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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

The Castro now has 4K projection

Top technology has been an important part of the Castro‘s appeal for a long time. The theater was, I believe, the first rep house to get Dolby stereo, digital sound, and DCP-compatible digital projection. I believe it’s the only local rep house that can project 70mm film, and one of only two that can handle 50’s-style,dual-strip 3D.

And now they’ve added the digital equivalent of 70mm film–4K projection. 4K projects four times the resolution of standard 2K. I’ve never seen a side-by-side comparison of the two, and I’ve heard conflicting opinions from experts on this. But I suspect that the difference is significant, especially if the film was shot in a large format and if you’re sitting close to the screen (as I usually do).

Last year, I was delighted to learn that the Pacific Film Archive had a new, 4K projector. But the PFA has a small screen–too small for an immersive experience. Not so with the Castro’s large screen.

Back in May, I wrote about a stuck pixel that marred the Castro’s digital screenings. At the end of that article, I disclosed that I had "emailed my Castro press contact about this issue, but he could only give me information off the record." Now I can tell you what he told me: that they might simply fix the problem, or they might instead upgrade to 4K projection. Today, he revealed that "We have completed installation of the 4K projector."

I am, of course, delighted.

When can you see the new projector in action? The Castro will screen Double Indemnity off a DCP tomorrow night, but that one is probably 2K (although I honestly don’t know). However, they’ll be screening The Leopard in 4K on August 24, and Lawrence of Arabia that way August 30 and September 1. Both films were shot in large film formats (Technirama and Super Panavision 70 respectively). I suspect that both films will look great in 4K projection.

DCP, Grover Crisp, & Bonjour Tristesse at the PFA

Thursday night I attended the second event in the Pacific Film Archive series, The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. This was more than just a movie screening. It was a talk by Sony’s head archivist–and one of the current heroes of film restoration–Grover Crisp. Then came the movie: Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse.

Ironically, the movie was only in 2K.

But the evening started with true 4K projection: the newly-restored trailer of Lawrence of Arabia. I don’t think I’d ever seen a trailer at the PFA before, and certainly not one for a film that they’d screened earlier that week. Anyway, it looked gorgeous.

Then the PFA’s Steve Seid came to the podium to introduce Crisp. He admitted that the change to digital isn’t "the most comfortable conversion for some people. Both sides have their pros and cons. we’re hoping that this series will address this." He praised Sony in general and Crisp in particular for the way they handle the large Columbia Pictures library, preserving and restoring obscure films as well as famous ones. This was the case before digital, and remains so, both for 35mm and DCP.

Crisp’s talk was similar to the one he gave at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year, but longer and more detailed. He used a Windows 7 computer (presumably a Sony laptop), plugged into the projection system, to illustrate his points.

Some of the more interesting points from his talk:

  • Sony has "pretty much" stopped restoring films on film. It’s all digital. But they still output the final results, and still make 35mm black and white separations  to better preserve color films.
  • In the pre-digital days, the "original negative was the holy grail." If it was damaged, they had to find something else. "The goal was to replace damaged sections." But there was a trade-off in image quality. With "every step away from original negative, you lose image quality."
  • "Now we scan the original negative." They still look for other elements if a section is missing, but a damaged negative can be fixed digitally.
  • Most new movies you see in theaters are 2K DCPs.
  • "We scan all of our film at 4K now." Sony also has a strong motive for restoring old films in 4K. They’re now selling 4K HDTVs, and need content.
  • Early in the Lawrence restoration, they did test scans at different resolutions. In the end, they "scanned in 8K, and did all the work in 4K." They needed 8K because Lawrence is a large-format film.
  • Crisp talked about how digital technology can restore a film to a closure approximation of how it originally looked. As one example, he used Picnic, which will screen Sunday. An early Cinemascope picture, it was shot in the now-dead 2.55×1 aspect ratio. Modern prints crop it to the later ‘scope ratio of 2.35×1. "All the prints were compromised." With digital, they were able to letterbox the image and retain the original aspect ratio.
  • When restoring a film digitally, Crisp strongly believes in retaining the grain, which he called "the building block of the image; try to take it away and you’re messing with the image."
  • Someone asked about long-time archiving of digital films. He said that Sony has an archival system set up, and they haven’t lost anything in 12 years.

