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Paul Thomas Anderson & Nicolas Winding Refn Join Forces To Save Fragile 35mm Film Prints

by Edward Davis
April 28, 2014 2:05 PM
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Paul Thomas Anderson & Nicolas Winding Refn

Is it the format that is important or the content? Vinyl clearly sounds better than cassette, CD or mp3, and the medium has clearly been in a renaissance period for several years, but ultimately, in the digital age, it is practical? The same debate can be fought over 35mm film and digital prints. Kodak and processing labs are going away and sticking with 35mm seems like a losing fight—especially when 90% of theaters across the country are converting to digital for myriad reasons, the least of which is ultimately it’s cost effective and space or storage problems are less of an issue. Studios clearly prefer it from a cost-effective perspective as well; it’s a lot cheaper to send a digital file than ship a physical, weighty 35mm print. But while digital prints are looking better and better, most will agree that 35 mm still looks superior. However, time is cruel mistress, and there are many moves on film print only that are getting lost to the ravages of time.

So here comes Paul Thomas Anderson (who shot his last picture “The Master” on 65mm) and Nicolas Winding Refn, who are joining the advisory board of the The American Genre Film Archive. The organization is working toward completing high resolution digital transfers of its endangered titles, starting with Craig Denny's 1975 film, "The Astrologer." But they need some help, and have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to make it happen.

Read the The American Genre Film Archive press release below, and check out their Indiegogo video after that.

The American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) announces a new initiative to help preserve and share the rarest of its vast collection of 35mm film prints. The non-profit archive - which counts among its advisory board members filmmakers Nicolas Winding Refn and Paul Thomas Anderson - has launched a fundraising campaign via Indiegogo that will help support a mission to complete high resolution digital transfers of its endangered titles - film prints too rare and fragile to be loaned.

"By any means necessary, we need to watch movies on film, because that's why God created cinema," says AGFA advisory board member Nicolas Winding Refn. "The American Genre Film Archive has begun a mission to preserve what I consider the greatest art form God has given us."

The very first film that AGFA is setting out to preserve is Craig Denny's THE ASTROLOGER (1975). This self-financed movie stars Denny, a real-life astrologer, as an astrologer who rises to fame by advising the President of the United States. It is an intensely strange time capsule and a vision from a unique voice in American cinema - the self-produced eccentric.

"There's no other movie like THE ASTROLOGER. It deserves to be seen," says AGFA advisor and Alamo programmer Tommy Swenson. "As the digital era supplants 35mm film and studios let preservation fall by the wayside, a huge swath of movie history, films like these, could disappear forever. Ultimately, film prints have a limited lifespan. However, with proper storage and care, we can prolong the lives of these prints and ensure that the movies themselves endure the ravages of time."

AGFA is looking to raise $15,000 by May 30 to fund this first digital restoration project. Donation levels start at just $5 and go up to a $1,000. Each donation of $15 or more comes with its own unique perk, starting with tickets to see THE ASTROLOGER when the new digital transfer screens at Alamo Drafthouse. Depending on the donation level, additional perks range from a real astrology reading, to a shelf named in the donor's honor at the archive, to the chance to program a Weird Wednesday or Terror Tuesday at the Alamo.

"There are a lot of ways that you can contribute to make this goal a reality, from just a few dollars to a significant contribution," says AGFA board member and Alamo CEO/Founder Tim League. "One particular perk I think some of our regulars will like: You can host a screening of any AGFA film for you and 40 of your friends complete with beer and popcorn. If you contribute at this level you get an awesome movie party and will feel great knowing your fun is preserving our American genre film legacy."

Founded in 2009, AGFA specializes in horror, sleaze, action, and independent regional filmmaking, as well as international genre cinema with an emphasis on films from Hong Kong. A home to over 3,000 film prints, AGFA has saved these from landfills, incinerators, and from literally being tossed into the sea. It serves as a sanctuary for endangered movies that no one cares about, but should.

