“Screening films in digital is like forcing audiences to watch television in public.” – Tarantino
In just 5 short years the industry killed off film for digital. They saved billions serving us movies in cinema as digital videos stored in hard disk drives – rather than actual Film. It costs about USD$1,500 for a 35mm copy to the cinema. Imagine the savings they make now delivering that in a tiny, reusable hard disk drive.
There is now no reason to rush to a movie premiere on first release to witness the print while still fresh and unworn. It makes a weaker case with improvements in Home Cinema and Blu-Ray. Previously, you pay more to watch Film in the cinema. Now, you pay the same to watch video.
This is a major blow for us lovers of underground and cult movies. Small cinemas that can’t afford the minimum USD$65,000 digital projectors will be forced to close, and these are usually the cinemas that will still show non-mainstream Hollywood cult/underground goodies we love. To add to that, many old cult/underground films might not be deemed ‘worthy’ enough to be digitalised.
How have they gotten away with it?
Plan #1 – Rebrand “Digital”
Digital Video (DV) used to have an unsavoury stigma associated with low budget, indies, dogme95. George Lucas (strong-ass opponent of film) with his 2002 Attack of the Clones scandalised the industry by being the first major release to be totally shot digitally. From then on, “Digital” would align itself with “digital” effects, and “digital restoration”, making it seem like anything with a “Digital” is something value added.
Plan #2 – Everything 3D
Current digitally projected movies look really flat and lack the depth of projected film. 3D makes a good distraction. It solved the lack of brightness and contrast too. Just blame those polarised 3D glasses.
Plan #3 – Technology in our lives
We start to value things around us based on technical specifications. How many pixels? How many K of resolution? All these play in favour of digital. Absurdly compare film to digital. Digital cameras can capture a lot more detail than the standard film formats, but you lose the textures, the active grain, the depth.
Some of us don’t care as we are now acclimatised to watching compressed small sized video streamed to our mobile devices and tablets.
What’s so special about Film?
Reason #1 – 24 frames per second
Established a hundred years ago after trial and error had been the standard rate individual frames of images are projected. This is a very magical rate. 24fps is at a speed just BELOW what the human brain perceives as actual motion, commonly known as persistent of vision. Only at this frame rate something strange happens.
At 24fps, the brain is more engaged then any other speed – it actively works to fill this gap from reality. You feel as if you are looking through a window into another world. This is why Television video playing at a “superior” frames per second looks cheap. Not just because of negative/positive association. Try also watching a High Frame Rate 48fps IMAX digital movie to feel the difference.
I distinctly remember feeling more engaged, and losing myself at film screenings of low budget films. Rewatching them on video wasn’t the same. What a big blow to Cult and Underground films if they can no longer command this sort of respect from the next generation who can no longer experience them the same way we did.
Reason #2 – Perfection is a mistake
Digital cameras especially the popular Arri Alexa and Red Epics have overrun Hollywood. Compared to 35mm, they capture a lot more details. Digital Intermediary (DI) lets movie makers recolour every shot down to the tiniest of details to the exact colour they want. Immediate feedback from their monitors tell cinematographers exactly how the captured footage looks like. They can now shoot or reshoot non-stop. No precious film is wasted. The famed 7min continuous take is no longer an epic feat in cinema history – smugfests like Birdman are now possible. What’s not to like? Well, to me, it’s just like a woman who have a perfect body, a perfect look, talks to you however you like. Likes whatever you like. Sort of like marrying a blowup doll or keeping plastic plants.
In the face of such big threats. there are times the imperfections of film shines. Film gives your story an increasingly unique look. When beauty is more important than precision. These recent works still shot on Film by choice:
16mm – The Walking Dead TV series. (Gives it the raw and grainy look)
70mm – Interstellar
Well, everything by Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and old timers like Woody Allen… Apparently film is more flattering to aging actors.
Watch out for the upcoming J J Abrams’ Star Wars. It’s to be given the 35mm and 70mm treatment to give it that timeless quality like the original trilogy. So check that the cinema you choose to experience them is showing it in the medium they where shot for. Otherwise just grab the Blu-Ray.
Caution! For screenings at IMAX, make sure it is showing in 70mm. Otherwise it’s another con popularly known as “LieMAX”… the same video you get at multiplexes, but enhanced with an extra projector shining at the same spot to boost intensity. Calling it 4K… Because 2k times 2 equals 4k. Hilarious if it is a joke, unfortunately it isn’t.
Food for thought: Would you pay the same full admission price to view Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as you would a digitally restored high resolution 4-gazillion K scanned poster of one?
The situation is more dire than you think, especially with cult and underground films. A recent 35mm screening of Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs was labeled “curated by”, “rare original 35mm print” etc . Also infuriating to hear about cult Blu-Ray releases restored from the only existing 35mm print known to exist. (Eg. Nekromantik).
In recent times we also saw increasing numbers of cult screenings touted as “last known surviving 35mm print”, even classics like Bride of Frankenstein. I hear about private collectors having the last known surviving 35mm print of a certain title (not yet on Blu-Ray) or Private film collectors approached by cinemas and national film institutions for their collections. Now major distributors refuse to loan out 35mm anymore. The odds are so stacked against you that chances are – before you die, you are more likely to see the actual Mona Lisa than you are to experience your favourite cult / underground film – on Film.
How to keep Film alive?
– Refuse to watch anything in cinemas unless it’s film (16mm-35mm or glorious 70mm). Unless of course, it’s free (like our SCUM screenings for example!)
– For new releases, just wait a week or a month till it’s out on Blu-Ray.
– Support your local small cinemas and their FILM screenings. Be generous!!
– Plan your holiday travels around film screening events. Eg. 70mm, 35mm film festivals.
– Write, tweet, post on social media to educate and advocate.
The Grand ‘Digital Con’ Illusion…so effective it almost had all of us fooled.
For further information, we highly recommend watching these:
Cover photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons