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by Eric Kohn
May 4, 2012 11:56 AM
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Critic's Notebook: Deleting 'The Avengers' and Other Misadventures From the Digital Frontier

"The Grand Illusion."

It's a running debate that reflects a generally problematic assumption: that any hotly contested issue requires an allegiance to one side over the other. In fact, digital and film technologies frequently work in harmony, most importantly in the preservation of film history.

I recently attended a screening of Jean Renoir's "The Grand Illusion," newly restored as a 35mm print for its 75th anniversary. Set to open next week at New York's Film Forum ahead of a national tour, the restoration owes much to digital refinements that have sharpened images gleaned from the original camera negatives. The movie looks fresher than ever: Renoir's roaming camera explores the glimmers of humanity shared by ostensible enemies in a war camp with extraordinary clarity -- right down to the blindingly gorgeous close-up of Erich Von Stroheim clipping a geranium from his character's window sill moments after making peace with his deceased foe. Renoir could not have known it, but the lasting splendor of "The Grand Illusion" owes much to the impact of digital progress. As Pierre Fresnay, playing the French captain felled by Von Stroheim, tells the other man as they decry the demise of their aristocratic class: "Neither you nor I can stop the march of time."

Like Fresnay and Von Stroheim, both sides in the digital-versus-film kerfuffle need to admit the other's potential strengths and unite in a quest for quality. In an online forum, archivist Robert Harris posted the essential paradox: "Digital projection is the greatest thing to hit cinema since 1894," he began, adding, "Digital projection is the worst thing to hit cinema since 1894." Finding a resolution to that contradiction matters more than attempting to discount the inevitability of a digital future.

Both sides in the digital-versus-film kerfuffle need to admit the other's potential strengths and unite in a quest for quality.

For those of us whose home entertainment options began with VHS, the concept of cinema has always been defined through multiple formats. The essence of motion pictures has less to do with the materials than their invisibility -- a gorgeous movie should look stunning no matter where you see it. Now that Blu-ray and streaming video have offered a greater amount of access to innumerable movies, our platform agnosticism has grown stronger than ever before. And yet this seeming ambivalence must sound jarring to those dedicating their lives to the noble act of film preservation, an invaluable service to keeping existing 35mm prints in good shape. Movies committed to digital files have only just begun to gather their own army of preservations. We live in a Golden Age of warring formats.

As digital stumbles clumsily into young adulthood, it faces the trials that any new medium must endure. Nitrate film, no longer in circulation, was highly flammable; digital cinema is highly deletable. "The Avengers" incident sounded like a major fuck up but only because somebody chose to announce it; one has to wonder how many times each week, in thousands of multiplexes around the country, that same error gets made many times over. At a certain point, pressing "Ctrl + Z" won't cut it.


  • Kelly | May 7, 2012 8:19 AMReply

    In the land "before VHS" there was one medium- Film. It lasted as a book lasts. It can degrade in time, but it isn't fugituve technology. If one went away, there were always more. If a film were banned in a certain country, copies were destroyed, maybe even the negative. There was usually one copy someplace to get the film back into circulation again once sanity was restored. Today, in our overly Politically Correct and charged world, a digital film can more easily completely dissapear- forever.

  • Adam | May 7, 2012 10:20 AM

    I strongly disagree. I believe a digital copy of a film has a much greater chance to be preserved. DVD/Blu-Ray rip (or comparable) out there? There's almost nothing on this earth that can completely remove that file from existence. There'll always be a copy somewhere.

  • Jimprog | May 5, 2012 7:00 AMReply

    I recently attended a preview morning at the invitation of Universal, at a swanky digital cinema in London. The session started late, which sent the cinema into a panic because at 12 noon the computer was set to 'lock out' the playback of the files! Apparently this is used to help combat piracy. Cue more frantic phone calls to get hold of a key code to unlock!

