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» Film-Tech Forum   » Community   » Film-Yak   » Reel devotion: Digital may have won the war, but the desire and love for film remains (Page 1)

 
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Author Topic: Reel devotion: Digital may have won the war, but the desire and love for film remains
Frank Cox
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From: Melville Saskatchewan Canada
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 - posted 01-27-2017 02:46 PM      Profile for Frank Cox   Author's Homepage   Email Frank Cox   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Reel devotion: Digital may have won the war, but the desire and love for film remains bigger than nostalgia

quote:
A friend of mine spent the holidays visiting family in Exeter, New Hampshire, and while there dropped by the local theatre to take in a movie. But almost as soon as it began he noticed a problem: the picture was exceedingly dark. So he did as any vigilant moviegoer would and asked to speak to someone in management.

The manager was sympathetic but unhelpful. “Someone must have left the 3D filter on from an earlier showing,” he explained. “If it’s on during a 2D movie, it darkens the screen.” My friend asked if the projectionist could remove it now, so that he could at least enjoy the rest of the film. The manager sighed. “No, no. I’d have to go up to the booth to change it myself,” he said. “No projectionists work here anymore.”

This is not a peculiar feature of the cinemas of Exeter. Projectionists have long since vanished all across the world. Mainstream theatre chains such as Cineplex and AMC do not employ them in their thousands of multiplexes any longer. Even independent rep houses have for the most part done away with the trade: many of them were obliged to let their full-time projectionists go when they made the transition to digital toward the end of the last decade. Digital projectors don’t require any specialized training to operate – even the custodial staff can run up to the booth and push play.

Film StripsRecently I paid a visit to the state-of-the-art projection booths at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Suspended above a trio of cinemas on the third floor looms the fascinating command headquarters, which has the slick, expensive-looking mystique of a NASA control room, and is teeming still with the last remaining holdouts of what appears to be a dying breed — full-time projectionists of the old-school, a whole team of them, lugging hefty reels of 35mm film around and threading prints through massive, antique machines.

It’s a place of intriguing contradiction. On the one hand, it’s all so sophisticated and ultra-modern, glittering with deluxe glamour. On the other hand, it’s rife with relics from another age. There are workbenches with lamps and illuminated tables. There are colossal metal canisters stacked up in towering piles. There are blinking banks of futuristic computers, like something out of a science-fiction movie. And there are projectors: sleek black digital gimmicks next to huge, complex analog wonders from the days of yore. It’s equal parts multiplex and museum.

That the Lightbox houses a private collection of outmoded arcana may be well and good for historical posterity. But the Lightbox isn’t a museum. It’s a cinema. And it continues, in 2017, to buck the trend of digital ubiquity and actually project movies new and old on 35mm film.

Indeed, film is at the foundation of their daily programming, and they have shown a deep, unflagging commitment to sourcing, maintaining and projecting proper prints whenever possible. To take a recent example, 21 of the 24 features screening as part of their current seasonal retrospective, Volcano: The Films of Anna Magnani, will be presented on 35mm.

Such programs matter a great deal to the people behind the cinema. But why?

Cinephiles take the preference for granted. Filmmakers, analog diehards like Christopher Nolan and Alex Ross Perry especially, talk often of their distaste for digital and their affection for traditional film. But should the average moviegoer honestly care? I sat down with James Quandt, senior programmer at the Lightbox, and Brad Deane, senior manager of film programmes at TIFF, to try to better understand the appeal. Exactly how does a movie shown on film differ from a movie shown digitally? And why should the former be preferred?

“You can get technical,” says Quandt. “You can talk about grain. You can talk about the depths of colour registration. You can talk about the ‘sensuousness’ of film as compared to digital. But here’s the big mystery for me. There are films I’ve seen a dozen times that have always affected me emotionally, have devastated me, that just do not have the same effect on me when I see them projected digitally. I can’t explain that. It’s the same movie! It’s the same story! But there’s something different. I am really struck by this. We react to these formats differently on an emotional level.”

