Three Ways to See Three-Strip Technicolor at the PFA

They stopped making three-strip Technicolor movies about 60 years ago. The movies are still around, and they’re still beautiful. This summer, the Pacific Film Archive will screen three different films shot in the still-loved format, and thanks to the way they’re being screened, each one projected using a different technology. You can decide which is best way to see them.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, almost every Hollywood color film was shot in Technicolor No. IV–casually known as “three-strip Technicolor.” These include Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bandwagon, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The African Queen.

The unofficial name tells you how it worked. Through a beam splitter, filters, and special film stocks, a special camera captured each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.


From Filmmaker IQ

From each of these three negatives, Technicolor would create a special relief print that was thicker where the image was darkest. From these three intermediate prints (called matrices), the lab would literally print (in the pre-photographic sense of the word) the colors to 35mm release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.


From The American Widescreen Museum

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) have a considerably longer history than three-strip. Technicolor introduced them in 1928 as an improved printing method for their then-current two-color system. And when three-strip died around 1954, Technicolor started making IB prints off of three-strip’s replacement–Eastman Color Negative film. The company continued this service until the mid-1970s.

So what does all this mean for presenting and watching three-strip films today?

Both three-strip and dye-transfer have significant advantages in preservation and restoration. The printing dyes in IB prints don’t fade as quickly as the photochemical dyes in color film (especially color film from the 50s, 60s, and 70s). And since the three-strip negatives store color information on black-and-white film, fading colors isn’t an issue.

But three-strip has its own problems. Film shrinks over time, and no three cans of film are going to shrink exactly the same way. Even the slightest shrinkage can cause a disaster when three strips have to line up perfectly. Because of their high contrast, dye-transfer prints don’t make good sources for new copies.

Digital technology has solved the shrinking problem. You can scan all three negatives at a high resolution (say, 4K), resize them to match each other, and produce a full image. But this sort of restoration requires three things not always available. You need the original negatives (or at least black and white protection positives made from them), a lot of money, and people who know what they’re doing.

So let’s look at the three films to be screened at the PFA this summer, and how they’ll be projected:

Leave Her to Heaven
35mm Eastmancolor print
Thursday, June 18

I strongly suspect that the PFA will screen the same print I saw in 2008–or certainly one from the same restoration. And as beautiful as I found the print, I suspect this will be the least accurate three-color experience of the PFA summer.

In the 1970s, Twentieth Century-Fox created new, color-film negatives of their three-strip titles. Then they did something unforgivable: They destroyed the original three-strip camera negatives. When the color negatives inevitably faded, they had no way to restore them.

So the Film Foundation basically had to colorize this film, using the sole surviving three-strip print as a guide. In other words, they didn’t really restore the colors, they painted them in.

By the way, this is the only one of the three I’ve seen. A rare Technicolor 40s noir, it stars Gene Tierney as a woman who loves too much. She’ not the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her quest for material ends. She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself. I give it an A-.

The River
35mm Technicolor IB dye-transfer print
Wednesday, July 15

Jean Renoir took the big Technicolor cameras to the newly-independent nation of India to film this coming-of-age story. And the PFA will screen it in an actual Technicolor dye-transfer print from 1952.

That’s about as close to the original experience as you can get.

Note: I altered this section after first posting the article, after confirming when the print was manufactured.

 

The Tales of Hoffmann
4K DCP
Sunday, July 19

If Leave Her to Heaven is the problematic restoration, and The River is closest to the original experience, The Tales of Hoffmann provides an example of an ideal restoration, done off of the original, 35mm three-strip camera negative. I haven’t seen the restoration (or the film in any form), but i trust the people who did it.

Unlike Heaven, Hoffmann will
be projected the way it was restored–digitally. I realize that many will object, but not me. Taking it from the digital domain and converting it back into film loses image quality, and adds nothing except vibration, flicker, and, inevitably, scratches.

Of course, I hope that they have transferred it back to film for archival purposes. it will be decades before we know if we can safely archive bits.

