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Christopher Nolan Praises 35mm, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and Quentin Tarantino

Christopher Nolan Praises 35mm, 'Lawrence of Arabia' and Quentin Tarantino

It’s always satisfying to see mainstream filmmakers fight for the team, to champion cinema itself rather than simply their own work. Martin Scorsese’s been at the forefront for years, of course, with his Film Foundation, while Quentin Tarantino has made a typical commitment, with his New Beverly cinema in LA, to show films only on celluloid.

Both men, too, have never been shy of plugging their heroes.

And it was with both hats, art form champion and fan, that Christopher Nolan hit the London Film Festival this week, offering one of the festival’s most stimulating evenings so far.

The “Dark Knight” and “Interstellar” director has become quite the draw, judging from the crowds at the BFI South Bank – just the kind of person you need to promote important discussion and the marvelously esoteric.

 He was first on stage, alongside visual artist Tacita Dean and Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum, for a discussion on “the future of film.” Nolan and Dean will only ever shoot on film, with Dean refusing even to have her work digitized. Horwath, whose “exhibition space” is a cinema screen, only shows films in their original formats.

This appears to have been a sister event to an encounter between Nolan and Dean in LA’s Getty Centre earlier this year, the themes being the urgent need to ensure that films continue to be projected on celluloid, and to determine new archival and exhibition standards “to support film as film.”

READ MORE: Discover the Brothers Quay, Identical Twin Animators Who Inspired Christopher Nolan

 BFI creative director Heather Stewart kicked off the event with a clip from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” – in particular, the memorable scene in which Peter O’Toole emerges from the desert having rescued one of his servants, which Nolan thought an excellent example of the issues at hand.

“It’s sometimes difficult to articulate what it is about film projection that’s missing in digital projection,” he said. “It can be the very subtle shadow details, the particular tonality of skies. Here you can see them on the camel as they first come out of the desert far sooner than you can on Blu-ray.

“One of my favorite films when I was growing up was ‘Blade Runner.’ When I was a kid I watched it on VHS. It wasn’t until I was at university that I saw it on film and there was no ambiguity – I knew exactly the difference in what I was seeing. And that difference needs to be pointed out to everyone.”

With an estimated 98% of films in the UK projected digitally, and the widely held assumption that there is no qualitative difference for a film shot on celluloid, Dean declared that “I don’t think there has been a moment, historically, where a medium ¬has come under such threat. We have to protect the original experience. Not in a way that’s perceived as going back in time, getting the multiplexes to pull out their digital projectors. We just need to ensure the possibility that you can go to see a film projected as film.”

Nolan told the audience that Dean, whose large-scale exhibition FILM at London’s Tate Modern was a glorious testament to the medium, introduced him to the art-world doctrine of medium specificity, which is sorely absent in film industry dialogue.

“The medium is very much a part of the content,” he said. “You can’t separate the two things. When you go to an art gallery you don’t look at a photograph of a painting, you look at the painting. But in the film world they’re very happy to show a DCP of ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ With the best will in the world it can only be an approximation of what the film really is, yet it’s billed as the film itself.” 

“I’ve had conversations with studio heads,” he continued, “where I’ve been advocating passionately for shooting on film and projecting on film. And someone will say, ‘Well at the end of the day doesn’t storytelling triumph?’ And I say, ‘No it doesn’t. If it did, we’d make radio shows, because they’re a lot cheaper.”

While praising digital technology for offering “tremendous access to the history of cinema,” Nolan said that audiences were not being made aware of the fact that any transfer from film “is only ever going to be your best translation.” He also criticized exhibitors for a lackadaisical attitude to projection, not least in LA, and those U.S. independent distributors who are now providing Blu-rays for projection in theaters.

“If the experience for the audience isn’t valued, and if you’re not giving them value for money, they will stop going,” he warned. “Cinema attendance is relatively stable at the moment, but it’s not standing up the way it used to. Exhibitors should be putting their best foot forward. There have to be standards about this.”

As for the oft-cited justification of digital projection – that it’s cheaper – Nolan quipped: “Well, we’re paying the same for a cinema ticket as we were before, so where are all these marvelous savings? I love what Quentin Tarantino is doing with ‘The Hateful Eight,’ putting 70mm projectors in cinemas in North American for the original run of his film. He’s said it’s difficult, but it’s worth it.”

