Category Archives: Technology

Keeping Film Alive

70 mm Reels Small

A friend of mine sent me this post, and I thought it was worth sharing. It’s written by a twenty two year old guy in North Carolina who’s interested in the dying art of projecting movies on film. When he heard that Tarantino was arranging to have The Hateful Eight screened in 70mm at some theatres, he wanted to be involved, and ended up flying out to California on less than a day’s notice to offer his services. I really enjoyed reading about his experience, but beyond that, I was grateful to know there’s somebody under forty who’s actually excited about working with film.

I don’t want to get into an argument about film vs. digital. I’m not an expert, and aside from the inherent qualities of each format, what you end up seeing and hearing at any screening depends on the equipment being used and the theatre you’re in. But the fact is, the first hundred years of cinema history exist on film. DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K restorations are all fine, but if you want to see Lawrence of Arabia the way it was meant to be seen, you need to go to a theatre and see it in 70mm. Digital cinema is great, but it isn’t film. I can get on the net and track down a high-resolution scan of a painting by Van Gogh. It’s still not the same as going to a museum and seeing the actual painting by Van Gogh.

So it’s encouraging that this guy has invested the time and energy to learn how to run film through a projector. Future generations who really want to experience Sunrise, The Magnificent Ambersons or Do the Right Thing will be relying on people like this, people who are truly dedicated to the medium. They’re keeping film alive.

So anyway, here’s the link. And if you feel like I do, it couldn’t hurt to post a comment so he knows his efforts are appreciated.

What It’s Like to Be a ‘Hateful Eight’ 70mm Projectionist

If You’re Gonna Show 35….

NB 1

A few weeks ago I went to the New Beverly to see some movies. I actually saw two separate screenings, a Sam Peckinpah double bill and a William Witney double bill. I want to start by saying that I appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s commitment to showing films in 35mm (or on occasion 16mm). Digital is fine, and given the economics of distribution and exhibition, there’s no way we’re going back. But it’s important to remember that, from the beginning of cinema history up until just recently, film was the standard, and that 35mm is an excellent medium for projecting an image on a screen.

That is, if you’re using a decent print. If the print’s not in god shape, you can run into all kinds of problems, and that’s why I’m writing this post. For the Witney bill, they showed Master of the World and Stranger at My Door. Stranger at My Door looked good. The print was in good condition, and it was a pleasure to see it on a big screen. On the other hand, Master of the World looked awful. The print was still pretty crisp, but the color was completely degraded, to the point where the whole movie looked pink. I doubt William Witney would have been happy if he’d been in attendance that night.

The Peckinpah bill was worse. I guess you could say the print they showed of The Getaway was acceptable, but it obviously had a lot of miles on it. Watching Junior Bonner, though, I got angry. The color was so bad, I’m not even sure you could call it color. It looked as though somebody had dumped the reels in a bathtub full of bleach. This is not the way the movie was meant to be seen.

It was especially frustrating because I loved the movie. I’d never seen Junior Bonner before, and it’s definitely one of Peckinpah’s best. Those who know him only for his action flicks don’t fully understand who he was as an artist. Junior Bonner is a low key film about a fading rodeo star who rolls into his hometown and reconnects with his family. It’s a beautiful character study, the cast is great, and Steve McQueen is especially impressive.

I’m glad that Tarantino is programming stuff like this, but he really needs to find better prints. Aside from my personal frustration at seeing a print so badly faded, I wonder what impression this gives younger viewers of 35mm. What would somebody in their early twenties think watching the Peckinpah double bill? They’d almost certainly come away with the impression that film was an inferior format, and that they were lucky to be living in the digital age.

Revival houses have always had to struggle to get decent prints, and these days it’s probably harder than ever to show movies on film. It’s great that Tarantino has a huge private collection, but he’s not doing anybody a favor by showing stuff in this condition. Older audiences will be frustrated. Younger audiences won’t get a chance to see these movies the way they were meant to be seen. And I think many filmmakers would be furious at the way their work was being presented.

So if you’re gonna show 35, it’s gotta be good 35.