Cinema’s past and cinema’s future: Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Yesterday was a very strange day for me at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I didn’t see a single, complete film. But it was still worthwhile.

Mel Novikoff Award: Lenny Borger

The Novikoff Award goes to someone who who "has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema." Sometimes it goes to someone famous, such as Roger Ebert. This year it went to Lenny Borger, whom I had never heard of before the award was announced.

imageIn her introduction, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen described him as a "film writer, translator, scholar, and something of a film sleuth." An American who’s lived much of his life in Paris, he writes English subtitles for French films. The event included the North American restoration premier of Monte-Cristo, a 1929 French silent epic directed by Henri Fescourt that Borger was instrumental in restoring.

This was Borger’s first visit to San Francisco. He was interviewed on stage by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas (Borger was once Variety’s Paris correspondent). Borger came off as shy, and not comfortable talking to an audience.

A few highlights from the interview:

  • When searching European archives, "Being in Variety helped me open the door. Archivists are very secretive people–except for the ones I know who are here."
  • About Monte-Cristo: "What you’re going to see now is what I call the full monty. You have to leave a margin for some shots that are missing. If any of you have reels of film, get in touch with me."
  • "Monte Cristo has no reputation at all. I spent a lot of time trying to convince people to see it."
  • He called Brussels "the best archive in the world. The French are always the last to recognize their own films."
  • On translating dialog into subtitles: In the beginning, it was just information. If you look at old subtitles, they’re often very comic." He described a French subtitle in Sam Peckinpah’s war movie, Cross of Iron, where the word tanks was translated to merci.
  • A single subtitle can’t be longer than 70 characters. "Less than a tweet."
  • About his experiences with Godard: “The first film was a wonderful experience. The next film a little less good because he started cutting titles. Film Socialism was a nightmare."
  • "I worked on Children of Paradise two or three times. I’ve never been satisfied with it."

Then they screened the movie. I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to see all of it–I had a 3:00 appointment to interview Douglas Trumbull. But I wanted to see as much as possible.

image

What I saw was wonderful. Beautifully photographed and acted, it pulled me into its epic tale of an innocent man framed and arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, set in the post-Napoleonic period.

The music, though recorded, was excellent. The intertitles were in the original French, with Borger reading his translation live.

And then, a little less than an hour into the movie, I reluctantly got up and left. That was difficult.

I hope to see the full movie someday. Or maybe I should just read the book. It’s my son’s favorite novel.

Douglas Trumbull interview

Douglas Trumbull didn’t remember me, but I could hardly expect that he would. Last time we met, I was a movie-obsessed teenager. My stepfather, John H. (Hans) Newman cut the sound effects on Silent Running, and I spent a day hanging around the studio where Trumbull and his team were creating special effects.

We talked briefly about Hans’ work on the film, then went to the main subject. Trumbull wants to be "directing movies at 120 frames per second."

imageTrumbull has been a major player in special effects for almost half a century. 2001: A Space Odyssey made his name. He also worked on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He has written and directed two features–Silent Running and Brainstorm. He developed Showscan, a special immersive format that ran 70mm film at 60 frames per second (fps).

Breaking away from 24fps–the standard frame rate since the talkie revolution–is clearly a major obsession with him. With digital cameras and projection, it’s become practical. "I started experimenting. I realized there’s another thing we can do here. They have projectors that could run at 144 frames. Let’s try it."

(I should mention that I have never seen a motion picture projected at a fast frame rate. I have to take other people’s words for the quality.)

"I made this kind of discovery, doing some experiments at 120 frames. One of the first things I noticed: You can use any shutter opening you wanted. With a 360 shutter, you can blend frames together. You can get back to a 24-frame conventional release. It looks exactly like 24."

Trumbull decided to use 120fps rather than the maximum 144, because 120 is evenly divisible by both 24 and 60–the American television standard.