Nolan’s “Interstellar” was itself launched early on 70mm and 35mm prints.

The speakers also discussed the challenges the industry faces in archiving photochemical films, the rewards of shooting on film and, of course, what it was about the medium that they loved.

The most telling example of the latter was second hand, something Nolan had heard recently from the revered editor Walter Murch.

“Walter Murch said this beautiful thing. You shoot an empty room with a chair and an open door. You shoot it on film and you shoot it on video. When you watch it on film you feel that someone is about to come through the door; when you watch it on video you feel that someone has left.

“On digital you lose your sense of time passing, and with it that sense of expectation that you absolutely have with film.”

After a short break, the director was back in the same auditorium, in a different guise, this time as host of a triple bill of short animations by the Quay Brothers, two of Britain’s most idiosyncratic, cult filmmakers.

Nolan told the audience that the first Quay film he saw was the one that heralded their unique blend of puppetry and stop motion, “Street of Crocodiles.” “As soon as you see an image from that film you can’t take your eyes away,” he said. “It has some of the most extraordinary things that have ever been photographed.”

With the identical twins standing rather bashfully next to him, he admitted that, “all sorts of people in the mainstream have been influenced by these animations – and I was one of them.”

Nolan himself selected the program of “Street of Crocodiles” (1986), “The Comb” (1990) and “In Absentia” (2000), for which brand new 35mm prints were made. These were accompanied by Quay, an eight-minute film he’d made himself, in which he observes the brothers at work in their studio.

“There’s something about the handmade quality of these films, the passion and care that’s gone into their world that really comes to life on the big screen,” he enthused. “It’s a real joy to be able to show them to audiences.”

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I’ve just came here to praise the bloody cool guy comment, well put mate, Couldn’t agree more


Film is Physical. Film is Chemical. Film is Real. It’s Organic. And that’s what we love. All of us. Deep in heart everyone advocating digital loves Film. I know. You have a smartphone, a TV, a computer and some other devices. All of these are digital. And you’ve paid money for all these. So there’s is a natural psychological craving that just all things should be digitalized and leave behind an ‘analog medium’
Well Film is NOT an analog medium. It’s an organic medium, a chemical one. Light is Analog. More and more theatres are going digital, so there’ll always be the option for you ‘software lovers’! What is endangered at present is Film. When efforts are being made to preserve a medium, many people show up saying Digital will be so much better in future. Now that’s the psychological problem. Why don’t we live in the moment when Film is better. And let me tell you it will always be better than softwares. Film Technology can be improved greatly. And you can always use bigger size for better images. But cost, convenience, price. Commercialization of art is NOT possible. Art will die instead of becoming compromised, commercialized. The decade old 2D animation shows will make a your young one laugh more than the 3D crap. How did he got that nostalgia? Any idea? Anyone?

Keith Carrizosa

Short Version of my last comment: analog (film) is physical and with that comes full force of visual vibrancy (look at old cartoons compared to today) and AUDIO force.


Digital audio you can barely hear.

Therefore, if we didn’t have analog in the 20th century and instead only had digital…

because of the lack of visual and audio force…

we would have had ….

no Jimi Hendrix (dimmed sound of digial, lacking "force")…

no cartoons,

no humanity,

in tv or movies or songs…

we would have had NONE of what we had in the 20th century if it were all digital….

We’d probably all be taken over by some Nazi-like people right now…

Keith Carrizosa

You all just don’t get it. It’s not just the visual, it’s also the audio. You get the full force of sound with film that you just get can’t digital. The reason is the same that you can’t get the same thing with the visual, which is that film is PHYSICAL. There is ACTUAL PHYSICAL CONTACT with the medium, which therefore means you GET MORE. The same for music for that matter; the full force of electric guitars on analog is something you can’t get on digital. Without analog there would have been no Jimi Hendrix, because there simply would not have been the full force of sound translated for everyone to hear. When you hear sound on a digital print of a movie, you can barely hear it.(and there’s that old adage that you get what you pay for; hmm, a film print costs thousands of dollars; a digital print costs about one HUNDRED dollars. Do any of you really think they are doing this for QUALITY purposes and not because it is cheap bullshit?)

