May 2, 2012
News that a press screening of The Avengers had to be delayed over two hours because the digital file was accidentally deleted spread through a number of film and tech sites: Slate, Tecca, Y!Tech, etc. For some, it was further confirmation of the warnings raised by Gendy Alimurung in a recent LAWeekly article: “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm.”
Not everyone agrees. For example, Leo Enticknap, a film historian with the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, pointed out on an archivists’ listserv the many times film screenings had to be postponed due to prints not arriving on time, or being spliced together incorrectly, or falling off their platters, or any number of mechanical failures with projecting equipment.
Still, digital failures, as opposed to analog ones, seem to stir up more publicity, perhaps similar to the alarmed newspaper accounts of horseless carriage accidents before the rise of automobiles. For many theater owners, Film vs. Digital has become a moot point. As the March/April 2012 issue of Screen Trade points out, “The pace [of conversion to digital] is fast and the pressure tightening. At a very near point, if you do not have digital, you will not show movies.”
The recently concluded 8th Orphan Film Symposium was not just a chance to see movies from around the world, but an opportunity to catch up with historians and archivists to talk about the state of film preservation. As I mentioned in an earlier post, funding continues to be the most significant factor facing archivists. What surprised me the most in the two years since the previous symposium was how quickly digital has dominated screenings.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project and the author of a forthcoming book about the orphan genre, agreed that more and more presenters “were opting to choose a high definition digital transfer and not even bother with film.” Streible agreed that digital files were easier and cheaper to duplicate. “But it’s a mixed bag,” he went on. “The piece we’re about to watch [The Jungle] wasn’t shown yesterday because a file was missing. And definitely all the examples I have seen here verified for me that film prints are always superior to the digital transfers.”
For Dwight Swanson, a founder of the Center for Home Movies, making 16mm prints, often a condition for preservation grants, is becoming prohibitively expensive. “We were just working on a grant proposal, and it turns out we couldn’t do a project because of the costs of film,” he said. “We could make a digital file, but what then? Our organization has no IT structure. We’d end up with a hard drive on a shelf. Who knows how long that would be viable?”
To screen a 16mm film, Swanson would very likely have to supply a projector and someone who knew how to operate it. “And what is the point of spending thousands of dollars to get a 16mm print that might be projected once?” he asked. “Everyone else will watch it on DVD.”
“Our experience was that a lot of the new 16mm prints we had made for the 7th Orphan Symposium got damaged in their first showing,” Streible revealed. “Was it worth that extra few hundred dollars, or would it have been better for a ten-minute film which never looked very good to begin with to just be satisfied with digital?”
Eli Savada of the Motion Picture Information Service believes that, “Film will be presentable for another few years—it depends on how much equipment can be kept in shape.” David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, told attendees that his staff had to send to Uruguay for a replacement bulb for an Elmo 16mm projector.
Anka Mebold, a film archivist and restorer with the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt, Germany, believes that film will continue to serve as a preservation medium. “As archivists, we are in a double-bind. Do you allow film to be projected or keep it on a shelf?” she asked. “Perforated plastic with photographic emulsion is probably the most stable carrier, so I think film is not going to go away. It will probably vanish from exhibition, however. Digital projection doesn’t threaten possibly unique film elements.”
But as Walter Forsberg, a research fellow at NYU Libraries, points out, “Digitization is more expensive than film. The long-term costs of paying someone to be a digital custodian, to exercise the drives, to perform ongoing management files, to migrate from format to format indefinitely into the future, is way more expensive than film, than preserving materials on celluloid.”
Skip Elsheimer, a media archeologist with A/V Geeks, believes that access to materials is key. “Access is the first step toward preservation,” he said. “When films are online, people can access them and identify areas for research. You can say, ‘You know what? That title’s important because it was made by a special company, or it’s the first time a musician scored something, or it’s an early appearance by an actor.’”
Digital answers some of these access issues, but also raises other questions. “Videotape is going away,” Elsheimer pointed out. “The crushing blow was the tsunamis in Japan last year that hit the Sony tape manufacturing plants. A lot of people changed over to file-based formats at that point.”
But what format do you use? “When YouTube came out, it was a pretty big deal,” Elsheimer said. “We’re still talking to archives who want a YouTube channel, so that’s what the bar is. And that bar’s not very high. But a lot of people just want to see something, even if they’re seeing it in the worst possible quality.”
