In a recent screening at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum I enjoyed a trailer for a re-issue of the UK classic The Long Good Friday (1980). This re-issue is to mark the 35th anniversary of the film’s release. I thought the trailer was pretty well done. If you have seen the film before then the clips reminded one of some of the great action and dramatic sequences in the film. However if you have not seen this film before then I thought that the film did not pre-empt viewings in the unfortunate way that so many contemporary trailers do.
But the final onscreen title in the trailer spoilt my pleasure
‘exclusive 2K restoration’.
We have an increasing number of venues in the UK that advertise 4K projection, though they are not always as informative about whether films come in a 4K DCP. And we have enjoyed an increasing number of classic films restored using 4K technology [or even higher]. 4K cameras are becoming increasingly common in film production – I was fortunate have a cinematographer show me such a camera during a filming out our own Hyde Park Picture House.
Despite all of this the cheapskates in the UK distribution sector persists in using 2K technology. I would be interested to hear from film buffs in other countries as to what the standards are there. Certainly whilst there are still quite few cinemas in the UK which only have 2K projection the technology allows them to source from 4K DCPs.
I remember in the early days of digital projection frequently hearing exhibitors and distributors claiming that digital
‘looked better than film’.
Given that the vast majority of film then originated on 35mm this was an oxymoron – there is a contradiction between the use of ‘better’ and different formats that are incommensurable. One image is composed of silver halide grain the other of pixels. I am always annoyed by reviews that claim that a film is ‘better’ than the original literary work. The critic may find the film more enjoyable, and some viewers may prefer the characteristics of digital; that is not the same thing.
The more recent items of rhetoric from exhibitors and distributors are
‘the screen is not large enough for 4K or the viewing angles in the auditorium are insufficient for 4K’.
I have yet to hear an convincing explanation for these claims. Certainly Torkell Saetervadet, in the FIAF Digital Projection Guide, takes this and a several accompanying arguments to task,.
‘The numbers [set out in a diagram] indicate, though, that the 4K format is much closer to the ideal cinema than 2K ..’
Another claim is that audiences ‘don’t notice’. There may be some truth in this but the claim is difficult to determine. For a start mainstream film nearly always privileges action and character over technique: the invisible style. And prior to the arrival of video the comparisons were between different celluloid formats or between nitrate and safety film stock. Now the comparisons may be between analogue video, DVD, Blu-Ray, other formats and DCPs. Of course, the DCP technology is a form of video itself. But the standards are higher than other forms, and the effectiveness of the format is constantly developing. indeed one of the developments is from 2K to 4K to 6K, and soon 7 or 8K.
Further there is a larger problem with Digital standards. I have noticed recently that there frequently appears to be variation in aspect ratios, even when they are supposed to be in New Academy. And this does not seem to be just a projection problem. It is worth noting that the Arriflex Alexa has a range of settings for aspects ratios, but that the standard one seems to be 16:9, not even a cinematic ratio.
There also seem to be problems with digital sound, an area where the technology has bought undoubted improvement. But I find that modern soundtracks often lacks balance: the prime example would be Interstellar (2014), where the director publically defended its disparities.
Clearly it is not feasible to press for a return to uniform celluloid projection. However, the distributors could be more effective in making 35mm available, at least to a degree. But there need to be higher standards in the digital sphere. The standards were initially set down by the Hollywood Academy. The failings of the original standardisation are apparent from the question of frame rates – initially including 24fps, 25 fps, and 48 fps. The extension of these frame rates mean that now 2K has a wider variation available than 4K. So the standards included the facility of video playback but not proper digital playback of early film. FIAF has now addressed this point with specifications for rates from 16 to 24 fps. But hardly anywhere in the UK can one find digital versions played at the frame rate of the original early film. This despite a projectionist explaining to me that the conversions were relatively simple.
