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PREMATURE BURIAL FOR 35mm FILM

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by Leonard Maltin
March 13, 2013 1:27 AM
31 Comments
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In the midst of doom and gloom regarding the future of 35mm and digital cinema overtaking the movie industry, I received a press release from Eastman Kodak several weeks ago, boasting that six of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees were shot on Kodak film: Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Les Misérables. (The publicist added, “In the 84-year history of Oscar, no Academy Award-winning best picture has ever been made without motion picture film.”)

Wait a minute. Kodak is still in the film business? And digital technology hasn’t replaced motion picture film after all? It’s true. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, and Christopher Nolan have spoken of their devotion to film. Paul Thomas Anderson went so far as to shoot The Master in 65mm for release on 70mm film stock.

Although going through a financial restructuring, Kodak is still manufacturing “billions of feet of film,” according to Andrew Evenski, president and general manager of Kodak’s Entertainment and Commercial Films Group. Why? Because so many directors and cinematographers demand it.

I decided to ask a working professional about this and turned to John Bailey, the talented cinematographer (and member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). His many credits include this year’s Sundance Film Festival hit The Way, Way Back, along with Groundhog Day and As Good as It Gets. Far from being an old fogey, John shot one of the first high-profile digital feature films, The Anniversary Party, in 2001. Here’s his response to my query:

Cinematographer John Bailey on the Vancouver green screen set of a Russian ice breaker during "Big Miracle."
Cinematographer John Bailey on the Vancouver green screen set of a Russian ice breaker during "Big Miracle."

“Despite my friend Roger Deakins’ insistence otherwise, film is NOT dead and many of us continue to prefer it when we are allowed to and when smart directors support us. Also, you can talk to anyone at Panavision to know that 35mm film cameras with anamorphic lenses are the hottest rental going. I am proud to have had such an ongoing support of film anamorphic to the extent that Panavision created two separate short-range zoom lenses because of my badgering—and now they are always completely rented.

“Despite the fact that I photographed four films last year on the Arri Alexa (two of which were at this year's Sundance) I am and will be a film person until there is no film available to shoot. It is a different medium than digital by the very nature of the image capture process. The pixel array of digital is static, a fixed grid, and bears resemblance to the concept of a tile mosaic. Film grain is random, no two frames having the same structure, so it is organic, alive, vibrant. Next time you are at a digital projection walk up very close to the screen and you will see the pixels, just as when you blow up a digital photo too much. I believe the mind's eye, if not the physical one, ‘reads’ this difference. Many digital colorists and cinematographers add an overlay of random "digital grain" during the DI finishing to break up the static pixel array, simulating as best they can the vibrant "look" of film grain.

“And despite the ever-improving color space and resolution of digital, it still does not equal film. The digital projection may be wonderful because of its stability but the new film projectors are equally so. The studios abandon film because of print costs and distribution (those bulky, heavy film cans).”

Furthermore, he adds,

“There is still NO archival storage medium on tape or drive. All these movies only on digital are so vulnerable and we will know quite soon just how much we are losing. Though not publicly acknowledged, there are movies on digital files that are locked—can’t be opened even though the files read as existing. My own suspicion is that the greater the metadata files that support these movies, the greater the possibility they can't be opened. But many movies are going to be lost to ‘digital nitrate’ because of lack of migrating in a timely fashion or because of the inevitable migration errors that always occur.

“Film is by definition self-archiving. I recently supervised a new 4K remastering of Groundhog Day at Sony Colorworks with colorist John Dunn. The scan from the original 35mm film negative was so clean and crisp—and we both agreed that the negative still contains more than 4K information.”

If so many top-tier filmmakers believe in film, how can the industry stand by and allow laboratories to close and suppliers to go out of business? This is the eternal tug-of-war between art and commerce, and it isn’t hard to guess which side will ultimately win. But it’s encouraging to know that some people are still fighting the good fight. In tomorrow’s post another contemporary filmmaker will weigh in on this subject.

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31 Comments

  • nope | May 28, 2014 1:06 AMReply

    Star Wars: Episode VII (2015) will be shot in 35mm & not digital. (like episodes 1-3). Whoo Hoo! Digital can be great, but there is still a place for 35mm.