Access is a crucial part of AGFA's preservation mission. Every year, the archive loans hundreds of prints to arthouse institutions, film societies, festivals, libraries, and universities. For some titles, AGFA's print is the only one that exists. These fragile and endangered titles can't be safely loaned out due to risk of damage or of being lost. The mission to complete 2K digital transfers of these endangered titles, which can then be easily duplicated and loaned for theatrical use, helps ensure that these nearly-extinct titles can be shared with the largest audience possible.

"These films can be seen as frescos that are about to crumble off of walls without even having been documented. This initiative will essentially photograph these frescos so they can be seen and shared," says AGFA advisor and Austin Film Society programmer Lars Nilsen. "AGFA's longer term goal is to one day carefully restore and strike new 35mm prints of these films. But for now, the main effort is to make sure they stay accessible for everyone and not just sitting on a shelf."

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  • ASLAM SIDDIQUI | May 5, 2014 8:05 AMReply

    I agree with the fact that digital projection is improving and having seen 300 rise of empire and amazing spiderman on 2k projection i feel the digital projection is now way ahead or atleast equal to that of 35mm projection and i feel it was e-cinema with its crappy 1.3K resolution which gave a bad name to digital projection.

  • Buddy | April 29, 2014 9:59 PMReply

    Kodak is not 'going away'. They've recovered from near bankruptcy and are doing well as the only surviving supplier of 35 and 16mm film. Check out the 'shot on film' section on their website. (Which I can't link here because of anti-spamming detection- motion dot Kodak dot com)

  • Jaffar | April 29, 2014 11:47 AMReply

    Vinyl does not *clearly* sound better than CD nor does 35mm *clearly* look better than a DCP. Either one can look and sound better than the other depending on what encoding, method, and equipment is employed for playback. Solely quantitative or qualitative assessments and judgements must be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, AGFA is a crucial archive of independent exploitation cinema and genre cinema generally. They are making the right decision to digitize and restore their archive so that it can be distributed as DCPs, but I would not say that a 2k scan is sufficient for their longer term hope that the scans might be outputted to a 35mm polyester print. With more of their titles in distribution, and with the restored titles only they control for distribution, they would open a great revenue stream for the archive. I hope that they use some of this money to develop archival practices that benefit their physical holdings. Digitizing their collection to relieve wear on physical prints is good, but not providing a sufficient storage space with the correct environmental controls and microhousing would be a naive preservation effort.

  • Jaffar | April 29, 2014 1:10 PM

    jasmin pls

  • Jasmine | April 29, 2014 12:56 PM

    No, Jaffar.

  • buddy | April 28, 2014 4:25 PMReply

    I'm the manager of an arthouse theatre and I can tell you categorically that there aren't a 'myriad' of reasons why cinemas switched to digital, there's only one: 2 years ago studios announced they would stop making prints. We had to adapt or die. As for 'cost effective', it cost us about eighty thousand per screen to convert to digital. Many cinemas couldn't afford to do that and have shut down; we only could because our own sold one of his theatres to pay for conversion for the rest. The only way we're saving money is the lesser cost of shipping; versus the cost of conversion, it would take about 50 years for that saving to materialize. If we last another 10 thanks to internet availability of films, that would be a miracle. The only people saving money are the studios because as you say the costs of making and shipping digital prints are lesser.

  • James | April 28, 2014 5:20 PM

    My favorite story on this topic is an article I saw a while back that was somewhat satirical, but not really. It suggested that since so many digital storage formats deteriorate or become unreadable, but films from 100 years ago can still be projected, the digital information from all these movies made today should be imprinted on film as 1s and Zeros as the safest way to archive them:)

  • buddy | April 28, 2014 4:26 PM

    Space-saving? A little. The digital projectors are actually bigger than a film projector, but since you need either 2 for reel to reel or else a bulky platter system some space is saved. Finally, the whole preservation aspect: yes, prints are a fragile thing. But keep them dry and cold and there's no reason they won't last indefinitely. Whereas we have no idea regarding the shelf life of digital. There are file formats from ten years ago that can't be opened. A solar flare could erase everything ha. At any rate digital is ultimately a bunch of 0s and 1s dwelling in hunks of metal and plastic, while film prints ARE the film in its full, tangible glory.