Finally there is the question of archiving. There is no convincing evidence about the life span for digital: and changing formats are also increasingly a problem. Yet it seems that some distributors and stores are only retaining digital copies even when the original was celluloid. The prospects for future generations appear problematic. Archivists reckon that only a third of early film, shot on nitrate, survives. The explanation was the absence of an archival process in those years. We may well arrive at a situation where the same is true of sound nitrate and safety stock films.
This symposium was put together by Jonathan Wroot who hosted it at the University of Worcester on May 23rd. One of the features of contemporary film studies and its interaction with television studies, media studies and cultural studies is the emergence of new specialist fields of study. Given an environment in which research students and young academics are under pressure to present their research findings and eventually to publish, it’s not surprising that such developments are more and more visible. In this case a growing interest in the ‘home media market’ is very much to be welcomed. It promises to address some of the gaps in traditional film studies (in which distribution is generally ‘understudied’) and the enthusiasm(s) of the researchers themselves as ‘fan scholars’/’scholar fans’ is an important factor in opening up links with other disciplines.
The symposium offered twelve papers in all and there would appear to be enough material here to eventually produce a published collection. Andy Willis from The University of Salford, who was at the event, has agreed to be a potential editing partner. Jonathan introduced the day by presenting some of the data relating to the ‘Home Media’ market in the UK. One of the problems associated with studying the field is that relatively little information about sales is made public compared to the box office data for mainstream cinema releases. Useful data is often extremely expensive to obtain and, of course, compared to cinema admissions there is no way of ever discovering genuine audience numbers since films on DVD/Blu-ray or indeed on digital download may be viewed by one person or several. In the same way repeat viewing figures remain unknown. This can mean that even in the trade press, perceptions about the decline of ‘old’ platforms and the rise of the new are potentially distorted.
In 2014, despite the prediction of serious decline, ‘physical’ video media remained the dominant format in the UK in 2014 with 63% of the £2.18 billion home video market. There was a significant ‘swing’ towards online video in terms of streaming, downloads etc. of around 26% so on these figures, digital online will perhaps be dominant by 2016 – but nothing is certain and there is still life in physical video media, both retail and rental. (The 2014 total for the UK theatrical market was £1.058 billion (European Audiovisual Observatory)). The various papers presented suggest a vibrant market with very varied products and audiences.
Jonathan’s own paper explored his work on Japanese cinema and used the various releases of Battle Royale (Japan 2000) on disc in the UK to demonstrate how first Tartan and then Arrow developed different packaging ideas to maximise sales of this popular title. He then demonstrated how Arrow had used similar strategies in relation to other back catalogue titles and how they had developed specific (colour-coded) genre labels. The conference introduction and slides re Arrow are available here: https://jlwroot.files.wordpress.com/2015/05/ddd-introduction-jw-2015.pdf Jonathan hopes that all the papers will eventually be accessible online. In the space here I’m just going to outline very briefly what was on offer.
Panel 1: ‘The current home media market’
Shane O’Sullivan from Kingston University is a documentary filmmaker who has developed his own distribution label E2 Films and his informative paper looked at the market for documentaries in UK home video. Documentaries are appealing to young filmmakers because of the potentially modest production costs – but are difficult to place with distributors and in turn struggle to obtain cinema screenings. The difficulty in finding outlets is mainly because the films lack stars or genre attractions – the two factors cinemas find easiest to promote. Television is equally closed to documentaries with only the BBC with 40 slots and a difficult ‘Pitch’ process that discourages new filmmakers. Shane gave us lots of information based on his own experience in setting up his own label. Ksenia Malykh from UEA presented a paper on ‘VOD, DVD and family everyday viewing and consumption practice’. She highlighted how for the families in her sample, watching DVDs as a family was more important than broadcast TV watching and how carefully parents made decisions about buying DVDs (when programming wasn’t available on Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) or when likely repeat viewings meant purchase rather than rental was sensible). Her paper is available to download on Academia.edu. The third paper in the first panel was given by Roderik Smits from the University of York. ‘The Distribution Business: sales agents, gatekeepers and digital platforms’ addresses a field of media activity that doesn’t get enough attention and I was particularly pleased to learn about a new (to me) agent in the distribution process – the Content Aggregator. Roderik introduced us to one of the main companies with this role. According to its website, “Under the Milky Way is a global service company dedicated to the digital distribution of films and audiovisual programs. Its main activity is to act as a content aggregator for several Video on Demand (VoD) platforms (iTunes, Sony, Google . . . ) . . . [and to] ensure the operational, editorial, marketing and financial interfaces between the rights-holders and the VoD platforms”.