Digital has killed EVERYTHING in its path. Look at cartoons; there used to be cartoons on tv THAT WERE GOOD. Bugs Bunny, all the way up to Batman: the Animated Series (no doubt an influence on Christopher Nolan’s Batmans, as some characters are IDENTICAL, like the Judge in the first one). As soon as cartoons went digital look at them now on tv. NOTHING. And just compare the vibrancy of any cel animation, compared to digital: Pinocchio, an OLD Simpsons episode, whatever; it’s much more VIBRANT.

Let’s look at music. There used to be "warmth" in music. Just go listen to anything from not that long ago. All tv songs had "warm" theme song. Now, with digital, you’ve got basically no more of that "warmth." You certainly don’t see the tv theme songs anymore. DEAD.

This "warmth" also meant warmer PEOPLE, with HUMANITY. Not only was the music warmer and the images, due to its vibrancy, but this translated to characters with HUMANITY. Go look at ANY old tv show or movie from the analog period. All shows–or movies for that matter–had moments of very human moments of tenderness or just poetry. Speaking of which, as soon as tv went digital, that gave us this new non-human reality tv craze. We always had reality tv before that, but, somehow, for some reason, you add that digital to the mix, and now we have Kardashians. Yes, you can thank digital for that. And Honey Boo Boo and all that other shit.

Before John Huges teens were the norm, now Kardashian teens are.

This has very real implications that you are are not seeing.

DO you want a Kardasian future or ones with humanity, like John Huges?

The Walking Dead is trying to bring back that humanity to characters again with its show. I think it is actually on the maudlin side (and I’m spoiled on the production values of movies to even really watch tv), but it is shot on film (not sure if it still is) and it’s trying to bring back what was routine for media in the until very recently analog age.

All of the most critically acclaimed shows, while we’re on this, were also shot on film. The Sopranos for its first seasons, Mad Men, The Wire etc.

Back to music, there is real connection with analog to its literal physical connection and THIS is why we keep hearing 80s songs in every single comedy movie or on tv all the time. Most recently we have that "Final Countdown" commercial.

That’s also why we keep seeing all these remakes. People keep craving that CONNECTION from literally physically connecting with analog that they think they can just somehow relive it again digitally, even though it was the ANALOG that gave us that connection, not the digital.

You all try to claim this is all about nostalgia, but it’s not. This is about EMOTIONAL CONNECTION due to PHYSICAL CONNECTION.

People are craving that, and instead of just giving us that, the companies are trying to SCREW everyone by giving us the cheap–LITERALLY–imitation of it.

But, ah, there’s a reason people just keep going back to that "old" stuff.

It’s because analog actually literally HAS something there, while digital is an imitation of something that was there.

So, LITERALLY digital is actually about nostalgia, while film is about creating something new.

That came because of PHYSICAL CONTACT. Without that you have nothing.

So, this is not just about would have in the future, but about what we wouldn’t have had in the past.

We would have had NOTHING if the world was digital from the get go.

We’d probably all be dead from some new Nazis having been taken over the world.

Because there would have been no Jimi Hendrix, no Bugs Bunny, no, yes, Lawrence of Arabia….



If we had a digital past in the 20th century we would have had NO PAST.

All of what we had only happened because of analog.

Now we are taking it away.

You say this all doesn’t matter.

Well, we just might be starting World War 3 because of it.

You replace culture with Kardashians…

well, it doesn’t seem such a far-fetched notion now, does it?


we have our own sink and armor!


steer,now *o**** "we have the Buck N Make,notes" now how come those Truck drivers in California you see *o**** on the Google Maps " I have your brute *o****,Pimps the roads and highways and you and some others can’t "always Kraken in wood no poppers thought Ty! and we have shout and silence both black t" and you Guy’s can’t get that breakfast anymore,why!,well they snooze they loose "I seen you selling story notesfor a couple million worked out perfect,and it doesn’t matter always the Kraken in wood no poppers,read" just read!