Trouble at Home

NB 1

If you don’t live in LA, you’ve probably never heard of the New Beverly Cinema. Even if you do live in LA, you may never have been there. But for a small group of people who love film, the New Beverly has been a home away from home. I think I started going there back in the eighties, when it was run by Sherman Torgan. Sherman died several years ago, and since then his son Michael has taken over. For both of them, running the theatre wasn’t a job, it was an act of love.

I’ve seen so many movies at the New Beverly. It’s been so important to my life. These days I don’t go as often as I used to, but I still check in a couple times a year. Not too long ago I saw Reflections in a Golden Eye there. It’s a very interesting and very obscure film, directed by John Huston from a novel by Carson McCullers. I never expected to see it in a theatre, but the New Beverly ran it as part of a Marlon Brando retrospective. I was so happy to see it on the big screen. But it’s not just the programming that makes the New Beverly a special place. It’s special because it’s always been run by people who care about film.

Quentin Tarantino has provided support for the New Beverly for years, and actually bought the property when Sherman died in order to keep the theatre alive. I know it means a lot to him. But apparently there’s been a dispute going on about how the New Beverly should be run, and Tarantino has decided he wants to be in charge, effectively taking control of the theatre away from Michael. I just learned of this recently, and I’m not privy to all the details, so I suggest you follow the link below to hear the story from someone who’s been a witness. Ariel Schudson has been part of the New Beverly family for years. Here’s the post she wrote about the situation….

What Price Hollywood?

Honestly, I don’t know what to say about all this. I feel like a kid watching Mom and Dad argue. I don’t want to take sides, and the whole thing just makes me feel really awful.

Nashville (1975)

Chaos on the highway in Nashville.

Chaos on the highway in Nashville.

I would guess I was thirteen or fourteen when I first saw M*A*S*H. I loved it, but it also kind of freaked me out. I had never seen anything like it before, and it was unsettling in a way I couldn’t explain at the time. Part of it was certainly the black humor and the rampant sex, but also it just felt different. It wasn’t like a Hollywood movie. The director had broken a lot of the rules that commercial films were supposed to follow, giving M*A*S*H a rhythm and a vibe that was startling and liberating. A lot of that had to do with the sound.

Robert Altman was thinking about sound in a way that nobody else was at the time. He had a brash, iconoclastic approach to filmmaking that not only asked audiences to change the way they looked at movies but also the way they listened to movies. Up til nineteen seventy, the vast majority of American filmmakers mostly thought about sound as a matter of recording dialogue. If you could hear the actors clearly and understand what they were saying, that was good sound. Altman trashed that approach. He spent the early seventies trying out different ideas, looking for ways to make his work as rich aurally as it was visually.

Nashville is one of the early peaks in Altman’s career. Aside from all its other virtues, it has a soundtrack that is incredibly dense and dynamic. Layers of dialogue are mixed with background noise and source music to create a sprawling aural landscape. You won’t catch every line of dialogue, and you don’t need to. The movie doesn’t single out the stars, doesn’t tell you what you should be paying attention to. There are multiple stories that criss-cross and overlap, sometimes tin a single scene. You get to decide what you want to focus on.

One of Altman’s key innovations was to get away from the standard boom mike, which records dialogue and background noise together. He started using multiple mikes attached to the performers. This way each actor was recorded on a separate track, which could then be mixed in any way the director wished. This process was way more complicated than the traditional approach, and Altman was lucky to have a number of skilled people working with him. Jim Webb and Chris McLaughlin handled the multi-track recording. William A. Sawyer served as the sound editor and Richard Portman was the re-recording mixer. I don’t know of anyone before Altman who even came near to creating this kind of complex aural environment. He gives us layers, he gives us textures. When you watch the movie, don’t just focus on the dialogue. Listen to the sound.

The script, by Joan Tewkesbury, was written with this approach in mind. Nashville was conceived as a panorama of America, a tapestry with multiple stories woven together. Tewkesbury and Altman discussed the basic structure, talked about specific characters, and she spent some time getting to know the city. Though the film has a loose, spontaneous feel, Tewkesbury has said that for the most part Altman stuck to the screenplay. But some actors did offer their own ideas about the characters they played, and in some cases these were incorporated into the film.

