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"You're no longer in the film business—you're in the Fabergé egg business."
November 23, 2012 1:31 PM   Subscribe

With 35mm Film Dead, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?
posted by fearfulsymmetry (77 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Schoonmaker believes that the colorists who have been trained in the last 10 or 15 years "have no idea what these movies should look like anymore."

I find this incredibly hard to believe. It's not really the kind of job one falls into because of how much you loved Bad Boys. This is not to deny some shithouse 'restoration' jobs, of course, but I suspect cost is the limiting factor there. Crappy transfers of one sort or another are nearly as old as the medium itself - digital is not immune to it, but nor has it introduced the sickness.
posted by smoke at 1:54 PM on November 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


No, the problem is that no one working on the restoration has ever seen the movie on film, with the original colour levels and whatnot. So they make a best guess determination or just opt for realism, which might miss the mark entirely.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:57 PM on November 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


2001: A Space Odyssey, on the other hand, was a DCP presentation of the 2K scan: not exactly a Blu-ray, but the master used to make the Blu-ray. As author Mike Gebert put it to me, "Is that all there is to project 2001 with these days? That's sad."

I saw 2001 in plain ol' 70mm just a few years ago. The prints are still out there. What I really want to know is, how was the 2K scan?
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:06 PM on November 23, 2012


I'm not a fan of digital projection. The whites look all messed up and aliased. Check out white titles on black during the trailers, you can see the individual pixels of the edges. Digital acquisition, however, I have no problem with anymore. I just shot something on 35mm and Epic and the Epic/Alexa is pretty much there at this point and the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.* The soft glow of a good film print, however, hasn't been replicated. The quality of light actually physically shining through something just evens everything all out.

* our Assistant Cameraman said when he was checking the 235 out at the rental house all the other ACs were coming up to him saying, shocked, "y'all shooting film??? Like it was a complete novelty. Kinda sad but still, I wouldn't go back after seeing the footage side by side. Maybe I'd feel differently if I saw it on a 40 foot screen.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:09 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


One study found that a 2K scan of a feature film would require just under two terabytes to store. In fact, digital archiving is so difficult and costly that Kodak has just announced film specifically designed for archiving digital formats.
If only we could reduce copyright length, and release to the cloud. People would give their right arms to get hold of 4K scans of movies (8TB). In a few years people will have this kind of storage at home. Decentralize the system. The archival power of the entirety of humanity is far greater than a few corporations.
posted by niccolo at 2:14 PM on November 23, 2012 [14 favorites]


I did see both Lawrence of Arabia and The Master projected in 70mm recently and 70 kicks everything's dick in.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:14 PM on November 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Yeah, The Master is exceptional in 70mm.

It's also worth pointing out that The Dark Knight Rises used 35mm, 70mm, and IMAX footage. Say what you will about the movie as a movie, it looked great, especially when projected on film.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:18 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


That film for archiving digital information is a good idea, but it runs into the problem of changing standards. You can store the film for maybe a hundred years in good conditions, but by the end of that time computers might be laser pulses inside diamond wafers or something, and there'd be no way to get the information from the film into a modern machine.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:21 PM on November 23, 2012


I recently saw Playtime in 70mm, and oh my God it was beautiful.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:23 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Interesting that Kodak are now making film specifically for archiving digital - "It costs about $1,059 (US) a year to preserve a film title. Compare that to digital files that require ongoing spending to maintain accessibility. The annual cost of preserving a 4K digital master is estimated at $12,514 (US) per year — 11 times more expensive than film."
posted by Lanark at 2:27 PM on November 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


Film is definitely cheaper and easier to use for archival purposes. But to make it really work they're going to need some kind of software standard for archived video that's built into all operating systems and computers going forward. Like ASCII code for text.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:34 PM on November 23, 2012


Books don't have the same texture and grain as stone tablets. No one cares.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:42 PM on November 23, 2012


Kevin, if the archive is analogue why would software standards make any difference? Even if your computer in 2112 is running on sunbeams running the QZORKO operating system, you can still just plug in an optical scanner and read in the old film.
posted by Lanark at 2:49 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


blue_beetle, that's a pointless analogy. The purpose of books and tablets is to present words, not images.
posted by tzikeh at 2:51 PM on November 23, 2012 [9 favorites]


Even films protected by copyright are in trouble. The UCLA Film & Television Archive has made a public appeal for money to preserve films starring Laurel and Hardy, one of cinema's most famous comedy teams. RHI, which currently owns the rights to the films, reportedly refuses to fund their preservation.

I see it's too late for me to be the first to point out our copyright terms are too long and such terms are counterproductive to promoting and preserving our culture.
posted by Drinky Die at 2:52 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


You can store the film for maybe a hundred years in good conditions, but by the end of that time computers might be laser pulses inside diamond wafers or something, and there'd be no way to get the information from the film into a modern machine.

