Tag Archives: film preservation


The end of celluloid film has been happening steadily over the last few years, with each new blow seemingly the knock-out punch. But its devotees refuse to give up the fight.  “If I can’t shoot on film I’ll stop making movies,” said Quentin Tarantino in 2014. He was talking on radio station KCRW’s “The Treatment”  in L.A, “The fight is lost if all we have is digital DCP presentations. To me, that’s just television in public.” he added. The DCP he refers to is Digital Cinema Package, the computer hard drive that contains a movie’s audio and video. It is sent to a movie theater where it is ingested into the projector for digital projection. Like reels of film before it, the DCP can be sent on to another theater, only its a lot cheaper for the studio to produce. This is not the latest technology, as many theaters can get their films directly by satellite transmission.

The use of 70 mm film stock in movie-making had already died by the end of the 1960s.That’s when studios used it to pry people away from their TV sets and TV dinners and into theaters to watch movies like South Pacific, Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and It’s a Mad Mad, Mad Mad World.  But like many old movies, 70 mm was ripe for a sequel. Tarantino’s last movie, The Hateful Eight, recentlywas shot on 70mm (actually 65mm) film stock. Director Christopher Nolan stated , “I don’t want anyone telling any filmmaker they can’t shoot on film any more than telling David Finch and Steven Soderbergh that they can’t shoot digital. It’s the director’s right. It’s their choice.” Christopher Nolan shot Intersteller in 2014 on 70mm film stock (65mm). Warner Brothers released the movie two days early to those theaters that still had film projectors. The iconic TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood acquired film projectors for the occasion. Several smaller theater chains that had already converted to digital projection squwaked. “I can’t afford to get the projectors out of the warehouse,” said Joe Paletta of the Spotlight Theaters in Georgia, “and I don’t have anyone to operate them [the film projectors].” For Nolan, it was an opportunity to incentivize and reward the theaters that had kept projecting film.

A projectionist readies a 70mm IMAX print of "Interstellar," at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square Theatre in New York City. DAVID MORGAN/CBS NEWS
A projectionist readies a 70mm IMAX print of “Interstellar,” at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square Theatre in New York City. David Morgan/CBS News

In 2002 Star Wars Episode: II Attack of the Clones became the first movie to be shot entirely in digital. But now, the latest Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was shot on 65mm film stock by film proponent J.J. Abrams, with the encouragement of George Lucas. Part of the idea was to recapture the look of the original trilogy. This was important to Lucas because, as Abrams added “…  the movie, in a way, goes backwards to go forwards.” George Lucas wants the future episodes to be shot on film also.

Film 70mm

Yet the world of film still teeters on the abyss. The new Star Wars was only shown on 70mm film at IMAX theaters . Nearly everywhere else it was projected on a digital transfer. But film’s qualities come in different shapes. For the movie Carol, director Todd Haynes wanted a muted look in the cinematography. This was in keeping with the bleak times in Cold-War New York during 1952 when the story took place. The story was based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Haynes and his team including cinematographer Ed Lachman referenced the work of women photographers of the time: Ruth Orkin; Helen Leavitt; and Vivian Maier. They were especially intrigued by the photographers’ use of Kodak Ektachrome film and its muted colors, and  wanted to achieve that look. This meant shooting on film rather than digitally. And more unusually, Ed Lachman used Super 16mm. His reasoning was that if he used 35mm, by the time it was converted for digital projection there would be no difference in the finished look – the “grain” would have all disappeared. “The feeling and texture of the grain reinforced the emotionality of the story,” said Lachman.

But the world of film still teeters on the abyss. In New York, Technicolor and Deluxe, long-time processors of color film for the movie industry, had been amalgamated as the Film Lab New York. After processing Carol the Lab went belly-up. After Ed Lachman found out that the lab equipment was going to be tossed, he made arrangements to salvage it all. Technicolor had already closed a plant in Glendale California.

Yet digital cinema, the current master of moviedom, is showing signs of the panic that befell the Hollywood studios in the late 1950s and 1960s. Recently we were given 3-D movies, a trend already showing signs of fatigue. Then we were offered dining and wine with our cinema, and reserved seating. Reclining seats are the next trend, with news of the introduction of sensory enhancements like vibrating seats and the diffusion of smells (didn’t Smell-O-Vision come out in the 1950s too?). Perhaps the thinking is that  bombarding the senses with smells, booming sounds, vibrating seats, and explosions on the screen will get us all into the theaters.

It’s a rarely disseminated fact that movie attendance has been nose-diving steadily and surly since 1930. Back then, 80 million people, or 65% of the U.S. population, went to the movies a week. In 2015, that number has dropped to 25.7 million people a week, less than 10% of the U.S. population.  A  yearly chart, covering 1930-2000 can be found here. The attendance numbers have continued to drop since 2000. Back in the 1930s, to lure all those movie-goers, each of the seven big studios released 30 to 40 films a year. But we know that The U.S Courts broke up the studio-system in its Anti-Trust ruling in 1948, forcing them to sell of their movie theaters. How laughable  with the multi-media, multi-national, corporate conglomerates we now have running movie studios.

MGM Developing process 1
M-G-M’s film processing lab circa 1936

In 2015, in a busy year for the busiest studio Warner Brothers, it released 21 movies. Movie revenues are freely quoted, which seem very impressive, and is helped by the always escalating prices for theater tickets. While this has nothing to do with whether or not a movie is film-based or digital, it is connected to movie industry economics – which  brought us digital based film projection. And of course, as Kenneth Turan the film critic of the LA Times said in writing about Hollywood, “The one big  thing it knows how to make is sequels and superhero movies and sequels to superhero movies.”