I had to bring up The Hobbit, the only Hollywood feature (well, actually a trilogy) shot in a fast frame rate. Even people who liked the movie hated the unusual look created by 3D at 48fps. According to Trumbull, Peter Jackson was "shooting at 48, but projecting at 98," producing a problematic flicker. He described Jackson’s decision to shoot at 48fps "heroic but mistaken."

Trumbull wants to build a 3D camera that will alternate between the left and right lenses, simulating the way most projectors handle 3D sequentially. Shooting each eye at 60fps, this should take care of that flicker problem.

"’You can make a standard DCP. It’s off the shelf in tens of thousands of theaters."

His brand name: Magi.

But he wants more than just a faster frame rate. Looking back at the glory days of Cinerama and other immersive formats, he wants theaters that bring back showmanship–with curtains that open up on huge, deeply-curved screens.

But will today’s 3D movies work on a giant screen? Even on modest screens, they’re too dim. "If you could get the brightness back, you can increase the field of view. Then you’ve got something that’s better than anything."

Trumbull’s solution: Torus screens, a far-from-new technology which would "triple perceived light." These specially-built curved screens "compensate for what you lose [in 3D projection]. And there’s no cross reflection." Cross reflection is a problem specific to curved screens.

image"It’s time to redefine what a movie theater is. People don’t see any value to the movie-going experience, so we got to make a better movie-going experience. If you increase the size of the screen, people will see it."

His solution: Magi Pods. These are small, 40-seat pre-fabricated theaters. He wants to bring these to museums, amusement parks, and anywhere else where you can set them up. 

Like Trumbull, I’m a fan of immersive cinema. I don’t know if his Magi is the solution, but I hope there is one.

State of the Cinema Address: Douglas Trumbull

But Douglas Trumbull didn’t come to the San Francisco International Film Festival to talk to me. He came to talk to anyone who attended his State of the Cinema Address.

I hate to say it, but after the private interview–which I totally enjoyed–I found the public talk disappointing.

Playing clips off his laptop as he talked, he spent much of his allotted 90 minutes covering his own autobiography. He talked about his birth during World War II, and the excitement he found as a child with Cinerama and other immersive film technologies. He talked about his work on 2001, and how he learned to direct on the job with Silent Running.

When he discussed his second directorial feature, Brainstorm, he implied that Paramount closed and shelved the film after Natalie Wood’s death. But MGM, not Paramount, financed the film, and it was completed and released. I remember that well; I saw it in 70mm.

Eventually he got to his main point, that the Hollywood system isn’t interested in improving the movie-going experience. The studios are "betting the farm on big sequels," while the theaters "give you better seats because they can’t change what’s on the screen."

Much of what we covered was also in my interview, so I’ll just add some highlights:

  • Projecting Cinerama "was a nightmare.” Fifty percent of the box office take went to technical overhead in the theater.
  • "When you change the medium, you have to change how you direct, how you act."
  • "Today we see some of the same issues with 3D [as we had with Cinerama]. 3D cameras are very difficult to use."
  • "Disneyland was virtual reality."
  • "The state of cinema is led by directors pushing into new territories."

His talk covered the full 90 minutes. There was no time left for Q&A.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film: The 2014/15 Edition

Very few motion pictures are shot on film anymore. Based on my casual survey of movies released in 2014 and (so far) 2015, only about 18% of all the pictures that could have been shot on film were shot digitally.

I did my first such survey back in November, 2012. That time around, film and digital came in at a dead heat. Discounting animated films, documentaries, fake documentaries, and anything shot in 3D, I counted 14 films shot digitally and 13 shot on film.

Why did I discount animated films, documentaries, fake documentaries, and anything shot in 3D? Because it’s pretty much unthinkable to shoot such pictures on film anymore. I only wanted to count pictures that could reasonably have been shot on film.

I did it again in December, 2013. The trend was definitely towards digital, but not overwhelmingly so. That time, I found ten movies shot on film, and 15 shot digitally.

I expected the trend to continue, but I didn’t expect physical film to drop off a cliff. Out of 33 films I surveyed, only six of them were shot through a photo-chemical process.