They'll still be able to digitize analog film in the future, even if future computers are constructed radically differently than today's. Literally, the only thing you need is a digital camera.

The real archival problem is digital formats. These are unreadable unless you have the correct software or a well documented file format. Since they change so quickly, and obsolete software is often not updated, and the documentation is lost, and companies go out of business, future archivists may find themselves with a pristine digital copy but no software to play it.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 2:54 PM on November 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Lanark, I may not understand this properly, but my impression is the new Kodak film is meant to preserve digital information. That is, they take one of these 4K scans (or whatever) and preserve the 1s and 0s on film, instead of magnetic bits on a hard drive.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:55 PM on November 23, 2012


Books don't have the same texture and grain as stone tablets. No one cares.

The analogy of books/tablets more aptly suits the difference between, say, nitrate film stocks of the 20's and 30's vs modern color 70mm film stock, and not a film/digital comparison.

For the record, a lot of people do, in fact, care about image quality. That you don't think so is, sadly, something that has become a pervasive attitude, especially in techie circles. If it's digital, it's automatically superior, and the format's very real shortcomings are glossed-over as being somehow inconsequential. There seems a real need to dismiss image quality concerns, as if the actual end product doesn't really matter.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:58 PM on November 23, 2012 [4 favorites]


We saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 35mm, one of the original film prints from release, not too far back and my god, was it gorgeous. Not everything lives up to your memories but seeing it just like I'd seen it in theaters way back when, that was a hell of a thing.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 2:59 PM on November 23, 2012


The other problem with digital formats is that when they do fail they fail hard - going from pristine to completely unreadable. Physical film degrades slowly, a few scratches and spots but it will still be watchable.
posted by Lanark at 3:03 PM on November 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


I had the privilege this year of seeing Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker on one of the original 35mm prints. Even having seen the film twice before, and having to make do with Dutch subtitles, and craning my neck to see over the guy in front of me, it was still one of the most revelatory cinema experiences I can remember.

I can see where those moving to digital are coming from, but the death of film projection is still an absolute crime.
posted by fifthrider at 3:03 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Since they change so quickly, and obsolete software is often not updated, and the documentation is lost, and companies go out of business, future archivists may find themselves with a pristine digital copy but no software to play it.

Perversely enough, this is where pirates come to the rescue. A company may go out of business, a studio may decide to thin its archives, but the Internet does not forget. Same goes for anime and old videogames: let the fans take custody of something and it will almost always be out there, somewhere.

Still, the canon of great cinema deserves a better home of last refuge than torrent swarms, fly-by-night cyberlockers, and obscure XDCC bots.
posted by fifthrider at 3:09 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


No, the problem is that no one working on the restoration has ever seen the movie on film, with the original colour levels and whatnot.

I think this a) grossly overstates how many people have seen little known films from the fifties and earlier - colorists or not, and b) ignores the fact that the colorists are digitising from film. They can see the movie on film; that's what they're working from.
posted by smoke at 3:10 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


They preserve the 1s and 0s on film, instead of magnetic bits on a hard drive.
posted by Kevin Street


No I'm pretty sure they print it like a conventional 35mm film, precisely so that it will be free of todays digital format specifications. Also I suspect you would need much more film to encode a bunch of numbers compared to just printing the colour dots.
posted by Lanark at 3:10 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


They can see the movie on film; that's what they're working from.

Good luck restoring faded or damaged positive prints without a reference.
posted by fifthrider at 3:12 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The new Kodak 2237 is a black and white film that is optimized for archival. The marketing blurb I saw claims the film is uses a standard process D-96 but it is not necessary for it to be "cured", not sure exactly what that means but the emulsion scientists at Kodak do know their chemistry.

So how do you archive a color film on B&W? It takes three reels of B&W per reel of Color. A color separation is made RGB, then each color is printed through filter. Totally un-viewable, but very stable.

To reconstruct it would require the reverse process, each frame printed to a color negative, then combined in an optical printer to create the viewable film. Of course many of the steps could be done in a computer.
posted by sammyo at 3:17 PM on November 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Good luck restoring faded or damaged positive prints without a reference.

Thats why modern clapper boards have colour stripes.
posted by Lanark at 3:18 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Many of the oldest recovered films had been archived with a color separation process to a paper reel, as early nitrate film was beyond unstable (essentially the early films were almost bombs).
posted by sammyo at 3:20 PM on November 23, 2012


Thats why modern clapper boards have colour stripes.