  • Paul Bunnell | October 19, 2013 6:25 AMReply

    I am one of the few independent filmmakers still shooting on 35mm. My current movie (The Ghastly Love of Johnny X) became the last feature shot on Kodak 5231 Plus-X black-and-white stock, which was discontinued in 2010. I even went so far as to strike 35mm prints for theatrical exhibition and have always gotten a better audience response when projecting the film print vs. the DCP. I believe shooting on 35mm is still the best way to capture and I am gearing up to make my next feature on 35mm as well. Long Live Film and many thanks to Mr. Maltin for publishing this interesting article.

  • MJ Films | August 12, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    I'm in event filmmaking and I receive so many requests for Super 8 and 16mm film from those who appreciate the hazy warmth, the grain, tone and texture of film. I miss how movies used to look.

  • Jamie | May 13, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    I totally agree with this article. It's the Vinyl vs digital argument again. I am totally in favour of shooting on film and will also continue to do so as long as it is available. Steven Spielberg (films biggest supporter) thinks around "6 years" until the final processing lab in Hollywood closes.

  • nope | May 28, 2014 1:08 AM

    Star Wars: Episode VII (2015) will be shot in 35mm

  • Nicolette Baker | April 17, 2013 7:43 PMReply

    I am the managing director of the only Art Cinema in Costa Rica and Central America, called Sala Garbo. We have been screening films in35mm for over 36 years. We are totally independent, as we buy the films we choose. Obviously this is our major investment as each films costs us an average of $4.000 in rights plus copy and freight. Now we are being bullied into digital which means an investment of aprox.$50,000.00 which is an astronomical figure for an independent cinema. We had to wait till a 35mm copy of AMOUR turned up in Colombia for us to be able to show it. Your article about films still being made in 35mm gives me hope in surviving at least a few months more.!!!

  • Michael Goldman | March 27, 2013 12:55 PMReply

    John makes an excellent point. Large scale tentpole films in the anamorphic format are moving toward, not away from, film in SOME cases recently because the filmmakers like the aesthetic and their product is box office big enough to afford it under certain circumstances. Thus, the new Star Trek and Spiderman films are being shot on film with Imax material included right now, even though the first Spiderman film under Marc Webb was a digital affair. They are following the Christopher Nolan/Wally Pfister model rather than the Cameron model. such films can then be converted to 3D with improving techniques for digital 3D exhibition and big box office. the issue, i think, is will smaller films, indies, etc, have the choice of film or only the tentpoles? and is there enough of a market for this approach for Kodak to make a business model going forward to supply film stock given their recent economic woes? the business model is the issue. but creatively, there is no question there is still a demand for film from the filmmaking community. i'll be writing about this in the near future ...

  • Nikhil | March 21, 2013 1:27 AMReply

    Well, film capture, I hope, will still be around, but if you think film is dead as a projection medium, head off to the New Beverly Cinema, where classic and contemporary films are shown, all in 35mm. For March 20 and 21, they will be screening a double bill of Antonioni's "Red Desert" and Bergman's "Through A Glass Darkly", all in new 35mm prints.

  • Lluís Grifé | March 20, 2013 5:53 PMReply

    I'll print this digital page on analog paper, because soon this text will become ashes. It's true, on film you can re-telecine in any actual or future format. For example, now we're hearing about ultra-high-definition...it means that all HD cameras are NOW obsolete, instead of a flamant 35 mm film camera rhet have 40 years! Technology is not in the camera...is in the film! How can't you see this?

  • Sarahmarie | March 20, 2013 1:59 PMReply

    There is a very interesting research project going on from zdhk in Switzerland.

    I was at the presentation of the preliminary results. (there is a good summary in the press release, but sadly only german)
    What surprised me was that, regarding the aesthetic of the picture, the projection seemed to make a great difference while the recording format not so much. At least judging from the effect on the audience measured by interviewing. People prefered analogue projection of celluloid film.
    Digital colorist Florian Martin (Work Flow Solutions for Arri, color graded e.g. The Lord of the Rings) was there and shared a lot of personal thoughts and his own research. His theory involves the vivid grain, as John Bailey does but he placed even more emphasis on the the shutter in the projector: It causes "explosions", as he called it, or flicker, and our eye reacts on that (movement or light impulses or whatever), so we are much more absorbed into the (celluloid) film. He also mentioned that the digital projection has a much better image steadiness, but there would be again the question whether the slightly unsteady image "feels" more organic, and maybe makes the viewer more unconsciously willing to "fall" into the story.

