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Film is dead, long live film
August 24, 2014 6:48 AM   Subscribe

Fifteen years after "The Death of Cinema", Matt Zoller Seitz talks with Godfrey Cheshire about his prophetic series of articles in the New York Press predicting the effects of the coming death of film and the rise of digital video.
posted by octothorpe (33 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
What, re-editing movies that open on a Friday for Saturday?

When I read this a few days ago, the bit about the possibility of studios basically editing on the fly gave me the jibblies. I'm not sure why exactly, but I think it has to do with the idea of a movie being a shared experience--even if you don't see it at the same time as someone else, you still saw the same movie--and the idea of some part of our culture fragmenting even further disgusted me.

Glad it hasn't happened. Yet, at least.
posted by Ickster at 6:58 AM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Glad it hasn't happened. Yet, at least.

If you saw Star Wars in 1977 you might want to avoid rewatching it.
posted by localroger at 7:38 AM on August 24 [9 favorites]


I am surprised; I am sure I have read of auteur-level directors quietly sneaking into general screenings of limited release screenings and having adjustments made to the final film before it opened wide.

And (on preview, as localroger reminds us,) there were already at least half a dozen versions of Star Wars when the original piece was written.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:42 AM on August 24


Looking at just the techie part of this:

1. Capture: there is still no substitute for shooting on film: film inherently looks beautiful vs. digital which one has to work at to make look good -- especially when shooting people. I know hardly anyone who wouldn't rather shoot film but the cost vs. shooting digital is astronomical. E.g., assume shooting 60 hours of raw material for a 90 minute feature: 35mm film stock, processing and dailies = around $430,000. Same thing with digital files from an Arriflex Alexa digital camera = around $15,000. Yikes.

2. Editing: movies have been edited electronically since the 1980s, and by 1999 when this article appeared that was very much the norm. But I wouldn't worry about "re-editing on the fly" because once the edit is "locked" it takes weeks of work to go through all the other post production steps, e.g. conforming the cut, color correcting, sound editing and mixing, marrying the images and sound, creating the release elements (digital or film) etc., etc.. And making even a minor change to the cut means redoing all of those steps. So while it's conceivable that one could set up a re-edit on the fly as a one-off "event" it's never going to happen on a regular basis.

3. Display. Even die-hard film lovers must admit that digital projection now looks superior to projecting film. The mechanics of projection aside, by the time a film release print gets to a theater it's gone though several generations of analog printing and has less than 1,900 lines of image resolution left on it. So no reason to morn the death of film projection. However, the real issue about film prints is the archival aspect. Take a state-of-the art digital video tape from 1990, e.g. a "D-1" format tape and try getting it played back today. The tape will be fine but good luck finding a machine to play it. And that's the issue with digital release prints. How will future generations access them 100 years from now?
posted by Dean358 at 7:51 AM on August 24 [7 favorites]


there is still no substitute for shooting on film: film inherently looks beautiful vs. digital which one has to work at to make look good — especially when shooting people

Film doesn’t inherently look good; it took decades and decades of research and development of film stocks to get to this point, along with decades of experience with lighting and make-up. Digital isn’t at that point yet, and it will take quite some time to get there — probably longer than people think. But it will eventually get there.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 8:11 AM on August 24 [7 favorites]


Yeah, the linked discussion directly addresses that "film inherently looks beautiful" stuff:

MZS: There’s still some “tells” that give it away, like when a camera will swing suddenly, like an extremely kinetic camera move, particularly a lateral or vertical one. But it’s increasingly hard for anyone but a cinematographer to tell anymore. I was just watching the new television show The Knick on Cinemax, which is a circa-1900 period piece and is directed by Steven Soderbergh...That series is shot digitally. It looks like Super 16mm or pretty grainy 35mm. It looks good. I think in terms of film partisans being able to claim that film has an inherently superior image, we’re pretty much done.
posted by mediareport at 8:19 AM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Fair enough, gents. But at least as of today:

There is no digital camera that can match the colorimetry of film. And while one can spend a lot of time in a Digital Intermediate suite color correcting digital images film images just start from a point where they look beautiful. Sometimes that's cool, e.g., "Winter's Bone" a film that takes place in the depressed southern meth culture certainly benefitted from the washed out look of the RED camera it was shot with. But digital has a long way to go to get to "Technicolor."

When digital cameras run out of exposure range at the brightest or darkest part of an image they clip - a very ugly artifact. Film, on the other hand, gently rolls off and fails elegantly.

There is a natural softness to film that is very flattering to people's skin. And yet somehow it has this softness while still maintaining overall image sharpness.

Film grain -- real film grain, not a grain composite in post -- has a wonderful character to it. There's something magical that those little crystals do with light.

