Movies shot on or projected from film have been declared dead or dying for years. Yet some directors and cinematographers still recognize the superiority of this almost 125 year- old technology. Stanley Kubrick’s science-fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey was shot on film in 1968, as were all movies back in the pre-digital days. But on May 13, 2018 it was projected in Cannes for the Film Festival from 70mm film. Christopher Nolan had worked with Warner Brothers to re-release the film on 70mm. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called it “breathtaking.”
Why was this “film” still available? Nolan has been a persistent advocate of film. He had persuaded Warner Brothers to convert 100 theaters to allow projection of 70mm films for his Dunkirk. His cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shares his passion, noting that a 70mm IMAX film print has resolution equivalent to 18K. When Nolan found out that there was an effort to print 2001 from the original negative, he became very excited. This effort at WB was led by Ned Price, vice president of restoration at Warner, Vince Roth, technical director at the post-production facility FotoKem, and color timer Kristen Zimmermann. Nolan remembered vividly seeing the movie as a kid. He was affected again watching the space station rotate above earth to the music of “The Blue Danube.” I must have watched that scene 20 times,” the director says when seeing the new print, clearly affected, “and every time the space station enters the shot, it moves me.” The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences had a screening in 70mm for their members on June 11, with an introduction by Christopher Nolan, and the film began a limited release.
As Nolan stated about film, “… it’s still the best analog for the way the eye sees that has ever been produced. Except for the last 10 years, the entire history of cinema has been done exactly the same way, photochemically, and it’s a great passion of mine to maintain this knowledge and expertise…”
Cinematographer John Bailey, now President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, agrees that projected 35mm “…seems to have a kind of animation and life to it — a breathing quality. It has to do a lot with the film grain; it has to do a lot with the projection shutters and the fact that every frame in a film print is completely distinct.”
At the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood in April 2018, one of the panel discussions was Writing with Light, held at the American Society of Cinematographers Clubhouse. The event was moderated by director Taylor Hackford, and included veteran cinematographers Amy Vincent, John Toll, Bob Richardson, Caleb Deschanel, and Stephen Burum. Taylor Hackford asked stimulating questions that each cinematographer answered in turn. Three of the five cinematographers still use film. They recognize the advantages of digital: you need less light and you have more control. Caleb Deschanel (National Treasure, Jack Reacher, Winter’s Tale), said that “digital is a scientific representation of skin color.” Film is more natural in representing true skin, he said, which he has to color-corect when he uses digital. One of the other current problems with digital is that nothing is standardized in its use, which the American Society of Cinematographers is trying to correct. As for film, the people that have the skill to develop it are in very short supply, as are the labs that process it and the companies that manufacture it, which have closed down over the last decade. Fortunately, Kodak is still producing 35mm color and b&w film stock. Kodak also has a website and an app, Reelfilm, where movies shot on film playing in your area are listed: https://reelfilm.kodak.com
Movie theater projection has virtually all been converted to digital at this point. Instead of multiple cans of film reels, a single DCP (Digital Cinema Package) cartridge is sent to the movie theater. Another advantage here is that the DCP costs about $100. Christopher Nolan’s 70mm Dunkirk print cost over $30,000. The goal eventually will be to send the movies by satellite transmission. Theater film projectors have been surplused and most of them junked. For the few vintage theaters, its been a good opportunity to get replacement projectors and ancillary equipment or spare parts. Finding skilled operators of this equipment is another story. Many of the former projectionists have retired. And there is little incentive for learning this skill as a career path.
There are some fans of celluloid that are fortunate to get on a cinema wayback machine. The old Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, now part of the American Cinematheque, had its projection room remodelled for fire safety so it could play nitrate-based film. At the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival it screened the beautiful Leave Her to Heaven on nitrate stock, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During that screening the film broke, and the audience waited as the projectionist spliced the film back together.
The threat of damage to film prints is constant, said Dominic Simmons, Head of Technical, at the British Film Institute. “Every time you run a film print through a projector there is some element of damage done to it. You’re running it over sprockets at loads of feet per second,” he said. Writer Daniel Curtis described the process during a screening of a documentary, at BFI, “It’s loud, quick, and, after leaning in to look more closely, it’s easy to see that it’s violent.” Simmons added, “It’s a really physical process. The film is starting and stopping 24 times a second.”
The preservation of movies on film has been going on for decades. The preservation of digital movies is still in its infancy. Many mistakingly assume that just because a movie is shot on digital “it will last forever.” The Library of Congress and the American Film Institute have been cooperating on film preservation for 50 years. The Nitrate Film Vault manager, in an oft-quoted statement, says digital preservation may be an “oxymoron.” “How do you save digital material? ‘Cause digital as a rule is very iffy. You have only a couple of different ways you can store it, you can store it magnetically or optically or on a card, but none of those are permanent. Something can disrupt them and the stuff is gone.” This also begs the question – is the preservation effort going to be made to begin with?
According to experts the answer to the problems of digital preservation is redundant storage, periodic migration to newer media, and emulation (using current software that simulates original or obsolete ones). Paramount Pictures is one of the studios that is making the effort to archivally preserve its film-based and digital library. Andrea Kalas, VP of Archives, says she makes four copies of every Paramount movie. She stores their library of films in Pro-Tek vaults on high-density mobile shelves at 29 degrees and 35% relative humidity. on that basis, they can last well over 100 years.
The British Film Institute has a new facility for the storage of the national collection. Heather Stewart is BFI’s Creative Director. While recognizing the importance of digital movies, her opinion of film was quoted recently in The New Statesman, “It’s the realism the film gives you – that organic thing, the light going through the film is not the same as the binary of 0s and 1s. It’s a different sensation. Which isn’t to say that digital is ‘lesser than’, but it’s a different effect. People know. They feel it in their bodies, the excitement becomes more real. There’s that pleasure of film, of course but I don’t want to be too geeky about it.” Once film is placed in proper storage conditions, it can be very stable. As Stewart states, “…“all archives worldwide are on the same page and the plan is to continue looking after analogue, so it ain’t going anywhere.”
Along with preserving film itself, an efort was made in the UK to preserve, at least in photograohs, the film projectionists. Prompted by the transition to digital, The Projection Project centered at the Department of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick sought to record and investigate the history of movie projection in Britain. In 2012, with 90% of projectionists already displaced by digital, the photographer Richard Nicholson began photographing movie theater film projectionists.
Many movie viewers don’t see any difference between digital or film, and some say digital is even superior. For now there are still the two. If you are a movie fan, go see for yourself. At least while there are still film movies being made, and at the few theaters that can still non-digitally project them.
This post has been part of a series on film vs. digital