Panel 2: ‘Case Studies, Companies and Their Means of Distribution’
Panel 2 offered four case studies into how specific films or filmmakers have been released on DVD in the UK and what kinds of issues and debates have developed around these releases. Paul Elliott from the University of Worcester presented on the DVD operation mounted by The London Filmmakers Co-op and Lux Films, arguing that this was ‘curatorial’, drawing on art gallery practice in distributing the work (usually via collections) of UK avant-garde filmmakers. Elliott Nikdel, University of Southampton, explored the release of A Field in England (UK 2013) on four platforms simultaneously on the same weekend – cinema, DVD, VOD and free-to-air Channel 4 TV. Elliott demonstrated that the three ‘paid for’ options generated roughly the same number of ‘purchases’ each (5-7,000) after three months despite the possibility of watching the free TV broadcast. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this presentation was the suggestion that VOD and DVD ‘blurred’ the social class boundaries that might be perceived to exist when the film was screened in a specific chain of cinemas (Picturehouse). In other words, the purchasers of the home video versions might have been deterred from attending cinema screenings because of the middle-class ambience. This point generated some discussion. It is clearly worth pursuing but needs care as the programming policies and audience development ideas of cinemas showing ‘specialised films’ vary widely. Fraser Elliott from the University of Manchester offered a close study of the packaging for multiple releases of the Wong Kar-wai film In The Mood for Love (Hong Kong 2000) in a paper on ‘Practising Nostalgia in British Film Culture’. Given that East Asian Cinema struggles for recognition in the UK, it is remarkable that this film has achieved such a high profile and Fraser looked at different editions of the DVD and Blu-ray releases in the context of praise for the film by UK critics. In particular he demonstrated how the critics and the DVD distributors suppressed the film’s discourses around Hong Kong culture and social history and instead emphasised the ‘universal’ romance elements – even going so far as to use images and music that do not appear in the film to promote it in the UK. The only ‘non-Elliott’ on the panel, Lee Broughton, similarly presented on the multiple releases of a specific title, in this case The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Italy 1966) – again a film title with a very high profile for critics– and fans. Lee focused on changing technologies and looked in detail at recent re-releases which ‘restored’ footage cut from the UK/US versions of the first cinema and VHS releases. In the latest Italian restoration DVD it appears that the colour-grading of the film was quite different in Italy than in the UK (more yellow, less blue) and that in the restorations a new 5.1 Stereo soundtrack has replaced the original mono, involving artificially altering, for example, the sounds of gunfire. These changes have not gone down well with many UK fans and the whole process of ‘restoration’ and ‘completion’ appears questionable – what is the ‘Director’s version’ or the ‘original’? I find this interesting but it occurs to me that home video viewing always depends on how the individual sets up their own electronic equipment and what kinds of audio and video images they favour.
