Closing the Mill Valley Film Festival with 3D and Disney Animation

Yes, I know. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival closes with several screenings of Loving. But I’m not able to attend any of them. So I finished my Mill Valley Film Festival with two special presentations at the Rafael.

Both events were family friendly, and had quite a few children present.

The 3D Sideshow

As he did two years ago, Robert Bloomberg presented a collection of 3D shorts and (and a couple of trailers) from the early days of steroscopic movies to the present.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • The documentary Hidden Worlds starts with a history of recording and presenting images stereoscopically. Then it went on to show us some very beautiful images.
  • Hidden Stereo Treasures claims to be an old, educational film about rare 3D cameras. But you soon realize that its intentions are comical.
  • One short film, whose name I didn’t get (probably because it was in Russian), showed a remarkable juggling act. Juggling works really well in 3D. I saw this same film five years ago when Serge Bromberg received his Mel Novikoff Award.
  • If you’ve seen Finding Dory, you’ve seen Piper, the Pixar short that preceded it. It’s funny and adorable.


After the screenings, Pixar’s Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer came on stage to answer questions. Some highlights, edited for clarity:

  • Does 3D make animation more difficult? It’s a two-step process. You create it in 2D, then do it again in 3D. There are slight differences.
  • A film is never finished. It’s done when a producer tells you it’s done.
  • Short films are meant to test the technology.
  • Animators are actors who don’t want to go on stage.

PANEL: Disney Animation Technistas

What does it take to create the fantasy worlds of computer animation? And are women welcome on the technical side of the equation? This panel discussion was meant to answer those questions.

Five women, all doing technical work at Disney Animation, discussed how they created ways to animate fur, clothing, and water for Zootropia and the upcoming Moana. The women were Sara Drakeley (general technical director), Heather Pritchett (also general technical director), Erin Ramos (effects animator), Michelle Robinson (character look supervisor), and Maryann Simmons (senior software engineer).

Variety’s Steven Gaydos moderated the talk.

I wasn’t allowed to take notes for this discussion, so there’s not much more I can say about it. But I can say one thing: The women talked about their work, and not about being women in a male-oriented business.

Near the end, Gaydos brought up the subject. He asked if the number of women in animation are growing. Pritchett said they very much are. She had always seen other women working in animation. But now, she sees teams that are about half and half.

Good to know there’s progress.

Russian Ark & Buena Vista Social Club: Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive

I saw Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark and Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club Saturday night at the Pacific Film Archive. The first film was part of the ongoing series Guided Tour: Museums in Cinema. The second one closed the long-running series Wim Wenders: Portraits Along the Road.

But they had an interesting thing in common. Both were shot digitally at a time when that was unusual, and when the arguments for sticking to 35mm were far more compelling than they are today.

Both films were projected digitally off of 2K DCPs. Considering the low resolutions of the cameras they were shot with, 4K would have been pointless.

Russian Ark

Sokurov’s 2002 dive into European art and Russian history is easy to admire but difficult to love. Technically speaking, it’s an astounding achievement. And while it’s often beautiful and exciting, it sometimes feels aimless and pointless.

I saw Russian Ark once before, on DVD, soon after it’s theatrical release. This was my first time seeing this big-screen movie on the big screen.

The film provides a tour of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world. The Winter Palace–the home of the Czars’–is just one of the Hermitage’s six main buildings. Sokurov creates a fantasy fiction around the complex. An unseen narrator (perhaps a ghost; certainly the camera’s eye) and an early 19th Italian diplomat walk not only through the museum’s space but through its time. As they move from one room to another, they find themselves in different centuries. They meet people in modern clothes (some playing themselves) and others in powdered wigs. The diplomat joyfully joins a 19th century waltz. The last Czar’s children play in their home, not knowing their horrible fate.

Sokurov shot the entire 96-minute film, minus the credits, in one unbroken take. The logistics must have been insane. The camera wanders through a gallery that looks like a modern museum, with students and tourists examining the art. Then it glides into a magnificent ballroom, with hundreds of costumed extras laughing and dancing. And then it glides on to something else. All those people had to be ready on cue. The lights had to be set up correctly. One mistake and the whole thing would have had to be shot again. The final film is actually the fourth take.

It’s hard to pace a single-shot film properly. Without editing, you can’t remove the slow parts. Russian Ark occasionally has its slow parts.

When things slow down, you can study the paintings, the sculptures, and the bright and uniquely costumed extras. But the best digital camera available in 2001 (when the film was shot) lacked the resolution and color depth needed for enjoying such spectacular eye candy. I suspect it would have been a better film if shot today. Shooting a single, 96-minute take on film is quite simply impossible.