“There are specific differences,” Deane agrees. “There’s no shutter on a digital projector. With a shutter, there’s actually space between the frames that you’re watching, and that doesn’t exist on a digital movie. I think that spaces allows you to participate more.” He catches himself and laughs. “I don’t know if that actually means anything, what I just said. But I do think there’s something about it that’s hard to explain.” Most people I know who care about this sort of thing tend to feel similarly. It’s difficult to account for precisely why film is better than digital. It just feels unequivocally like it is.

You see this a lot with record collectors and people who contest the supposed superiority of Spotify or MP3s. Argue the technical specifics as much as you please, but at the end of the day the preference is deeply, unshakably emotional. The people want what they want.

Film StripsThe Lightbox is one of the few places in Canada with a team of full-time projectionists on staff. (They’re even unionized, part of IATSE Local 58.) They have a dedicated full-time reviser, whose job it is to inspect each film print as it arrives; the reviser runs a reel from beginning to end through his fingers on a light table with a motor control, scrutinizing it for serious scuffs or abrasions, and especially for broken perforations, just one of which could disengage a print from the projector and bring a screening to a halt. In this way, each print the Lightbox is trusted with is carefully and meticulously preserved. The reviser even fixes little cuts and tears by splicing faulty frames out and patching reels up with bits of tape.

James King, senior booth manager at the Lightbox, gave me the grand behind-the-scenes tour. King does much of his work in a small glass box decked out with computer monitors that hangs several storeys up from the lobby and looks out over half the building. Standing there with a headset on, he looks like Holly Hunter feeding lines to William Hurt in Broadcast News. It’s his duty to oversee the work of the projectionists and ensure that every film screening that day unfurls without a hitch — literally and figuratively.

The Lightbox, King told me, was expensively furnished with projectors and other analog gear from a German manufacturer called Kinoton, the industry-standard purveyor of such equipment – until they stopped producing 35mm projectors in 2012. That was when King called them up and asked if they’d sell him their remaining inventory. “What do you need?” they asked him. He shot back: “What do you have?” “We effectively cleaned them out of parts,” King says. They’ve been indispensable since, whenever a machine on hand is need of repair.

But while King maintains that this is all very durable, long-lasting equipment – it hardly needs any upkeep or maintenance at all – the loss of Kinoton is as discouraging to those who wish for the longevity of film as any other alarm. It’s like the projectionists themselves: these guys mainly came up in the 1970s and 1980s, when you couldn’t work the booth without an 800-hour apprenticeship and a license handed out after passing a government exam. They had expertise. They had skills. They were proficient craftsmen no different than mechanics or electricians.

The licenses were abolished in 2000 under the Red Tape Reduction Act, which was introduced as a corporate deregulation measure and which was lobbied for at great expense by theatre chains such as Famous Players, who felt they would no longer have to pay the trained professionals so much if they could instead hire people to do the same job without training. Thereafter, aspiring projectionists with any serious desire to honour the trade could only learn by example, picking up the knowledge second-hand working under their elders.

Film StripsI watched a projectionist run a reel. When one reel ends and another begins, it’s the projectionist’s job to switch them; and when it’s time for that to happen, as anyone who’s seen Fight Club can tell you, a little blip or cue mark pops up in the upper right corner, signalling the moment to change. Mess this up and the entire screening is spoiled. Nail it and nobody notices, but everyone enjoys.

“Getting it right is a matter of fractions of a second,” King tells me. “You have to get a feel for it. The only way is to do it hundreds and hundreds of times.” This kind of expertise — the kind that not only promises a smooth screening, with elegant reel changes and nary a hiccup to observe, but also the kind that protects the prints and guarantees their endurance for another night — has never been more important. It’s also never been more rare.

Back in the booth, the projectionists are hard at work threading the archival prints up and satisfying this new surge in niche-audience demand. But actually getting your hands on a movie on film is no easy task: prints are hard to come by, those who own them are reluctant to lend them out and even if a programmer manages to track down the movies they want, persuade their owners to give them up and arrange for the goods to be shipped over, physically handling and caring for the prints in question is a challenge undertaken with much stress and at great expense. Every step of the process is a burden. What ends up showing at your local cinematheque on 35mm is invariably the product of arduous work.