    Anyway, I believe as well that there is no way around digital projection - it is the future. The economic advantages are too obvious. But an interesting question is: How will film style develop? So far it seems like everyone is trying to copy the analogue aesthetic with the digital equipment and clolor grading. But I wonder whether another post-filmic style is possible that does not imitate (and compete with) filmic style.

  • Sarahmarie | March 20, 2013 2:02 PM

    I was not able to post the link but there is also an introduction about the project in English, google it if you like. The project is called ANALOG/DIGITAL: The Emotional Impact of Film Recording Processes on the Audience.

  • Sandi Bachom | March 20, 2013 11:47 AMReply

    My father was a film editor at Walt Disney studios in the 1930's my first toy was a yellow film core. As a producer, I remember so many iterations of film/tape and when Kodak discontinued 5254 film, we all thought film was dead then! I love this movie and its message. Saw it at Traverse City Film Festival. I call myself a filmmaker, even though I shoot digital. The Sight and Sound students at NYU (Scorcese's class) had their last film class a couple of years ago. The thing that terrifies me, film lasts 100 years, digital...not so much. I sure hope they figure it out. The first thing I ever learned as a young producer is how to thread a Moviola. I think every film student should hold a piece of 35mm film, touch it, hold it to the light and splice it with mylar. THEN go make the great American film. I love this film, should be required viewing for everyone who makes, or just loves, film.

  • Jesse | March 20, 2013 11:28 AMReply

    Argo had moments of film but was largely shot on the ALEXA. More and more nominees each year (especially in Cinematography) are from the cinematographer using a digital format. In 5 years alone there went from being NO digital nominees to at least one each year, and with the exception of Wally Pfister's win for Inception ALL winners have been digital.

    Life of Pi (2013) Anna Karenina, Skyfall also digital.
    Hugo (2012) Girl with the Dragon Tattoo also digital
    Avatar (2010) no other digital nominees
    Slumdog Millionaire (2009) no other digital nominees

    I've worked successfully with both mediums but film and film processing are quickly fading.

  • Ben Morgan | March 21, 2013 1:06 AM

    Life of Pi, Hugo and Avatar all winning Best Cinematography shows what a joke that particular Academy Award is these days. Though I will admit I was visually impressed with Skyfall. The Alexa has a lot of promise. But it's not there yet.

  • S Martin | March 20, 2013 3:33 PM

    And Anna Karenina was 100% film. Don't know why you included that.

  • S Martin | March 20, 2013 3:26 PM

    No, Argo was NOT shot mostly on the Alexa; it was shot mostly on film. A few shots of Ben Affleck driving by DC landmarks at night were done with the Alexa, and so were the scenes that are actually set in Turkey, like when Affleck's in the Hagia Sophia. This was only a couple minutes of footage.

  • timmanna | March 18, 2013 11:23 PMReply

    Yes nice to hear stock shoot are better than digital. But whatever difference between two technology , I still feel film is better then digital . Because any technical parson need good environment feel enter in to it

  • Lincoln Spector | March 18, 2013 7:36 PMReply

    As a production format (how you shoot), film is still superior. However, digital is getting closer with each new camera, and it won't be long before it surpasses film in quality. At this point, it's damn close.

    As a presentation format (how you project), digital has already surpassed film. An average 2K DCP looks as good as a perfectly-made, pristine print. Unless the print is something very special (say, dye-transfer), I'd rather watch a DCP.

    With digital, an inept projectionist ruins only the screening. With film, he also ruins the print.

    Lincoln

  • JD | March 16, 2013 1:22 AMReply

    Film is dead. Deal with it.

  • S Martin | March 20, 2013 3:31 PM

    Vashi: Slumdog Millionaire was about 60% digital, 40% film. The film stuff was five different Fuji stocks.

