Patricia Highsmith’s fiction on ‘film’.

Patricia Highsmith

‘A season of films celebrating Patricia Highsmith, the extraordinary woman behind ‘Strangers on a Train’, ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and ‘Carol’.”

This was a programme of films based on novels by Highsmith and included 13 titles. It was organised by the Filmhouse, an independent cinema in Edinburgh, with support from the British Film Institute and Waterstones book chain. The programme was circulated as a package to independent exhibitors and there were screening around the UK, including at the Leeds Hyde Park Picture House. This was a really interesting idea, well put together and supported by a package of materials which can be seen on the still-existing WebPages.

However the programme was also extremely limited in terms of what audiences were able to see as the packages relied on digital formats, and just not theatricals DCPs but also digital video. This is a problem that is now endemic in British distribution and exhibition with few venues actually offering a distinction in their publicity between actual photo-chemical film, theatrical digital and what is essentially home based digital video. My comments are less a criticism of Filmhouse itself and more a critique of common practices in British ‘film’.

As far as I can establish all the titles were available to screen from DCPs. However, these were sourced from a variety of materials:

“Other films in the season are a combination of materials already in electronic form, some being standard definition and some high def.” [Information from Filmhouse Cinema]

This variation first came to my attention when I saw a circular from Filmhouse to exhibitors regarding one of the titles:

” I’m just getting in touch about the DCP of ENOUGH ROPE.

It looks very good, but it is a straight scan from a print, not a restoration. This means that the image will have some scratches and dust, especially at reel ends. The sound is a bit crackly in parts.

The main reason I’m mentioning this, is that audiences nowadays are use to digital restorations and a clean image. This is the only material available to us. I just wanted to warn you in advance in case anyone comments on this.”

I think this is not just about ‘restorations’ and in fact few of the films in the programme appeared to have been restored. It is actually about the different characteristics of photo-chemical film and digital. The ‘random silver halide grain’ in film is of a different order from the pixels in digital. The industry has been working to achieve similar characteristics on digital, hence we get the surface grain added to digital versions. But in my experience in most digital packages the contrast, definition and colour palette is at least slightly different. This is less of an issue with 4K DCPs but all these titles appear to have circulated on 2K DCPs. The most recent ones, like Carol (UK, USA, Australia 2015) were presumably not that noticeable as they had already been transferred to digital for the initial release. Though in the case of Carol there was also a 35mm print which I found superior in colour and contrast. For this programme only the DCP version was available. In a similar fashion The American Friend / Der Amerikanische Freund (West Germany, France 1977) was on a DCP though the BFI have a reasonable 35mm print of the film.

silver halide crystals

silver halide crystals

I did not make much of an effort for the films that I had seen recently on a theatrical format. When it came to the older films, some of which I had never seen, I was slightly wary. Apart from the differences between digital and photo-chemical formats I have discovered that there is a serious variability between digital versions of film. I remember watching a DCP of Billy Wilde’s Some Like it Hot (USA 1959). The screen image was fuzzy and lacked good definition : the only explanation I could think of what that a video version had been uploaded onto a DCP.  I have since discovered from talking to projectionists that this indeed is quite technically easy and does indeed occur. So I now not only check the format for the screening but, as far as possible, what the source might be.

Resolution chart for formats.

Resolution chart for formats.

This proved to be an issue with some of the titles in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ programme. Several of the European titles had no release dates recorded for the UK on IMDB and neither was there a record of a BBFC Certificate being issued on that website.

And there were serious problems with some of the older films which appear to have been transferred into some digital format for this programme. This meant I saw few of the titles. Fortunately my colleague Roy was exemplary in seeing them and reviewing them. And he included comments on the quality of the screenings.

Deep Water / Eaux profundes, France 1978. No UK release listed on IMDB and no BBFC record.

“The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack.

The Glass Cell / Die gläserne Zelle (West Germany 1978) No record on IMDB for the UK or on BBFC.

“My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller …”

Enough Rope / Le meurtrier (France, West Germany, Italy 1963).