  • MARK GEORGEFF | May 4, 2012 10:31 PMReply

    Being an indie writer-director-moviemaker...and long kept out of the film system; because of non access to budgets, stars, and all the hollywood film system b.s., etc., I hell with film.
    I love it on one hand...but we're talking making and selling movies.

    And if in this new and future digital world...the advancing tech allows me to make the movies I want to make audiences happy seeing...on a smaller budget? I'll take it.

    Too many film purists have made a great living off os the use of film as the foundations for movies for very, very long. You've had more than enough time and success at the gravy train of film.

    The future is digital.

    Time for the new story tellers to have access to that same success.
    On their terms called -- digital, and not yours, called -- film.

  • Matt Paprocki | May 6, 2012 11:00 AM

    No one is talking about the methods to capture the film, just to project it.

    That said, I'm fine with digital for indie films or those on a tight budget. For everything else, the look of film has yet to be equaled. There's a texture to film lost in the world of digital, and even with the best capture equipment, digital tends to lose depth and power in the blacks that wash out the image. Resolution also hasn't caught up to what 35mm film can be either, and things like 8k are tremendously expensive to keep stored digitally. We're locking ourselves in the past with digital because of limited resolution, so when the next/future home format rolls around capable of 8k, we can still find new detail in our classic film heritage. Digital will forever be stuck as a lesser resolution, unless advancements are made, but no one will want to pay for it.

  • S | May 4, 2012 9:55 PMReply

    Wait, how is this a bad thing? If the film had been damaged, they'd have to wait until a replacement was delivered. And they'd probably have to pay for the studio's property. With digital, they just had to download a new copy.

  • jin | May 4, 2012 9:48 PMReply

    "For those of us whose home entertainment options began with VHS..."

    ouch! how soon we forget.

    VHS itself was the victor between a format war with BETA and laserdisc. and DVDs (by way of MPEG1 CD movies that were not that hot in america) were the ultimate victor in a showdown with VHS.

    and bluray itself is the victor against hddvd!

    what we have now is not a harmony of multiple formats playing nicely. it's a queue of victors who haven't gone home yet.

    format WARS are not new. it's the defacto standard.

  • Edward Copeland | May 5, 2012 12:12 AM

    Actually, laserdisc wasn't what immediately enterted that fray, it was the long-forgotten videodisc, a different device that played discs that were about the same size as a laserdisc but not with a laser but a needle much like an old phonograph. Needless to say, it died a quick and justifiable death. Laserdiscs emerged after VHS had handily defeated BETA.

  • Keith | May 4, 2012 8:15 PMReply

    My cinema recently converted to 100% digital, I was a projectionist.
    The picture and sound quality is superior with digital except with a brand new print'first few screenings film starts to get ugly quickly. Digital provides the same experience for moviegoers whether they see a movie on day 1 or day 31. The same cannot be said for film, no matter how much care is taken with it.

    I miss working with film though, whilst I still have a job, it is far different and I have a useless skill that I had perfected for 12 years as a projectionist but that's life and it's not the first job that has been made redundant and it won't be the last.

  • Steve Kraus | May 4, 2012 10:17 PM

    If film prints are getting ugly after just a few screenings then there is something wrong with the equipment, or, more likely, the people running it. There is nothing inherent in the film projection process that requires film to be damaged. Except for the soundhead scanner, the film is handled only by the edges. If it gets scratched it's because someone did something wrong. Something that never gets touched CANNOT get scratched. There are ample ways of keeping the print pristine clean and free from dirt over the course of a run as well.

    I've heard stories about the original release of "Titanic" where the film played in some theatres for a year. Some of them were still running the original print and reported it to be in excellent condition at the end of the run. Of course, real projectionists were more common back then.