Good point, but in our hypothetical "it's a film for the ages, but we only have this one messed up print" scenario, chances are what we have is going to be an actual projection print, which (for obvious reasons) doesn't show the clapper board.
posted by fifthrider at 3:23 PM on November 23, 2012


^ True and also we can't assume the whole reel will fade at the same rate.
posted by Lanark at 3:28 PM on November 23, 2012


This is a good piece on the current state of things in filmland, and the basic thrust of it is spot-on, but as someone who runs a film-only repertory screening series there are a few things in it that aren't as clear as they could be, most especially this:

When I tried to screen 35mm materials at the Library of Congress, Mike Mashon, head of the moving image section at the Library's Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia, told me that, "Every 35mm print now has to be considered an archival print." In other words, they can't run through a machine.

I suppose I might be wrong, but based on my organization's experiences borrowing prints from the LOC (who, unless something has changed in the last week or so, do loan out prints from their holdings to venues with the proper equipment) I would guess that what Mashon means is something much less dire than what the author of the article glosses it as. Rather than saying that prints "can't be run through a machine", he is saying that 35mm prints now need to be projected in a more "archival" way than the late 20th century standard of using platter systems to run prints. Per the guidelines that come with LOC circulating film prints: "Library prints may be screened only on multi-projector (changeover) systems. Projection on platter systems is prohibited. The film may not be built up, broken down or cut (including leaders) in any manner for any purpose..."

So, exhibitors who want to screen things on film will have to start thinking more like archivists if they want to be able to do so. But if they can manage that, they will be able to — far into the future, one hopes.
posted by bubukaba at 3:40 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's only Disney that has an ongoing re-release business model, I expect they have the best archival print technically feasible. But the other studios make all their money in a 2-3 week period per film. No one shows up for something a few years old, so although they own the property there is little fiduciary force to do more than lock up what ever comes back from distribution, let alone do some expensive archive process.
posted by sammyo at 3:40 PM on November 23, 2012


With My Aging Eyesight, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?
posted by mazola at 3:40 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Lanark: A colour reference card on a clapper's only going to tell you something about the lighting conditions of the raw footage with respect to the balance of the film. It won't tell you what a filmmaker's intention is.

For a digital example: in Skyfall there's a scene in a casino in which everything looks dipped in tea--the DP chose to emphasize the tungsten colour temperature of the room. God knows if that's on the raw footage or if it was graded like that in post.
posted by whittaker at 3:46 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well there are just many artistic elements of any production that are transitory, the perfect pirouette during a dance performance, the symphony performance that everyone in the audience senses that is just beyond any recording. Paintings fade. Film is important but still at the mercy of the evil forces of entropy.
posted by sammyo at 3:56 PM on November 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


The quality of light actually physically shining through something

Ya all know that when lytro branded field effect cameras are the standard for movies the youngest of you will be back complaining.
posted by rough ashlar at 3:57 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


There seems to be a number of things getting mixed up with a bunch of FUD here. To address some of the points raised:

Yes, restoration is complicated when you don't have a pristine print (or even better, interpos/interneg) to work from. However, this isn't really a problem with digital. It's a problem with not having good prints anymore. Whether your end result is a new print or a DCP doesn't matter, if you're going to restore something, you need to correct color, and make decisions about how things should look, since, per definition, if you're restoring, it means what you have isn't in good condition. And prints fade.

The whole discussion about 2k/4k is also a bit of a red herring. Yeah, 4k is becoming more common for new films. However, if you're talking about older movies shot on old film stock, there's usually not really that much resolution there, especially if you're working from prints. An exception is stuff like Lawrence of Arabia, which was shot on 70mm, but most films from before the 80s shot on 35mm don't have much more resolution than what you can get in a 2k scan. For instance, the new definitive edition of Blade Runner, all restored and whatnot, looks great in HD, but it also looks pretty grainy. Old film stocks were not as fine-grained. 2k will be fine as an archival format for the vast majority of these films.

For archival, the movie industry needs to wake up and realize they're subject to Moore's law now. I have no idea where they get the 12000 dollars per year figure, that sounds insane. A 120 minute movie in 4k is about 8.5 TB. You can put that on 6 LTO-5 tapes that cost 60 dollars each. Make three copies for different locations, store them under the same conditions you would store the reels of film, they'll take up much less space, and last 20 years. Every 4-5 years, copy onto newest-generation tapes. If LTO development continues as it has, in 4 years you'll need maybe two tapes, in 8 years it'll be less than one tape.