It starts with what Deane calls the “detective work” of rep programming. “When we decide what we want, we have to search. Our usual sources, increasingly, are fellow archives, became many of the sources that existed even five years ago have withdrawn their prints from circulation because they realize now how precious they are. Archives are tightening up loans; some studios have completely withdrawn their print holdings and will only loan out digital copies.” Tracking down that mid-70s Brian De Palma curio isn’t a matter of simply phoning up MGM. You’ve got to find someone who has it and would be willing to hand it over for a week. That demands savvy. That demands trust.

But receiving a print doesn’t always guarantee that it can be screened. Reels are misplaced; canisters of film go missing en route. The copy of The Nightwatch headed to the Rembrandt show at the National Gallery will of course be insured for many tens of millions dollars and be under armed guard nonstop; the copy of Au Hasard Balthazar making its way to the Vancouver Cinematheque on 35mm, however valuable it may be to the film community, remains at the mercy of the fine people at FedEx. Things can happen. “We’ve found missing reels under conveyor belts in UPS transfer stations a month after we lost them,” Quandt says. “Sometimes entire movies just disappear.”

Quandt can regale you with film-print horror stories. There have been times when foreign-language movies have turned up without working subtitles; there was the time when Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face turned up with only subtitles, and no image. An incredibly rare Robert Bresson print vanished on its way from Toronto to its next destination, never to be found again.

Once Quandt got a call from the projection booth just before Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 931-minute Berlin Alexanderplatz was to be screened: “The print had been shipped from Germany and the reels had not been secured. It all unwound in the box. Fifteen hours of film — all spaghetti.” The possibilities are truly endless. And that’s to say nothing of what could happen if the print does arrive.

Film StripsA reel of 35mm film is not exactly fragile: the polyester of which most prints are made can be twisted, bent or stretched without sustaining damage, and you couldn’t tear it in two with your hands if you tried. But it is susceptible to catastrophe of other kinds.

It can burn up in a projector, as the print of Rebel Without a Cause does on Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s romantic date in the middle of La La Land. It can be scuffed, scratched or marked with oily fingerprints if mishandled. Time alone can wreak all sorts of havoc: prints fade, darken, even change colours if left untouched in poor conditions for a long period of time. They can wind up looking beet-red or bleached or blackened. A reel that languishes in its canister in a damp basement for decades may melt and fuse into a celluloid blob.

Film shrinks. It warps. It disintegrates. It is not long for this world. Which makes the people who handle film – the projectionists disappearing at an alarming rate – more valuable to a place like the Lightbox than ever. Where digital has taken over the profession has faded into obsolescence. Where it’s still needed, it’s never been more in demand.

Is all this effort – this enormous expense, arduous maintenance and hair-pulling detective work – worthwhile? To hear the people behind the Lightbox tell it, very much so.

The all-film retrospectives organized routinely by the Lightbox, Quandt tells me, have become hugely attractive to moviegoers, not only in Toronto but all over North America and beyond. “A decade ago,” Quandt recalls, “archivists were talking about the possibility that a major film retrospective – let’s say Fritz Lang, all on 35mm – would eventually take on the status of a blockbuster museum show, where people would actually travel to be able see the films in their original format, projected the way they should be.”
Related

Indeed that happened. As traditional theatres vanished and prints fell into widespread disuse, a film retrospective of any kind became a rarity, making every one that emerged a special event. It all just happened rather faster than the archivists once dreamed. “Film is now a selling point. It’s essential to any retrospective.”

Digital may have won the war for mainstream supremacy, but in its loss, film has become more than a mere martyr. The desire to see flickers of light and hear scratchy sound represents something bigger than simple nostalgia; something larger than a need to connect to the tangible in an increasingly digital world.

To search for it. To care for it. To screen it. Film requires devotion. And as anyone who has ever cherished anything knows, devotion is more often than not an unparalleled reward in its own right.


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Rick Raskin
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That's a very good article. I only question one statement though:

"...broken perforations, just one of which could disengage a print from the projector..."

That may be true for 16mm but 35? Notching torn perfs was a common practice.