Crisp ended the presentation with the same side-by-side digital vs. 35mm Dr. Strangelove comparison he showed last year. And yes, the digital looked better (although they both looked excellent). Strangelove was Sony’s first 4K restoration.

And what about the night’s movie?

I’m not a big fan of Preminger, although I like some of his work. I hadn’t even heard of Bonjour Tristesse before I saw the current schedule.

At first, I wasn’t impressed, but as the movie played out, it pulled me in. Jean Seberg plays a teenager with a close relationship to her wealthy, widowed, fun-loving playboy father. They’re spending a carefree summer on the Mediterranean–just father, daughter, and father’s sweet but lower-class lover. Then Dad (David Niven) falls for a much more prim and proper woman (Deborah Kerr), and trouble begins.

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This sounds like a comedy, and the film has its laughs, but the film goes into some very serious directions. And it tips you off early that it will go there. The story is told in flashback from a dreary, black-and-white Paris; the summer scenes are shot in very bright colors.

I came away impressed. I’d give it a B+.

The Big Trail: A Big Western Shot on Big Film

Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail is not by any stretch of the imagination a great film. But it’s fascinating, historically unique, and beautiful to look at. I caught it Sunday night at the Pacific Film Archive. I’d seen it before–on Turner Classic Movies–but this was my first Big Trail big screen experience. It deserves the big screen.

Three factors make The Big Trail historically significant. First, it was an unsuccessful attempt to revive the big-budget epic western–a blockbuster sub-genre that enjoyed large but brief popularity in the mid-1920s. Second, it was shot and originally shown in a widescreen, 70mm format 25 years before such things really caught on. And finally, it was John Wayne’s first starring role.

The Epic Western

There was no difference between a western and a B western until The Covered Wagon added production value and sweep to the genre in 1923. It was a smash. So were several follow-up films, including John Ford’s first A picture, The Iron Horse. But audiences soon tired of big westerns, and the genre returned to its low-budget roots.

In 1929-1930, Fox decided that with talkies firmly in place, it was time to revive the epic western–this time with audible dialog. Box office results easily proved the company wrong.

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Fox Grandeur

But that wasn’t the only bad idea Fox had in 1929. The company also decided that if one technical gimmick (sound) can sell tickets, two could sell more. So they developed Fox Grandeur, a 70mm format with a frame more than twice the size of standard 35mm, with an aspect ratio of more than 2×1.

This sort of thing would not become common until the mid-1950s.

The result is beautiful and spectacular. Covered wagons, herds of cattle, and breath-taking scenery fill the screen almost constantly. In the movie’s most stunning sequence, wagons, cows, luggage, and people are lowered via pulleys down a cliff–all done without special effects.

imageWalsh and cinematographer Lucien Andriot show an instinctive understanding of the large, wide screen–all the more surprising considering that no one had done this before or would do it again for almost 25 years. And since The Big Trail was in black and white, very few ever did it like this again.

Few theaters converted to Grandeur (the movie was simultaneously shot in 35mm, adding to the high budget), making the widescreen version difficult to show. In the 1980s, Fox and MOMA preserved the picture, printing it in anamorphic, Cinemascope-compatible 35mm, pillarboxed to the right aspect ratio.

Sunday night, the PFA screened an archival print of this preservation. It clearly came from a heavily-scratched source, and some image quality was lost with the optical printing process required to reduce and squeeze the image. The result was flawed, but still spectacular. Unless someone puts up the money for an 8K digital restoration, this as good as The Big Trail will ever again look.

John Wayne

Fox must have felt they didn’t have a star for this story, so they took a chance on Marion "Duke" Morrison, a young college football imagestar who was working at the studio in menial jobs and occasional extra work. Someone, and there’s controversy about who it was, changed the new actor’s name to John Wayne.

At this point in his career, Wayne wasn’t much of an actor. His inconsistent line readings sometimes ring laughably false. But even with these faults, he’s an easy-going and likable presence on screen.