One of the most important instances of this is the scene where Barbara Jean, the frail country music star who’s just gotten out of the hospital, is performing in a crowded amphitheatre. According to Patrick McGilligan, Tewkesbury initially had the character fainting in front of the crowd. But the actress, Ronee Blakley, felt she needed to take the character farther and came up with a meandering, stream-of-consciousness monologue which makes it clear that Barbara Jean can barely keep it together. Altman, after first telling her to stick to the script, allowed the actress to go and ahead and play the scene her way. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the movie.

Ronee Blakley

Ronee Blakley

This character, the country music star whose life is falling apart, is central to Nashville. You might even say she gives the movie its soul. Barbara Jean is both radiant and ethereal. Overflowing with warmth and kindness when she’s with her fans, but bitterly unhappy when she’s alone with her husband/manager. She’s going to pieces, and doesn’t seem to be able to pull herself together, but when she’s onstage singing she soars. In her music, in her voice, she’s the embodiment of the humble simplicity that’s at the center of country music mythology.

That mythology isn’t just central to Nashville’s image of itself, it’s central to America’s image of itself. The film was released just before the nation’s bicentennial, and it’s clear that Altman is using the country music capitol to offer his vision of America. The ideal of the simple, hardworking men and women who do their jobs and care for their families without raising their voices to complain is one that country songwriters have returned to over and over again. And politicians have taken up the refrain in countless campaigns, singing the praises of the God-fearing folks who live in the heartland, the great “silent majority” that keeps the country going through thick and thin.

Altman skewers that myth over and over again in Nashville. But he doesn’t discard it. In fact, though Altman spends a lot of time tearing away the lies and the hypocrisy, it’s because he wants to find the truth at the heart of that myth. The director does spend a good deal of time holding his characters up to ridicule, but he lets us know that they have other sides, too. There are moments in Nashville where these people surprise us, where they turn out to be better than we thought they were.

One character who surprises us is Haven Hamilton, and in large part this is because Henry Gibson plays the part with such smooth cunning. As obnoxious as Hamilton is at times, the actor keeps him from becoming overbearing. He strikes a careful balance between arrogance and innocence. Gibson is a wonderfully gifted actor, but Altman is one of the few filmmakers who knew how to use him. The director gets remarkable performances from many of the cast members. I mentioned Ronee Blakley above, and she is phenomenal as Barbara Jean. It’s to her credit that she immersed herself in the character so thoroughly that she was able to build on what Tewkesbury had written, taking it even farther. And musically, her performances are among the highlights of the film. Michael Murphy is appallingly confident and cool as a political hustler who’s laying the groundwork for his candidate’s campaign. He’s everybody’s friend, smiling and shaking hands, saying whatever’s necessary to get what he needs.

There are many other fine performers in the film, but it would take forever to give them all their due. Briefly I’ll say that Barbara Baxley, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Keith Carradine, Robert Doqui, Barbara Harris and Lily Tomlin are all outstanding. And aside from playing their individual parts, they work together beautifully. Altman was known for making films that utilized a large cast of characters, and this is one of the finest ensembles he ever worked with.

In Nashville Altman presents a sweeping landscape of American music, American culture, American life. Though at times he seems to be filled with bitter cynicism, it’s clear he also has tremendous love for his country. The movie is shaped by this conflict, and Altman doesn’t try to resolve it. At the end of Nashville, a crowd of people that has just witnessed a tragedy comes together in song, lifting their voices with the performers on stage to affirm that they will keep moving forward no matter what. However the song’s refrain, “You may say that I ain’t free, But it don’t worry me,” is deeply disturbing. Is it that they aren’t paying attention to the lyrics? Or is it that they really don’t care?

Altman lets you decide what it all means. The camera pans slowly upward, away from the crowd, and the voices fade as the sky fills the frame.

At the end of the film, the crowd goes on singing through the pain.

At the end of the film, the crowd goes on singing through the pain.