And, someone mentioned that digital fails less gracefully. That's true if you use complex, compressed formats, but the standards for storing digital cinema files (for archival) are fairly simple. We've been on DPX for a long time, which are basically completely uncompressed files, one file per frame, with a simple header. We're slowly moving to EXR and JPEG2000, but still as image sequences. If these formats fail, you'll get errors in single frames, pretty comparable to how film fails. In fact, I've restored digital imagery from damaged LTO tapes once, a few years ago, and we fixed it much in the same way you'd do restoration of material from film, with the same tools.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:02 PM on November 23, 2012 [26 favorites]


No I'm pretty sure they print it like a conventional 35mm film, precisely so that it will be free of todays digital format specifications. Also I suspect you would need much more film to encode a bunch of numbers compared to just printing the colour dots.

The article is very short on details, but this seems to be a digital format, not an analog one. It makes sense -- B&W film keeps for a very long time, and existing film-storage techniques can be used. As far as I know, there isn't really a better way to store petabytes of data long-term.

Storing digital data on film is nothing new, although it's typically used for soundtracks -- see this Wikipedia image for an example.

The trouble, of course, is whether future generations will know what the hell to do with it. However, I imagine they could simply document the format, in plain English, as microfilm in the leader. Future-proof! Until people forget how to speak 21st-century English...

(They only transferred 2001 at 2K? Not even 4K? Criminal!)
posted by neckro23 at 4:05 PM on November 23, 2012


It's also worth mentioning that, in the "price of getting film to digital" issue, things are likely going to change. In July, Black Magic Design bought Cintel. Black Magic has a history of buying failing tech companies and re-spinning their products into very cheap, high-quality versions that sell a bunch. In this case, look for a cheap version of the Cintel diTTo 2k/4k "desktop" film scanner. I'm guessing it'll be announced at NAB 2013, at a price point that will make film scanning ubiquitous. I might even buy one myself.

For comparison, when Black Magic bought DaVinci, the price of a Resolve color correction system on Linux was 60k dollars just for the license. Today, you get it for 999 dollars on the Mac, with a free LT version. They bought Teranex last year, and brought the price of their high-end video converter down from 80k dollars to 3000 dollars.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:07 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


In July, Black Magic Design bought Cintel.

Wrong link there, I think. Thanks for the heads-up on DaVinci, though; I'm definitely going to check out that LT version.
posted by fifthrider at 4:24 PM on November 23, 2012


I have no idea where they get the 12000 dollars per year figure, that sounds insane. A 120 minute movie in 4k is about 8.5 TB.

Yeah, even if you naively uploaded the whole thing to Amazon Glacier it would cost you $1020/year to store.

Uncompressed movie formats can't be that complicated. Include an ANSI C version of the decoder if you must (with explicit endianness and struct packing, of course). Someone will be able to read it in 100 years. It's not like humanity is going to turn into pure energy or anything.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:33 PM on November 23, 2012


The whole discussion about 2k/4k is also a bit of a red herring. Yeah, 4k is becoming more common for new films. However, if you're talking about older movies shot on old film stock, there's usually not really that much resolution there, especially if you're working from prints. An exception is stuff like Lawrence of Arabia, which was shot on 70mm, but most films from before the 80s shot on 35mm don't have much more resolution than what you can get in a 2k scan. For instance, the new definitive edition of Blade Runner, all restored and whatnot, looks great in HD, but it also looks pretty grainy. Old film stocks were not as fine-grained. 2k will be fine as an archival format for the vast majority of these films.

I seem to recall that there is a digital process which can be used to reduce grain in film which is being scanned and then blown up to bigger formats. It was used for movies like Apollo 13 when it was converted into IMAX format. It was most definitely NOT used when Disney included The Sorcerer's Apprentice sequence from the original Fantasia in their Fantasia II IMAX format release. (The grain in that sequence when I saw it was completely distracting. Of course, that may also have been augmented by the LSD.)

I did recently see the digital restoration anniversary theater broadcast of Casablanca, and was surprised at how grainy that was. I would have thought they would have run it through some kind of process to make it more solid and much less (what I will now call) brownian motion grainy than it was.

Perhaps movie purists think doing that kind of noise reduction on old movies is bad. I do know, I've seen Casablanca in theaters before on filmstock and the grain was NEVER as distracting as that digital presentation.
posted by hippybear at 4:36 PM on November 23, 2012


Whittaker said: ...in Skyfall there's a scene in a casino in which everything looks dipped in tea--the DP chose to emphasize the tungsten colour temperature of the room. God knows if that's on the raw footage or if it was graded like that in post.

It's Roger Deakins; he meant it like that. Just read an interview in some industry rag where he talks about the general differences in light for the primary locations in the film. Sorry, movie.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 4:39 PM on November 23, 2012


It's Roger Deakins; he meant it like that

But was it on the raw footage, or graded like that in post?
posted by kenko at 4:41 PM on November 23, 2012


But was it on the raw footage, or graded like that in post?