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Steve Guttag
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Even on 16mm 1 torn per shouldn't kill it. Claws typically engaged 2-3 at a time and intermittent machines engaged several perfs too.

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Monte L Fullmer
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 - posted 01-27-2017 05:43 PM      Profile for Monte L Fullmer   Email Monte L Fullmer   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
Article looks like the one a lot of users are trying to bring back, being the World of Analog...

..with Vinyl, Cassettes, Open Reel.

Film will never die, but the studios have settled that one on being a digital world now for the cinemas.

Yet, some production companies do use film.

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Frank Angel
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The film sure wouldn't be "dislodged" if it were being run on an Eastman 25B, Geneva Star intermittent projector -- the Lamborghini of 16mm projectors!

Good article, but I really wonder how much of that "emotional" attachment he says he feels is due to the subconscious knowledge that he is watching film and not video. I would give him a thumbs up to that claim if indeed it were a blind test where the format wasn't known, assuming a mint print that had no tell-tale print anomalies. Plus, was the film print he claims gave him a more emotional impact was old-school, i.e., or was it nothing more that a copy of a 2K video? If that were the case, then his argument has a major 2K flaw.

I certainly agree as I may have already said here on F-T (and probably more than once), that for a projectionist there is no question that when running film there is a very substantial, very real physical connection to the "materials" of the projection craft -- film, projectors, inspection apparatus, and hence an emotional affinity to "showing" a movie. You handle the print, you feel it and your fingers even tell you where there is dirt or nicks, even bad splices. You look intensely at nearly every foot of it; you threat it, you know the feel of the projector parts and when it is running you listen with long years of experience and knowledge of what a well-running machine sounds like and what sounds alert you to a problem. If it is a changeover booth, running the show is a fully engaging activity. You are intimately connected with all of the machinery and the medium that is traveling thru that machinery. The process of screening a film engages all a person's senses and of course that is going to give a strong emotional connection, no doubt. I imagine film editors would tell you the same thing about the difference with editing film and editing video.

By this craft, the projectionist is making ALL the work of those hundreds of people you see in the credit crawl come to life for that audience. It's on his shoulders alone that rests the success of maintaining the filmmaker's illusion of reality to the audience. As Penny (DA Pennebaker of MONTEREY POP fame) said to me when I ran his film in 4 track mag and he came up to the booth to tell me he wanted it at a couple of clicks louder than our normal house level: "I made the film, but it now up to you to deliver. I have such respect for the projectionist -- I consider you part of my crew." I certainly was inspired by that. He also came back up to the booth after the screening to thank me -- THAT was certainly much appreciated and had not happened previously nor since. Often no one ever even thinks about who's up there in that box...except of course when something goes wrong.

But back the idea that there is a real feeling of emotional connection when working with film. I agree that is powerful, but I am not ready to agree that the patron feels that same nostalgia. Plus, you can only feel nostalgia if you were part of the past experience. And as digital gets better, and audiences get younger, there will be a time when the vast majority of people will never have experienced a movie presented via film. At that point the romanticizing will all have faded, just like the cyan dye on Eastman release prints!

Then again, young people seem perfectly fine watching a movie on a cell phone, so I say, to hell with worrying about things as nuanced as the difference between film and video -- they couldn't care less.

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Mark Ogden
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quote:
threading prints through massive, antique machines.
WTF is "antique" about Kinotons that were brand new six years ago?

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Monte L Fullmer
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quote:
threading prints through massive, antique machines.
Quote from someone who doesn't know the industry, or how it works.

Always the case when you get someone who writes a story without doing much research to support the contents of that written story.

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Bobby Henderson
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 - posted 01-27-2017 10:35 PM      Profile for Bobby Henderson   Email Bobby Henderson   Send New Private Message       Edit/Delete Post 
There is certainly an emotional side to the argument of film's superiority to digital. But then there are technical facts that still make film better than digital. Every "regular" here on Film-Tech has heard me bitch to no end about how bad the 'scope format SUCKS in d-cinema. And that's mainly drawn from a comparison of how much better it was on film.