But which medium is best for the preservation of the content, one might wonder? It seems intuitive that digital is best as a preservation medium. And certainly that’s what we have been hearing for the last several years. But Martin Scorsese doesn’t think so. “Film is still the only preservation medium that we know to be durable.,” he said. “We just don’t know about digital storage systems. They haven’t been around long enough, and more importantly, they’re always changing. I think it’s important t to preserve our pictures on film, no matter how we shot them or finished them. That means negatives, and it means prints.” Mr. Scorsese is the founder of the Film Foundation, whose mission it is to preserve movies. Of course film has had a very rocky history. Approximately 90% of American silent films are considered lost, as well as 50% of sound films made before 1950. The combustible nitrate-based film of the silent era is partly responsible, leading to major fires at studio vaults. M-G-M had an electrical fire in 1967, destroying most of the studio’s cartoons, silent films, and films from the earlier Metro, Goldwyn, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures. Similarly, a fire at Fox Pictures destroyed its pre-1935 film negatives. Huge efforts have been made to preserve older films and newer ones since, but the job is colossal.


MGM film vaults
M-G-M film vaults circa 1936
Archival film storage at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences


This blog post is disseminated digitally. Part I appeared in February 2014.





That “films” will soon no longer be printed on film is is not really news, but that day is finally here. Paramount Pictures released its first major movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, entirely on digital in the U.S.  Last December the release of Paramount’s Anchorman II was its last movie printed on 35mm film for distribution in the U.S. Paramount Pictures celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and 35mm film has been the standard for all of that period. 20th Century-Fox and Disney will soon follow with all-digital distribution.

End of film 1

Movie theaters have been converting to 4k digital projectors for two or three years now, which cost from $60,000 to $150,000.  The “films” arrive to them mailed as hard drives in cases, and in the near future will arrive over high-speed downloads. But according to the National Association of Theater Owners, some 4126 theater screens are still projecting film and most of these theaters probably can’t afford digital projectors.

With the studios  using less and less film stock, film processors are hurting. The maker of unprocessed film, Eastman Kodak, has already filed for bankruptcy. Technicolor and Deluxe, rivals for decades in the processing of color film, finally decided to call a truce and divide up the remaining business between them. Recently Technicolor closed its processing lab in Glendale, California.

Digital filming has split many directors into two camps. James Cameron was a pioneer with Avatar. And films like The Hobbitt and Life of Pi relied on digital cameras. But film preservation advocate Martin Scorsese shot Hugo  digitally.  Christopher Nolan who directed The Dark Knight Rises, gathered many directors together to make a plea to save 35mm film. Quentin Tarantino says “…can’t stand digital. I hate that stuff.” And David O. Russell said, “Maybe I’m old  fashioned, maybe I’m superstitious, maybe I’m romantic – I love film and it has a a magic quality, it has warmth.”

The benefits of digital to the studios are financial. A film print costs about $2000, a digital disk less than $100. Not to mention the difference in shipping costs. A 90 minute movie is usually over 8,000 feet of film. If you’ve ever looked through developed film stock, it’s amazing how many frames it takes to advance a scene. Modern reels of film come  in 2000 ft. lengths, so that’s almost nine reels of film per movie, and many movies last longer than 90 minutes.

And on the shooting end of digital, you no longer have to stop “filming” to reload film magazines, you just keep on shooting. Only now the actors don’t get so many beaks.

Let’s look back in time at film and how it was handled.

Theater projection room circa 1950s
Theater projection room circa 1990s

In the old  theater projection rooms, two projectors would be used so that when one projector ran out of its film the other carried on projecting the same movie. The rooms also had a place to splice films (at right) in case the film broke.

In the heyday of the studio system, where everything was done under the studio roof, film processing was an important part of the  “factory.” In the 1930s when the photos below were taken at MGM, all the film was developed at the studio and shipped out across the country and across the world.

End of film MGM film development (1)

The industrial-looking machine above was used to develop  film. The vats below contained developing and washing solutions, through which film looped continuously, going through one vat after the other until the film was developed. You can see the progression from left to right.


End of film MGM film devepment 2

The technician below conduct quality control.

End of fil MGM film devolopment 4

End of film MGM Film development 3

In the photo below taken at MGM in the 1930s, rows of men work in the automatic film printing room.  Release prints for the movie theaters were made there at the rate of four million feet per week.

End of film

Film editing was not high-tech in the 1930s. Chester Schaefer at MGM edits and assembles a film prior to its screening and release.

Enf of film Film Editing

Digitizing older film for preservation is one of the benefits of digital technology. In a recent study by the Library of Congress, it found that of the 11,000 silent films that were produced by the American movie industry between 1912 and 1929, only 14% (1,575) survive today  in their original release condition, while another 11% survive in various imperfect formats.

The irony is that while digitizing film stock is a favored method used for the preservation of film, its long term life is an unknown. Film archivist David Pierce, who conducted the Library of Congress study, stated that, “Maintained under proper conditions – e.g.. cool, dry, vaults – film reels can last for hundreds of years. That kind of longevity has not been proven for digital copies yet.”

Digital format obsolescence is another issue, resulting in the continual need for digital content migration to new platforms and software. Digital creation is cheaper, but digital storage is, in the long run, more expensive.

As for those rural movie theaters. Many have started fund raising campaigns to buy digital projectors. For those that are unsuccessful, they will likely be playing Peter Bogdanovitch’s The Last Picture Show on their screens before long.

End of film the_last_picture_show_theatre