Most likely both, with it being enhanced and emphasized in the post-production. I think it would be fair to say that just about every frame of any modern film has been color graded in some manner.
posted by shawnj at 4:59 PM on November 23, 2012


Some background: wikipedia/Film_recorder and What is a film recorder? It is the highest quality, highest resolution output device for recording digital data onto continuous tone professional color film. The resulting images retain all of the quality of the scanned, or digital originals. Images are exposed one pixel at a time, ensuring exact sharpness... Digital files must be in RGB, but there are separation-quality Kodak transforms to convert CMYK files before they are imaged... The resulting film, color or B&W, can be developed and used for traditional photographic printing.
posted by Lanark at 5:02 PM on November 23, 2012


In the early days of film they used nitrate stock that was prone to catching fire. It feels to me like digital is still caught in that stage, we need an equivalent of safety film that will allow digital storage for a longer term than we currently get from spinning disks or magnetic tape.
posted by Lanark at 5:09 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Black Magic has a history of buying failing tech companies and re-spinning their products into very cheap, high-quality versions that sell a bunch.

This is true, but I think the "high-quality" part is debatable.
posted by dogwalker at 5:11 PM on November 23, 2012


With 35mm Film Dead, Will Classic Movies Ever Look the Same Again?

with analogue anything, there really is no "same". There's always an element of alchemy as the various wizards and technicians try to achieve perfection and fail. Which is a huge part of the appeal.
posted by philip-random at 5:18 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Perhaps movie purists think doing that kind of noise reduction on old movies is bad.

Yes. Well, there is probably a happy medium. Some grain reduction may mitigate a tendency of the digital image to overstate the grain found in the originals. It's my understanding that most HD video transfers from film (and also most digital intermediates for theatrical release) incorporate some degree of degraining. But too much grain reduction leaches detail from the print and gives actors' skin a waxen pallor. Patton was an infamous example of this in the early days of Blu-ray. Fox's release was torn apart on the high-end home-theater discussion boards in a pile-on led by film restoration specialist Robert A. Harris. It was reissued earlier this month in a version that restores some of the grain/noise and by all accounts represents a huge improvement.

Universal is currently a repeat offender in this regard. Non-U.S. versions of The Big Lebowski, for instance, reportedly offer a better-looking picture than the aggressively de-grained domestic release.
posted by Mothlight at 5:22 PM on November 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


An exception is stuff like Lawrence of Arabia, which was shot on 70mm, but most films from before the 80s shot on 35mm don't have much more resolution than what you can get in a 2k scan.

I'm sorry, but that's simply not true. In fact, 1980s film stocks are way grainier than, say, 1950s or 1960s film stocks. That's not a matter of opinion; it's a matter of chemistry. The higher the sensitivity to light, the grainier the resulting image. Up until the 1970s, most films were shot on stocks that weren't very sensitive to light (with a lot of 1930s movies, you're looking at an ISO that's around 25 or 50). Around the 1970s, grainy light-sensitive film stocks -- which made it easier to shoot in real locations -- became popular. Most latter-day shot-on-film movies are shot on film stocks that have 250 to 500 ISO. If you ever see original 35mm prints from the 1950s or 1960s -- especially original IB Technicolor prints -- the first thing that strikes you is how crisp they look in comparison to even digitally-shot contemporary films.

Also, Blade Runner is a bad example; in pre-digital days, special effects meant optical printing, which in turn meant loss of image quality. Special effects-heavy movies from the optical printing era tend to look really, really grainy because the image you're looking at is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy.
posted by alexoscar at 5:44 PM on November 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


So what do the TV networks like TCM do? Do they already have the bulk of their movies on digital?
posted by Ber at 6:47 PM on November 23, 2012


So what do the TV networks like TCM do?

My understanding is that some of their movies they actually run via telecine or something like that -- running film and aiming a television camera at the screen or whatever they do for that kind of thing. They have a lot in digital, but I'm not sure that's what they always use for their programming stream.

They certainly do beautiful HD programming, no matter how they get it out to the world.
posted by hippybear at 6:53 PM on November 23, 2012


Gate chatter (the image bouncing up and down because the projector does not pull frames down perfectly) means that any projected movie you ever saw was resolved less than 2k in your eyes. That's one of the tells of video--the complete absence of gate chatter. So in fact 2K resolution is plenty for virtually all movies, unless you want to pull still images from them.

Removing grain is not difficult technically, but the results are disappointing. The smoothed-out skin tends to look like thick discount-store makeup, and there are usually little bright artifacts at high-contrast edges.

