As a scrappy film student in the early-2000s, my cohorts and I shot 16mm film on World War II-era cameras, sliced up negative with razor blades, taped celluloid strips back together into arty farty shorts, and screened them on dusty projectors, where noticeable blood and sweat stains splotched the frames, proving we made something. Today, young filmmakers shoot on superior high-definition cameras that can turn a public park into a Terrence Malick vista. Their movies looks pristine. But maybe they’re missing something. As my cigar-smoking cinematography professor might say, “They’re not making films, they’re making videos.”
There’s a war raging in Hollywood. Commercial directors, clinging to what’s left of blockbuster artistry, butt heads with studio executives looking to save a buck. The goal: Preserve film, a look, a feel, an art that has intertwined itself with 35mm photographic stock. It’s a tech-minded argument that’s finally glowing hot enough for the mainstream to feel its heat; This week, Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan launches Interstellar, a science-minded space odyssey shot on 35mm and IMAX film. In an unlikely move, Paramount Pictures will release Interstellar two days early to theaters capable of projecting it on traditional, spooled up film prints. The marketing touts the format: If someone wants to see Interstellar the right way, they see it projected on 35mm, or better, 70mm/IMAX. Nolan has his reasons. “Film is the best way to capture an image and project that image,” the director told theater-owners at a Las Vegas conference last March. “I’ve gone to movie theaters and watched [my films]. Not enough filmmakers do that. And not enough people in our industry spend enough time in theaters and see the end result.”
Interstellar arrives as a major blow to filmmaking (not videomaking) hits New York City, Los Angeles’ entertainment industry companion. Last week, there was one laboratory in the city that filmmakers could employ to process and print motion picture film. Now there are zero. In a melancholy statement, Technicolor-PostWorks New York announced that Film Lab New York would cease operations in mid-December. The company would continue its other services, but its relationship with 35mm is officially over. “The near-universal adoption of digital cinematography has led to declining demand for film laboratory services,” the statement read. Over the years, Film Lab serviced directors like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee, projects including Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Tom Hanks spy thriller St. James Place, and one of the few television shows that shot on 35mm, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which aired its finale last month.
The demise of Film Lab won’t halt movie and television production in New York, nor will end the era of film altogether (out-of-state labs continue to press on while LA’s Fotokem, the last major laboratory, caters to 35mm projects like 2014’s Transcendence). But calling whatever theatrical or small screen endeavors come next “films” is a misnomer to be retired — if only for emphasis.
Fairly, this fact means little to the average moviegoer. Over the last 15 years, number-crunching and evolving technology ushered in Hollywood’s digital revolution. Most studio films today are shot on high-definition video, creating little diversity for the eye to compare and contrast. If Regular Joe sat down and watched a DCP (“Digital Cinema Package”) projection of Fast and the Furious 6, as it was shown in theaters back in 2013, then sat down for a 35mm print of 1994’s Speed, the details, imperfections, and nuance could be noticeable. Hyper-clean picture may be the required standard for capturing Vin Diesel’s bald skull, but maybe it’s film grain that makes a highway-jumping model bus look real. Today’s audiences don’t have the luxury of observing that phenomenon on their own.
Guys like Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Judd Apatow, and Quentin Tarantino suffer from severe 35mm FOMO. Whether bystanders understand it or not, shooting on film is an artistic choice that can amplify story. Django Unchained isn’t Django Unchained without its images burned on to celluloid. Tarantino will shoot his next picture, The Hateful Eight, on the larger, more vivid 70mm format. Abrams has Star Wars VII in the can — literally, 35mm canisters. Apatow opted to shoot his latest comedy Trainwreck on film, an expensive proposition, considering his footage-burning, camera-always-running improvisational style.
Their fight continues off set: In July 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that the filmmakers campaigned for studios to buy up 35mm stock from Eastman Kodak to both preserve for future shoots and assist the ailing company. Kodak’s motion picture film sales fell 96 percent eight years, production dropping from 12.4 billion linear feet to an estimated 449 million. The pact, which included Bob Weinstein hoarding film for his man, Tarantino, allowed Kodak forestall the closure of its Rochester, N.Y., film manufacturing plant. The desperate move came after Fujifilm, the other leader in film manufacturing, ceased production of motion picture film in March 2013.
