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By Tom Vincent on

Film is dead, long live film

Tom Vincent considers the death of film as a distribution format, and why it's more important than ever to keep film history alive.

When I introduce screenings at Bradford International Film Festival I often find myself mentioning formats like ’16mm’, ’35mm’, etc. This seems to have become second nature, I think. And you’ll notice that listings for individual films in the festival always include the format from which the film is projected, so ‘Digital’, ’35mm’, ‘HDCam’ etc.

When I became the museum’s film programmer in 2008, the inclusion of formats was the first change I made to the way we list films. At that time, the exhibition of films (or ‘moving image content’, or whatever) via digital means was just beginning to overtake screenings from 35mm gauge film prints, the latter the standard for 100 years prior.

Why bother to state all this? In 2008 part of the motivation was to call customers’ attention to our then-new digital projection. I wanted to stress the notion that the experience of watching films wouldn’t include seeing scratches, an experience of film watching that customers had noticed and considered to greater or lesser degrees. But five years later digital is the norm, the emphasis has reversed, and it’s film that I want to champion.


The death of film as a distribution format

I programme films all year round, and looking back over non-festival programmes, it’s now quite a rare event to show a film from a film print; these events become something like badges of honour. Search for “35mm” on twitter and you’ll see what I mean.

In these five years I’ve thought about projection formats a lot, and kept an eye on a huge change in distribution for a over century’s worth of cinema.

2013 marks the death of film as a distribution format. The vast majority of cinemas in the UK now only play films digitally; the major film distributors have all announced that at a certain point this year they will no longer make 35mm prints.

This means, or has already meant, several things.

First, cinemas that cannot afford the upgrade to Digital projection will have nothing to play and will close. Second, archiving will change to accommodate digitally born works—whereas film prints are stored in cool, low-humidity conditions for future use, digital files will be stored, backed up and periodically ‘refreshed’ as binary data. And thirdly, the vast majority of film prints globally, held in storage will at best disappear from view, at worst will be destroyed.


The inevitable loss of film history

For the first 100+ years of cinema, all over the world, in all forms, works were produced on nitrate, celluloid or acetate material. But the means to play these materials has gone, so suddenly. Most cinemas can’t now show prints, and at some point no-one will know how to manufacture parts for mechanical projectors.

But won’t they make the jump to digital versions?

We mustn’t assume this. In fact there are significant costs involved in making digital versions. And time involved, and people with expert knowledge, and the formats keep changing, and binary data can be ‘lossy’ when compressed, and the sparkle of the grains of silver in the film, that have reacted to exposure in random patterns, won’t show up.

The truth is, only a fraction of film history will make a mutated transition.

The major film distributors, those affiliated to the major Hollywood production companies, have little use in maintaining back catalogues of archive prints in the UK.

Last year I tried to organise a retrospective of a major current European filmmaker whose Hollywood films are household names. I had assumed that getting hold of prints would be straightforward as the films were so famous and popular. I was dismayed to learn that the the UK stocks had been junked. So I was left with the sad option of screening from DVDs, always a dilemma, and really not good enough in most cases. This seems to me to be starkly literal illustration of this quote by André Bazin:

“Film is not an art AND an industry, but instead an industrial art that is likely to vanish into thin air as soon as the industry’s profits disappear.”

Film archiving took decades to get going, and it took radical figures like Henri Langlois in Paris in the 1930s to collect and show old films; before then all films were treated as utterly disposable.

We relied on film archives for much of Happy Birthday, Indian Cinema! this year. Indian cinema has a vast, hugely rich, greatly undiscovered history, yet it presents big problems when organising a retrospective.

India has tended to consider films’ worth as ending shortly after release, and efforts to establish any kind of archive there only took hold in the 1970s, by which time decades of treasures had been lost forever; other really superb films only existing as cropped or badly produced video copies.

Much of India (like much of the world) is hot and humid, and this makes organising the archiving of films much more of a logistical problem than in cooler, dryer countries. Assembling Happy Birthday, Indian Cinema! was a joy, but Neil and I were saddened to learn that so many great films from the 1950s, 60s and 70s had disappeared.

BIFF’s screening of Kalpana in this strand was made possible by the efforts of the World Cinema Foundation, which is:

… dedicated to preserving and restoring neglected films from around the world—in particular, those countries lacking the financial and technical ability to do so.


Film prints as artefacts

There’s another imperative for ‘film as film’.

There is no other way to see a Stan Brakhage film, for example, and the reason is this: If there was no film, the films that Brakhage made would not exist. It is impossible to reproduce Brakhage’s craft with digital means; he manipulated film physically by scratching, painting and splicing. Digital versions of Stan Brakhage films are an approximation, a reference copy, but to see the original 16mm prints projected at scale is to actually see them experience them properly, to understand them as material.

With an historian’s point of view, we can learn a lot from any film print as an artefact; their production histories are elements of their materiality—we can learn what colour process was used, and what aspect they were shot in. Decasia, another film in the festival, is about just this.

One can’t know things like this from digital information, from zeroes and ones. Similarly, a scratch on film is a mark of that films’ life as a viewing print. It can also have charm. Remember Tarantino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse?


State-of-the-art digital restoration vs. ultra rare film prints

Widescreen Weekend, with its emphasis on image resolution and an audience that relishes the chance to see rare film prints, is a focus for this debate.

State-of-the-art digital restorations of The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone will be shown this year from new ‘4K’ digital files, which is twice the resolution of standard digitally distributed films.

We also have Cinerama films, projected from three 35mm film strips to create an ultra-wide, immersive image, and 70mm projections; decades old attempts to photograph the world in lush higher resolutions.


Cinema’s greatest hits?

As film disappears, so its importance for keeping film history alive elevates. Otherwise we’ll be left with a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of cinema history in convenient (for now) files.

We have to keep discovering and leaning about the past; we have to keep films circulating, we should try and experience cinema experience together in the presence of artefacts, to imagine the past better. As the number of sites that can do this diminishes, we have all the more responsibility to foreground this debate, and to strive for careful choices.


Just as I was finishing writing this, Kieron Barr tweeted a link to his review of our recent screening of Mother India. Kieron finished his review with this:

This was screened at Bradford Film Festival from a scratched grainy print, something which really added to the occasion. The movie washed over the audience with the same type of joy that can be found from listening to a vinyl record; the imperfections add to the overall feel and sincerity of performance. A truly marvellous experience.

For more on this, please also try this blog post by the great David Bordwell.

4 comments on “Film is dead, long live film

  1. Wow. I got the update for the blog delivered to my inbox and was truly delighted to see I’ve been quoted in this piece. Couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said – it’s heartbreaking to read about how film is being neglected and I admire the efforts to screen real prints every year at the festival. Long may it continue!

  2. Those who came to see it on Saturday will know that Elvis: That’s The Way It Is was shown from DVD in the end, as the print supplied had lost all it’s (Eastman) colour. Too bad, but reckoned we needed to see The King’s collection of shirts circa 1970 properly.

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