And an observation on film speed: in the 1950s, flames in movies were deep orange. By the 1980s they were detail-free white. Same fires, different ISOs.
posted by hexatron at 6:55 PM on November 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


I attended the recent showings of 2001 at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinerama dome. While I was a little disappointed to learn that it was only a 2K transfer, I had no actual issues with the image quality. The real problem with those showings was the curved screen splashing the light from Discovery onto the black starfields, crushing the contrast. Apparently the Cinerama screens used to be made of lots of parallel vertical slats to avoid just this problem.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 7:00 PM on November 23, 2012


This started out as a short comment when this thread was much shorter, but it became a long one!

One obvious question that doesn't get probed nearly often enough in these "analog vs. digital" discussions: what does "archiving" actually mean for movies that were originally presented on film? It's one thing to talk about using digital projection or digital streaming as access tools — but for archiving?

One issue: multiple definitions of "archive" seem to be in play (in this thread as well as in the film preservation field itself). Are we talking about preserving and conserving "content" or the film print as a physical object, as a cultural work produced in a particular medium? Can you really divide the content from its physicality and still claim to be archiving it? If it is possible to divide them, why isn't that the case for other types of non-digital visual art? (Why don't we opt to protect the Mona Lisa more effectively by displaying a high quality digital printout of it and locking the original in a secure, perfectly climate controlled vault?)

I recognize that my parenthetical there is just a version of the standard argument between film partisans and digital partisans: the film partisans say, "Seeing the Mona Lisa reproduced in a high-quality digital printout wouldn't be the same to you as seeing the real thing in the flesh, right?!? Film grain is just as important as brushstrokes!" or similar, to which digital partisans reply, "There are a billion copies of most films! The audience never sees the physical print, and they wouldn't be able to tell the difference between film projection and digital projection anyway! And digital is so much more efficient/cheaper! Plus, film grain is totally unintentional and ugly to boot!"

But of course it's more complicated than that*. Film is quite different from an oil painting, of course. It's inherently reproducible, a mass medium, etc. But that's true of many of Warhol's screenprints, too — put out in editions of a a few hundred (and here's a Warhol print from an edition of 1000 on sale for $14,500). A Hollywood film made before the multiplex era would have been released in an "edition" of less than 1000 for its first run.

And like a screenprint, prints of the same film can be quite unique, for many reasons (John McElwee recently wrote a wonderful post about this on his Greenbriar Picture Shows blog: "We accept now what discs give us because owners have locked their version in, whatever revision or "improvement" that amounts to" — the comments on the post are worth a read as well).

I suspect, though, that the commercial nature of so much of the history of filmmaking — perhaps especially the sheer scale of the infrastructure of Hollywood, the sheer number of hands involved in turning an idea into a movie that people can watch in a theater — makes it difficult to think of screenprints or other fine art as a valid source of analogy. I'd argue, though, that it's precisely that history that makes cinema such a unique cultural form, and so important to the history of 20th century culture.

I've also suspected for awhile now that the "magic of cinema" will be the death of it.

A section in the booth manual at one of the theaters I work at goes, "Be completely inconspicuous - the projectionist is the invisible magician! A good screening is one where your changeovers go completely unnoticed by our discerning patrons, focus and framing are spot on, and show start and finish are handled with sensitivity. This requires understanding that projectionists, typically, get very little respect - when you project a flawless screening it goes unnoticed and unappreciated... We are only noticed when we make mistakes, and we CANNOT MAKE MISTAKES!"

A century of showmanship has gone into making sure that the public doesn't know that the projectionist, the projector, or the reels of film exist. (As a high school student in the early 2000s, I was shocked to find out that movies weren't already all digital — and I was even more surprised to find out that it was possible to see films from the 1920s on actual film).

So I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that even some film archivists talk about digitization as a valid way to archive content that was originally seen on film. Part of how the movies work is that you're not supposed to think about how they work. They were intended (mostly) to be experienced as ethereal, not physical.

But if we're talking about archiving, I think it's crucial to remember that film's historical importance is bound up in its physicality. Filmstock was a product of capitalism at its most grand — mass media made possible by a massive industry, relying on massive manufacturing capabilities. It's a type of cultural object that reflects the 20th century like few others. (Just like digital cinema, with its built-in corporate controls, reflects the 21st). We'd be cheating history to let it disappear altogether.

*I am going to mostly leave aside the question of whether or not film counts as "art" though it's obviously an argument that's very relevant here. Like, I'm not sure we'd be discussing visible photochemical grain as if it were a problem if we were discussing art photography — but that's exactly how it's being talked about in this thread. I mean, yes, it's possible or perhaps even likely that John Ford would have rather made his films with the conveniences of digital cinema and without the 'unsightly' characteristics of film like grain and eventual damage — but, he didn't — he couldn't . Is it important to how we think about preserving paintings that da Vinci might have preferred to work with a Wacom tablet, if he'd been able to? Is it important to how we think about archiving and displaying Andy Warhol's work that he might have been tickled by the idea of making and selling digital objects, with no physical existence at all, if he'd lived to see the World Wide Web?
posted by bubukaba at 7:01 PM on November 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


There's a recent documentary called Side by Side that discusses a lot of digital vs film issues. Well worth the watch for those interested (I think it's available via iTunes still).

