Thursday, October 13, 2011

The End of Film

Sometime in 2009, the last professional 35mm motion picture camera was assembled.

The three major camera companies-- Panavision, Aaton and ARRI-- have since been devoted to designing and improving their digital cameras. The 35mm cameras that made them famous are still out there, and they still service them, but to quote Deborah Kaufman on Creative Cow, "someone, somewhere in the world, is now holding the last film camera ever to roll off the line."

Meanwhile, the number of movie theaters screens set up for digital projection surpassed fifty percent of all screens, and they're installing over seven hundred new projectors every month. This is a net gain, I think: the days of scratched prints and out-of-frame shows may be history. But with the exception of IMAX (a 65mm process that grows in popularity every year) film print delivery will eventually become rare, then a sort of historical curiosity. I can see a time not far off when you will have to visit a subsidized rep and revival theatre (a museum screening room, LA's Cinematheque, or the Packard-supported Guild in Palo Alto, for example) to see what a projected 35mm print looks like.

It should surprise nobody that film has been virtually dead in television production for years, but what's weird is how the tipping point came: during the near-shutdown of Hollywood due to the SAG labor dust-up in 2008. TV's move to AFTRA contract players, who had a deal with TV producers so long as the film were made digitally, made film use in TV production vanish overnight.

As far as movies go, we're living in strange times. Sure, the major films shot digitally look a lot like their 35mm predecessors. But the shallow focus and squeezed bokeh of Panavision, the red circles of film halation on point-source lights, the organic grain density of the photochemical process: these are 20th century artifacts, remnants of the analog world.

We're well into the 21st century now, and the precise, pure color of digital cinema is steadily becoming the norm. For filmmakers, this may well be a good thing: 35mm film stock is, and always has been, phenomenally expensive stuff. For the cost of 20 reels of color negative and processing for same, you can go out and buy a RED ONE 4K Digital Cinema camera and capture an unlimited amount of footage at the same resolution.

For film enthusiasts, this progress is sort of a mixed bag. In the days of film, the cost of stock set the lower bar for film production. Film production needed high-level financing, and financing requires return on investment, which requires things like actors, competent lighting, coherent scripts and decent post-production standards. A few years ago the opening up of film markets to zero-budget films spawned the "mumble-core" movement and The Room (D. Tommy Wiseau, 2003). There are thousands of kids out there, energized with all sorts of personal cinematic epiphanies, running their hands over their DSLRs, ready to roll-- and the image resolution at their command rivals any professional camera. Watch out.

On the other hand, It's important to remember that Hollywood is a system: It's stock in trade is slickly made, big-budget creations populated with familiar faces, available to be seen in a darkened auditorium or on a major network near you. This system was created because of the needs of film: To tell a story using the low-sensitivity nitrate stocks of the time, you needed a studio to shine a lot of lights on actors, sets on stages where scenes could be repeated reliably, and access to development labs for workprints. The film studios remain, though the film itself is gone.

Then again: if we can have cars without gas engines and computers without keyboards, we can have film studios without film.

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