Letting film fall to the wayside fits with the industry’s obsession with the bigger, bolder, fresher, and cheaper. In 1999, George Lucas wowed audiences with then-unheard-of Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace digital presentations. A New York Times reporter logged reactions from a New Jersey screening. Film projectionists couldn’t believe their eyes. The audiences ate it up too. A teenager declared that “dij” (cool kid slang for digital) was “30 times better” than the dinged up 35mm prints he was used to. James Cameron prompted a race to outfit theaters with digital systems in time for the monumental release of Avatar. The 3D demanded a nationwide conversion. It saved time and money for studios too — overnight, movies were beamed to theaters. The days of printing and hauling pounds of film to every city in America were waning. A single 35mm film can cost about $1,500 - $2,000 to print and ship while a digital copy costs around $100 - $150 to deliver. Multiply that by 3,000 – 4,000 screens and commerce quickly overshadows artistic value.
On a recent episode of KCRW’s The Treatment, Tarantino told host Elvis Mitchell that if a time came where he couldn’t shoot on film, he’d throw in the towel. It wasn’t worth making movies on digital cameras. Video creates streams of information. A film camera creates 24 frames per second, individual photographs that need to be digested by the brain. Tarantino’s hard film stance is a mix of poetry and physiology, but it has merit in the artistic sphere of filmmaking. The director’s firmness extends to the DCP exhibition seen in our local theaters. “If we’re acquiescing to digital projection, we’ve already ceded too much ground to the barbarians,” he tells Mitchell. “The fight is lost if all we have is digital, DCP presentations. To me that’s just television in public.”
If film sounds like nostalgia… it is. Nolan, Abrams, Apatow, Tarantino can appreciate because they’ve seen its possibilities. Reverting the Star Wars franchise back to 35mm could reintroduce that flavor back into young moviegoers, but that’s still a dream straight out of fantasy. The hard reality is that processing laboratories like Film Lab New York are closing. And while there are murmurs that smaller movements could keep 35mm alive in the Big Apple — looming upstarts and DIY outfits like Mono No Aware turning film creation into an artisan craft — they likely breathe enough life into 35mm to keep it alive for its greatest purpose: preservation.
Yes, 2014 movies shot on film look amazing. But movies from the ‘70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, and '10s need 35mm to survive. Dean Plionis, director of operations for Colorlab, a New York City-based film company that processes 35mm in its Maryland facility while specializing in film archiving and restoration, believes that when it comes down to the scientific facts of degradation and human error, film trumps digital. Remember Zip Drives? That storage method that spiked in popularity in the late '90s? Imagine finding one today. Could you get the information off? Can you imagine mining its data in another 50 years? It’s hard to imagine losing the digital files of The Avengers, but evolving encodings, algorithms, and proprietary software could make them impossible to read in 100 years.
A film print degrades, but the human eye can notice. It’s those frames Tarantino is all about — we see the print. Plionis can use a computer to re-scan those frames for touch up and creation of new prints. When they’re done, that print can return to lock-up, where that grey-and-white-Mac-logo-of-death can never consume it in a merciless hard drive crash. A well-maintained film print can last over a century. The oldest usable videotapes are about 60 years old. Files logged on computers are a big question mark.
Martin Scorsese, who leads a double life as one of great preservation advocates, explained the cause for concern during his recent Jefferson Lecture: “I grew up with celluloid, with its particular beauty and its idiosyncrasies, but cinema has always been tied to technological development, and if we spend too much time lamenting what’s gone, then we’re going to miss the excitement of what’s happening now.” The comment came with a button: “In order to experience something and find new values in it, it’s got to be there in the first place. You have to preserve — you have to preserve it. All of it.”
The movie business demands forward-thinking and cost-effective strategy. Macro prognostication, where a resource like Film Lab won’t be around when it’s needed or Argo disappears forever because a server shorted out, is overlooked because there aren’t dollar signs attached. So it comes down to the consumer, who may have no idea that this is a question they have to answer. It means ponying up money to catch a film print of Interstellar, attending shows at the pro-35mm print establishments like the Alamo Drafthouse, or throwing some extra cash towards The National Film Preservation Foundation. The dream of filmmakers can only go so far.
For those who think pouring one out for Film Lab New York is the equivalent of technophobia, may the sensible words of Paul Thomas Anderson mellow out the argument. My cigar-smoking cinematography professor was wrong: There’s room for making films and videos. Audiences deserve a chance to see both when the technology still exists to allow it.