You might have to lose your preconceptions of Keanu Reeves as an actor, though. He gets access to some of the most respected film directors and cinematographers and they give some thoughts on the matter.
posted by dogwalker at 7:47 PM on November 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


hippybear: "Perhaps movie purists think doing that kind of noise reduction on old movies is bad. I do know, I've seen Casablanca in theaters before on filmstock and the grain was NEVER as distracting as that digital presentatio"

There are varying opinions on noise reduction when digitizing film, and how much is too much. However, that wasn't quite my point. My point is that once each grain represents several pixels of the digital image, that's all the information there is. Scanning at a higher resolution will simply make the shape of each grain more elaborate; it won't give you any more actual image information.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:49 PM on November 23, 2012


dogwalker: "Black Magic has a history of buying failing tech companies and re-spinning their products into very cheap, high-quality versions that sell a bunch.

This is true, but I think the "high-quality" part is debatable
"

Are you referring to something specific? DaVinci was basically bankrupt, and as someone who's used Resolve 6, and have a 4-GPU Linux Resolve sitting a few meters from my office, I can assure you that the new versions are vastly superior.

The Teranex box is basically the same as it was, just with some more ports and less noisy fans, so you can use it on the desktop.

I don't know about the ATEM switchers, but it seems to me they're basically the same as they was, just a lot cheaper.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:51 PM on November 23, 2012


Your assurances don't really trump my experiences. Since the black magic buyout, Davinci has gotten progressively less useful for us. Currently on v9 and it's so bad that they've actually started to respond to complaints.

I think Resolve is quality compared to other color correction systems, but not necessarily so to pre-Black Magic era davinci.
posted by dogwalker at 7:59 PM on November 23, 2012


dogwalker: "Your assurances don't really trump my experiences. Since the black magic buyout, Davinci has gotten progressively less useful for us. Currently on v9 and it's so bad that they've actually started to respond to complaints.

I think Resolve is quality compared to other color correction systems, but not necessarily so to pre-Black Magic era davinci
"

Most of the things we use have gotten radically better. Not dismissing your concerns, though, your usage cases might be different from ours. What areas are you mainly having problems with?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:10 PM on November 23, 2012


I will agree that while the new (Impresario) consoles are very much nicer to look at, I much prefer the IBM keyboard style keys of the old 2k+ ones, though. There's something definitive about that clunking sound.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:10 PM on November 23, 2012


Corrected link for the Black Magic Design buys Cintel press release.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 8:16 PM on November 23, 2012



I have no idea where they get the 12000 dollars per year figure, that sounds insane. A 120 minute movie in 4k is about 8.5 TB.


Keep in mind this is Hollywood types doing the accounting. Films never make any money and every number is just pulled out of someone's ass. These executive jets and hookers don't pay for themselves you know!
posted by Meatbomb at 9:43 PM on November 23, 2012


Shotgun Shakespeare:
It's Roger Deakins; he meant it like that.
Oh I know, Deakins is a genius and he's taken to an Arri Alexa like a duck to immaculately photographed water. I just wanted to hold it up as an example that, absent of a good reference print, a colour calibration slate in a vacuum isn't going to tell you much about the scene other than how to give it a neutral colour cast based on its lighting conditions.
posted by whittaker at 10:15 PM on November 23, 2012


I said it about the Kodak analog camera and I'll say it again: for all of its faults, hipsterdom, with its obsession over "authenticity" and the "vintage" and amusing anachronisms and using old equipment even when there are better modern alternatives available, will ultimately save this aesthetic. They did it for record players and the historic urban neighborhoods they're currently gentrifying. Perhaps some hipsters will really become screenwriters and producers and colorists. Five to twenty years from now, there will be a retro film renaissance mimicking this look. It will be everywhere on our Google Glasses and Apple iPieces and drive us all batty, but somewhere, Schoonmaker and the people featured in this article will breathe a sigh of relief. Bet on it.
posted by Apocryphon at 1:09 AM on November 24, 2012


Apocryphon: "Five to twenty years from now, there will be a retro film renaissance mimicking this look."

That's a nice theory, but unlike record players, it's not really very viable to make photochemical stock in small batches. You need a fairly large production line. Now, hipsters tend to have disposable income, so maybe, just maybe, they can sustain the production of locally sourced, microbrewed, vegan film stock, but I wouldn't bet on it. Maybe black and white, at least that's reasonably easy to develop yourself.