Panel 3: Disney, Discs and Niche Distributors
Panel 3 in the afternoon also had four papers, all of which to a certain extent continued the theme of looking at how DVD distributors packaged specific groups of films. James Mason, University of Leeds, took us through the development of Disney’s changing strategies re the cyclical re-releasing of its most successful animated films in theatres through the reluctance to embrace VHS before becoming a series of ‘classic’ DVDs. James contested what ‘classic’ meant in this instance (in the US they are apparently ‘masterpieces’. Christopher Holliday, King’s College London focused on the DVD release of Pixar’s Finding Nemo (US 2003) looking closely at how the menus and presentation of the film on DVD offered a new kind of viewing experience. This demonstration of the sophistication of presentation by the studio introduced ideas about “the collapse of promotion and product” creating a new kind of media synergy. The third paper by Jennifer Gillan from Bentley University in Boston, MA was titled ‘From Sony to Shout! Factory': Distributing TV on DVD’. Shout! Factory is a US DVD label set up by the original founders of the archive record label Rhino. Jennifer focused on its distribution of old TV series, introducing us to Maude (1972-8) a controversial series ‘spun-off’ from All in the Family and starring Bea Arthur. This series engaged in many of the debates around feminism in the early 1970s. Jennifer also mentioned several much older series that have formed part of her research including the Ozzie & Harriet Show from the 1950s (which requires access to archive material). The most obvious debate arising from this new access refers to the ‘reading’ experience of the DVDs in the manner of contemporary ‘binge viewing’ of box-sets compared to the weekly exposure to shows like Maude with at that time little chance to review. Jennifer didn’t discuss syndication – re-runs of popular shows on other channels – but I’m guessing that Maude might not have been syndicated – although it did run for 10 series. One important point is that although the rights to these archive shows were often originally held by major studios, the majors were not themselves concerned to exploit those rights. This generated some discussion which also referred back to the first two papers on the panel and the recognition that Disney/Pixar was more conscious of protecting its legacy/brand image and ‘curating’ its back catalogue.
The final paper from Oliver Carter, Birmingham City University was added to Panel 3 because two other papers had been withdrawn. It offered something very different in terms of its case study but fitted in well with the arguments being pursued. Oliver introduced us to ‘fantrepreneurship’ in the form of the American DVD label Vinegar Syndrome, set up by fans of ‘exploitation cinema’ to archive and preserve exploitation titles and to make them available on limited runs to other fans. Oliver provided us with useful figures re the costs of acquiring film rights, performing high quality digital scans and printing small runs of DVDs and Blu-rays. He explained that many of the films were now in the public domain in the US – meaning that once an archive title had been scanned there was no legal protection if someone else copied and printed discs. On the other hand, fan interest was such that the company had used forms of crowd-funding for some operations.
This was a very worthwhile event and I felt I learned a lot. As well as new ideas and information about cinema and TV material I previously knew little about I also collected important book and journal references and useful online resources. Thanks to Jonathan Wroot for all his hard work in organising the day and to all the other participants. I hope the proposal for publication is successful.
The new DCP of the digital restoration of The Tales of Hoffman was the final matinee screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester before the move to HOME. The post-screening discussion was led by Andrew Moor of Manchester Metropolitan University. Andrew wrote a piece on the film for Criterion’s website and also co-edited a book on Powell and Pressburger’s films with Ian Christie. The discussion was dominated by the audience members who were primarily music/ballet/opera fans. Since I know little about any of these art forms I found this illuminating but slightly frustrating and here I want to focus on the film as an Archers production from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
The Tales of Hoffman is interesting for several reasons. It represents in some ways the fruition of Michael Powell’s long-held desire to make the ultimate ‘composed film’ – to marry music, dance, theatre and film as a single coherent work. But to do this Powell had to work quickly and cheaply at Shepperton in order to comply with the Archers’ contract with Alexander Korda’s London Films. The film was really Powell and Pressburger’s last attempt to deal with Korda and after this production they bought themselves out of the contract and took three years off – a long ‘rest’ for such an active partnership.
Powell commissioned a new English libretto for the opera. Emeric Pressburger had less to do on the script this time – although unlike Powell he had actually ‘experienced’ the opera, playing “second fiddle in the orchestra in a production in Prague”. Powell’s plan was to record an opera performance conducted by Thomas Beecham (the originator of the project) and then to ‘compose’ the film on a silent stage with actors miming to the playback. He thus created one of the earliest forms of ‘music video’. This approach also helped him to use ‘real’ ballet dancers, ‘real’ singers and ‘real’ actors. Only two of the cast, the Americans Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, were both singers and actors in the narrative.