Elsheimer believes how we watch movies determines the delivery format. “With High Definition, video has gotten bigger, but people are watching it smaller—on iPhones and iPads,” he said. “What’s changing now is the software for reading video files. Final Cut was a big thing for a while, but we’re shifting to another format. Are QuickTime files going to be valuable anymore? Probably not.”
Some are still holding onto film, grimly, stubbornly, perhaps out of a misplaced nostalgia. Still, Elena Rossi-Snook, the moving image archivist for the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, received an enthusiastic round of applause when she delivered this manifesto:
We’re preserving the experience of watching analog film being mechanically projected, and then we’re also preserving the social and cultural role of the public library film collection. Which means that regardless of economy, age, political affiliation, religion, race—you will have access to the mechanical projection of 16mm motion picture film onto a white screen in the dark. That is your right as a patron of the library.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
December 2, 2011
Several recent articles have reached the same dismaying conclusion: film as a medium is doomed. First came a report that, starting in 2012, Twentieth Century Fox International will no longer ship 35mm prints to Hong Kong and Macau. Only DCI-compliant digital formats will be available. Then came Debra Kaufman’s sobering article for Creative Cow: Film Fading to Black, a detailed account of how companies like ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer manufacture film cameras. (Devin Coldewey added his own take on Kaufman’s work for TechCrunch.) Several sources reported on financial difficulties facing Kodak, one of the most storied names in film (try WHEC.com’s “Is Kodak in trouble?” for some hometown perspective.)
Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles went so far as to start a petition, Fight for 35mm, stating that, “The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high,” adding that, “I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for.” (As of today, she has collected over 5,700 signatures.)
In a more metaphoric than practical sense, New York Times critic A.O. Scott weighed in with Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?, citing doomsayers like Roger Ebert (“Video commands the field”) and Anthony Lane (“Enjoy it while it lasts”) before suggesting that film is “fragile and perishable” in part because it is based on nostalgia.
If you need more concrete proof of how film’s dominance in culture has eroded, take the sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: $400 million in a day. That’s more than most big-budget films will gross in a year, if they ever reach that point. Or read Film Journal‘s How do we win back younger moviegoers?, which presents some eye-opening statistics: the 12 – 24 age group, once thought to be the backbone of the film audience, purchased only 32% of movie tickets in North America in 2010. That’s down from 60% in 1974.
The sudden confluence of “Death of Cinema” reports is surprising, as predictions of its demise have been around for decades. Radio was supposed to kill off movies back in the 1920s, for example, then television was suppossd to do it in the 1950s. In his book 2007 The Virtual Life of Film, D.N. Rodowick argues that, “As almost (or, truly, virtually) every aspect of making and viewing movies is replaced by digital technologies, even the notion of ‘watching a film’ is fast becoming an anachronism.” But “new media” are themselves based on cinema, “the mature audiovisual culture of the twentieth century.” So what we know as cinema will continue to exist even if film is replaced as a medium.
Ironically, it turns out the film is an excellent archival material, far more stable and reliable than any existing digital archival platform. (The photos accompanying this article show A Pictorial History of Hiawatha, filmed in 1902–03 and restored in 2009 by Julia Nicoll for Colorlab. Even in its deteriorated, pre-restoration shape, the film retained its images.) Stored properly, film can last for decades, something that cannot be said about floppy disks or Iomega Zip drives. Two-inch, reel-to-reel videotape used to be the broadcast standard for television. Only a handful of playback machines still exist. For that matter, when was the last time you viewed a 3/4-inch videotape?
Film has a tactile beauty that digital lacks. I guess it’s a similar contrast between print photographs and digital ones, between writing with a fountain pen or on a computer. Few would pass up the speed and convenience of new technologies. It’s much easier laying out an article with InDesign than physically cutting and pasting galleys onto dummy pages, just as it’s easier to edit with Final Cut Pro than with grease pencils and gang synch blocks. But I miss the physical contact that the old methods entailed, the tape splicers and take-up reels, the linen-lined bins filled with strips of film.
Earlier this week, Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, spoke to me about the film vs. digital divide. “I attend a lot of festivals,” he said. “When I see movies projected digitally, and then I see them on film, they look better on film. Film has a warmer feeling. Flicker is better than glow.”
Payne acknowledged digital’s incursions. “In the US theaters project at about a 50-50 ratio of film-to-digital, Norway is about 90% digital, Iceland I think is 99% or getting there,” he said. The director also admitted that watching film can be a dismal experience “if the projectionist has turned the bulb down to save money, or doesn’t know how to frame the film.
