The Film vs. Digital Argument
Articles continue to be written about film vs. digital. Another was in The New York Times last week. For me, the debate was settled twelve years ago when I walked into a screening at the Columbus Cinevent and realized that the stunner image of Chaplin in City Lights was actually a projected DVD. That was the day film ended for me and liquidation of a 16mm collection began. I would hear arguments from there about the integrity of celluloid and tactile pleasure derived from handling it (tactile for me amounted to having fingers sliced open more than once while editing).
Many collectors and lifelong film gatherers felt themselves discarded along with precious footage to which so much effort and expense had been devoted. Yes, there was a romance of celluloid, to quote that title of MGM's one-reel series from the late 30's. There was also exclusivity in owning prints available to seemingly no one else (ego and pride of ownership had a lot to do with collecting impulse --- guess it's that way with butterflies and bottle caps as well). Movies can never be collector items so long as they are mass-produced for disc sale, let alone streaming, or as downloads. I welcome the triumph of digital for convenience and ready access to shows I never before dreamed of watching at home.
Paramount was out this year with its centennial Blu-Ray of Wings, a presentation stunning beyond any I'd seen of a silent-era feature. Long ago and thankfully far away was the 16mm print of Wings I once owned. Hard-got from a collector who'd sat years on it, this cost upwards of $300, due to length (over two hours) and rarity.
It's easy to bail out of film when you're not much good at mechanics of it. Friends could repair projectors and match frames perfectly on an editing bench. Changing exciter lamps was as climbing Everest for me. Digital was the rescuer I longed for. Video cassette arrival in the late 70's foresaw a new day, but these were viewable only on still-analog TV, and compared not with original prints in 16mm. Laser discs and rear-projection systems on which to play them would tighten the contest (indeed, many film collectors bailed at this point), but purists could still argue celluloid's superiority.
What stuns me looking back is time and herculean effort it took to acquire and make ready what might then pass as a quality show in 16mm. One example of the race collectors ran was The Quiet Man. The only way to decently have it was on dye-transfer stock printed by Technicolor, the term "IB" shorthand for this most desirable of 16mm formats (an eastman print, even if a so-called "original," would be pinkish or headed that way, and even uglier than Quiet Man DVD's currently in release). The trouble with any Technicolor print was its physical condition. Most had seen wear, none had been printed since at least a first half of the seventies, which were final days during which the dye-transfer process was stateside-used (notwithstanding an attempt at revival some years later).
You had also to deal with unstable registration from one ten-minute section to the next. 16mm printing could be careless in this regard and colors didn't always line up. Unless you had a Quiet Man brand new and kept that way from Technicolor labs (there were several in the hands of collectors other than myself), you could depend upon fixer-uppers where a best procedure was to acquire multiple prints and piece together a best compilation from intact sections of each. This could take days and better eyesight than I now possess. Even at the finish, you'd have something not likely to pass inspection today. Still, it was The Quiet Man, an artifact few then could lay claim to possessing.
Therein lay romance for collectors. Grief would understandably come with realization that 16mm prints would become as many guitar picks. I watch a little saddened as EBay bids for film plummet. Rare cartoons, shorts, and trailers hang on, some continue doing well, but features took the bobsled and are still aboard it. You could melt down much of this unwanted stuff like they once did with nitrate and not sustain too meaningful a loss (and yes, I realize many titles survive only on 16mm, like silent Kodascopes and Universal Show-At-Homes, and no, I wouldn't advocate disposal of IB Tech prints, as a few of them do at least equal, if not surpass, what's available on DVD).
I'm all for the transition from film to digital in theatres. If presentation had been more foolproof all along, maybe not, but how many shows have we attended that weren't botched somehow in the booth? Look in trades and there are many diatribes over clumsy projection and ruined shows, going all the way back to an industry's start (Alex Gordon penned a doozy of a rebuke to exhibition in the 11/28/53 Motion Picture Herald). A projectionist friend told me that in all his years at the helm, there was but a single occasion when he made a perfect changeover from one 35mm reel to a next. That, of course, can never be an issue with digital, nor can scratches, splices, corner-to-corner focus, all those gremlins that came to call on seemingly every program I ever tried sitting through.
Projecting booths always seemed medieval to me. How many more possibilities could there be for something to go wrong? Feeding thousands of feet of film through gears and claws strikes me as something that should have been fazed out years ago. Maybe a century plus is long enough for any technology to sustain, and what about all those 35mm prints they had to make in order to fill saturation dates? Within a month, they were useless. The movies being what most of them were, you couldn't even interest what was left of 35mm collectors to sneak in depots and liberate them. Talk about guitar picks!
There is complaint that film's extinction is driven by merciless corporate mentality. True enough, but weren't they just as merciless in 1930 when industry agreement put paid to 70mm filmmaking, so soon after the silent era's relegation to scrap heaps? Corporate policy has lately enabled classic revivals to play on digital format in hundreds of theatres nationwide, the success of
I haven't personally threaded film since the take-up reel of my Eiki Xenon froze and twelve hundred feet of Standing Room Only fed onto the floor. That's purely result of not having maintained the equipment, but where's incentive for that when digital can project a so much better image on the same screen? Admitted is fact I still can't get Standing Room Only on DVD or any streaming way, so of course there's justification to hang on to some film, but so much comes out on digital now to make it unlikely I'd see even half in what's left of a lifetime, so why fret unduly over Standing Room Only or any title as yet unaccounted for?
Film is still useful as a mode of preservation. Nothing's so impermanent as digital storage that goes obsolete or disappears with the next power outage. But film as a tool of exhibition seems as washed up to me as horse harness and eight-track tape. Lord knows I live in a movie past, but not when it comes to picture/sound that can be so upgraded as with digital and its state-of-art presentation. I'm sorry in many ways to see film go, but delighted with the quality and wealth of content that has taken its place.