My own feeling is collectors probably need to hold onto their prized film prints very jealously and take good care of them. The same goes for movie studios and all the film negatives, interpositives and other elements they're paying ongoing costs to archive. I cringe a little when I hear of older movies produced entirely on film being shown in public via film prints. I understand the motivation behind this. It's about letting people enjoy real films being projected on film. Sadly, all the projectors and film prints are easily perishable items than will not be replaced if they are damaged.

I'm all for supporting a new film-based production that distributes film prints to theaters. I drove 100+ miles to see The Hateful Eight in 70mm, even though the Ultra Panavision image was shown on a HDTV-shaped common width screen. I'll probably drive to Dallas or up to Colorado to see Dunkirk in IMAX 70mm.

As for other newer movies shown on film prints, unless the movie was shot on film and post-produced on film there is little point in making film prints of that other than for analog-based archival purposes in the event the digital masters perish (and that can very easily happen since there is no form of digital media that is guaranteed to last decades).

One exception to this is higher resolution 6K and 8K digital cameras, as well as the 'scope format. The d-cinema version of 'scope is a sad, low resolution joke. It's barely a bump above watching a letter-boxed Blu-ray at home on the HDTV set. If a "filmmaker" handled the post production process correctly he could shoot a movie digitally, post produce it digitally and still deliver a film-out on 35mm or 70mm that would blow away viewers. Right now they're not doing that. It's all about dumping pixel counts to lowest common denominators, mainly the tyranny of the 2048 X 858 bullshit 2K standard.

Lots of movie fans are worried about film dying and giving way to digital. I think the situation is actually worse than that. It's about movie theaters themselves dying. Because I really have a difficult time getting excited at all about watching a digital movie in a theater where it is both emotionally and technically barely any better than watching it from the comfort of my home on HDTV. I'm very worried about the widespread apathy of non-movie fans out there. I personally know at least a dozen different people who have these modded out Amazon Fire TV stick things and they're watching movies in current theatrical release. And they see nothing morally wrong with this. They just don't give a shit.

There is something magical about a film print. It's a physical object, reels of polyester or acetate with a bunch of still images on them. That big object seems "dead" until you run it in the projector. Then it takes life. That's just a whole different paradigm from "digital," which seems too much like watching TV. Install a $2 million dual laser projection system and blow another $150,000 on a pimped out Dolby Atmos sound system and it's still feeling like something where you unconsciously reach for the remote to check out what's on the other channels.

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Mike Blakesley
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quote: Frank Angel
But back the idea that there is a real feeling of emotional connection when working with film. I agree that is powerful, but I am not ready to agree that the patron feels that same nostalgia.
I think people feel more nostalgia for the building they're in, or the experience they're having, than the movie they're seeing. Most of them (if you asked them) don't KNOW how the movie gets to the screen, and don't care. But we hear people all the time who are home for the holidays or whatever, that there's nothing like their hometown theater.

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Rex Oliver
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What?The manager doesn't know how to remove the 3D filter so the customer could watch the standard presentqation?Sort of feel that "manager" is not qualified to operate the theater he is "managing"In that case he should just go home and even let the patron adjust the projector!This sort of stuff is what is going to make the movie house obsolete unless the folks that "manage" them are trained on how to operate the equipment they are now resposnsible for.Its like the deal for radio stations.I came from the era when an engineer was on duty when the station was on.so if a problem came up it was fixed right away.At radio stations today-the manager there calls an engineer who is not at the station but on their call list.It may take him hours to get there.In the meantime the station could be off the air!At the theater of course your audience is right there in the next room.So--I would think you the theater operator would want problems fixed right away.Otherwise-----The angry patron will just go home and watch TV!
Yes,I thought of what was said here about reels of film meaning largely nothing until it was played on the projector.Same could be said about records.
And for railroad fans-esp old school ones-They want to ride behind a real steam locomotive rather than a Diesl or an electric locomotive.
Then we have aviation fans that would prefer to ride in a propeller airplane as opposed to a jet.
Then for ship fans-some would like to ride in a ship that is steam powered rather than a gas turbine or Diesel.
But back to the person trying to watch the movie in the theater that wasn't set up for standard -that manager should have corrected the problem for the customer immiediately.He should be trained on the basic operation of his equipment since HE is now the projectionist in that case.Like the radio stations of today-guess the theaters would have "projectionists" or techs on call to handle problems.One like that the manager or person operating the theater at that time should be able to make those adjustments.

