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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

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.

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

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.