Much as I admire Russian Ark, its flaws keep me from giving it a better grade than B. But that’s an upgrade. The last time I graded it, based only on a DVD, I gave it a B-.

The PFA will screen Russian Ark again today (Sunday), at 5:30.

Buena Vista Social Club

Too many recent music documentaries make the same mistake: They focus on the musicians and ignore the music. You’re lucky if you get one song played from beginning to end.

Wim Wenders didn’t make that mistake in 1999 with Buena Vista Social Club. He puts the songs front and center. You fall in love with the music, and thus become eager to meet the brilliant musicians who created it.

I saw the film theatrically soon after its release. So Saturday night was a revisit.

In 1998, Ry Cooder went to Cuba to find a group of musicians that had played brilliantly together in the 1940s. He brought them together, recorded an album, and eventually took them to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, he brought Wenders with him to record all of these events.

Music takes up most of the film’s 105 minutes. We see the Club performing live. We see the musicians recording in a studio. When the music isn’t playing, the musicians tell us about themselves–the poverty they grew up in, how music saved them, and life in general. Their stories are moving and funny.

We see a fair amount of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, nearly 40 years after the revolution. But that’s only background. Wenders sticks to the music and the musicians.

The digital cameras Wenders used for this film were far inferior to the one that shot Russian Ark. In fact, it was standard definition–a pre-HD video signal blown up to a big theater screen. But for Buena Vista Social Club, that wasn’t really a serious problem.

This was my first screening in the new PFA theater that really showed off the new Meyer Sound audio system’s capabilities. It was excellent.

I give Buena Vista Social Club an A-.

The Martian and Dolby 3D

I attended another press screening at Dolby Labs Thursday night, and once again, it was all about a man left for dead in inhospitable territory. Only this time, instead of The Revenant, I saw The Martian.

And just like last week, I’ll tell you about the movie, then a bit about the technology.

As you probably know, Matt Damon plays the title character, but he is not a native-born Martian. He’s an astronaut who’s left behind, assumed dead, when his companions are forced to abandon the mission and get back to Earth. The film’s running time is split about equally between his struggles to survive on Mars and everyone else’s struggles to save him (once they discover that he’s alive).

Unlike The Revenant, the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to turn The Martian into a revenge story. The marooned astronaut doesn’t blame those who abandoned him. The villain here is outer space–and Mars. These aren’t survivable environments for human beings.

The Martian drips with science, and as far as I can tell, it’s pretty accurate. Damon’s character experiments and finds ways to make water, grow potatoes, and make contact with NASA (the air issue is dealt with quickly and not totally satisfactorily). Those on Earth and returning to it have to figure out the best way to rescue the poor guy.

For all its suspense and realism, The Martian has a light touch. Damon’s character jokes to relieve his tension (“I’m the best botanist on this planet!”) and complains about his captain’s choice in music (disco). Back on earth, Donald Glover has a fun turn as an asocial and unhygienic science geek.

Speaking of Earth, there’s one artistic choice that bothered me. We’re decades away from sending people to Mars and bringing them back alive–and the scenes on Mars and in the spaceship show advanced technologies we don’t yet have. But the scenes on Earth make no attempt to look futuristic. The phones, cars, fashions, and so on all set this film in 2015. Perhaps director Ridley Scott didn’t want to distract people.

This was my second movie in Dolby Atmos (after The Revenant), and I liked this mix much better. It didn’t overdo the surrounds, and I could hear what people were saying.

This wasn’t my first experience with Dolby 3D, but I had a conversation with a Dolby employee about the technology before the movie.

Unlike other theatrical 3D systems, Dolby 3D doesn’t use polarized lenses (the differences are all in the projection; the DCPs are the same either way). And that means the theaters don’t have to use special, polarized screens.

Like the earliest versions of projected 3D, Dolby 3D uses colored lenses to control what light reaches what eye. (The technical term is anaglyph.) If you look at Dolby 3D glasses from the right angle, you can see the magenta and green in the lenses.

But Dolby 3D doesn’t have the awful look of anaglyph. Thanks to some 50 layers of filtering in the glasses, plus color correction in the digital server, the colors look accurate. At least they do if you keep both eyes open. Close one eye, and you’ll see a color cast. But only a geek like me would close an eye while watching a 3D movie.

I do have one problem with Dolby 3D, and it’s probably not an issue with people who don’t like the front row. Everything gets distorted on the periphery of your vision. Sitting very close with a really big screen (not possible in Dolby’s theater) could be a real problem.

The Revenant and Dolby Atmos

I attended a special screening at Dolby Labs Thursday night of The Revenant, where the movie’s Oscar-nominated audio mix could be played back in the full glory of Dolby Atmos. I’ll tell you about The Revenant, and also about Atmos.