Here’s how I did it:

I started with IMDb’s Showtimes & Tickets page, which lists all of the movies currently showing. I clicked on each one, found the "full technical specs" page, and noted how it was shot. Because of the long wait since my last survey, I supplemented the list with other 2014 films that I’ve reviewed.

I disqualified various films for these reasons:

  • They were animated, 3D, documentaries, or mock-documentaries.
  • The listed year of release was prior to 2014
  • IMBd did not have sufficient technical information

Whether we like it or not, this trend is inevitable. Digital is cheaper, easier to work with, and probably better for the environment. Film in the camera still results in a better-looking image–even with digital projection–but the line between them is thin and getting thinner. For most movies, it doesn’t really make a difference.

I’m still deeply concerned about preservation and archiving with digital. Due to shrinking demand, the use of film for these purposes may become economically impossible.

A great many filmmakers will have to adjust. But John Ford adjusted to sound, talking, three-strip Technicolor, color film, magnetic audio recording, standard widescreen, Panavision, stereo sound, and three different large-size formats. Today’s directors can adjust, as well.

Dolby Stereo and the sound of the 1980s

Think of the films you love most from the late 70s through the early 90s. Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, The Princess Bride, Stop Making Sense, The Terminator, Goodfellas. There’s a good chance that you may never hear the original soundtrack again.

For 50 years after the talkie revolution, the optical, mono, analog soundtrack was ubiquitous on 35mm prints around the world. There were alternatives–primarily four-track magnetic stereo. But that more than doubled the cost of making prints, so optical mono remained the standard.

All that changed in the late 1970s, when after Dolby introduced an optical stereo format for 35mm prints. It didn’t sound as good as four-track magnetic, but it was a whole lot cheaper. The 35mm version of Dolby Stereo (Dolby used the same name for an entirely different format in 70mm) made multitrack audio ubiquitous in movie theaters for the first time. [12/10: I altered this paragraph because my original version implied that Dolby introduced this technology in the late 1970s. It was introduced in 1976.]

Dolby used three technologies to improve the then 50-year-old mono optical soundtrack. First, they split it in two, turning it into discrete, two-track stereo. Then they added a noise reduction filter. Finally, they used some electronic wizardry to channel the two tracks into four different directions. The technology could decode properly-mixed left and right tracks into left, center, right, and surround channels.

By 1978, Dolby Stereo was the norm for action movies, sci-fi, fantasy, concert movies, and musicals. By 1985, almost every Hollywood movie used the format. By 1990, independent and foreign films used it, as well. The big blockbusters, of course, were released in 70mm, with the far superior, magnetic, six-track Dolby Stereo. But the 35mm prints of the same movies used the optical, two-track, four-channel version.

The rise of Dolby Stereo in movie theaters corresponded with the rise of stereo television, first with Laserdiscs, HI-FI VCRs, and finally stereo broadcasting. As it happened, a Dolby Stereo mix worked reasonably well as standard two-track stereo. It didn’t really need the decoder

But it sure sounded better with it. In 1982, Dolby licensed the channeling technology to home audio receiver manufacturers, under the brand name Dolby Surround. The decoding technology is media-agnostic; as long as the media carried two-track stereo, the right receiver, with the Surround feature turned on, could convert it to four-channel surround. To my mind, this was really the beginning of home theater.

Digital 5.1 audio came to movie theaters in the early-to-mid 1990s. But all of the successful digital formats steered clear of interfering with the analog Dolby Stereo soundtrack, needed for backward compatibility and as a backup. Thus, although seldom heard, Dolby Stereo remained on almost all prints until the studios stopped making prints.

When digital 5.1 sound came to home media with DVDs, it was renamed Dolby Surround 2.0, to differentiate it from 5.1 sound. It was pretty common in the early days of DVDs, but soon disappeared. Today, it’s almost impossible to find a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix on any Blu-ray disc. The movies from the glory days of Dolby Stereo are almost always remixed to 5.1 (or 7.1), without even supplying the original mix we heard when we fell in love with them.