  • James | April 28, 2014 3:54 PMReply

    I think there are two issues here that get blurred most of the time - movies being A) shot on film and B) sent as release prints on film. I'm fine with the people who'd say there's some magical quality to shooting on film, it definitely looks distinctive, though I've grown used to digital at this point as well. However the bigger issue is movies released across the country on 3000 screens on film. I hadn't seen a movie projected on film in a standard multiplex for years until I saw "Moneyball" in a dumpy theater in Vegas a few months after its release. It looked like garbage and the scratched, poor quality release print, poorly projected and out of focus, reminded me of countless such experiences when I was younger. Film, properly projected somewhere like The Egyptian or The Aero here in LA, still looks gorgeous, no argument, but the vast majority of movies aren't properly projected, and digital projection improves the experience of watching them for the majority of the audience.

  • buddy | April 28, 2014 6:58 PM

    I think taste comes up in questioning what looks 'better'. Pristine clarity and lack of grain are not necessarily an absolute mark of quality. A photograph shone through a bright light has a near infinite resolution that even 4K can't match; from there, as you say it's the quality of the print and projector that inhibit it's clarity. Personally, I've seen a number of prints that looked 'crappy'- scratches, fading, warble- but I thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia and grittiness of it.

    Also something I've noticed as a projectionist is people's reaction to the inherent flicker from film. Up until a few months before we went digital, nobody ever commented on it. But once the other theatres in town had been digital for a while they would complain about this aspect of our projection. A couple months after we went digital I went to a screening at a rep theatre, not sure of the format; as soon as I walked in I knew it was film just because I had gotten used to the absence of flicker myself. Only took me a few minutes to forget it and enjoy the experience.

    There's also the more esoteric notion of that 24 frame a second flicker being more keyed into how our eyes/brains process information and therefore being more resonant than digital, but it's pretty hard to substantiate something like that.

  • James | April 28, 2014 5:17 PM

    Also, a DCP sourced from a 4K scan of the original negative of a classic film is going to look better than almost any print at this point, unless it's brand new and struck at HUGE exzpense. Heck, I saw a screening of 2001 last year here in LA that was of an archival 70mm print, and it looked crappy.

  • James | April 28, 2014 5:14 PM

    Fair enough, but my point is that the vast majority of people don't see movies at theaters with optimal projection setups, they see them in crappy mall multiplexes. That's how I grew up seeing movies till I moved to LA. Digital projection has certainly improved the mass audience moviegoing experience. Of course I say this as the person who still seeks out screenings on film here and bemoans the loss of the Marina del Rey IMAX screen that showed real film prints of movies.

  • buddy | April 28, 2014 4:50 PM

    *better quality and price point, dammit.

  • buddy | April 28, 2014 4:48 PM

    *blew his mind.

  • buddy | April 28, 2014 4:47 PM

    I knew this guy a few years back, he had multiple degrees in sound design and was working for Ubisoft designing games. One night over drinks he told me 'Analog is dead!!' Then went on to explain that, yes, analog delivery of sound is actually superior to digital because the whole sound wave is being transferred by tape or vinyl, whereas digital is merely a sampling of it. There will always be gaps in the digital sound wave; digital only gets better as it makes those gaps smaller. But he said for me to get over it, because times are changing etc.

    About 4 months later he heard a new German record player in a store and bought it immediately. Had me over to listen to all the records he'd just bought because the fidelity of the sound his mind.

    The point of this story is that analog (whether image or sound) will always be better than the digital equivalent of equal quality and price point. A crappy DVD may look better than a crappy VHS tape on your TV, but a half assed 35mm print of the same film will look better than that same DVD projected through an SD video projector. Your CDs and DCP films may sound and look better than your old scratched records and budget theatre film projections, but a highend record player and well-cared for print projected by someone who knows what they're doing will trump your digital equivalents.

    The sad thing is that, as is the case with shooting on film vs digital, the decisions to make digital the only viable option were not made with any considerations of art or technical quality, but purely out of bottom line economics.

