This past week I was working my usual shift in NYU’s Film Study Center archive, digitizing some 16mm student films from a production course twenty years ago. A couple of my co-workers, both cinema studies undergraduates, were cataloging in the same room, and as is wont to happen when you get a couple bored work-study students together in the same room, we started slacking off and chatting; and as is wont to happen when you get a couple cinema studies students together in the same room, the conversation turned to movies.
The question inevitably rose about who had seen “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s latest cocktail of artistry and hype (which, it really must be noted, still can’t hold a candle to the corporate machine, internet be damned). We discussed the film’s early release scheme, by which theaters still equipped with 35mm and 70mm projectors had begun screening Nolan’s film two days earlier than the now-standard all-digital multiplexes. Meekly, one of my co-workers asked if there was really any difference between digital projection and a 70mm print. The other quickly shook his head, assuring “No, you can’t tell at all.”
Somewhere a dozen synapses fired in my brain, but I managed to swallow any follow-up comment. I wanted to rant about the flatness of a digital image, about motion blur and film grain and frame rates and flicker. But I did not, because I am well aware that I am someone who has chosen to care about such things, whose passion for film has branched into the behind-the-scenes processes that put a moving image on a screen. I know that there are many dedicated film lovers – not to mention casual film-goers – who do not share this interest, and for whom the digital revolution has made a far bigger impact on the consumption of movies than on the actual honest-to-god image in front of their eyes. This friend of mine was not wrong; if you are not specifically looking for the differences between digital and film projection, it is unlikely you would ever spot them at all.
Except, and here perhaps lies the rub, when things go wrong. I myself chose to see “Interstellar” in 70mm at New York’s famed one-screen movie palace, the Ziegfeld Theater – I had heard some reports of a muddy 70mm IMAX sound mix at the Lincoln Center AMC, and was concerned that the switch in aspect ratios between scenes filmed in IMAX and scenes without would be distracting; but I wanted the sharpness of color and widescreen clarity offered by regular 70mm. And while on the whole I consider this a great choice, there was a noticeable hiccup: for the first 15-20 minutes of the film, probably equivalent to the first reel of the film (though it had evidently been plattered to avoid reel changes), a sliver along the top of the frame was somewhat out-of-focus. Whatever the problem was, it eventually resolved itself, and I settled in for another two and a half hours or so of Matthew McConaughey learning that love is, in fact, all you need.
This is the kind of minor projection issue that has essentially disappeared from cinemas: short of catastrophic equipment failure (blown speakers, broken bulbs) or a badly ingested DCP, digital projection has smoothed over many of the small factors that used to affect film screenings: dust and dirt in the gate, the timing of reel changes, masking, focus, jitter. These are the sorts of things that people now, after having become accustomed to digital projection, are more likely to notice than a sharper depth of field between the specks of light that make up the starry void of space in “Interstellar,” or the more natural lighting on the folds of one of Jessica Chastain’s sweaters. At worst, some people probably walked out of my screening complaining about those out-of-focus scenes; at best, they came out wondering, again, why they even bothered with the difference.
In some ways, I wish I could join the latter group, that I could sit down right now and discuss this absorbing, ambitious and occasionally frustrating film entirely on its creative merits. There is certainly much to talk about there: the ham-fisted sincerity of Nolan’s script, the thrilling propulsion of his editing, the valiant and often affecting work of his cast, the unique thematic conundrums posed by a film that seems to be drawing from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Right Stuff” in equal measure.
But much was made in the film’s PR campaign of that early-film-release gimmick, and we need to talk about why moves like this are not just stunts; and we need to talk about why you should care, even if you didn’t think twice about seeing “Interstellar” digitally projected and don’t think you could spot the difference between an emulsion and base scratch if your life depended on it.
Kodak, the world leader in manufacturing film, is not doing so hot. Their sales of film stock have dropped 96% since 2006, from over 12 billion linear feet to under half a million in 2013. Their business model makes downsizing to more boutique, small-batch production untenable – the timeframe for bankruptcy is starting to look like a matter of months, not years, and once Kodak goes, the vast majority of filmmakers will not even have the option of shooting on their namesake medium. There was some good news this summer when a coalition of directors, including Christopher Nolan, along with Quentin Tarantino, J.J. Abrams, and others, helped to pressure studios into committing to purchase a certain amount of film stock per year. This may be enough to keep Kodak afloat, or it may not – either way, it’s important to recognize this as a stopgap measure, and understand the disconnect between these filmmaker’s wishes and Hollywood practice that might make the whole thing come crashing down anyway.
It is all well and good for directors to praise the benefits of shooting on film, but the patronage J.J. Abrams might give Kodak by shooting Star Wars Episode VII on film will mean bupkis if the movie is not also distributed and exhibited on film. Kodak did not make billions and billions of feet of stock to satisfy the needs of directors (nor of archivists, nor artists, nor amateurs); shooting and editing a movie on film doesn’t require nearly so much film stock as projecting it simultaneously in 3,000 theaters across the country once did. Nolan’s insistence that “Interstellar” not only be released on film, but released early in those cinemas that could handle it, was the first shot fired in film’s defense since 20th Century Fox and “Avatar” forced a mass, scorched-earth conversion to digital in 2009. If film is going to survive, its advocates have to make moves to keep it financially viable.
What that means for the average movie-goer is that when you go to see “Interstellar,” you’re voting with your wallet. Something similar will likely happen next year with Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” and perhaps even “The Force Awakens.” I do not ask anyone to make the choice between seeing a film on digital and not seeing it at all; ultimately our film culture will be a vibrant and fruitful place, no matter what format it’s projected from. But if you DO have the opportunity to see “Interstellar” in 35mm, in 70mm or 70mm IMAX, I urge you to do so, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with how cool Gargantua the black hole looks on the big screen. Right now, this is about giving artists the tools to make the art they want. Not every director will want to shoot on film, nor should they; it’s not my idea to wind back the clock, nor to ignore the many many advantages that digital cameras and projectors have offered the film world. But the option should be there.
The day after seeing “Interstellar,” I took a rather ridiculous one-day, 12-hour-round-trip road trip to Rochester, to see Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” projected on a nitrate film print at the George Eastman House. Nitrate film was banned back in 1952 because of its unfortunate potential to get a bit, well, dangerous. The Eastman House is one of only three theaters in the country still allowed to project it. As the film rolled, I realized the differences between nitrate and the later acetate film prints weren’t enormous – the film had a beautifully sharp contrast and exquisite clarity, but you could easily see that in an acetate print that was stashed away in ideal storage conditions for decades and never projected, as this nitrate print had. But there was something I had never quite seen before: a silver sheen to the film’s mid-tone grays, just a slight difference in coloration that gave even the darkest, most shadowy corners of Manderlay an indescribable radiance.
When audiences lost nitrate, they lost that glow. We’re facing another kind of fundamental shift in the way we see movies, but unlike the case in the ’50s, this is not an issue of safety. We don’t have to lose film altogether. Maybe you can’t tell the difference between film and digital projection. But there are those of us who can. And we need your help.