I understand that many people, including the filmmakers, prefer the newer, fancier mixes. But I do wish they would include the originals.

Watching Interstellar in 70mm

On director Christopher Nolan’s orders, Paramount released Interstellar on film as well as digitally. I believe this is the first new movie released that way in over a year.

And not just 35mm. it’s also being released in conventional 70mm and 70mm Imax, along with various digital formats.

I’ve already posted my review of the film. This article is about how it’s projected.

Imax–the original, 70mm version–is probably the right way to see Interstellar. It offers the biggest frame and the biggest screen. At least that’s the theory. More on Interstellar in Imax below.

I chose instead to see it in conventional 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. It’s closer to my home, and much less expensive (matinee: $5). Besides, it’s the Grand Lake.

Unfortunately, I waited too long to catch it in their downstairs auditorium, with its spectacular design and huge screen.

Interstellar had by then moved upstairs, to the former balcony. The upstairs screen is still quite large, so it can still provide a good, immersive experience, especially when projecting 70mm film.

In one sense, it’s more immersive than the downstairs auditorium; the front row is much closer to the screen. So close, in fact, that even I chose the second row. Unfortunately, this auditorium has a center aisle; wherever you sit, it’s always going to be just a bit off center. When you sit near the front in a movie theater, you want to be dead center.

I hadn’t been in that theater in decades. The last time I saw a 70mm film on that screen was probably Poltergeist in 1982.

Before the movie started, I walked to the back of the auditorium to peer into the projection booth. On the left I saw a 2K digital projector. On the right, a 35/70mm film projector.

The show began with trailers, digitally projected. Actually, I was surprised that the second trailer, for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, wasn’t on 70mm film. Tarantino–like Nolan a major proselytizer for physical film–plans to release this western in 70mm. (The first trailer was for The Imitation Machine.)

But when the third trailer started, a slight vibration on the screen and a few flecks of dirt told me we were back to celluloid. The trailer was for Inherent Vice, a comedy by another cinematic luddite, Paul Thomas Anderson. And yes, the trailer was in 70mm.

And so was the movie I came to see–Interstellar.

There’s no question about it; 70mm provides a beautiful image, and Interstellar makes great use of it. The picture was bright, colorful, immersive, and detailed. Although I was disappointed by the movie, I loved the presentation.

image

But I can’t honestly say that it looked better this way than it would have looked with 4K digital projection. Watching a film on film provides a nostalgic effect for me now–I’ve been watching movies that way all of my life. The big advantages of 70mm, when compared to 35mm, is that there’s less vibration and a brighter image. Digital provides an even brighter image and has no vibration at all..

I understand that Nolan wants people to see Interstellar on film, preferably in a large format, and I respect his preference. But I doubt that what I saw looked better than a first-rate digital presentation.

Would it have been better in Imax? Gary Meyer attended an Imax press screening of Interstellar, and it was ruined by technical problems. It’s worth reading his report at Eat Drink Films.

Physical Film Coming Back with Interstellar

I love digital projection. After a long period of skepticism, I embraced the new technology enthusiastically years ago. To my eyes, a well-transferred DCP looks better than any projected film format except Imax.

And yet, I’m excited about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar coming out on real, to-goodness film. This is despite the fact that I have no idea if the movie itself is any good. Of the five of Nolan’s films I’ve seen, I loved two (Memento and The Dark Knight), liked two (Insomnia and Inception), and hated one (The Dark Knight Rises). That certainly puts the odds in his favor, except that the The Dark Knight Collapses (my preferred name) was the most recent one.

Nolan is one of today’s most committed fans of physical film. If it wasn’t for his box office clout, he would never have forced Paramount to release Interstellar on film. In fact, it will open first in film formats in the middle of this week. If you want to see it digitally, you’ll have to wait until Friday.