In that difficult-to-find point where cinema technology merges into cinema art, The Revenant feels like a masterpiece. Emmanuel Lubezki’s outdoor cinematography, augmented by a team of CGI specialists, goes beyond spectacular. The natural landscapes inspire not only with their beauty, but with their cruel indifference to the tiny humans trying to survive them. The many action sequences are staged are executed to horrific and suspenseful perfection. The film is gruesome, but appropriately so.

By the way, The Revenant was shot digitally. Considering how good it looks, the arguments for shooting on film are getting weaker and weaker.

But the screenplay by Mark L. Smith and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel) has serious problems. It emphasizes revenge too much. Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist experiences so many unpleasant and potentially lethal disasters that I found myself thinking “Not again” at least twice (which wouldn’t be so bad if the film wasn’t so serious). And the final fight with the main bad guy (Tom Hardy) goes on too long.

DiCaprio plays early 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (a real person; the screenplay is loosely based on a Michael Punke novel which was based on actual events). A bear attack leaves him all but dead. His companions figure that they can’t take him with them or safely wait for him to die, so they desert him. Glass crawls, limps, walks, rides, and fights his way back to the fort that’s as close as they get to civilization.

Of course there has to be a villain. Hardy’s John Fitzgerald is mean, cruel, greedy, cowardly, and racist. He murders Glass’ half-breed son while a helpless Glass watches. Fitzgerald lies to others so that they leave Glass unattended. Now our hero doesn’t just want to survive; he wants revenge. (None of this is in the historical record.)

The scene with the bear, which is done with long takes rather than the usual quick cutting, works about as well as it possibly could without letting a real bear maul a real Leonardo DiCaprio. The bear is CGI, of course, but the result is far more believable and effective than the traditional method of quick cutting between a real bear and an actor fighting a puppet.

Scene by scene, with few exceptions, The Revenant works beautifully. But as a whole, it’s not quite right. I give it a B+.

Dolby Atmos technology provides an exceptionally immersive audio experience where a sound can come from pretty much anywhere. I describe it in more detail in this TechHive article.

According to Dolby, only five commercial Bay Area screens have Atmos, and none of them are near me. I’ve experienced it only as invited press at Dolby Labs. And up until Thursday, I’d only experienced it in brief demos. This was my first time listening to Atmos with a complete feature film.

It performed as advertised. I heard sounds from all over the place, without any sense that they were coming from this or that wall-mounted speaker. On more than one occasion, I thought I heard someone talking or coughing in the audience, only to realize that it was part of the soundtrack.

But the thickly-layered sound mix tended to get in the way of the story. It was distracting, and sometimes made dialog difficult to understand (especially from Tom Hardy). Maybe it was just this mix. Perhaps someone was overusing this new toy. Or maybe I just need to get used to a new gimmick before I can adjust to it and get lost in the movie. Immersive sound can be great, but at some point, the audience needs to concentrate on the screen in front of them.

Catching The Hateful Eight in 70mm

I’m not one of those cinephiles who sees the digital transition as the end of cinema. Far from it. I respect the practical and even the aesthetic advantages of shooting digitally. And as a general rule (there are exceptions), I rather see a movie projected off a DCP than a 35mm print–and that includes classics that were filmed before most people knew what the word digital meant.

But Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the best argument I’ve yet seen for sticking with physical film. Shot in the large and super-wide Ultra Panavision 70 format (the first film shot that way in almost 50 years), it looks outstanding when projected in 70mm. Not only do you see fine details rarely visible on a big screen, but those details have a hue that adds considerable emotional impact.

It helps greatly that this ambitious western is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown–maybe even his best since Pulp Fiction.

But it’s a shame that The Hateful Eight came out while Star Wars: The Force Awakens still controls every first-run theater in the world. My wife and I saw it Sunday at Oakland’s Grand Lake theater, the only place in the East Bay screening it in 70mm. But they couldn’t screen it in their really big, downstairs, main theater.

The Grand Lake’s main, downstairs auditorium, where they’re not screening The Hateful Eight

Instead they showed it upstairs in the former balcony. The screen is reasonably large, but not huge. But at least it has a curtain–a real necessity for a roadshow presentation.

Of course The Hateful Eight isn’t a real roadshow. If it was, it would play on only one screen per major metropolitan area, at high prices and with reserved seats. People in rural areas or looking for a discount would have to wait months–sometimes even years–to see it.

Tarantino has done quite a bit to make the 70mm version of The Hateful Eight feel like a roadshow. It starts with an overture. There’s an intermission, and an entr’acte (intermission music) to bring you back into the story. The movie runs a little over three hours.

