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.

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

  1. You might enjoy my trilogy of articles on Immersive Cinema at EatDrinkFilms (dot) come. Search for “Immersive.” In part 3 I covered some Trumbull experiments and a story of about a private screening I attended of Showscan.

    Special Effects wizard Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Silent Running, Blade Runner) was involved with IMAX and felt he could improve the process with his own Showscan by projecting at high frame rates. In the early 1980s I got myself invited to his studio and a demonstration. The picture was incredibly crisp, almost three-dimensional without glasses as we watched typical action sequences intended to show off and thrill the viewer. Suddenly the picture began to shudder and it slowly came to a stop. We were in total darkness. A voice in the projection booth announced, “We had a power outage. I am sorry. I have to go behind the screen to the circuit breaker.”

    In a few moments a flashlight behind the perforated screen revealed a bit of backstage, and the projectionist was walking to a far wall. He flipped a switch and then came to the screen, pushing his hands and face into the material and causing an impression as he looked at us. He invited us to come forward, and damned if this wasn’t all being projected, but with (un)believable depth. The effect was created by projecting at 60 frames per second—2.5 times the standard speed of movie film. Trumbull has run a series of biometric experiments and found that as the frame rate increased, the viewer’s emotional reaction intensified.

    For the rest of the story check out the article.

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