It’s still real if it’s digital

Last January, I finally saw an early Cinemascope movie the way it was meant to be seen: on a big theater screen, with the original 4-track stereo soundtrack, and the full 2.55×1 aspect ratio (2.35×1 didn’t become the official Cinemascope standard until 1957).

And there was no physical film involved. The movie was projected digitally from a 2K DCP.

(For the record, the movie was Violent Saturday, and I saw it at the Castro as part of the Noir City film festival. You can read my report.)

Violent Saturday

I had seen other early Cinemascope films in 35mm over the years. A couple of them even had their original 4-track stereo soundtracks. But none were in the right aspect ratio. It took digital projection to show these movies properly.

I recently read EatDrinkFilms‘ unsigned article, Is it Reel or is it……?, celebrating “the glorious depth and richness that ONLY film can provide.” I don’t buy that. A well-scanned and -mastered digital cinema package (DCP) can be as gloriously rich as anything photochemical, without the jitters and the scratches of physical film. And it will look like a brand-new print after 1,000 screenings.

In theory, you could screen an early Cinemascope film in the right aspect ratio from 35mm, but it wouldn’t be easy. If you have an original print or an exact duplicate of one, the projectors would need either new lenses or a wider screen, as well as new aperture plates. You could make a print compatible with modern film projectors by letterboxing the image (which is what the DCP at the Castro did), but the optical printer needed for the job would lose significant image detail. And besides, to my knowledge, no one has ever printed a Cinemascope film that way.

Chimes at Midnight–beautifully restored and screened on DCP

Cinemascope is only one example of what DCPs can do. Digital restorations have removed the blemishes of time and brought many classic films – from the silent era to the early 21st century – back to life. New restorations are popping up all the time.

Let’s get the semantics out of the way. A motion picture shot and projected digitally is still a film. The English language doesn’t change because you don’t like new technology. If you’re going to insist that it can’t be a film because it was not shot or shown on film, then you better stop praising the beauty of 35mm prints. Before the invention of photography, a print was something you made on a press.

Don’t get me wrong; I love physical film. An archival or otherwise special print, in good condition, is a thing of beauty. Three of my top twelve movie-going experiences of 2016, in which I consider theatrical presentation as well as the movies themselve, were shown in 35mm. Another, The Hateful Eight, was in 70mm. But that list also included five classic films, mostly new restorations, screened from DCPs.

Do the Right Thing, which I saw projected last year from a beautiful 35mm print

Like everything else created by humans, digital transfers and restorations can be done badly. The Big Lebowski
and Rear Window
should only be screened on 35mm until Universal takes them back to the scanner and masters them correctly. But these are exceptions. As I write this, I’ve seen more than 50 classic films on DCP. Only six made me wish I was watching physical film.

The vast majority of classic films have yet to be digitally restored, and most of them never will. Therefore, a properly-equipped revival theater should have two well-maintained 35mm projectors (or better yet, 35/70mm) for safely showing archival prints. But it should also have a DCP-compatible digital projector, preferably 4K.

Projection booth at Pacific Film Archive

Many worry, with reason, that digital films will not be archived for future generations. Some go so far as to call “digital archiving” an oxymoron. In reality, digital information can and should be archived. The Motion Picture Academy has been working on the issue for years. But it will take decades to know for sure how successful these practices will be, which is why studios and archives should continue to make physical film negatives as a form of backup. At least one major studio, Sony/Columbia, is making these celluloid backups while also archiving films digitally.

Every major technological advance in the history of cinema – sound, color, widescreen, and so on – was met with derision by those who write about film for a living. Those past changes significantly altered the cinematic esthetic. The move to digital is more like the switch from nitrate to acetate; most moviegoers don’t even know it happened.

Cinema has always been an art based on constantly-changing technology. Digital is just another step in the right direction.

One thought on “It’s still real if it’s digital

  1. The 35mm prints of LOLA MONTES from Rialto’s restoration a few years back were letterboxed 2.55 within 2.39 and looked great. The perfect example of what can be achieved through a marriage of digital restoration techniques with the final result printed back onto film.

    It seems to me that digital projection is a step backwards in every conceivable way, and the evidence is right up there on screen, but I’m glad someone enjoys this underdog format.

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