  • vashi | March 16, 2013 2:14 AM

    In reference to all Oscar winning Best Picture Awards being shot on film...I believe Slumdog Millionaire was shot all digitally. Unless a chunk was shot on film? Anyone know for sure?

  • Bennie Woodell | March 14, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    This is so refreshing to read. My pledge as of last year was to shoot only on film while it was still available as a medium. I'm getting ready to shoot my next indie feature later this month, and I just bought an Arriflex BL the other day, and we're planning out how much film stock we need to buy. I am so excited to be shooting on film again, haven't done it since I was at film school a decade ago. Film will never die as long as there's people out there who will fight for it!

  • HUNTER TODD | March 14, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    Sadly, film is dead for projection. Last year, the 45th WorldFest discovered that our HQ AMC Studio 30 Theaters had gone all digital... Dear AMC did save one 35mm Christie Xexon Projector for us, but a quick review of shipping costs revealed that we would save $15,000 in FedEx & DHL charges alone. A 100lb 35mm print in two shipping cans may weigh 100 pounds, and 100 pounds from Paris to Houston is $800 each way! So WorldFest is now a DigiFest! Sadly. This also greatly affects small art houses, vacation destination theaters and small town theaters that do not have the $250,000.00 to make the conversion to good digital projection. Digital does offer cleaner projection, no dirt or scratches, no framing issues, no burned frames... no build-up! But it simply does not have the look or feel of film. However, the average audience cannot tell the difference. We have asked literally hundreds (thousands, actually) in our audience surveys, and they are unaware of any difference.
    BUT - film is still the King in making 'serious' films... Almost all of our Intl entries, those from Europe, Australia, the Pac Rim, India and Russia are all shot on film, though they come to us on BluRay or DVD. But in the credits, we see the lovely old Kodak logo, sometimes the Agfa or Fuji credits... always good to see... And as an old Kodak VP friend told me years ago, one single 35mm film frame contains 4.5 Million pixels... that times 24 frames a second... Digital will never match Film. Our 46th WorldFest is April 12-21, 157 new intl Indie films at worldfest.org

  • Kevin Barry | March 14, 2013 7:15 AMReply

    Leonard, this piece made my day! Nothing equals the alchemy of light projected through emulsion. Godard said, "If I find a film dull, I find it infinitely more entertaining to watch the scratches".

  • Karen | March 13, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    Everyone who wonders about this should see the documentary Side by Side, where directors and cinematographers (young and old) passionately debate this topic. We're going to lose something very real when we lose film. Theaters all across the country are trashing out their film projectors, thinking (WRONG!) that they are "modernizing" - out with the old and in with the new? Remember - that was the thinking behind "Urban Renewal" and look where THAT got us! Once you've destroyed it, you cannot bring it back. We're seeing the same foolishness on another level.

  • Paul Suarez | March 19, 2013 7:46 PM

    Thanks for that recommendation of SIDE BY SIDE, Karen. I had not heard of that documentary. I'm pleased to find that Netflix rents it on Blu-ray so I've added it to my queue.

  • William Dobbs | March 13, 2013 4:53 PMReply

    The first film that I ever saw in a theater was "Mary Poppins". That was quite a few years ago. (I am 54 years old now). That movie started my love of motion pictures. I have collected 16mm film since the 70's. I always prefer the look of film on the screen. It looks more "natural" than the "sanitized" digital image. A few weeks ago, I saw "Skyfall" at my local theater. The manager informed me that the film would be his very last 35mm presentation. It was depressing news to hear. "Skyfall" almost looked three-dimensional on film. The colors looked vibrant. I think it is great that some film makers still utilize 35mm film. THE DIGITAL MEDIUM IS NOT ARCHIVAL!!!

  • Jamie | May 13, 2013 6:27 PM

    @'CAPTAIN HOWDY' and 'PAULA - Skyfall was also available in 35mm though!

  • H | March 16, 2013 4:51 AM

    I believe the comment is in reference to the projection of the film, not the shooting format

  • Captain Howdy | March 16, 2013 1:21 AM

    LOL... Skyfall was shot digital on Arri Alexas and Red Epics. So much for disproving your own expertise.

  • Paula | March 15, 2013 7:09 AM

    Er, I believe Skyfall was shot digitally, not on 35mm film.

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