The Tales of Hoffman was the only opera written by Jacques Offenbach (who mainly produced operettas) and he died a few months before the completed work was first performed in 1881. The story is based on three tales written by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffman between 1814 and 1818. The opera uses a fictionalised version of Hoffman himself as the hero of each story with the framing device of the ‘telling’ of the tales in a tavern. For the film the Archers added a ballet sequence at the beginning and the end, placing the tavern sequence as a potential meeting place for Hoffman and the ballerina. There are many descriptions and analyses of the opera and the BFI website features an extensive look at the restoration with images from the film and other materials (which they don’t want to offer for download – the images on this blog were obtained from other sources).
The great coup for the production was to persuade Moira Shearer to dance in two sequences. Made into a star by The Red Shoes, Shearer was sought by many film producers but refused them all, only agreeing to work with Powell. Alongside her the Archers were able to cast many leading figures from the ballet world. Just as important for the production was the creative team of Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson in production design and art direction, Reginald Mills as editor and Chris Challis as DoP with Freddie Francis as operator.
I think this screening completed my ‘set’ of Powell and Pressburger films. Although I can’t really appreciate the music or the dances, I can admire the cinematic ‘composition’ that the Archers created and especially the genius of the set design, performances and camerawork/editing. In a sense the film takes us back to Powell’s early experience with Rex Ingrams in Nice in the 1920s and to Pressburger’s early career in Germany. What is most fascinating for me is to see all the links to the Archers’ early Technicolor successes. The final tale is set on a Greek island and the designs reminded me to some extent of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (the Western Front battlefield) the prologue also reminds us of the meeting of British and German officers in the bar café at the early part of Blimp. Elsewhere we had overhead shots and a staircase reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death and the whole film referred constantly to techniques developed for Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The casting too includes many of the ballet stars from The Red Shoes (Shearer, Tcherina, Helpmann and Massine) plus the third of Powell’s great loves of the period, Pamela Browne as Niklaus, Hoffman’s companion (a male part usually played by a woman in the opera).
Perhaps the most important outcome of watching The Tales of Hoffman for me was that it sent me back to reading the second part of Michael Powell’s long autobiography Million Dollar Movie. I first read it on publication in 1992 and I had forgotten many of the stories. He gives rare insights into the production process and the battles with Korda. All lovers of P&P’s work must have mixed feelings about The Tales of Hoffman. In one sense it represents the peak of their achievements in ‘composed’ films. Powell himself rates it as a ‘bulls-eye’ for The Archers in their four Korda productions of 1949-50. I think I prefer A Small Back Room (1949). Hoffman does not have the same glorious melodrama feel of The Red Shoes and it did seem to me that the camera felt slightly more constrained in its movements during the ballet scenes. Sadly the last three Archers films though all interesting and entertaining did not raise the spirits in quite the same way as their 1940s’ films. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see digital restorations of Oh Rosalinda! (1955 in ‘Scope), The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) – the last two both in VistaVision.
Here’s the trailer for the Hoffman restoration. Even if you don’t know opera or ballet, it’s a real treat for the eyes:
This vies with Phoenix as my film of the year (i.e. seen in a UK screening). It’s a perfectly formed art object that is both engaging and moving. It has been celebrated around the world and has recently been in UK cinemas after a winning a prize at the London Film Festival a year ago. We’ve had to wait a year but it has been worth it. I’ve watched the film twice now and in between screenings I spent a couple of days researching the work of the director Pawel Pawlikowski for an introductory talk. I enjoyed the research very much because it seemed that as I re-watched clips from the earlier films I’d seen and sampled some of the director’s TV documentaries from the 1990s, I began to see the continuities and the links between ostensibly different projects. Ida has been seen either as Pawlikowski’s ‘comeback’ film or as a revelation for those who have not known about the earlier films. Whether or not the concept of a director with ‘personal vision’ as an auteur still has mileage, there is no denying the continuities between Pawlikowski’s films.
Pawel Pawlikowski left Poland with his mother some time in the 1970s and eventually arrived in 1977 in the UK aged 19. His career as a filmmaker began in the late 1980s with documentaries mainly focusing on quite controversial figures in Eastern Europe. My notes for the film introduction can be downloaded here: Pawlikowski Background Notes.