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Emiel De Jong
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quote:
“There are specific differences,” Deane agrees. “There’s no shutter on a digital projector. With a shutter, there’s actually space between the frames that you’re watching, and that doesn’t exist on a digital movie. I think that spaces allows you to participate more.”
I've heard that one before, and I definitely think such a difference has impact on the viewing experience. What I always thought: with the framerates possible digitally it's so simple to edit the exact "shutter" effect in a video file, just adding black frames and showing each image frame twice. Has this ever been tried?

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Scott Norwood
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quote: Rex Oliver
And for railroad fans-esp old school ones-They want to ride behind a real steam locomotive rather than a Diesl or an electric locomotive.
Then we have aviation fans that would prefer to ride in a propeller airplane as opposed to a jet.
Then for ship fans-some would like to ride in a ship that is steam powered rather than a gas turbine or Diesel.

This all probably has something to do with the rarity of the experience. If 99% of trains were steam-powered, the diesel-electric experience would have some appeal.

Film projection probably didn't excite most people when it was universal (and when most of the people doing it were awful at their jobs). Now that it is a somewhat rare and special experience, it attracts attention.

That said, none of this is all that rare (yet). Here in the Boston market (not really a film town in the way that NYC and LA are), one can find at least one movie screening on film pretty much any night of the week. I assume that this is true in other mid-size and larger markets.

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Bobby Henderson
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quote: Emiel De Jong
What I always thought: with the framerates possible digitally it's so simple to edit the exact "shutter" effect in a video file, just adding black frames and showing each image frame twice. Has this ever been tried?
I think any video simulation of a film projector shutter effect would require a very high frame rate, perhaps 240fps or higher. They can't just throw in a frame of solid black between the actual movie frames and call it done. An obvious solution would be a 120Hz system flashing each movie frame 4 times and then a frame of black once. I still think the effect would look artificial. There is a lot more going on when a film projector mechanically holds one frame still in front of the lamp and then quickly advances the next frame into position.

For me the big problem is image quality. Digital technology has all sorts of interesting capabilities. But it also has very frustrating technical limitations that make it fall short of the quality that film can achieve. Unfortunately the movie industry's post production chain is almost entirely rooted in digital technology now. You can still shoot a movie on film. But it is exceedingly difficult and now really expensive to keep all the post production work in the film domain. Once the movie's imagery goes into that digital bottleneck there's little point in outputting film prints of it, other than just to keep certain print production services in business. The only way that makes it worthwhile for viewers is if the imagery is well above the 4K resolution limits of d-cinema projectors. Nobody is really doing that.

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Leo Enticknap
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quote: Scott Norwood
Film projection probably didn't excite most people when it was universal (and when most of the people doing it were awful at their jobs). Now that it is a somewhat rare and special experience, it attracts attention.
I remember a senior British Film Institute official waxing lyrical in a press interview around 2003-04 about how digital cinema would "free audiences from the tyranny of 35mm." This was around the time the UK government blew tens of millions on their "Digital Screen Initative" to install pre-Series 1 equipment in arthouse screens, most of which was obsolete before it was even powered up for the first time.

Fast forward a decade, and you'll regularly see BFI bigwigs quoted in the media about how they're the biggest lender of film prints in the world (yes, they have made that actual claim) and how nothing will ever replace celluloid (despite the fact that cellulose triacetate did so in the early 1950s).

Hearing cultural types embarrass themselves trying to portray themselves as experts on technology never ceases to entertain...

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Alexandre Pereira
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Lightbox - you have got to be kidding. That is not even a movie theatre - more like a corporate welfare subsidized branded banquet hall with a few screens. One of those places where everyone gets a professorial chair in a blacken pit that passes off as a cinema.
My theatre - The Kingsway - an independent still runs film - whenever I can get a print - the projector is always ready to go and so is the platter - FU change over.
Try getting nachos and a hot dog at the Creepbox the saviours of film.

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