art-collector without checking the pockets for the keys that might open up various treasure troves. (Note: I wouldn’t trust murderous thieves with artistic legacies but, still, …. what a waste.)
The treasure-troves I refer to are domestic, foreign, private, and other rare film collections that should only be put through reel-to-reel projectors and handled by experienced projectionists who won’t scratch or otherwise damage the print. The reels pictured above are for five, rare, feature-length films by Yasuzo Masumura that ran recently at the International Film Series in Boulder (which I program), and which were made possible by both the Japan Foundation and the Consulate General of Japan at Denver. None of them are on DVD or otherwise available. Attendance over the course of those five nights numbered at over 500.
Now, unfortunately, those rare prints don’t normally bring in huge crowds, which is why having access to contemporary foreign and indy hits on 35mm is so important to the independent arthouse venue. They keep us alive.
Most small exhibitors already do digital, but they’re not necessarily full-on Digital Cinema Package compliant (I’ve heard both “Package” and “Projection” – the latter being more intuitive). To qualify for D.C.P., you need money. A lot of money. Multiplexes get help with Virtual Print Fee money, but only if they run “first-run studio content” – which is exactly what a quality arthouse should avoid. Furthermore, V.P.F. money is not paid out to individual theaters, but rather meted out to third parties who help package the loan. Who’s making the money? Hollywood studios provide the V.P.F. money because the digital transition saves them a lot on shipping and film processing. People selling the digital equipment and providing the loans for theaters to buy (or lease) the digital equipment are the ones who get the V.P.F. cash – so they have quite an incentive to sell, install, and handle as many transactions as possible.
How can these digital profiteers make even more money? Well… they could structure their financial arrangements in such a way as to require theaters to remove their 35mm gear. This has been done, and it answers the question of why a transition that seemed to be taking such a long time suddenly went into hyper-drive. The way I see it, Old Man Film survived several heart-attacks and was in good hospice care putting together his last will and testament when, suddenly, he got bundled up into a wheelchair and rolled down the hill. I’m calling it out; this is foul play.
I love the moving picture show, and I won’t stop loving it just because it’s no longer a physical object moving through a projector. But the full-breadth of the moving picture show that can transport us to so many places is best served by variety. As a music lover I still listen to vinyl albums, cassette tapes, and – sure! – over 300 gigs of MP3′s that I cycle through on my hard-drive. Actually, it’s now only 150 gigs of music because the last time I tried to reformat my computer I lost half of my digital music collection. My vinyl? All of it still there. Even the Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart’s Club Band album I was listening to when I was five-years-old. The digital dictators who are taking over our nation’s projection booths don’t want you to have that analog luxury of comparing something side-by-side, or even simply to have it as a backup. Profiteers will say this is the free market at work. Really? What comes to my mind are corporate bail-outs and monopolies, not free markets.
The oft-made analogy that compares celluloid film to vinyl albums would infer that independent arthouse exhibitors are like the brick-and-mortar record shops that have sadly dwindled to a very small number. While this may be true, such exhibition houses are also like museums, where you can go see works of art – a lot of it unavailable in any other format. They are worth saving and supporting. If such venues are not going to qualify for V.P.F. cash incentives because they refuse to be forced into running a bunch of first-run crap, and also because they refuse to get rid of their 35mm projectors, then – at the very least – there is one thing the studios could do to help us out: keep striking a small number of 35mm prints. Help us buy us as much time as possible. We can then both save up money and wait for current digital projection systems to come down in price, or at least wait for second-hand D.C.P. systems to become more widely available.
For the reasons mentioned above I both signed the petition to keep 35mm alive (see link at bottom) and I took exception to Leo Enticknaps’ analogy comparing me to someone who would petition Ford to reopen the Model T production line. Exactly one week ago I posted my response in an Art House Convergence email thread, which goes out to other independent and arthouse exhibitors. My Keelsetter TCM handle is a literal translation into English of my Norwegian last name and was never meant for anonymous trolling (even though we Norwegians do seem to have a lot of ‘em), so I freely sign off on the response below with my actual name in full.
Roger Ebert’s essay:
A.O. Scott’s essay:
Leo Enticknap’s essay:
Ty Burr’s essay:
Projectionist’s commenting on problems with DCP:
The petition site asking studios to keep making 35mm prints:
I’d like to thank David Bordwell for bringing to my attention his excellent essay (which answered many questions). He provides a link within the comments section, but I want to make sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle so highlight it here as well:
What? Still here past the credit sequence even with the lights on? For you, a small reward. This from colleague and friend Alex Cox as excerpted from his blog at alexcox.com which he wrote when talking about two films of his: Searchers 2.0 and Straight to Hell Returns. It can be found under the entry titled I Was Shane MacGowan’s Plastic Surgeon:
In other words: celluloid = 18,000,000 bits of info, and HD = 2,000,000 bits of info. Sure, that celluloid-to-digital ratio keeps changing, with huge improvements in the digital domain coming our way with each passing year. But when you think of our rich cinematic past, doesn’t all the celluloid information we’ve reaped so far seem worth saving from the fire?
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