This is not the sort of movie that got the roadshow treatment in the 1950s and 60s. It lacks spectacular sets, masses of extras, and historical sweep. Yes, there’s some beautiful outdoor scenery, and Ultra Panavision 70 captures it magnificently. But most of the film is set in a single, darkly-lit, one-room building. It is, to a large degree, a chamber drama.

Yet even that one dim set works better thanks to the greater detail and width created by Ultra Panavision 70. The flickering light from the various fires and oil lamps bring on an urgency that wouldn’t have been there in digital or 35mm. The lens can encompass several actors, at different distances from the camera, with full detail on each face. When cinematographer Robert Richardson shows us a close-up–usually of Samuel L. Jackson–we feel like we could swim in his eyes. And when you consider that he’s both a cold-hearted killer and the closest The Hateful Eight has to a hero, that’s pretty scary.

Jackson played one of two bounty hunters trying to get their catches to town so they can collect, but now trapped by a blizzard in a store and stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere. Jackson’s catches are all dead–easier to ship them that way. But the other bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) is shipping living cargo–a notorious killer played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (it’s so good to see her again, this time as a psychopath). Of course there are five other people trapped in that store, and pretty much everyone is trigger happy.

The film occasionally reminded me of my all-time favorite western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That film also had eight very different people thrown together in a difficult, pioneering situation. And as with Stagecoach, some of the people are still fighting the Civil War years after it was over.

But this is Tarantino, not Ford, so I don’t think I’m spoiling much by telling you that the film eventually turns into a bloodbath. (Believe me, I’m holding back on some real spoilers, and there are plenty.) The over-the-top violence goes from shocking to gross to funny to disgusting to just barely skirting the edge of too much. Many people will consider it too much.

My biggest complaint: Part II contains some narration, spoken by Tarantino himself. His voice was flat and uninteresting. He should have hired a better narrator.

I’m giving The Hateful Eight an A, at least if you see it in 70mm. And yet I strongly suspect that it would look just as good in a 4K DCP. Let the 70mm print run three times a day for two weeks, and the DCP (which doesn’t wear out) will definitely look better.

How Many Films are Still Shot on Film: The 2015 Edition

How many theatrical features are still shot on old-fashioned film? More than you might expect. According to my very casual survey, about 29 percent of this year’s films that could reasonably have been shot on film were shot on film. That’s actually more than the last time I did this survey, back in March.

When I first surveyed film vs. digital production late in 2012, 48 percent of the films that could reasonably have been shot on film were shot on film. A year later, in 2013, the ratio dropped to 40 percent. I forgot to do the survey in 2014, and I didn’t get to it until March. Many of the films I surveyed last spring actually came out in 2014, so I’ll consider it the 2014-15 edition. Maybe it was the difference between December and March, but the drop that time was huge–only 18 percent of the movies were shot on film. It bounced back up to 29 percent this year.

Shot digitally

Shot on film

% on film

















How do I survey a selection of current films? I use the Internet Movie Database‘s Showtimes and Tickets feature, which lists all of the movies showing in my area. When I did the survey Sunday afternoon, 48 movies were listed.

But I didn’t include all of them. I skipped animated movies and documentaries, because I could not reasonably expect them to be shot on film. I would have disqualified mockumentaries for the same reason, except that there were no mockumentaries to disqualify.

In the past, I also disqualified 3D movies, since today’s Hollywood considers it impossible to shoot a 3D movie on film–a common practice in 1953. But these days, movies shot in 2D can be converted to 3D after the fact, so I decided to count 3D movies.

For what it’s worth, only two 3D movies turned up on the list, and one of them was shot on film: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The other, shot digitally, is The Martian.

Since this is a survey of 2015 movies, I skipped anything from a previous year, such as The King and I.

To find out how a film was shot, I visited its Technical Specs page on IMDB. A few films didn’t give me enough information. I disqualified those, as well.

Three films were shot partially on film and partially digitally. One of these, Spectre, I counted as being shot on film; I had read elsewhere that it was shot almost entirely on film. I disqualified the other two, Steve Jobs and Suffragette, because I just couldn’t be sure.

And so the list of 48 films got whittled down to 28. The others were either too old, too unlikely to be shot on film, or didn’t give me enough information. And out of those 28, only 8 were shot on film.

I don’t have any strong feelings about how a motion picture should be shot–unless it’s shot in something special like Ultra Panavision 70. Shooting on 35mm film provides only a slight visual advantage over digital photography, and I can’t blame anyone for choosing the clearly more practical modern alternative. Digital cameras keep getting better, and I don’t think it will be long before digital photography will look better than film. When it comes to image quality in projection, digital surpassed 35mm years ago.