Preserving the Future

2001 final

Last week I came across a post on David Bordwell’s site which gives an in-depth look at some of the challenges we’re facing in terms of preserving both film and digital. It’s long, but it’s well worth reading. I was especially interested in the essay by Margaret Bodde, Executive Director of the Film Foundation, regarding preservation of digital media. As the studios rush to embrace digital, they seem blithely unaware of the fact that preserving media in this format is much more complicated, much more work intensive, and much more expensive than preserving film.

Anyway, if you’re into this stuff, I think you’ll find it pretty interesting. The link is below.

David Bordwell – Preservation Forum

Does Anybody Still Shoot on Film?

Josh Brolin in Oldboy

Josh Brolin in Oldboy

The answer is yes. Spike Lee chose to use film for his remake of Oldboy. Apparently he wanted the movie to have “that analog feel”. The link below will take you to an article posted by the company that provided the cameras for Oldboy. It’s an interesting read, at least for those of us following the digital/analog discussion. In addition to talking with Lee about his reasons for choosing film, the author also spoke with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. I didn’t realize that Bobbitt had also worked with director Steve McQueen on Shame and 12 Years a Slave, both visually stunning and both shot on film.

Yeah, I know digital is still the standard. I have no illusions about a revival of film. But it’s good to know that filmmakers still have a choice.

Spike Lee and Sean Bobbitt on Shooting Oldboy

Oz in 3D?

yellow-brick-roadI was standing on Hollywood Boulevard the other day, and I noticed that the Chinese Theatre was advertising a new version of The Wizard of Oz in 3D. I’ve gotta say, this really bugs me.

I have no problem with recent 2D films being converted to 3D, as long as the director approves. If James Cameron wants to re-release Titanic in 3D, that’s his business. But Victor Fleming and his numerous collaborators have been dead for many years, so there’s really no way of knowing whether or not the original creators would approve of this update.

It’s not just The Wizard of Oz I’m worried about. The thing that really concerns me is the precedent this sets. If the 3D Oz is a success, does this mean studios will start a stampede to do the same thing with other classics? I’m thinking back to the eighties, when companies were colorizing movies for release on video. Isn’t this the same thing?

If the theatrical re-release of Wizard of Oz in 3D makes a lot of money, what’s next? Lawrence of Arabia? 2001? Psycho? And now that technology has advanced to the point where 3D is available on home video, does this mean we’ll see “enhanced” versions of The Maltese Falcon? The Searchers? Rebel without a Cause?

Does anyone else see this as a problem? And if so, should we be doing something about it? I wonder if the DGA has this on their radar….

Would You Buy a Digital Camera from This Man?

Gatsby 4
Okay. Digital production, digital projection are now pretty much the norm. Most everything I’ve seen in a theatre lately, except for revival theatres, is presented in one digital format or another. While the quality is mostly good, I have to say I’m still not a total convert. But to be honest, I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing.

First, let’s talk about The Great Gatsby, which I have to say I loved. Not sure why the critics had such a hard time with it. Fitzgerald is my favorite author, and I thought Luhrmann, DiCaprio and all the rest did an amazing job of bringing his vision to the screen. Anyway, to get back to the digital thing, I saw the film twice. The first time was at the Arclight, Sherman Oaks, and I was totally overwhelmed by the experience. It was one of those times where the images and the sound just washed over me and I was enthralled. I didn’t notice any problems with the image. I was just swept off my feet.

The second time, however, was a little different. Part of the reason I went back again was to pay more attention to the quality of the digital projection. This time I saw it at the Arclight, Hollywood. I still loved the movie, but watching it a second time I had some problems with the image. In the first place, it seemed just slightly fuzzy, as though the resolution was not quite adequate. I also felt that the colors were a little too soft, which I’ve noticed in other cases with films shot and projected in digital. It didn’t seem to have the richness or depth of color that you’d get with film. The blacks just weren’t black enough, and the image in general looked faintly washed out.

