The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Monday, June 26, 2006

Celluloid Phoenix

Philip Marchand on the likely change from celluloid to digital cinema at theaters:

According to Pat Marshall, these issues are pretty well resolved. In five years, digital cinema will be the norm.If so, this will mark a new evolution in the movie theatre, which will exhibit not only movies but sports events and concerts. Wrestling fans will fill the seats when kids tire of Adam Sandler.

In a paper titled, "The future is here ... almost," Lichtman predicts an even more dazzling future for the big screen. "We should be embracing video games and bringing them to the big screen," he writes of one of the most formidable of all rivals to motion pictures. "Technology exists today for the playing of multi-player games on the big screen on an interactive basis. Over the next 12 months interactive bingo will be played on the big screen in England for cash prizes. People who never dreamed of walking into a smoke-filled bingo hall will be enthralled with the concept of coming to a convenient, clean theatre to watch a celebrity comedian host a big game and win money. Talk about a new revenue stream."

Ah, but the art of the cinema! What about those beautiful vistas of John Ford, those dark, moody images of film noir, those vibrant colours of Antonioni? What about the quality of the screen image? Can the digital image stand up to celluloid? "It's a brighter image," Marshall says.

"It's certainly crisper." University of Toronto film studies professor Andrew Keil points out, however, that the digital image "doesn't have the intensity that the celluloid image has."Film buffs talk in general of the "resonance" and "warmth" of the celluloid image, not to be duplicated by anything digital.

So what's your preference? Crisp and bright or warm and intense? Only a tiny minority of filmgoers, of course, respond to the strictly aesthetic qualities of a movie — the use of colour and shadow and framing and all those other film school desiderata. Certainly a younger generation, for whom digital is the norm, and who take rapid cutting and special effects for granted, is not going to care about digital versus celluloid.

"I don't put a lot of faith in the audience to tell the difference," Keil says. "I don't want to hold my own students up as a negative example, but we have gotten to the point, in our classes, where we show most of our film titles on DVD. When we do have a 35-mm print, I always make a big deal about it. Students will come up to me afterwards and say, `I couldn't tell the difference.'"

The issue is of interest to me personally, and of intense interest to film-makers.

When I still lived in Toronto, I was friends with someone who did programming for various experimental film nights. Many of these, like CineCycle, were usually run on shoe-string budgets, which meant small projectors. The result was something reminiscent of a high-school classroom, circa the 1970s; not so much in terms of overall quality, but in terms of one always being aware that what you were seeing on the screen was not "professional".

Yet many of these movies were very affecting. Furthermore, the avant-garde aesthetic that a lot of them employed was not, it turned out, "difficult"; a lot of techniques that used have been adopted by mainstream directors who shoot video and -- yikes! -- commercials. These more commercial directors glommed onto techniques pioneered by experimental film-makers who were supposedly eternally inaccessible to average movie-goers.

The experimental films I saw then could be sub-divided into many different groups. Two groups that stand out in my memory are the shorter films that experimented with the visual potential of film -- that is, the films that had to made with celluloid. (Some film-makers, like Stan Brackage, even used the celluloid itself as a medium; they would scratch and draw right on the film.) The other group was the movies that were about experimental narrative. These were often shot on video because its cost was so low, and allowed a longer movie.

In other words, celluloid allowed the film-maker visual creativity but
(generally) demanded a short movie. Digital allowed narrative creativity but demanded a compromise in terms of visual beauty. Ultimately digital began dominating the experimental scene -- probably because of the cost factor. Offered the choice, most experimental movie-makers accepted the loss of visual quality for the flexibility and ease digital provided them.

Digital cameras have come some distance since then. I don't know if they will ever equal celluloid, however. Celluloid is remarkable for its extreme sensitivity, although digital cameras can come quite close. (I'm speaking now as someone who shoots photographs, not a film-maker.)

Nevertheless, it would be a great pity if celluloid were to go. It would be a fitting irony if celluloid were to once again become the dominant experimental medium. I doubt that -- again, because of cost considerations -- but at some point celluloid with be re-embraced for its extraordinary visual


Post a Comment

<< Home