Like his Dark Knight films, he shot most of Interstellar in 35mm anamorphic scope. But the more spectacular moments were shot in Imax. Here are the ways its being shown:

Imax: I’m not talking about the fake, digital Imax which isn’t really Imax, but the original, 70mm, 15-perf version which is still the biggest and best image yet projected. Here in the Bay Area, it will play at the AMC Metreon. This is probably the best way to see Interstellar, because it can show the sequences shot in Imax to their greatest effect. And show the full height of those scenes. The rest of the picture will be letterboxed to a scope-like ratio.

70mm: Only Oakland’s wonderful Grand Lake Theater will screen Interstellar in traditional, 5-perf 70mm. Not as immersive as Imax, but the posh movie palace provides a more pleasing, relaxing, and enjoyable experience than any AMC theater. It’s also a lot cheaper than Imax.

35mm: I don’t know how many Bay Area theaters will screen Interstellar on cinema’s oldest and most standard format: 35mm. But I can tell you that two theaters within easy bicycling distance to my home–the Cerrito and the California–are among them.

DCP: Yes, you can see it digitally, as well.

I like digital, but it’s had the effect of turning physical film presentation into something special. That’s fine with me. I like special.

Four surprising facts from early film history

Historical reality has a way of conflicting with the what we all assume. Here are four totally surprising, unintuitive facts about the early days of cinema.

Animation preceded live action

The first moving images weren’t photographed. They were drawn. Parlor toys such as Zoetropethe Zoetrope used multiple illustrations to create the illusion of movement–as cartoons would decades later–to create the illusion of movement.

The Zoetrope wasn’t the first toy to use Persistence of Vision. The far cruder Thaumatrope had been invented (we’re not really sure by who) by 1824. The Zoetrope came a decade later.

It would take nearly another 40 years before Eadweard James Muybridge used multiple cameras to photograph a running horse, and thus creating the first live action moving image.

Silent movies grew out of sound movies

If any one individual can be called the inventor of motion pictures, it’s Thomas Edison employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Realistically, no one man created the technology, but Dickson was the first (as far as I can determine) to punch sprocket holes in George Eastman’s new photographic film so that it could move in a reliable stop-and-go motion through a camera or projector. He created the 35mm, four-perf pull-down standard that is only dying now with the digital revolution.

And according to his own account, as quoted in Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, he was given the task "to combine Mr. Edison’s phonograph with a practical zoetropic moving figure device." Dickson also claimed that he showed Edison a talking picture in 1989.

Did this happen? Ramsaye, along with later historians, doubted it. A few years later, Edison released the Kinetoscope without sound.

But we do know that Dickson, still working for Edison, successfully created a way to record and show sound movies in the mid-1990’s. that was just around the time that Lumiere, in France, began to project motion pictures onto a screen in front of paying customers for the first time.image

Narrative cinema grew out of special effects

Today, you can prove your maturity by complaining about blockbusters where the story appears to be nothing but an excuse for the special effects. I’ve even done it myself. And yet, historically speaking, that’s pretty much how it happened.

It’s difficult to say who first started telling fictional stories on film. If you film a scene from a stage play, is that a narrative or merely a recording (especially if there’s no dialog)? Does it count if you film a man watering a lawn, and a mischievous teenager disrupts the chore.

But a real story, taking ten or more minutes? Arguably, the true inventor of narrative cinema was also the inventor of special effects, Georges Méliès. A professional magician, he started making movies because he could do effects in them that were impossible on the live stage. Eventually, he expanded his "trick films," providing stories such as A Trip to the Moon to provide a bigger canvas for his effects.

image

Colorization preceded real color

You don’t need digital technology to colorize a black and white movie. It was done from almost the beginning of cinema.

The early ways to add color were many. Tinting gave one color to the whole frame, with the color standing out most in the light parts of the image. Toning also colored the entire frame, except that the color stood out in the dark areas. Combined together, tinting and toning could create a vivid two-color effect.

They also hand-painted prints in those days, which must have cost a fortune.

image

All of these were available in the 1890s. The first commercially successful system using what was then called "natural color" (in other words, the colors were recorded in the camera), was Kinemacolor. In came out in 1908,

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