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Archive for March 12th, 2012

My local cinema has recently moved over almost totally to digital projection. The images are brighter, more clear and in focus (thanks to auto focus). However I still miss something, the warmth and magic of celluloid. The truth is celluloid in its true sense has not been in regular use for a long time. Safer alternatives were developed in the mid twentieth century and most film prints have used polyester film stock for over a decade, however the term celluloid is still often used in relation to all types of film stock. Celluloid is a thermoplastic first developed in the nineteenth century, its great advantage and the reason it was used for film stock is the ease with which it can be moulded and shaped. The downside, it is highly flammable and prone to decomposition. This is why safer alternatives were developed.

Cinema isn’t an art form, it is the coming together of many of the art forms that went before; combining the writing and performance of literature and theatre with the composition of painting and the sound and emotion of music. Beyond the invention of synchronised sound in the 20’s things haven’t really change much in over a hundred years. Sure, colour took over from black and white and gimmicks like 3D come and go but it all boils down to a thin strip of film passing through a projector at 24 frames a second. As the film runs through the projector, thanks to a lenses, a bright light, an optical illusion and the magic and imagination of cinema we forget that we are watching a series of still images. We are captivated by the glorious colour of The Red Shoes or the stark monochrome of The Third Man and get lost in the images and the stories they tell.

I have always felt that monochrome and three strip Technicolor films from the thirties through to the sixties look better than modern movies, both on film and digital. But it goes deeper than a preference for how things look, it is a matter of detachment. Before I ever stopped to think about how the image we see is reconstituted from a series of ones and zeros in a computer I knew there was something alienating about them. It first hit me when I saw Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009), the modern clinical look is in stark contrast to the period setting of the movie, It just didn’t fit. Made more than thirty years after it is set, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is far from contemporary but it feels so much more authentic than Mann‘s film. This has nothing to do with the subject matter or when they were made, it is just the medium with which they are projected. Bonnie and Clyde uses the same principles of projection that was used at the time both it and Public Enemies were set, this is reassuring an immersive, no in a conscious way, as soon as you think about it the illusion is broken and that’s what I get with digitally projected movies. There will be a time in the near future when a whole generation of moviegoers will know no difference just like the kids today who can’t remember a time before mobile phones and the internet.

It isn’t just about how the film is projected, it is also how the films are being shot. I had a thought after seeing Supper 8 last summer. The kids in the film are making a super 8 movie; when the have finished a take they have to wait days for the film to be processed, not knowing how it has worked out. Similar minded kids in the present day could shoot a movie (of better quality) on their mobile phone and edit it on a PC or Mac or even on the phone itself and upload it to the net. More importantly they get an instant replay allowing them to know if they should re-shoot the scene. This you would think would be a good thing from an artistic point of view, but is it? Visionary directors from previous generations have had to strive to make the most of the limitations of the medium and with this have learnt their trade and created not just movies but art. Limitations and the imagination required to overcome them is what makes great art. Having the technology and budget that mean you are only limited by your imagination can result in tedious rubbish, look at the work of Michael Bay, James Cameron and George Lucas this century for evidence of that! As what is new becomes the norm new limitations will always challenge film makers and this is a good thing but as with all things in life, embracing the future is always more positive if it is done without forgetting what has gone before. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a total Luddite, the advantages of digital projection make up for a lot of the deficiencies and artists will be artists regardless of the medium. The problem, I just miss Celluloid.

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