If there are any DPs on the blue I'm sure they could go on for many more paragraphs but the point is that while digital may indeed equal film as a capture medium one day, it's certainly not there yet.
posted by Dean358 at 8:48 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]


I don’t think they actually mean that, you know, The Americans or Boardwalk Empire is artistically superior to 2001 or Persona. I don’t think anybody really would say that, even unintentionally. But I think they mean that it fills the role movies used to fill when you would go to the multiplex.

I will cheerfully say that (not about those particular shows but..). The best TV is inherently better in many ways than the best movies. Even at their best, movies are short stories, glimpses into a word. A TV show (the best ones) are novels, exploring that world in depth. Plus solitary consumption is in fact more effecting than communal consumption. I believe that strongly. The story you encounter on your own in your living room sticks with you longer than one you see on a date in a theater.

Other than that, great article!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:26 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]


A great conversation between two knowledgeable and thoughtful guys; thanks for posting it. Cheshire is right to be proud of those pieces—I still remember reading them avidly in 1999 (when the NY Press was still worth reading) and reeling in shock. No more film?! But he turned out to be completely right; it's just a blessing that digital has gotten so much better (though I'm with Dean358 in thinking it's not there yet). Also, Cheshire turned me on to Iranian cinema, for which I'll always be grateful to him.

Also, Armond White is a terrible critic. Completely irrelevant here, but I had to say it.
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on August 24


Take a state-of-the art digital video tape from 1990, e.g. a "D-1" format tape and try getting it played back today. The tape will be fine but good luck finding a machine to play it.

You hear this argument often with any kind of digital storage, yet I do not think it can stand too much scrutiny. How widespread was the use of this particular tape, and how many people actually interested in archiving where using it? If it was any significant number - and they weren't total bozos - they have probably invested in the much simpler way of preserving digital documents: transferring it to state of the art hardware with zero loss if fidelity as technology ages. Not that there are no digital documents that are irretrievably lost through neglect or lack of funds, but a very good solution to the problem is available.

On top of that, how do you ensure that your analog media do not degrade, and that you possess all the information and hardware necessary to correctly access their content? Film projection may be as simple as shining light through the film, but I bet there are nuances to it that would require access to actual period hardware - if not now, then definitely 100 years from now - for a perfect result: in the long run, you are stuck with the same problem of needing to preserve both the medium and the playback mechanism, plus there is no perfect way to shift to a new format.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:35 AM on August 24


But I wouldn't worry about "re-editing on the fly" because once the edit is "locked" it takes weeks of work to go through all the other post production steps, e.g. conforming the cut, color correcting, sound editing and mixing, marrying the images and sound, creating the release elements (digital or film) etc., etc.. And making even a minor change to the cut means redoing all of those steps.

The current digital workflows allow most of that work to be done simultaneously and cut that "weeks" into "days" already. I don't think it'll ever get to the point of major, or even substantial, recuts being done after public release. But I've worked on projects that had cut changes made after international releases were complete (not for differing censors either, strictly artistic choices). I've also worked on features that had vfx shots that were updated only for digital projection, or prints that would only play in NY/LA because they could ship later.

So to a very small degree, this is already happening.
posted by dogwalker at 9:39 AM on August 24


Film is still a better long-term storage medium than any current digital format. Obviously if mishandled, film will degrade but it's still a better bet for lasting decades than any digital or tape medium. Digital archiving is a problem that needs to be solves very soon.
posted by octothorpe at 9:43 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Film, on the other hand, gently rolls off and fails elegantly.


Eh. It's also just what you're used to. Nothing objectively elegant here, just habit.
posted by iamck at 9:44 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]


I was surprised to find myself starting to advocate film on film over the past couple of years.

In the mid aughts, digital cinema went through two major shifts - the telecines of yesteryear moved onto individual-frame, high-resolution scanners which could accurately reproduce the grain and color of 35mm film, and we began to see truly stunning video transfers. DLP HD video projectors also began appearing in theaters, showing those scans, and they looked very good, with very good contrast and color. If you would have asked me about the death of film 8 years ago, I would have sounded a bit like Cheshire - the move to digital is certainly a change, but it doesn't look nearly as bad as expected, and it's probably for the best, we'll see.

My opinions changed radically two years ago, as the Arri Alexa video camera became the camera of choice for Hollywood productions, and 35mm and DLP HD video equipment was ripped out of movie houses to be replaced by LCD projectors.

This was like the feeling of having all of the incandescent light bulbs in your house suddenly replaced by cheap compact fluorescent bulbs overnight. Will those CFLs provide adequate light and cost less to operate? Sure. But color and contrast will suddenly be all wrong - the quality of light is greatly impeded, and everything looks ugly and sick.