To be fair, the rest of the cast sounds stilted and false, as well. There was probably little they could do with the corny script. The dialog mostly reeks, and the three villains are so broadly drawn and played that they might as well have worn signs that read "Bad Guy."

The climax was about as exciting as a dishwasher’s last cycle.

I’m glad I’ve finally seen The Big Trail theatrically. If you care about the evolution of the Western, or about the history of movie technology, it’s a must. But if you’re just looking for a good movie, there are better choices.

The PFA screened The Big Trail as part of their series, A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh. Walsh made better movies, and several of them are coming up in the series.

Lawrence of Arabia Again–This Time in a CineMark XD Theater

Seems kind of crazy. I haven’t been able to go to the movies anywhere near as often as I’d like, lately. Yet I’ve managed to see the same film three times in the last four months. And that film is almost four hours long.

But it was worth it. Although I now own it on Blu-ray, Lawrence of Arabia really does deserve a darkened theater, a huge screen, and an audience of more than your friends and family. And this time, I had a chance to see it in a theater that’s really optimized for a big picture, digitally projected.

The theater in question was the Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, and they screened Lawrence as part of their regular Wednesday Classic series.

But this was a special presentation. They screened Lawrence in their XD theater. XD promises a very high-quality digital presentation on a very large screen. They use Barco 4K projectors, a very bright image, and top sound. And sure enough, this was the best-looking Lawrence of Arabia I ever experienced.

For my other recent Lawrence experiences, see Great Projection Saturday, Part 2: 70mm & Lawrence of Arabia and The Digital Lawrence of Arabia Experience. Here’s what I say about the movie in my newsletter when it plays locally:

A+ One of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle,Lawrence is also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence—at least in this film—both loved and hated violence, wanted desperately to become something he could never be, and told himself that he was liberating Arabia while knowing deep down that he was turning it over to the British. This masterpiece requires a very large screen and either 70mm film or 4K DCP digital projection for its full effect.

The XD theater looked like a typical 21st century multiplex auditorium, but larger. The huge, moderately-curved screen recalled the big roadshow palaces of the 1960s–in other words, the type of theater in which Lawrence of Arabia was meant to be shown. The front row is set back a bit, making it just about perfect for me for this kind of movie.

I should mention that CineMark charges a premium price, $14.50, for XD presentations. But so did those big roadshow palaces.

An XD Theater

When the preshow started, I turned around and looked at the light coming from the projector. And my heart sank. Two light sources, one on top of the other, told me that the 3D housing was still on. The picture was bright, so I’m confident that the polarizing filters had been properly removed. I know that with a Sony 4K projector, running a 4K, 2D image through the 3D attachment results in a 2K image (click here for details). With Barco, I honestly don’t know. I called Barco and the theater, and got conflicting information. So I’m not sure if I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia in 4K.

Update: It appears that the 3D attachment was left on, but it used the RealD-XL 3D system, which doesn’t reduce resolution the way the Sony does. Some image quality was probably lost, but it wasn’t significant. I definitely saw the film in 4K.

And it looked great–crisp, bright, and detailed. The occasional digital artifacts that marred a few minutes of the Castro’s December screening only showed up in only one shot. The large, curved screen made this very immersive film even more immersive. The sound was just about perfect.

A fair number of people showed up, although it wasn’t near a full house. The audience laughed and gasped in all the right places. Some, quite obviously, were seeing Lawrence of Arabia for the first time. Always a good thing.

Of course, you can’t expect a modern multiplex to offer the sort of showmanship you would get at the Castro. There was no curtain. The masking wasn’t versatile enough for Lawrence’s 2:20×1 aspect ratio (a screen shape that died with 70mm projection), resulting in blank screen above and below the image. The houselights went dark at the beginning of the overture rather than slowly fading while the music played.

In my recent piece on the UA Emery Bay multiplex, I stated "One clear difference between an art house and a multiplex: Good coffee and tea vs. none at all." I have to take that back. The Century’s concession stand sold Starbuck’s coffee and Tazo Tea.

I realize that over the past two years, I’ve written three posts about Lawrence of Arabia that concentrated on presentation and said little about the movie. I’m going to have to fix that.

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