Going digital – March 2013

Originally published on the now defunct Newcastle Free Press website. Link unavailable.

 

Christopher Kenneally’s new film, ‘Side by Side’, explores the effect of the increasingly wide use of digital technology over the traditional photo-chemical film. Featuring interviews with many acclaimed directors on both sides of the debate – such as Cameron, Lucas, Fincher, Nolan, Boyle and Scorsese – the film promises to be a frank, elucidating and detailed discussion on the future of film making. Of course it could be sinfully boring. I wouldn’t know. Nowhere in the North East is showing this film. Not even the Tyneside. I have no idea why.

So, unfortunately, no review. However, there is an important discussion to be had here. Whilst the film itself covers the dichotomy of digital versus celluloid within the industry – by which I mean in the actual making of movies – I would like to focus on the effect that digital technology is having on cinemas themselves, both independents and multiplexes. In the continuing evolution of cinemas, digital technology represents a huge leap forward and has made an impressive impact in a relatively short space of time. Whilst the multi-screen chain cinemas and the smaller establishments appear to have markedly different ways of approaching this change, the general consensus seems to be that these places need to ‘upgrade or die’.

Movies used to arrive in large boxes containing six small reels of 35mm film. In ‘the Golden Age’ of projection, the reels would be played on two projectors and a projectionist would switch between them as one reel ended and another began (see that scene in ‘Fight Club’ or that one in ‘Inglorious Basterds’. Both are surprisingly accurate… minus the penis and the Nazis respectively). At some point, these projectors were replaced by one big projector that used one big reel. Still, the projectionist put the film together, threaded the projector, checked the focus, changed the lenses etc. This had always been the case.

However, after the advent of high definition and the ongoing ‘3D renaissance’ we are currently enduring (thank you so much, James Cameron) the simple fact of the matter is that the old 35mm celluloid just isn’t good enough for the film that are being made. Most cinemas are now in a strange transitional period; film projectors are being replaced with digital ones, reels for hard drives and, I am sorry to say, the humble projectionist is becoming increasingly surplus to requirement. Multiplexes have been sacking projectionist left, right and centre, with only a lucky few remaining to keep the projectors maintained. It could be argued that there is no skill to digital projection, you literally press play. You don’t even have to be near the projector… though this can lead to mistakes like the now infamous screening of ‘Madagascar 3’ where footage from ‘Paranormal Activity 4’ was played by accident.

It is not my intention to grumble in the face of innovation, the benefits of digital technology in cinemas are clear. I am lucky enough to work in a small, single screened independent cinema which has managed to survive this conversion (and, thankfully, keep all of its projectionists). The monolithic digital projector grants vast improvements in picture and sound quality, but also allows us to do so much more. More shows, more films, 3D or 2D, we can now stream shows of the National Theatre, the Royal Opera and even the Bolshoi Ballet. Not bad for a little 200 seat cinema. Ironically, the multiplexes that boast more screens, more choice and more popcorn are finding the transition more difficult. Digital projectors aren’t cheap and when you have up to 20 to replace, it’s impossible to manage in one fell swoop. Incrementally though, the old projectors will be phased out. Digital will reign supreme.

But is it really worth it? Arguably, the only reason that we even need digital projectors is because Hollywood has become so saturated with spectacle. As counter intuitive a comment like this sounds, given that film is obviously a visual medium, Hollywood has developed an annoying preoccupation with how things look. I don’t mean good old fashioned cinematography or practical effects incidentally, but things like 48 frames per second and 3D. No amount of over-the-top picture resolution or stuff flying at you will distract from a badly written story. Impressive CGI does not make up for a boring narrative. We can see this in typical blockbuster fare; Avatar was dull, the Transformers films are dire, Battleship was diabolical. Don’t even get me started on the Star Wars prequels…

Hollywood has become homogenised, with only the odd film out of literally hundreds breaking the mould. Films that substitute substance for smoke-and-mirrors gimmickry are the standard. As clichéd as I know it sounds, films have lost their soul.

This is mirrored in cinemas; 35mm film took patience, diligence, an eye for detail – skill – to use. Now you just press play. It’s too clinical, too clean and, basically, too easy. People who care for and about film are replaced by jobsworths who can’t be arsed to check whether or not they are playing the right movie… leaving traumatised 9 year olds in their wake.

I’m all for innovation, and digital has clear advantages, but if it’s just for the sake of keeping up with an industry that produces meaningless – albeit pretty looking – drivel, then what’s the point?

It’s my sincere hope that use of celluloid film doesn’t die out, apart from everything else, there’s something alluring about it. A battered old reel has character that makes it a delight to work with and a joy to watch, sound and picture quality be damned! It’s like CDs and vinyl; the former is clearer and louder and (ostensibly) less prone to damage, but there is a warmth and feeling that you get when you listen to an old record. Or e-readers and books. The former are handy, easy to use, allow you to take whole libraries on holiday with you… but there’s just something about a book.

I hope that it survives… but the way things are going, this looks increasingly unlikely.

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