Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Goodbye Film

According to Deadline Hollywood, distributors will no longer make movies on film available to theatres in North America by the end of 2013.  International theatres will be done with film by the end of 2015.  It's all going to be digital.

I fully understand the economics behind this move.  Film prints are expensive to make, expensive to ship and easily damaged when projected.  They contain silver, a substance whose cost varies widely due to market forces.  Digital prints can be made faster, the drives that hold them are reusable and they shouldn't degrade over multiple showings.  They won't need splicing.

Still, for anyone who has handled film, it's a sad moment.  There was something magical about being able to hold a ribbon of celluloid up to the light and see the images.  Seeing the squiggle of the optical soundtrack and knowing that the squiggle could be turned into an orchestra or an actor's voice was amazing.  Comparing the sides, one the celluloid base and the other the emulsion, said something about the film's manufacture.  The knowledge of edge numbers, negative and reversal, hi-con and panchromatic, internegs and interpositives, workprints and release prints, will vanish with film.

The artifacts of film are what we accept as the look of movies.  Film grain is an imperfection, yet we take it as normal.  Observant people notice the marks in the upper right corner to signal reel changes to the projectionist.  (Those marks have disappeared in recent years due to improvements in projectors).

It is because projectors used to be mechanical that sprocket holes, one of the most common graphic identifiers of movies, exist and why all movies were projected at the same rate.

The new digital systems are not restricted to 24 frames per second.  Peter Jackson will release The Hobbit at 48 fps.  James Cameron will release the Avatar sequel at 60 fps.  Some people are wondering if these films won't look like soap operas or sitcoms shot on video.

Finally, think how this will affect Tex Avery's cartoons.  Old cartoons already labour under handicaps because their contemporary references aren't known to modern audiences.  Voices that imitate radio performers or gags spoofing hit films of the past don't register.  Avery, in particular, loved to riff on the nature of film itself.  The wolf runs past the sprocket holes in Dumb Hounded.

Two hunters cross a boundary where Technicolor ends in Lucky Ducky.

A singer pauses to pluck a hair from the film gate in Magical Maestro

It's only a matter of time before these gags will mystify audiences instead of making them laugh.

The world moves on.  Some future Tex Avery will probably do gags about file formats.   Films will soon have the same status as cylinder recordings; only specialists will know what they're looking at and have the equipment to play them.  I'm going to miss film.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I, too, will miss film, and the filmic quality of projection. I will NOT miss crappy projection by some pimpled faced teenager more interested in "butter flavored" popcorn than movies.

24 frames a second, along with 33 1/3 vinyl record speed were decided (picture first) due to the compatibility of the motors used in early sound film production (both motors made by same company). While the brief foray of Todd-AO into 30 fps was truly an improvement in image, I have yet to see any faster frame rate (48 fps or 60 fps) that is truly better than 24 fps. Even in 3D (which I've also seen).

And for animation, the impact is tremendous.

Mark Mayerson said...

Moving live action to a higher frame rate doesn't measurably increase costs. Moving animation to a higher frame rate does. Computer inbetweens, whether in 2D or 3D, tend to make motion "floaty." It's because the inbetweens are too perfect. Just having motion on 1's at 24 fps requires extra care.

If animation goes to a higher frame rate, animators will have to do more keys in order to maintain the quality of the motion and render times will also increase.

I don't think the improvement in visual quality will be worth the extra effort, but somebody will undoubtedly try it.

Dragos Stefan said...

What I find unpleasant about all this is that the culture itself becomes removed from a real-world, material, support. Books, images, film, video, everything would disappear if there's a blackout.
Culture propagated and evolved because the material support (paper, stone, metal) was surviving in time. That also made possible a lot of happy accidents (like the finding of some old prints of Metropolis, for example) that will not be possible anymore.

Brubaker said...

I'm hoping that there will still be independents that continue to use film (like Mark Kausler's doing right now). Or at least use them as a master storage format. Super 16mm is pretty popular with the indie and documentary crowd. Basically similar to how Vinyl Records are still around (yes, they still make 'em).

But yeah, I'll miss film. I can understand why, but still...here's to fringe hold-outs.

Anonymous said...

"tend to make motion "floaty."

Like the awful "animation" in roger rabbit. Ugh.

Michelle Folkman said...

For some years I was a projectionist in an art house theater. Every week hundreds of feet of film ran through my fingers, some of it just beautiful (Princess Mononoke, anyone?). I too will miss film. Perhaps we should hold a wake.

Martin Juneau said...

Great post. But by my last experience to see a film in theaters (It was The Artist), it's like the film projection is over. I really miss the many scratches and imperfections who still make me happy to watch a real film, as opposed to a file who is register to a standard DVD.

I never own films projectors myself (Well, my dad got one but is useless) but seeing a feature in film was still a good investment for the efforts of each features. Today cinemas is more arranged since now it have to be Digital at all. I heard Christopher Nolan don't approve the new technology and like better to play his films by projectors again.