I did go and see this film but it was not exactly as the Filmhouse note led me to expect. As Roy noted in his review:

“I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’.”

This Sweet Sickness / Dites-lui que je l’aime (France 1977)

IMDB does not have a UK release listed for this film though it did receive an X Certificate from the BBFC in 1979. This would have been on 35mm film but it seems that no copy is now held in the UK. So it seems likely that some other source was used. Roy noted in his review:

“I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again.”

Roy added that in these cases he was able to watch the film and basically overlook the flaws. This was mainly true for myself with Le meurtrier. But I also think that this affected my overall impression of the film. I certainly think that the craft people who worked on these films deserve to have their handiwork seen in the manner and format intended.  Of course, this is not a new problem with the advent of digital. In the days when 35mm was the norm there were frequent variations in the quality of the image and sound that audiences experienced in cinemas. Once video arrived the possibilities expanded. I remember in the 1980s going to see Mandingo (USA 1975) at a multi-screen. The quality was extremely poor and I discovered after the  screening that the source was a VHS video back-projected. Since then it has become  technically easier with digital.

There is an example of providing older films on digital where the standards offered were higher. This was Martin Scorsese Presents: Masterpieces of Polish Cinema, launched in 2014. Some of the titles were on film but the majority were on DCPs. I saw quite a number of these and the standard was uniformly high. Of course Scorsese is an important figure in restoring and circulating classic films. Moreover he had the assistance of The Film Foundation and Polish Film and Cultural Institutes. But how come this package was clearly superior to one involving the British film Institute?

A related example is by the Cinémathèque Française. A friend told me that they had declined to licence a proposed public screening of one of their titles as the screening was being sourced from a  digital video. An example other archives should follow.

Apart from any objections to the loss of quality there are other reasons to question this practice. The specifications for DCP agreed internationally lay down quality criteria. But sourcing from video, analogue or digital, subverts these standards. Also it is likely to have a long-term detrimental affect on the exhibition sector. I have several friends now who for much of the time opt for home video viewing over visiting the cinema. One of these has a high-quality projector and Blu-ray player: he claims there is not a lot of difference between that and seeing the film at the cinema. In the case of films sourced from video this is clearly correct. And the complication here is that the offenders are by and large distribution companies whose incomes include non-theatrical sales and rentals and who therefore are to a degree immune from the effects in the exhibition sector.

But exhibitors aggravate the problem by their failure to adequately inform the public. Two of the cinemas I visit regularly do include information about titles that are on digital or film and/or whether the DCP is 2K or 4K. But nether provides information on the use of other formats like DVD or Blu-ray. And most exhibitors do not provide even this information. I know of several Film Festivals that do provide detailed information about formats, [one being The Leeds International Film Festival]: but there are many Festivals that do not. I think I am a little of a pain for some of these with my constant enquiries regarding the format for a particular screening.

This ambiguous treatment of film and digital formats is further complicated by ambiguous use of terms like ‘cinema’. It use to be that the alternative to the cinema was a film society, usually offering 16mm. Now many of these use digital video and quite a lot use the title of ‘pop-up cinema’. There is something of this ilk near where I live. It uses a non-theatrical Projector and either DVD or Blu-ray sources: and publicizes itself as a ‘cinema’. I expect cinemas to follow theatrical standards but that often seems a vain hope.

pop-up-cinema_v1

There are many WebPages regarding the comparison between 35mm film, D-Cinema and digital video. There does not seem to be a consensus but the archivists I have spoken too tend to think that good quality 35mm film has a higher resolution than 4K DCPs. There is less consensus regarding contrast but chromaticity diagrams show differences across the colour palette. One colleague argues the equivalence would be at about 7K. 35mm film varies due to lighting, movement, stock, and the transfer but I think there is no doubt that none of the digital video formats are in any way equivalent.

The essential reading is FIAF Digital Projection Guide by Torkell Sætervadet, 2012 – International Federation of Film Archives.

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