  • James | April 28, 2014 3:56 PM

    And I still don't buy the "vinyl is better than CD" argument, it sounds like a hipster affectation. I certainly know my own LPs never sounded as good as CDs, especially after listening them to a while and getting them scratched or worn.

  • Xian | April 28, 2014 2:25 PMReply

    The "vinyl is better" argument is based on specious reasoning and a lack of understanding about the halcyon technology from yesteryear. Go to Vox online and look up the article "Vinyl's Great But It's Not Better Than CDs" to get an idea of why this is. Same with film vs. digital... I've been to recent screenings that decry the use of digital projection/distribution and pile on the praise for film prints, then they screen a print fresh from the studio that's cleaned up, and voila... it's faded, full of pops and scratches, the focus often feels soft, etc. etc. etc. One man's trash, I guess. But let's put to rest the fallacy that somehow older technology is better because that's what we grew up with, or "that's the way it's been" or any other myriad reason behind such Luddite attitudes.

  • Xian | April 28, 2014 5:14 PM

    Well, first, do you go to see films for the technology behind it, or for a good story, characters and perhaps a decent plot? I don't care how esoteric you wanna be about that, but unless you're a non-narrative devotee of Stan Brakhage, Norman McLaren or Terrence Malick (and even then his imagery, visual tone and mood are in service to a story), the main reason people go to see films is to see a good story told well, with characters to root for or against, and with a plot that keeps us interested enough to stick to the end. That's the movie business... something, apparently, Wally "I hate digital" Pfister neglected to learn while lensing Christopher Nolan's movies, because his first film just bombed bigtime (but surely he knows exactly what he's talking about, right?). And Nolan, too, will come around to digital, just as the Coen Bros are doing, just as Steven Spielberg has, and just as most filmmakers will unless they're striving for hipster cred or to be different, obstinate and commit to a kind of steampunk affectation for a technology better left in the dust. Honestly, do you think that the hard-on for "film" extends beyond celluloid to nitrate? Let's make movies on super-explosive materials just because 1) That's the way it's always been done; 2) That's the way "God" or Thomas Edison (or Pathe or Eadweard Muybridge) intended it to be; 3) it's not real filmmaking unless it's on "film" (technically correct, so let's call 'em "movies" instead, and "recording" instead of "filming"... which is all film really does, make a record of an event on photo-sensitive silver halide... a CCD does the same thing, technically speaking). I know a lot of directors you mentioned (namely Nolan, now Pfister as well since started directing) stay they will never, ever, ever, ever, ever work with digital from soup-to-nuts (production to distribution/projection), but I assure you they will... though I can see Nolan fighting against it the most as he pops a wax cylinder into his Edison Phonograph Player for some musical enjoyment while leafing through a stone tablet script he's about to direct (I do love his movies, btw), but again, this really isn't a fight, or a this vs. that drama, so much as the slow march of technological progress toward a better way of doing things (better = faster, more efficiently, cost-effective, etc.). I mean go for it, if cave painting is really what you want to do and you feel it's the most effective medium through which you can best express yourself, have at it and much success to you... there is room in the world for anything and everything. But, let's face it, in the business of movies, digital is our present and our future... at least until a 90-year old James Cameron insists we see Avatar 5 in glorious Holodeck format (for which there will almost certainly be an upcharge at the box office). Time... it marches on!

  • Jack | April 28, 2014 2:52 PM

    That's quite a dismissive attitude. I'm sure *you* know more about the film vs. digital debate then people like Christopher Nolan, Wally Pfister, Paul Thomas Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Bruno Delbonnel, Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay... the list goes on and on. You can argue that it depends on the filmmaker, the intent, and the final product but to suggest that film is not as good as digital is just as hollow as the other way around. The fallacy is that you think people are Luddites when they know more about what they're talking about then you do.

    I think you're mistaking the argument people are making, which is that film should not have to get put to pasture so rapidly and forcefully, especially because in terms of archiving there isn't a very valuable way to save film prints. There's no reason the two technologies cannot co-exist and people can choose the tool they wish to use, instead of being forced to choose.

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