“But I think we’re losing something. I remember an interview Jean Renoir gave about medieval tapestries, where he said something to the effect that the more codified and standardized a medium gets, the closer it comes to death.” Digital processes are “trying to approximate the medium’s representation of reality—’Look how real it is,’ they say.”
Payne had just attended a screening of the restored version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, calling it a “transformational” representation of life. “Why can’t we have that?” he asked. “I had to fight tooth and nail to make my next film in black and white. Interestingly, I have to shoot in digital in order to give it a filmic look. I’m going to screen black-and-white films like Ordet, not just for the cinematographer, but for the whole crew. I’ll say, ‘I want one shot, just give me one shot that looks like that.’”
On at least one level, Payne doesn’t believe that film is dying just yet. “Say you’re a teenager, and you want to be alone on a date,” he said. “Where else are you going to go on a Friday night?”
October 26, 2011
Critical consensus earlier this year was that the 3-D boom in motion pictures was dying. “Not every movie, in my opinion, should be in 3-D,” director Steven Spielberg said at July’s Comic-Con. “Audiences have now come to realize there are bad movies that can be in 3-D as well and, on top of that, you’re being charged an extra $5 to see a movie that was as bad as one you saw in 2-D,” said Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Spielberg’s producing partner on the upcoming The Adventures of Tintin.
The rerelease of a 3-D version of Disney’s The Lion King quickly eliminated the doom saying. After the 1994 film grossed over $100 million (see my earlier posting), the 3-D process took on an air of inevitability. Disney is converting Beauty and the Beast to 3-D, followed by Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. Directors as prominent as Spielberg, Martin Scorsese (Hugo), Ridley Scott (Prometheus), Ang Lee (Life of Pi) and Francis Coppola (Twixt) have committed to the process. So have low-budget filmmakers and even documentarians like Werner Herzog (The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which examined the Chauvet Cave in France) and Wim Wenders (Pina, about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch).
This isn’t the first go-round for 3-D movies. The principles behind stereo photography were known well before the invention of motion pictures, and in the nineteenth century stereoscopic viewers were popular household toys. According to Stefan Drössler, director of the Munich Filmmuseum, 3-D might have had a more immediate impact in the dawn of cinema if the first moving pictures hadn’t already provided more depth than still photography. “The illusion of the moving image stopped the development of 3D moving image for a while,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Drössler, one of the world’s leading experts on 3-D, will give a highly anticipated lecture this Saturday, October 29, at the Museum of Modern Art. In 3-D Is Coming to This Theater! An Illustrated History of Stereoscopic Cinema, he will demonstrate the myriad examples of 3-D movies stretching back to the early 1900s. Among his topics: the German inventor Max Skladanowsky, who tried to animate 3-D images in the late 19th century.
Even movies by the pioneering special effects director Georges Méliès can be projected in 3-D, thanks to the fact that he often filmed with two synchronized cameras side by side, the second camera providing a “protection” negative. (Filming with two cameras was a common practice in Hollywood as well; the second negative could be used for European markets or to replace footage once the first wore out.) Méliès didn’t plan to make 3-D films, but with modern technology we can re-synchronize his images to provide a realistic illusion of depth.
I’ve seen some early examples of 3-D movies at previous MoMA screenings, like William Van Doren Kelley’s “Plasticon” shorts from the 1920s, and can attest to their eerie, ghostly power. The sense of depth in the shorts is startling. As captured on lustrous nitrate stock, the images have a haunting beauty as well. They bring the past to life in ways that “flat” movies can’t.
After his lecture, Mr. Drössler will introduce a screening of Robinzon Kruzo (1947), most likely the first 3-D feature. Produced in the Soviet Union, it “was shown exclusively in one Russian cinema for about two years,” he wrote. “You even find reports about it in Sight and Sound magazine.” Robinzon Kruzo was re-released several times in the USSR, and drew a half-million moviegoers during a four-month run in London.
Mr. Drössler’s talk will cover other processes as well, their names evoking the hucksters that helped make movies a commercial success: Zeiss Ikon Raumfilm, Plasztikus Films, Stereokino 70, StereoVision, SpaceVision. He will also address 3-D’s inability, until now, to establish a permanent foothold in the industry.
In the 1950s, when directors like Alfred Hitchcock were experimenting with 3-D, the biggest drawback to the process may have been the fact that it required two prints running simultaneously through two projectors. Lose a frame on one print, and your movie was no longer synchronized. Today’s digital projectors can provide 3-D depth with only one print.