I have an idea for a new type of movie theater where it would be like some of the theater rooms would show first run movies but it will have like 5 theater rooms that would hold like 30 seats and you can make a reservation to hold the room and you can watch any old movie on film projection and you would need like a minimum of 5 people to reserve a room and it would be a big theater screen – at least bigger than the ones you see on like MTV cribs so it would be at least medium sized theater. And they would basically have a giant library of old movies on film projection that you could choose from. So basically it would be like I want to reserve x room at 3 pm on Sunday and watch Jaws for example or Lawrence of Arabia etc. and then the movie would play and the room would obviously have state of the art surround audio just like a regular theater. The whole point of this theater is that watching a movie in a big dark theater with loud surround is a totally different experience than watching it on a small tv. Plus, it would give a chance for younger people who never had a chance to see old movies on a big theater on a big theater. screen at home like for example I watched the Godfather at an AMC a year ago and it was amazing and totally better than watching at home. They could even possibly have the original theatrical versions of the OT Star Wars movies to choose from.

A bloody cool guy

I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan, in my opinion he is one of the only directors who can rightfully gain access to a ‘tentpole budget’ for an original pitch.

HOWEVER, the comparison between cinema and radio drama is clearly absolutely ridiculous.

I believe his celluloid vs. digital argument is somewhat skewed. I for one, absolutely love the authenticity, and aesthetic of celluloid film. But the fact of the matter is that the bulk of modern audiences have no appreciation, or interest in whether a film is shot on digital or not.

The rise of digital has given an entire generation access to affordable filmmaking equipment and tools. It has allowed every person with a smartphone to become some sort of filmmaker or ‘creator of content’, with the internet acting as a direct medium of exposure.

I believe film should be preserved, and any/all companies (/studios) with the budget and desired aesthetic should seriously consider their options. However, saying an absolute, and uncompromising ‘no’ to digital shuts out all new potential filmmakers, and potentially original cinematic voices.

I love Christopher Nolans work, and I love the fact that he is one of the most powerful pioneers of working on celluloid. One of the most inspiring aspects of Nolan is that he never ‘sold out’. He never compromised in terms of unconventional ‘intelligent’ storytelling/narrative. I refuse to believe that Following wouldn’t have been shot on digital had it been made today, with a range of affordable digital equipment at his disposal.

I feel compelled to inform that I may be biased. Not only because I’m young, and part of a generation of rising digital content. But I also work in post production. Although most of the films we work on are digital, we still receive the occasional celluloid feature. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of the ‘film aesthetic’. But I’ve also experienced hours and hours of work poured into digitising celluloid. I’m talking A LOT of man power, and that’s just 35mm. 70mm or vistavision can take upwards of 2 minutes per frame to digitise. And then there’s the dusbusting process which will literally take months, sometime right up to a films deliverable date.

So I must confess, I am biased. But I believe it would be naive to utterly dismiss digital. New voices are exposed to us at the click of a button. However… We ARE living in the age of stupid, so whether this is a good thing or not, I’m not sure.

Now excuse me while I hop on my segway to meet my drug dealer in East London… We’re going to an interactive moustache convention. It’s 3D.

jeremy woods

I grew up listening to music in the 80’s and 90’s. When it was cassettes, there was an anticipation of fast forwarding or rewinding to get to what you wanted to listen to. This was exciting then and I didn’t even appreciate it. When CD’s became the norm, that access was instantaneous.. The sound was clearer of course, but the experience was more "convenient". As it all evolved, music has become this means of service to the listener in that the medium has spoiled us into numbness. The market opened up more and more, the more digital everything became. This afforded everyone the ability to create at an equivalent level the "look" of cinema, and the "sound" of a multi-million dollar studio. The hardest part of all of this for the Nolan’s and the Tarantino’s of the world, is that the average listener/theater-goer – doesn’t care about this argument. Their passion for the project lives and dies with the content. Story does prevail, however there are those of us who think of a scene that’s engraved in their mind from the day of celluloid. To me, Thelma & Louise comes to mind the scene in which Geena Davis tells Sarandon’s character "Something’s crossed over, and I can’t go back." That’s the film look to me. That’s Adrian Biddle’s contribution to the film look. I can’t see it on an Alexa, or an Epic. I just can’t. The thing is though, Ridley probably had to wait for 2 days to actually see it. You don’t have that problem on a Red. Fincher is making that argument. This is a personal dilemma that people who know the difference are going to have to rally behind in order to keep it relevant.

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