So we're suddenly in a position despite having sharp focus and high resolution, all of the films jump from oversharp to murky, with strangely rendered colors and a strange smoothness, a migraine aura of cinema. Now, one director was able to harness this for dramatic effect - Nicholas Winding-Refn took the Alexa and created a glowing, foreboding underworld with the artifacts of modern digital cinema - but in the meantime, most of my visits to movie theaters have been like watching a badly calibrated television on display at Best Buy. Visits to the increasingly rare repertory houses that show movies should on film in 35mm confirm this - film on film was a more pleasant, less ugly experience.

I'm not against digital technology. I don't think there's any way back into 35mm given the costs and hassles. I was with Cheshire until a couple of years ago. I'm just hoping someone comes in and replaces these CFLs that have overtaken modern cinema with some next-generation LEDs. Soon.
posted by eschatfische at 9:57 AM on August 24 [3 favorites]


I don't miss film at all but one thing I mourn is what digital has done to performance and those moments when you are down to your last 50' of Kodak T stock and you're losing daylight and by the time your Camera Assistant loads the mag, you're only afforded one last take to get it right because your production no longer has the location secured so it's all up to your actors to nail it and when they do, you get something beyond magical, like capturing lightning in a bottle. Something about the limitations of available film stock really does take performance to the next level.
posted by cazoo at 10:25 AM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Take a state-of-the art digital video tape from 1990, e.g. a "D-1" format tape and try getting it played back today. The tape will be fine but good luck finding a machine to play it.

There are two such machines available on eBay right now, for around $1500 each.

If what you have on your 1990-era digital tape is so important, you've had 24 years to move it (completely losslessly, I'll add) to a more modern format. You only need to play it back once to put it on Blu-Ray, or to save it as a stream of losslessly encoded 8k JPEGs on a hard drive (which is, I believe, the current standard for film archiving), and then never worry about the tape again.

Sure, eventually, old digital formats become difficult to access. But if the data's there, and if it's important enough, somebody has the hardware or can make it for you. But even the slightest degradation of film is irreversible.
posted by Hatashran at 10:25 AM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Long live the new flesh.
posted by obliterati at 11:16 AM on August 24 [1 favorite]


Something about the limitations of available film stock really does take performance to the next level.

Just tell 'em you're down to your last memory card, and it's about full.
posted by sutt at 11:17 AM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Younger generations, particularly, treat mass-produced entertainment as a utility. It is integral to their lives and their identities, and therefore they think they are entitled to have whatever they want whenever they want to have it. The configuration of online media over the last twenty years has encouraged them to think that way. And we’re beyond value judgments on this. It’s the way things are. This is how people think and act. The genie’s out of the bottle, as they say.

I like this description of that particular phenomenon.
posted by johnnydummkopf at 11:20 AM on August 24


You hear this argument often with any kind of digital storage, yet I do not think it can stand too much scrutiny.

This is one of the things I just love with the Internet: how almost any complex issue that's a serious concern to professionals can be solved in minutes by pretty much anyone on any random Internet forum.

(previously)
posted by effbot at 1:45 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]


The problem with archiving digital media is that you might not realize how important it is to preserve until the technology to transfer it is already gone.

Remember those guys who re-established contact with ISEE-3? Their previous project was preserving archives of digital Moon photos taken by early probes which laid the groundwork for Apollo. Nobody thought those photos were all that valuable after Apollo wound down, but today with better techniques for analysing them they've turned out to be a treasure trove; they were so detailed that previously unknown weather patterns have been identified from frames that happened to have the Earth in the background.

At least half of all the theatrical movies ever released are permanently lost already. Who knows what our descendants will find useful to fill in their understanding of us? Z-list horror movies might make a much more useful guide to current cultural taboos and mores than the safely sanitized mainstream stuff. Who is going to make sure that some Z-list ripoff of Hostel is transferred 3 or 4 times so as to be available for the study of our culture someone decides to launch in 2100 A.D.?
posted by localroger at 1:58 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]


Great swathes of our cultural heritage we have today only because a copy happened to be forgotten in conditions conducive to it's long-term survival. That's been true for film, paintings, and texts. There's a lot to be said for the perfect reproducibility of digital copies, but a system that requires human interest and intervention every couple years is a system doomed to failure.

What's need to preserve something in the long run: shelf-stable mediums encoded in a way that the equipment required to read it back can be easily reverse engineered and built from scratch when the need arises (and it will). Then you make lots of copies.

The other way, suggested glibly as easy, is to maintain funding, expertise, and interest continuously over centuries of time. That's not realistic.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:07 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]


And that's the issue with digital release prints. How will future generations access them 100 years from now?

Why would they want to? Just get an AI to recreate the film based on it's wikipedia page and movie posters. If it's not the same, it'll still be good enough for start-up work.