    As for digital looking better than film, the jury is still out about 4K projection from 4K files (4K having 4 times as many pixels as 2K). But most post production is still done digitally at the 2K level and that is unquestionably inferior to film. However, I'm speaking here of film in the pure sense of movies that stay on film from the camera to the theatre. But that's no longer how most movies are made. Most movies, even those shot on film are transferred to digital, and, for film theatres, transferred back to film. This digital intermediate system when done at the common 2K level, results in film prints that don't look as good as they could.

    Digital, such as it is, can look better than that but comparing an inferior method of making film prints sort of stacks the deck against film.

  • Kinoeye | May 4, 2012 9:29 PM

    With movies disappearing from theaters after a couple of weeks, who is seeing a movie on "day 31" anymore? Not to mention that, by the time you get to day 31 (if ever), that particular film is put in an auditorium with a small screen and faulty projection/sound equipment.

  • UpperBestSide | May 4, 2012 6:36 PMReply

    20+ yrs ago I sat through a third of Less Than Zero at the execrable Columbia Cinema at 103/Bway before I realized the huge multicolor scratches were not artsy SFX. But for 10 minutes they worked!

  • P Elfman | May 4, 2012 6:28 PMReply

    If the worst thing one can say about the digital format is that it's 'deletable', then I think taking a strong stance against it in the 'digital vs. film' war is ridiculous. Delete the film, and spend in 15 minutes you can replace it and show it. Lose or damage a print, and you're lucky if you can replace it in a day.

    The real crime with digital has nothing to do with the format. Moviegoers are spending the same money on tickets to digitally projected movies as they are to see film prints, yet the the cost to produce the latter is significantly higher (as you noted) than the former. That's borderline highway robbery of the patron, if you ask me.

  • Steve Kraus | May 4, 2012 10:28 PM

    The digital "print" is cheaper to make and ship but the equipment to play it on costs fantastically more than film gear. And the lifetime is presumed to be a fraction of a film projector. ---- A film projector from the 1930's, equipped with a modern lens, and a modern sound reader (digital nowadays), can show a current movie and delivers an entirely state of the art presentation to the audience. The projectors last many decades and can be overhauled or repaired as needed. In fact, before the digital onslaught, it was possible to get brand new parts for projectors whose makers went out of business half a century ago. That's because there were companies supplying parts. That won't happen with digital projectors because the chips and circuit cards are mostly proprietary. If the maker decides to stop supporting them after so many years (certainly no more than ten), theatres whose projectors break will need to replace them. Unlike the current batch, which is subsidized by Hollywood out of the money they didn't have to spend on prints, the replacements will be on the exhibitor's dime. Let's hope they crunched the numbers carefully about going digital. ---- The small or even medium sized exhibitors have no say in this. But companies like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark could have said no thanks to digital. We must assume that they think this is a good thing. Only time will tell, especially when projectors start needing replacing.

  • Kinoeye | May 4, 2012 9:34 PM

    Read the Digital Dilemma, which was published by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a few years ago. Between the costs of migrating digital files from one drive to another, as well as the inevitable file corruption issues, we just don't know how stable our current film heritage is. We do know that a film negative, properly stored, will survive at least 100 years. Have you ever bought a new computer and tried to open a file you saved ten+ years ago? Sometimes it just ain't there... imagine if that were the case with our favorite films from the past. "Oops, sorry folks, The Godfather just doesn't exist anymore!"

  • [A] | May 4, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    "This is gold, Jerry. Gold."

  • jin | May 4, 2012 9:55 PM

    the case for digital degradation seemed alarmist to me, focusing on worst case scenarios and talking a lot about optical media like dvd and blueray.

    here's another article about a program found intact from floppies after 22 years:

    the issue with digital from our perspective is not that the hardware fails... mostly it's just that we've gotten rid of them. we can't open files from 10 years ago because we tossed our 486 computer long ago. there are people today playing with their commodore 64s and loading games in 3 minutes off the original hard drive.

    archiving movies on digital should be do-able as long as we archive the hardware to run it too. this is the same for movies as well - you can't play a vistavision movie without a vistavision projector.