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Epilogue '08: HarryTuttle, R3

There is nothing inherently wrong with digital screening, on big and small screen, I agree with that Edwin, and purist celluloid lovers alone won't do anything about this inevitable transformation of the industry. I don't think cinema loses its soul by embracing the digital industrialisation either. Nobody regrets the vinyl now that music is ubiquitous on CDs and MP3s. Conversely, we'll forget celluloid was the original medium, just like we're no longer shocked that the movies have sound and colours.

Even I, purist of the film strip projection on a big screen, know that the essence of cinema isn't there. The affection for this typical film aesthetic is only fetishism.

I wish digital would become the dominant format for the mainstream industry and celluloid would stay the privilege of hardcore cinephiles...

What annoys me most is the way this transition will operate. With the uniformity of the digital filmmaking and exhibition, it will make celluloid a luxury, and only the wealthy studios will be able to afford it. Big budget mainstream movies have already adopted the whole digital apparatus and aesthetic seamlessly. Their filmmakers and audience don't care much for this nostalgic touch particular to chemical colours and celluloid grain. Old arthouses, which can't afford the upgrade to the brand new digital projector, will stick around long after all the multiplexes will have switched. But if artfilms struggle today to get made on 35mm and screened on a number of film prints (which is already more costly than the digital process), it will become even more expensive and less accessible to small budget auteurs when most labs will abandon the marginalized chemical process.

The major progress brought in by the digital era is of course the widespread of DVDs. Finally movies become as handy for the common man as pocket books. Films used to be the exclusive property of corporations and institutions, either studios or private theatres, because they only existed in reels which require an expensive equipment to project. So a film was visible only when an exhibitor or eventually a television decided to show it. Now the movie lovers can buy a copy for multiple viewing at their discretion. This is big enough a step forward for the accessibility and the popularisation of film culture to overlook the fetishism for celluloid grains.

And the advantage official DVD distributors will keep over the pirate market, is that they can certify the integrity of the film version. With a pirate copy we'll never know if some scenes or frames haven't been removed, modified, censored, replaced by others, mashed-up...So demanding customers will always come back to reliable sources, and film critics should emphasize this quality control, just like they scrutinize authentic director's cuts and dubious foreign cuts circulating in the world.


Kevin Lee said...

regarding your last paragraph, Harry, I've become increasingly dubious about "authentic director's cuts", which in the DVD era seems to have devolved into a marketing ploy. I think the umpteenth version of Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD tipped me off.

Such concepts as "authenticity" and "integrity" are going to be subject to serious reconsideration as digital production, re-production and distribution further softens the boundaries between "creator" and "consumer" - but given that creators such as Malick are already compromising "authenticity" for the sake of extending consumption (under the guise of presenting a newly received vision, like Eli Sunday behind the pulpit), it's just as well.

HarryTuttle said...

Yes you have a point there. In a market already over saturated by new releases and oldies on new DVD releases, or revamped originals (Lucas-style)... we don't need them in a dozen version each.

But maybe we shouldn't be so attached to the singularity of an artwork. I remember Geoffrey Cheshire making a similar argument in his famous 1999 piece called "The Death of Film, The Decay of Cinema" (curiously not available online anymore). Who is to say, though, that a film can only exist in one version? And will you certify only the one approved by the Studio?

A theatre play is unique at every new performance, and theatre critics don't need to watch them all before evaluating it. They accept perfectly that what they saw doesn't necessarily reflect the subtle changes happening during cast replacements and ad-libs.
I think film critics can live with multiple versions in an era where the video medium become so versatile and interactive, both for filmmakers and for viewers.

