TCM Classic Film Festival coming to Hollywood (and I wish I could be there)

I generally only write about Bay Area film festivals. In fact, all too often, I don’t have time to cover them properly. And yet here I am, writing about a festival that’s four hundred miles away. And there’s simply no practical way for me to attend.

It is, of course, Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Classic Film Festival, a celebration of classic films and restoration. Among the better-loved titles are Tokyo Story, American Graffiti, Stagecoach, A Hard Day’s Night, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, East of Eden, the original Godzilla, and This is Spinal Tap. Other titles include The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Johnny Guitar, Hobson’s Choice, and Freaks.

More than anything else, I would love to attend the screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and not only because it’s my all-time-favorite swashbuckler and turn-of-the-brain action movie. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will be in attendance to discuss how the special visual and audio effects were created. The conversation with Carl Davis also looks like fun.

Techy that I am, I naturally wanted to know how the films would be projected.–film or digital? At first, that seemed impossible. Clicking on a title from the Programs page tells you everything about the movie and the presentation except that one little detail.

But I found a way. If you go to the schedule page, you’ll get a pop-up that, among other things, tells you if the film is 35mm or "digital." It doesn’t say what kind of digital. I’d certainly feel cheated if they screened a DVD. I’ll give the festival a benefit of the doubt and assume here that all of the digital presentations will be off of DCPs–the professional, theatrical format.

I didn’t click on every single movie, but I checked out a reasonable sample. About half the films will be digitally projected, and as a general rule, they’re the better-known titles. Oklahoma, East of Eden, and Double Indemnity will be screened digitally. But On Approval, My Sister Eileen, and The Naked City will be on 35mm film.

That isn’t surprising. It takes time and money to properly digitalize an old movie. Naturally, the films everyone loves are the top priorities.

Of course there are exceptions. Stagecoach will be screened on 35mm, and Paper Moon will be digital.

I know that a lot of people disagree with me on this, but I’m happy to see so many classics available on (I assume) DCP. It makes them available in more theatres. And a well-transferred DCP looks at least as good as a brand-new print going through a projector for the first time. Often, they look better.

But sometimes they take the digitizing too far.  For its 75th anniversary, the festival will screen the 3D version of The Wizard of Oz. A 2D movie should remain 2D.

SF Silent Film Festival, Day 2

Amazing Tales From the Vault
This year’s technical talk concentrated on digital restorations and distribution by major studios, with experts from Paramount and Sony (Columbia). I didn’t take notes, so I’ll just give you a quick overview:

  • Wings was projected off a DCP Friday night. Paramount has made a 35mm negative and prints of the new digital restoration, but the Festival decided to show the DCP because they were more confident of the quality.
  • The restoration cost about $700,000, and will probably lose money. Since Paramount is a for-profit company, this bodes ill for other silent restorations.
  • We were treated to a back-and-forth comparison of the first reel of Dr. Strangelove in 35mm and DCP. DCP looked better.
  • If you sit close enough to the screen, 4K projection looks better. They showed a single frame from Lawrence of Arabia in 2K and 4K. The difference, from my seat in the third row, was amazing.

Little Toys
I had mixed feelings about this late silent from Shanghai. At times, I felt the lack of sound as a flaw, something I rarely experience in a silent film. Other times, this tale of a brilliant toymaker and her tribulations in a world of war, touched me. Ruan Lingyu gave a brilliant performance as the lead, but at times it felt like it was going on too long.

The 35mm print looked washed out and badly scratched–probably a problem with the source and not this particular print. The Chinese intertitles had badly-translated, often grammatically strange, English subtitles.

Donald Sosin was, as usual, brilliant on the piano.

The Loves of Pharaoh
This is the sort of big, epic, costume melodrama that Hollywood loved in the 1950s–except it was made in Germany in the 1920s. The plot involved an evil yet love-sick pharaoh, a slavegirl, her lover, barbarian Ethiopians, and…well, you get the idea. Silly, but utterly entertaining.

Recently restored from two incomplete tinted prints, the movie is still not complete. Missing scenes were filled in with intertitles (“Pharaoh walks to the window”) and occasional stills.

The DCP presentation was acceptable, but not as crisp as Wings. One annoyance: The bulk of the intertitles used light blue letters, which was very distracting and anachronistic. Only the ones filling in for missing footage used the conventional white letters. It would have been better the other way around.

Dennis James provided fine music on the Castro’s mammoth pipe organ. There was no subtlety to the score, but that was appropriate, as there was no subtlety to the movie.

Mantrap
No surprises here. I own this romantic comedy–the perfect Clara Bow vehicle–on the Treasures 5 DVD box set. And I’ve even seen it once before at the Castro, with live music. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying the movie. After all, comedy is always better with a large and enthusiastic audience, and Stephen Horne’s score (mostly piano but also with some accordian and flute) sounds better live. A tale of a flirt who marries a hick, with a New York divorce lawyer thrown in as a reluctant piece of the triangle, is very much a work of its time. But in many ways, it’s timeless.

Physically, the film hasn’t aged well. The 35mm print from the Library of Congress came from a source that was scratched and lacked detail. Seeing this the day after Wings brought home the difference between preservation and restoration. No one will likely spend $700,000 to make Mantrap look new. So it has only been restored; the best existing print was copied to a more stable film stock.

I decided to skip the last movie of the evening, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. I didn’t think I could stay awake for it. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges in Airplane!, “I knew this was the wrong week to give up caffeine.”