I went to IMDB, where I found that the film was shot with Red Epic cameras using Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses. Under “Cinematographic Process”, it said the master format was digital intermediate (2K), and the source format was Redcode RAW (5K) (dual-strip 3-D). I won’t pretend this all makes sense to me. In the reading I’ve done about digital, I understand that even though there’s a lot of talk about 4K, most films we see are not coming from 4K masters. And I’m wondering why the master format for Gatsby was digital intermediate.

Not long after Gatsby I saw Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell at the Laemmle, North Hollywood. Just briefly I’ll say that it knocked me out, and I recommend it highly. As opposed to a big budget commercial feature like Gatsby, this is a small scale documentary. My guess is that it probably cost a few million to make. Like Gatsby, it was shot on digital, though the equipment and process were different. It’s important to say, too, that the finished film is a mix of processes, assembled from both digital footage and Super 8. But I thought it looked great. Where there is a deliberately bleached, grainy quality to the Super 8 work, the interviews (shot with a Sony CineAlta HDW-F900R) look crisp and there is a richness and texture to the image that seemed to me superior to Gatsby.

There could be a number of reasons for the difference in image quality in the two movies. It could be the cameras that were used in shooting. It could be the type of files that the content was transferred to. It could be the projectors. And I wonder if the size of the screen could be a factor, since the screens at the Laemmle are much smaller than those at the Arclight. Also, in reading about 2K and 4K, I’m learning that often people on the exhibition end don’t worry too much about the difference. Films can be shot in 4K, but then distributed as 2K files. Apparently it’s not uncommon for a film to be shot in 4K, distributed in 4K, but shown in 2K, since some projectors need to be switched over manually, and some projectionists don’t give a damn.

As you can probably tell, I’m confused. I know that with any new technology there’s going to be a certain amount of chaos, since you’ve got different companies with different technologies competing for a share of the market. But with digital I’m having a hard time figuring out exactly what I’m seeing. If there’s anybody out there who can make this clearer, please feel free post a comment. I need help.

Digital Cinema

Like it or not, digital cinema is fast becoming the standard for commercial production and exhibition. While I have a number of reservations about the process, there’s really no way of turning back the tide. The studios are aggressively pushing digital, and exhibitors are climbing on board.

I’m not in the film industry, and I don’t have the technical background to understand all the aspects of the debate. I just like to watch movies. But while studio execs spout hype about digital superiority, it’s important to understand that the conversion is complex and there are still competing technologies. This is the biggest change to hit movies since sound came in. The repercussions are going to be huge.

A still from Timecode, Mike Figgis' groundbreaking movie, shot on digital video in 2000.

A still from Timecode, Mike Figgis’ groundbreaking movie, shot on digital video in 2000.

Certainly, there are advantages to the new technology. I’ve seen a few remarkable films shot in digital, and I realize that the potential for innovation is tremendous. My main complaint is that in the rush to convert, the powers that be seem unconcerned about the possible disadvantages. To my mind the most serious problem is storage. While there are challenges with preserving film, it’s a format that has proved mostly reliable for over a hundred years. We don’t yet know about digital. Already some archives have reported incidents where data has been lost. Also, since the technology is new, there is still no reliable industry standard governing storage. On top of that, digital will certainly continue to evolve, meaning that media will have to be migrated to new formats as they appear.

But like I said, I’m no expert. Rather than rattle off my ideas on the subject, I’d rather steer you toward some people who actually know what they’re talking about. The link below will take you to John Bailey’s blog at the American Society of Cinematographers web site. Bailey asked several people in the industry how they feel about the conversion to digital, and he got some interesting answers.

John Bailey at the American Society of Cinematographers Web Site

The second link is to an article about digital cinema on Wikipedia. I warn you that there’s a lot of information, and it’s not very well organized. But when I scanned the article myself I learned a lot about how complex the issues are. We’ve still got a long way to go.

Article on Digital Cinema at Wikipedia

Those of us who care about movies really need to inform ourselves about what’s at stake here. Digital is going to transform the industry. It’s also going to transform cinema. I have no illusions that getting a few thousand movie lovers to sign a petition is going to make the studio heads hit the brakes. But I do believe that informed, persistent advocacy can make a difference. It’s happened before.