(Making and developing film is also a hugely polluting process, which is another reason I'm glad to see it go, but to each his own.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 1:26 AM on November 24, 2012


Apocryphon I see the point your making, and I agree, but "hipster" is too wide a brush. I really am starting to get sick of that term. It's such a broad generalization and it's rarely useful. People who are into lomo cameras != people who are into film != people who are into antique furniture != peopl e who look down their noses at you because of your music tastes. For the love of god people let's move on from that trope and start introducing a little more nuance into these discussions.
posted by victory_laser at 1:36 AM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think panic over the evolution of digital media formats is a bit overdone.

On a software basis there's almost perfect backward compatibility encompassing uncompressed audio standards more than 30 years old (the standard for audio CDs and related .WAV data files) and compressed audio and video standards that are coming on 20 years old (the various MPEG* standards). On a hardware basis backward compatibility is pretty strong -- a CD bought in 1985 and a DVD bought in 2000 will play on Blu-Ray player bought yesterday.

People may be drawing unjustified analogies between digital media (standardized, open or the commercial equivalent of it, end-user manifestations intended for long term use) and certain kinds of computing data (non-standard, highly proprietary, and end-user manifestations expected to be ephemeral). Yes, you don't want to be in a position where a lot of mission critical archival data is preserved only in Lotus 1-2-3 format on 5.25 floppy disks, but that's probably never going to be the case for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
posted by MattD at 6:09 AM on November 24, 2012


blue_beetle, that's a pointless analogy. The purpose of books and tablets is to present words, not images.

Yes, and those words are presented as images of letters.
posted by readyfreddy at 6:58 AM on November 24, 2012


My point is that once each grain represents several pixels of the digital image, that's all the information there is. Scanning at a higher resolution will simply make the shape of each grain more elaborate; it won't give you any more actual image information.
posted by Joakim Ziegler


Film scanners can vary the sharpness and image plane of the focused light being projected through the film. Narrowly focused columnated light highlights shadows on the edges of the film grains. These can be detected by comparison to a more diffused light source illuminating the same frame sequentially. This way the grain detail can be separated from the image detail and processed separately. This is not the same as sharpening or grain removal done after the pixels are settled on. I've only seen this in experimental settings, but it can be done.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:59 AM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Twentieth Century Fox no longer has prints of Miller's Crossing or Barton Fink"
(weeps)
posted by doctornemo at 9:06 AM on November 24, 2012


it's not really very viable to make photochemical stock in small batches

That's why I'm suggesting it's not typical Bohos in Brooklynites who will do this, but those who end up joining the film industry. And it's not really hipsters necessarily doing it all of their work. Instagram's rise was popularized by hipsters, and now it's a very mainstream application. And even independent of hipsterdom, much of pop culture has become backwards-yearning and nostalgic. You can't bury a retro look. It may be old, but it's cool, and people will buy it.
posted by Apocryphon at 9:33 AM on November 24, 2012


^ makes no sense, Instagram is digital filters that replicate the looks of old film stocks and cameras, not people out shooting with Holgas on homemade reversal, processing it themselves and scanning it. Were going in the total opposite direction. In the future, any retro look will be accomplished in post on a clean digital HDR image that gives you 25 stops of latitude or some shit. Hell, if you're willing to forgo frame rate and some res you can already shoot HDR on red.

In the near future film and processing will be pretty much only done by experimental filmmakers and artists. Not by narrative filmmakers and commercials etc.
posted by nathancaswell at 10:56 AM on November 24, 2012


doctornemo, a lot of the specific information in this article is oversimplified. I'd guess that Fox does have prints of Barton Film and Miller's Crossing, but won't loan them out to just anyone. (As in my earlier comment in this thread RE the Library of Congress).

That is where film-on-film distribution is going: increasing restrictions, largely based on what equipment a theater has, whether they have a qualified staff, whether they can provide good references, whether they have a history of handling prints well or badly, whether you already have an account history with them, etc. But at least some people can still get at the prints.
posted by bubukaba at 11:28 AM on November 24, 2012


I'm not quite up on whether or not digital cinema has caught up on dynamic range - but for me the employment of this argument is often heavily coded. I dont think its entirely about the medium itself - there seems to be a large element of sadness at the availability and access of digital that renders gatekeepers and curators somewhat irrelevant.
posted by sgt.serenity at 7:00 PM on November 24, 2012


That's a nice theory, but unlike record players, it's not really very viable to make photochemical stock in small batches.

They've already set about reverse engineering Polaroid, thanks in part to the popularity of Instagram.

Here's to the hope of Cinemascope camcorders in Hot Topic come 2020?
posted by fifthrider at 4:58 AM on November 25, 2012


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