My favorite new film of this year, Tangerine, was shot on iPhones. Shooting it on film would probably not have been possible.

The Hateful Eight and the Return of Ultra Panavision 70

I really don’t know what to do about Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film, The Hateful Eight. On one hand, I’m a total geek over historic film formats, so I can’t help but be excited about the first film shot in Ultra Panavision 70 in nearly 50 years.

On the other hand, it’s a film by Quentin Tarantino. I loved Pulp Fiction, but lately he’s disappointed me. Although I moderately enjoyed his last two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, I couldn’t get really excited about them. I found his B picture approach to very real crimes against humanity fundamentally offensive.

So I’ll forget about Tarantino, and tell you about Ultra Panavision 70–also known as MGM Camera 65.

Much of the information here, and most of the images, come from The American Widescreen Museum, a website that’s absolutely invaluable for historical film technology geeks like myself (I’ve altered some of them). In70mm is another excellent reference, with even more information but not as fun to read.

By the mid-1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer–then in the process of losing its status as the world’s greatest movie studio–decided they needed their own, spectacular wide-screen format. They wanted it to be big and wide, and compatible with all the other big and wide formats springing up at that time. So they contracted Panavision, then little more than a promising startup, to come up with something amazing–but not too different from everything else.

And there were a lot of widescreen formats in those days. It all started with Cinerama, which used three strips of standard 35mm film to create the most spectacular and immersive images of them all.

But Cinerama was impractical, and at this point had failed to leap from travelogues to Hollywood features. CinemaScope was far more practical, using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the image horizontally to half its width, and thus fitting a very wide image into a standard 35mm frame. A complimentary lens on the projector spread the image out again.

Todd-AO compromised between Cinerama’s magnificence and CinemaScope’s practicality by using 65mm film in the camera and 70mm film for projection (the additional 5mm were for sound).

These all had different aspect ratios. Cinerama’s was 2.59:1. CinemaScope started at 2.55:1, but had changed by 1957 to 2.35:1. Todd-AO was a relatively narrow 2.20:1. There were other formats, as well, but I need not discuss them here.

Panavision figured that to be compatible will all of these, the new format had to be wider than any of them. So the company cloned Todd-AO, and added a modestly anamorphic lens that widened the image by 25 percent. The new aspect ratio, 2.76:1, was the widest ever used in Hollywood.

The studio, proving how much it had lost its sense of showmanship, called the new process MGM Camera 65.

The first film shot in it was the largely-forgotten Raintree Country (1957). It was released only in CinemaScope-compatible, 2.35:1, 35mm prints.

But the second film was Ben-Hur (1959), one of the biggest spectacles of the era–and one of the best. MGM, knowing it had something special, gave Ben-Hur the big treatment. It first opened in anamorphic 70mm prints. Theaters had to acquire special lenses and figure out how to project that very wide image (or, more likely, crop it). Even when it was released in regular theaters, the CinemaScope-compatible 35mm prints were letterboxed to about 2.50:1.

But before Metro’s third Camera 65 film opened in theaters in 1962, the company sold the process back to Panavision. Thus, Mutiny on the Bounty became not the third film shot in Camera 65, but the first in Ultra Panavision 70. (This should not be confused with plain old Panavision 70–Panavision’s non-anamorphic Todd-AO clone–nor with Super Panavision 70, which is Panavision 70 with the word Super in front of it.)

Like Ben-Hur, Mutiny was originally released in anamorphic 70mm.

Meanwhile, the Cinerama company decided they wanted to drop their cumbersome technology without losing their huge, deeply-curved screens or the power of their brand name. So they turned to Ultra Panavision 70. When you project a single strip of film onto a deeply-curved screen, the edges stretch horizontally. To fix that problem, Cinerama made special 70mm prints from an Ultra Panavision negative, removing the anamorphic squeeze from the middle of the frame, and increasing it slowly towards the sides.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the first non-MGM film shot in Ultra Panavision 70, and the first released in this faux Cinerama. As a child, I saw it that way at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, and I think that started my fascination with big, immersive cinema. For a few years of pre-adolescence, Mad World was my all-time favorite movie. I don’t care for it much, anymore.

Between Mad World and Hateful Eight, only five films were shot in Ultra Panavision 70. One of them, The Fall of the Roman Empire was projected anamorphically–like Ben-Hur and Bounty. The others–The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail, The Battle of the Bulge, and Kartoum, were released in Cinerama.

And now we’ve got The Hateful Eight. Let’s hope it’s one of the better ones.