Seriously, translation systems may be a problem as long as there's physical media. But once movies are moved completely online, I think it's easy enough to assume that translation programs will likewise be available-given enough online infrastructure. If we get into a crisis where the movies are erased from the internet, we'll probably have bigger things to worry about.
posted by happyroach at 2:49 PM on August 24


Yeah, depending on "online" to copy things forward seems very weak. How much content, much of it very valuable to some people, was lost when Geocities went down and how much of that now exists only on a floppy disk in a drawer somewhere?
posted by localroger at 3:21 PM on August 24


What effbot said, man you could append that to like half the damned internet and it'd be relevant.

But once movies are moved completely online

Well, sure, I suppose. The National Archive says 4k files, which are apparently regarded as an acceptable standard for preserving films, come to 4TB/hr. Even given constantly-dropping storage costs, that ain't nothing. So money comes back into it, somebody's got to pay for storing that redundantly all over the place, and copying it to future media no matter how little it's ever accessed, and how do they decide what's worthy?

So you store all the movies and some post-singularity AI goes, hmm, nobody ever looks at that old crap, and I've got to store my molecular-level 3-D scan of what I had for lunch today someplace, and whoops, there goes Lon Chaney Sr., sorry about the other 5 hours of Greed...

But I guess what the hell. They'll have the dvdrips of anything popular enough, they'll have .jpg memes of the Mona Lisa, and the Bible in lolcat, they'll understand the latest BBC Sherlock as a bunch of gifsets, it's all good. Hell, they'll be able to reconstruct The Avengers, in 3-D, frame-by-frame, along with petabytes of fanboy yammering, they'll understand us better than we do ourselves.

Both of those lists of lost/partially-lost movies have entries from the 70's. I did not expect that.
posted by hap_hazard at 3:40 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]


Bible in lolcat

Unlike your other examples, this is an improvement.
posted by localroger at 3:44 PM on August 24


3. Display. Even die-hard film lovers must admit that digital projection now looks superior to projecting film. The mechanics of projection aside, by the time a film release print gets to a theater it's gone though several generations of analog printing and has less than 1,900 lines of image resolution left on it. So no reason to morn the death of film projection.

at my local shitty small town movie theatre made out of a chopped up old movie theatre, the screendoor effect is in full effect on the *tiny* screens with the red of the exit sign over-powering the digital projection anyway.

i mean, they don't project the movie upside down or forget to change the reels, but those kind of problems seem sort of charming in retrospect.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:05 PM on August 24


also, for all the talk of technology, they really should be talking about money. it's no coincidence that the decline of film as a popular art form has coincided with the vast concentration of wealth and the end of the relatively egalitarian post-WWII society. Producing a film is like any other manufactured item, it requires a very definite investment of capital... and the evolution of the Hollywood film since 1980 has arguably more to do with the changes in financing than technology or art... the ability to produce new and startling films is tied to the availability of capital, and like technology, the concentration of capital reduces the possibilities for creative investment.
posted by ennui.bz at 7:20 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]


The National Archive says 4k files, which are apparently regarded as an acceptable standard for preserving films, come to 4TB/hr.

That's uncompressed. Actual 4k movies run 90-300GB according to wikipedia.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:45 PM on August 24


for archival purposes, "actual" usually means "uncompressed. there's not much point archiving at 4k if the files are compressed.
posted by dogwalker at 9:38 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]


Actually asking: why not? For clarity, I'm treating the options as storing the original mjpeg as presented to audiences versus decompressing that file to a series of completely uncompressed bitmaps. Which of course could be something that only the heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Idiots would do.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:26 PM on August 24


Compression is bad for archival purposes for a couple reasons. The first how much damage a small amount of corruption can do: in an uncompressed file a small amount of corruption affects only a small part of the overall file. This is how analog mediums work with regard to degradation. In a compressed file, one small part of the file has an effect on other parts of the file, depending on the details of the compression scheme, so a small amount of corruption can have a large effect. That's bad.

The second issue is complexity and future-proofing. With a compressed file, if you lose the technical details of how it was compressed and how that type of compression works, it can be very difficult to reverse-engineer that back. With uncompressed data, there's much less to reverse-engineer when it becomes necessary (and hard won experience teaches us that it will become so, if not for your file/format than for someone else's).

If you're interested, Library of Congress has a great site about different digital formats and their archival suitabilities. Here's the primary criteria they evaluate different formats based on, and what it says about compression:
Many digital formats used for disseminating content employ encryption or compression. Encryption is incompatible with transparency; compression inhibits transparency. However, for practical reasons, some digital audio, images, and video may never be stored in an uncompressed form, even when created. Archival repositories must certainly accept content compressed using publicly disclosed and widely adopted algorithms that are either lossless or have a degree of lossy compression that is acceptable to the creator, publisher, or primary user as a master version.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:26 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]


Since you mention MJPEG's, here's their page on those, which makes it sound like there's some serious concerns.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 12:47 AM on August 25


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