<< Edwin Mak, R3| Edwin Mak, R3 >>

Harry – just thought I’d chip in about this digital projection business, as the situation here in the UK is more muddled than it initially appears… A couple of years ago, the UK Film Council set up an initiative (the Digital Screen Network) to kit out regional arthouses (including the dominant Picturehouse chain &amp; a number of multiplexes) with digital projection equipment, presumably with the intent of making distribution easier and increasing flexibility/diversity in programming (the obvious benefit of reduced expenditure on striking/transporting prints, etc). However, as the Film Council outsourced the conversion to Arts Alliance Media instead of actually stumping up the costs in the first place, distributors are having to pay a fixed fee for using AAM’s equipment every time a film is screened. I’ve noticed that the major distributors (such as Artificial Eye or Soda Pictures) are as reluctant as ever to send a digital ‘print’ for one-off screenings, as the cost of paying the flat fee against potential admission returns isn’t viable. Digital screenings are still largely block-booked, usually from a handful of screenings over two or three days to a couple of weeks – the only exception to this rule seems to be the BFI, but perhaps they’re getting a break. Also, it was stipulated that only the largest auditorium of multi-screen cinemas should be fitted with digital equipment, so programmers are discouraged from booking ‘niche’ films that would have to play in a screen often reserved for bigger/safer financial draws. The whole thing is utterly counter-productive, and I’m struggling to find a single benefit – especially as the projection in the venues I’ve attended often looks like shit (with bright LCD-ish glare, high contrast and weirdly garish colour tonality). The set-up at my local arthouse is awful, nowhere near as good as that in the NFT in London – the digital projection of Jia’s Dong there last year was perfect, the best I have ever seen. I don’t actually know why this is (nor do the few people I’ve spoken to about it), and should probably look into it… The paradox is that whilst it’s getting increasingly difficult to see films shot on film on 35mm across the arthouse circuit, multiplexes (or at least the ones locally) still project the majority of films on 35mm… The “purists” are the ones being hit! DVD is going exceptionally well as a form of digital distribution, but theatrical exhibition is a mess – I’d be really interested to know how this is playing out in other countries….
Thanks for these insights on the Digital Screen Network, Matthew. You render this case of digital in-viability with the irony faithfully to its own reality. What you make apparent, but is worth echoing again, is how digital proliferation divides in at least two ways: the cheap-as-chips home use DVD market; and its super-high end counterpart, where digital screenings are actually more premium than old-fashioned 35mm. Could it be that digital formats are, in at least some quarters, installed for the prospect of opening up a premium tier of exhibition? This widens pre-conceptions on digital as some sort of great leveller. Also, I agree about the NFT/BFI digital set-up. I saw my only public screening of Jia’s Still Life there, and my word…synapse melting clarity. And no wonder, if it costs an arm-and-a-leg each turn!
I’d like to know why the digital projection is (more) expensive in itself. I understand the post-production and the exhibition equipment would cost a lot to the producer and the theatre respectively. But once these costs are absorbed, spending for subsequent projections should be negligible. It’s only a hard drive plugged into a machine that is supposed to set itself up automatically. Duplicating a hard drive doesn’t cost as much as drawing a new celluloid print in a lab. The hard drive retrieved by the distributor can be reloaded with another film for the next week. While 35mm prints are lost investments once the theatrical run ends. And the next digital revolution will be to have exhibitors download movie files directly into their projector. It’s the transition that might be unsatisfying and pricey for now, because all participants of the distribution circuit are not on the same page yet. If the digital screening is poor, it means the equipment wasn’t compatible and/or the staff didn’t know how to set it up. And if digital movies are still projected on 35mm today it’s because the theatres are not equipped with a digital projector yet. The latest digital technology (4K) has a greater definition than 35mm I heard, but is not a widespread format yet to become a quality standard for all audiences. Only the mass distribution exhibitors can take advantage of this technology : big studios who can afford digital transfer/compression of the highest quality, popular films staying on for at least a month, theatres with a steady flow of audience… to minimize the initial investment. Art houses cannot make this profitable if they show only a couple of digital movies per year. And if the film was shot on 35mm, the extra cost to digitize it can only be afforded by big studios who know will profit from a mass audience.
Harry, yes, it does seems to be the switchover itself that is causing problems at the moment – I have no idea what type of contract exists between the Film Council and AAM, but one would hope that when the costs are absorbed (albeit at the struggling distributor’s expense!) this problem would go away… All the other things you mention are reducing costs, but what bothers me is that any savings are currently being negated by fees from an ill-though-through adoption process. And the valuable enterprising outfits are the ones who are suffering… You’re definitely right about the fact that staff haven’t the faintest idea how to set up or maintain the equipment! The excuse given for blackouts during a recent screening of Davies’ Of Time &amp; the City was that the projector apparently “switched itself off”! I can’t see the situation improving any time soon, though… Apparently the whole thing is becoming quite popular now – my local arthouse routinely gets higher attendance for an advertised digital projection than 35mm. I guess audiences are already beginning to view digital as the “premium” format that Edwin suggests it could be… Edwin, on a side note, I think the BFI are very reasonable – with membership and student discount, I’ve never paid more than £5.25 for an average (evening) screening – exactly the same as out here in the sticks… The Curzons &amp; Renoir are a different matter altogther, though!

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