Still, 3-D faces an uphill battle with consumers. As Mr. Drössler notes, “It’s true that today more theaters than ever are equipped for 3-D projection, but the process is still not dominating mainstream cinema: The majority of films in the box-office top ten are not 3-D, hardly any 3-D films have been in competition at the big film festivals, and none has ever won a prize in these festivals.” The biggest problem with the process for Mr. Drössler: “As long as there is no satisfactory 3-D system without glasses for cinema and for TV, it will never become a dominant force in the mainstream film industry.”
October 5, 2011
More than most art forms, cinema was founded on science. Inventors like Thomas Alva Edison drew on optics, chemistry, metallurgy and neuropsychology in devising and perfecting motion pictures. Edison’s early cinematic developments were covered by Scientific American, while Popular Science and similar magazines devoted articles to film technologies like color and 3D processes.
And yet for over a hundred years, feature films have played with science’s facts and distorted its principles and theories. Think of the astronomers who, after being shot from a cannon, discover beauty queens on the moon in Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. Or The Thieving Hand (1908), in which the eponymous hand attaches and detaches itself from unsuspecting hosts to go on crime sprees. Rockets that roar through the vacuum of outer space, doctors who turn into insects via electrical pulses, donated eyes that see ghosts: the list of cinematic crimes against science seems endless. Whether bringing dinosaurs to life through snippets of DNA in Jurassic Park or turning robots into assassins in The Terminator, filmmakers have leaned on science to add credibility to their work—whether or not their interpretations made any sense.
Starting in 2005, Elizabeth Taylor-Mead, then the associate director of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation, and entrepreneur Richard Anders began addressing the disconnect between film and science. The Coolidge (a movie theater in Brookline, Massachusetts) initiated a series that brought the “top minds in the world of science, medicine and technology,” as Taylor-Mead wrote later, to introduce films that matched their interests. Science on Screen quickly became a favorite part of the Coolidge’s schedule and since 2010 has received major funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The 2011 season began this week with a screening of Roger Corman’s The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), introduced by Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow at Harvard University and co-author of “Ecophysiological traits of terrestrial and aquatic carnivorous plants: are the costs and benefits the same?” Who better to introduce a film about a giant, man-eating plant?
In November, the Coolidge is showing Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, preceded by Dr. Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School (HMS), and director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at HMS. No one in cinema handled dreams better than Buñuel, which is why Dr. Stickgold will be talking about the dreaming brain. December’s entry, 12 Monkeys, is paired with journalist Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses. In January, MIT physics professor Edward Farhi discusses the physics of time travel for Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Taylor-Mead admits that the series had some growing pains. “Just searching for the closest match in terms of subject matter,” she wrote, “can mean you’re often stuck with a less than stellar example of film art, and that you’re merely attempting to illustrate information already given.”
The key was to find pairings that made sense but were still surprising. For example, Guy Crosby, a professor of food science and nutrition at Framingham State College and Harvard University’s School of Public Health, as well as the science editor for Cook’s Illustrated and the science expert for America’s Test Kitchen, spoke about how our sense of taste works for Babette’s Feast (1987). In my favorite pairing, Dr. Steven C. Schlozman, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, introduced George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Questions he raised included: What explains zombies’ lack of executive function? Why do the walking dead have such lousy balance, and why are they always so hungry?
Starting in January, 2011, the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation began awarding grants to non-profit art house cinemas to create their own Science on Screen programs. Eight theaters were chosen: The Loft Cinema, Tucson, Arizona; California Film Institute, San Rafael, California; Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington, New York; Maiden Alley Cinema, Paducah, Kentucky; Oklahoma City Museum of Art Film Program, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in conjunction with Circle Cinema, Tulsa, Oklahoma; Real Art Ways, Hartford, Connecticut; SIFF Cinema, Seattle, Washington; and Tampa Theatre, Tampa, Florida.
In addition to Science on Screen, the Sloan Foundation has funded a Film Program “to expand public understanding of science and technology.” Since 1996, the Sloan Foundation has offered screenwriting and film production awards, as well as sponsoring science seminars and panels at major film festivals. Over 250 projects have received funding, including such filmmakers as Michael Apted, Werner Herzog, and Julian Schnabel. The Sloan Science and Film page on the Museum of the Moving Image website offers more information, and you can also stream some of the winning shorts.
August 31, 2011
Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.
Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.
With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.
Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.
Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.
Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.
In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.