But I did buy the Wings Blu-ray before I left.

Note: I corrected a factual error in the original post.

The Challenges of Digital Projection, Part 3: Preservation

In my first two pieces on the conversion to digital projection, I covered what the conversion would do to theaters and how it would likely effect small distributors and classic film presentation. In this final installment, I discuss the scariest part of all: Will studios and archives be able to preserve their motion pictures in bits as well as they now preserve them on film?

I owe a lot from this series to Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell’s blog, Observations on film art. Bordwell did an invaluable series on the digital transition named “Pandora’s digital box.” I found his piece on preserving digital moving images exceptionally informative, and depressing.

To sum it up: We know now how to preserve film. You can put the cans in a climate-controlled room and, as long as you keep paying the electricity bill, they’re preserved. But with digital, the hardware and software formats change constantly, increasing odds that you’ll dig out a 50-year-old title and have no way to read it. And the physical media that the bits are stored on may not be as stable as film.

Archivists estimate the life of any digital platform to be less than ten years, sometimes less than five. All hard drives fail sooner or later, and they need to be run periodically to lubricate themselves. Tape degradation can be quite quick; one expert found that 40 % of tapes from digital intermediate houses had missing frames or corrupted data. Most of the tapes were only nine months old.

The obvious solution, preserve everything in film, will only work for a short time. In a few years, there may not be enough of a market for film and film developing to keep the labs open. Old pictures, already on film, will last until the prints wear out. New ones, shot digitally, will never be transferred.

Bad as it sounds, I can’t help feeling some reasons for optimism. Digital has some inherent preservation advantages. Because you can store more information into smaller areas, it requires less storage space. You can make an exact copy of a digital source–something that’s not possible in any analog medium.

I’m no expert in preservation, but I’ve been following and reporting on the evolution of digital technology for a quarter century. And I can’t help thinking that an organized solution can reasonably guarantee digital motion picture preservation for the foreseeable future.

What follows is my idea for digital motion picture preservation. I hope that people in the business will read this, and then explain the holes are in my theory. Even better, I’d like one to say “Yeah, we’re working on that.”

As long as possible, any digital preservation technique should be done in parallel to preserving pictures–even those shot digitally–on film. For long-term protection, no cutting-edge technology can be as dependable as what we already know.

The Committee

A committee of some sort would have to be created to oversee the development and maintenance of a digital motion picture preservation system. The committee would develop and approve standards (or appoint engineers to do so), and over the long term insure backward compatibility. Let’s call this group the Digital Preservation Committee (DPC).

I’d put the International Federation of Film Archives in charge of appointing and overseeing the DPC. Major studios, who would also benefit, might help with the financing.

The DPC would control and standardize the type of physical media on which the bits are stored, the hardware that can read that media, and the software that will turn those bits nto moving images and sound. As the technology changes, the DPC will also enforce backward compatibility.

One issue the committee won’t have to worry about is pleasing theater owners or home video consumers. The hardware and software they certify will be used exclusively for archives. Transferring it to presentation media won’t be a major problem.

Media

Digital media tends to fall into one of two categories: Either it’s built to be easily erasable and reusable, such as hard drives and flash RAM, or it’s designed for mass-produced publication at the lowest possible cost, such as CDs, DVD, and Blu-ray discs. Cheap, or erasable? For long-term archival needs, that’s not an acceptable choice.

So the DPC must develop a storage medium that is permanent and resistant to damage. I would guess that they’d pick some kind of optical disc, made from a material that’s not easily scratchable and that takes a very long time to rot. Because it would have to hold a great many bits, the discs would probably be much wider in diameter than a Blu-ray, and able to carry data on both sides.

Of course, as a safety measure, multiple copies should be preserved in different archives.

Hardware

Developing a new media involves developing the way the media is written to and read. And reading, far more than writing, is a separate issue that the DPC would have to deal with.

New standards inevitably replace old ones–especially with digital technology. And if someone isn’t careful, the old standards become unreadable. The committee must therefore make sure that as the technology advances, there are always machines that can read all past DPC-certified mediums.

This isn’t as impossible as some people believe. Every Blu-ray player can play DVDs and CDs. Backward compatibility issues become more complicated if the physical dimensions of the media changes, but they don’t become insurmountable. You can buy a Blu-ray player that can manage VHS.

As an extra safety measure, every archive storing the media would have to also store a book–on paper–explaining how the media works and how to build a playback machine.

Software

That book would also have to explain the algorithms for turning the bits on the media into moving images and sound.

The coding method should be as simple as possible, and as elastic. If there has to be a maximum resolution, it must be very, very high. The longer you have to go before rewriting the code, the better. And if it must be changed, the DPC will have to enforce backward compatibility here, as well. Just as Photoshop can still open a .pcx file, new decoding software would have to support old formats to gain the committee’s approval.

Ideally, the standard should have no compression. If that’s entirely impractical, the compression must be lossless. Preservationists should not be throwing away bits.

And it absolutely must contain no encryption. The goal is to make these images readable, not impenetrable. Since the media will only be playable on certain machines kept only in archives, piracy would not be a serious problem.

As long as the DPC does its job, the films would be preserved. You could pull discs from the shelf, insert them into the playback machine, and either watch the picture, or transfer it to a more commercial medium, such as Blu-ray, DCP, or something we haven’t yet invented.

If you know what’s wrong with this idea, please tell me.

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