From 35mm to DCP: My Thoughts on a Critical Symposium

The current issue of Cineaste Magazine contains a symposium article on the digital transition.

Fueled by a conviction that this transition brings with it important and wide-ranging repercussions with regard to film culture, and that it’s critical to investigate and debate these consequences, we have organized this Critical Symposium, inviting a range of people—repertory cinema programmers, studio representatives, critics, and scholars—to respond to a questionnaire on the topic. The responses represent a range of different perspectives on this momentous period in the history of film exhibition, a sea change that is nevertheless going largely un-noticed in the culture at large.

You have to buy the print edition to read the full article (mine is in the mail), but the introduction is available online. This introduction lists the six questions asked of the participants. I thought I’d answer them myself.

1) How would you characterize the losses involved in the transition away from the exhibition of traditional film prints, especially with regard to the digital projection of works originally shot on film? The benefits?
Outside of a few popular classics, older films will, I fear, no longer be screened theatrically. This could happen because of revival theaters unable to survive the transition economically, and through studios not bothering to prepare DCPs of obscure works.

One obvious benefit is that the popular classics are more available theatrically than any time since the 1970s. Mainstream multiplexes are now screening The Godfather, Vertigo, and others one or two nights a week.

Another benefit is that we won’t have to deal with scratched and faded prints.

2) How conscious do you think the average viewer is of the difference between film and digital projection? Do you think this awareness is important? And, if so, what can be done to foster it?
I don’t believe most of them know there’s a difference. Nor, really, should they.

From the point of view of the theater owner, the digital transition is like the talkie revolution–a very expensive upgrade. But from the audience point of view, it’s more like the switch from nitrate film to acetate–too minor to be noticed.

3) What’s your attitude toward the idea that focusing on the particular qualities of 35mm and 16mm film projection amounts to a kind of fetishism? Are there dangers on both ends of the spectrum?
For many people it has become a fetish. Nowadays, film artifacts that everyone used to complain about–scratches, dirt, bob and weave–make it "authentic." It isn’t the talent of Kurosawa, Bergman, or Welles that made great art, it’s 35mm film with real scratches.

I strongly suspect that if you mounted a digital projector’s image chips on a subtle vibrator, put a butterfly shutter in front of the lens, and added software to the server that produced random scratches, a DCP would be indistinguishable from film.

Contrary to many cinephiles’ opinions, this is not the death of cinema. Compared to other changes in cinema’s history–sound, color, widescreen–this is minor.

Yes, I’ve heard all of the arguments. These pictures were shot on film and meant to be shown on film. And if you can screen an original print in excellent condition, I would agree. But that’s not the reality of revival cinema.

Last month, I attended a screening of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, newly restored, on DCP. The film was originally intended to be shown on nitrate, dye-transfer Technicolor prints, illuminated by a carbon arc (and believe me, I’d love to see it that way). But I’m not convinced that a modern, polyester, Eastmancolor print, illuminated by a Xeon bulb, is any closer to the original than a DCP.

4) Given the enormous costs of upgrading to digital projection, is there any way to avoid losing hundreds or thousands of smaller cinemas? And, if not, how will this affect film culture?
This is the part that scares me. I don’t know a way to save those theaters, and a lot of cinematic heritage will be lost when they close.

On the other hand, I think there’s a good chance that small theaters will come back in a decade or so. Moore’s Law doesn’t just mean that digital technology gets more powerful; it also means that it gets cheaper. In a few years, when the cost of digital projection drops, we may see a resurgence of these theaters.

That’s cold comfort, of course, for the people who own the theaters. And for those of us who don’t want to go years with nothing but big multiplexes.

Another consideration: Blu-ray discs look more than just passible on a good projector. They don’t measure up to a pristine 35mm print, but they look better than a worn and scratched print, and they’re relatively cheap to project. If the number of classics on Blu-ray increases, theaters may be survive showing these.

5) Will more than a small fraction of film history be treated to the deluxe digital restoration treatment? How great is the likelihood that many films will not make the leap and will be effectively lost? And for those that are transferred to digital, will the transfers tend to be overseen by technicians with a genuine sensitivity to the qualities of the originals?
The ideal solution–every film gets a full restoration by people who know what they’re doing–ain’t gonna happen. The money simply isn’t there.

On the other hand, even in the analog world, only a small fraction got a full restoration. Lesser films, at best, merely get preserved. A new negative and a print are struck from the best remaining source. Preserved films generally carry the scars of time that restoration erases.

So the question becomes: Will it be economical to digitally preserve films for which there’s no money to restore. That could happen if the technology gets good enough and cheap enough. Hopefully, that will happen.

If not, many of these films will become unavailable as archives become reluctant to send out prints to the remaining 35mm-equipped theaters. And that’s a damn shame.

6) If there are any issues or consequences resulting from the transition to digital exhibition that you feel have not been touched upon by the questions above, please feel free to identify or address them with further comments.
One major issue, and one big question:

The issue: Archiving the films for future generations. We know how to store film with reasonable protection; we don’t know how to archive bits.

At this point, we need a two-prong approach to this problem. First, the archives and the studios must jointly develop and agree to a standard (for hardware and software) for archiving digital motion pictures, publish the specs for that standard, and make sure that all improvements to the standard are backward compatible.

Second, everything needs to be archived on film, including new movies not shot or projected that way. Because we have no way of knowing for sure that the digital archiving system will work.

The question: If you’re going to prepare an old classic for Blu-ray release, how much more does it cost to also create a DCP master? Or, to put it another way, how come there are old movies available for home use on Blu-ray that are not available to theaters in DCP?