Ida is a short film (just over 80 mins) and a plot outline would suggest that relatively little happens. A young woman, Anna, who we presume has grown up in a convent is now 18 and in preparation to take her vows when she is told that she has a relative, her aunt Wanda, and that she should visit her before she takes the final decision to commit to Christ. Anna is not sure what to expect but Wanda eventually provides surprising information about Anna’s Jewish family, including Anna’s birth name, ‘Ida’. Reluctantly at first (in Wanda’s case) the pair undertake a road trip to uncover the past. They meet relatively few people and the ‘action’ is limited but there is so much going on in the unspoken exchanges between characters and in the presentation of sound and image that we experience an immensely rich narrative.
There is no better way to introduce the film than to give the director’s opening statement (from the Press Pack):
Ida is a film about identity, family, faith, guilt, socialism and music. I wanted to make a film about history, which wouldnʼt feel like a historical film; a film which is moral, but has no lessons to offer; I wanted to tell a story in which ʻeveryone has their reasonsʼ; a story closer to poetry than plot. Most of all, I wanted to steer clear of the usual rhetoric of the Polish cinema. The Poland in Ida is shown by an ʻoutsiderʼ with no axe to grind, filtered through personal memory and emotion, the sounds and images of childhood . . .
It seems to me that Pawlikowski succeeds in each of these aims. (Though the ‘outsider’ bit is possibly something for Polish audiences to comment on and they haven’t taken to the film as much as audiences in France or even the UK as far as I can see.) Much of the strength of the film does come from the director’s perspective – as an insider who became an outsider and who now returns unafraid to ask questions and ‘re-present’ the past. The power of the film comes from the astounding attention to the detail of the visual and sound images and the performances of the cast, especially the three leads.
The film was shot digitally using an Alexa 4:3 camera and the raw footage was then processed to create a monochrome film with a traditional Academy ratio and then further processed to add the grain effect of the filmstock used in the early 1960s. This process is described by ‘Benjamin B’ in his blog, ‘The Film Book’, which carries two features complementing an initial feature in American Cinematographer. These are a must read for anyone interested in the filmic image. There are several notable features of the images created in the film. As Benjamin B comments in his analysis of a short sequence, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal, create pure cinema, ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ the story through a combination of acting, camerawork and sound related to a carefully structured narrative outline. The film also offers good examples of the old adage about needing a great deal of artifice to represent an image of ‘reality’. To achieve the ‘effect’ of natural light and simplicity in the depiction of the convent required careful placing of key and fill lamps. The effect works very well.
The two central characters of Wanda and Ida are played by Agata Kulesza, a vastly experienced actor and Agata Trzebuchowska a non-actor and this fits the narrative perfectly as Wanda has to drive the narrative and Ida has to respond to what happens. I was intrigued to discover that Agata Trzebuchowska had seen Pawlikowski’s earlier British films even though she was not involved in the film industry. I’m delighted that films do travel more extensively than might be apparent from the relatively meagre information we get from outside the US/UK film world.
I think Ida is going to be one of those films that “keeps on giving” – offering up new insights into how it can create meanings through camerawork, lighting, design, sound and performance. It has also prompted me to find the few John Coltrane recordings that ought to be played more often. The most striking aspect of the beautiful visual compositions is that they often place the characters in the bottom third of the frame, utilising a low horizon in landscape shots and producing a great deal of ‘sky room’. I haven’t quite decided what this means but it is distinctive and it certainly suggests a dialogue between characters and their environment. It also reminds me of the big skies in Academy frame compositions by directors like Kurosawa Akira and John Ford.
Since I started this posting several weeks ago the European Film Awards in December made Ida the big winner with a total of five awards – two for the film itself, two for Pawel Pawlikowski as writer and director and one for cinematography (shared by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski who both worked on the film). If there is any justice the film would win at the Oscars as well. If you haven’t seen it, the DVD is now out but do try and find it on a big screen.