This title receives its release across Britain on January 24th and should get a wide distribution: Picturehouse and Cineworld both have the film listed. I saw it at a preview screening by Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. This is the new film co-written and directed by Alexander Payne. His earlier films, like Sideways (2004) up to Nebraska (2013), have been relatively successful and critically praised. However, for me this film fell between two stools: it opens as a social satire (and is also science fiction) but in the last third changes into a socially conscious drama. It was that last third that I found increasingly less interesting and less entertaining.
The basic idea that drives the plot has been well aired in reviews, in the trailer and in publicity, so it is not a spoiler to explain this. [But some plot is discussed below]. In the pre credit opening we discover that Rolf Lassgård as Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen has developed a new scientific technique that shrinks living beings, including humans, approximately by a twelfth: humans are reduced to about five inches. At a scientific conference this new technique is presented as solution to global problems,including over-population, excess waste and climate change.
Ten years on 3% of the world population have faced this challenge, reduced their size and now live in special cocooned communities. But full-size human society has bought in facilities so that the different types of humans can, to a degree, interact. Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist, with Kristen Wiig as his wife Audrey Safranek. They sign up for the transformation. Part of their motivation is that they discover that after the operation they can move to one of the reduced gated communities and that their resources will transform in an inverse ratio to that of their size reduction: they will be wealthy there and have an affluent lifestyle.
Predictably things go wrong and Paul finds himself alone in Leisureland and minus a sizeable amount of his promised wealth. He works in the Leisureland equivalent of a Call Centre. Then he meets his neighbour Dušan Mirković (Christopher Waltz), who throws great parties and makes money in what is the ‘downsized’ black economy. Paul also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist forcibly downsized and who ended up as an illegal migrant in the USA. Through Tran, a proper ‘Good Samaritan’ in the New Testament sense, Paul discovers the other side of the track/wall at Leisureland.
In the final third of the film Paul, Dušan and an associate, together with Tran, travel to the original ‘downsized’ community set in a Norwegian Fjord. Here they meet Doctor Jørgen and discover his latest plan to save humanity. The first two-thirds of the film struck me as a very funny satire. There are some very witty lines and some delightfully comic scenes like the opening ‘scientific’ conference. The contrasts between the world of five footers and fives ‘inchers’ is well drawn and makes great play with these. However, the last third, involving the trip to the Norwegian community, is increasingly dramatic rather than comic. The film’s tone changes from satire to a sort of ecological/religious representation. Dušan comments that this community is like ‘a cult’. I agreed with him but the film treats this seriously.
The film is well produced. The cast are fine and Hong Chau is particularly good. The production design, cinematography and editing worked well. I thought some of the soundtrack music was interesting but the credits ran by so fast I did not pick out the songs. The film relies on extensive CGI and special effects but this is well done, and most of the time I was not especially aware of the techniques.
In the early stages of the film my main pre-occupation was with the economic strand. Paul and Audrey find that their limited middle class means soar in value in Leisureland. The rationale for this appears to be that the much smaller commodities there are reduced in monetary value equivalent to their human owners. At one point Dušan point sought that the Cuban cigar that he is smoking costs 50 dollars in the full-size world but only a dollar here. I do not remember seeing a ‘downsized dollar’ but presumably it is one twelfth the size of the standard bill. It would appear that the plot assumes that the cost of reproducing labour power, which determines exchange value, is reduced in the same proportions in the downsized world. That might be so. But, in fact, the commodities in this world rely to a great degree on production in the full size world. And, Leisureland. which seems to be commercial company, operates there. Its source of income is not explained but the exchange values it deals in are ‘full-sized’. It did not add up: not just in Marxist terms but in terms of classical economics. I think someone like Ricardo would have found this puzzling. In the film this is not just a motivation for Paul and Audrey but the basis for the class divisions in the Leisureland complex. Other aspects of the plot are treated with greater care. So only organic matter can be downsized. We see that before the operation people’s fillings and such-like are removed. And we learn that people who have had hip operations cannot undergo the operation.
Even so I found the film very funny, at times witty, at times sardonic. There are accurate shafts at a number of deserving targets. Leisureland is surrounded by a wall, beyond which the proletarian servant class live. Their dark, dingy tower blocks are reminiscent of other dystopian settings. Given that the bulk of this class are Latinos I assume that this was a salvo at Donald Trump’s much lauded ‘wall’. The contrast between the predominately white inhabitants of Leisureland, with some middle-class African-Americans as well, and the ‘proles’ who perform the still necessary junk jobs is notable.
But the film has limitations. Early on, in a throw-away line, we hear that the Israelis are downsizing Palestinians. But the only victim of forcible downsizing central to the plot is Tran, the victim of the Vietnamese. I rather thought this one more barb against Vietnam by the losing side in that historic conflict.
And for the last third of the film the humour dissipates and the film seems to get serious about the ecological issue. But given downsizing would appear to be a fantasy I thought that the story needed something more ambitious that the solution proposed by the film. It does essay a romantic resolution, in fact reversing the break-up of earlier. But the increased level of sentiment in these final sequences does not fit with the satirical tone of the earlier segments.
The film was scripted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and their previous work includes Sideways and The Descendants (2011), It seems that they were working on this script between those two productions, seven years apart. This might explain matters. Much of Downsizing offers the wit and humour that made Sideways such a success. But the final third of the film is closer to the drama of The Descendants, including the larger does of sentiment in that film.
The film was shot digitally and is distributed as D-Cinema. It is in colour and a 2.39:1 ratio. The dialogue includes English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Icelandic and Norwegian. Only parts of this have English subtitles but I did not have any problems following the plot on other occasions. I found Downsizing entertaining for much of its two hours plus, and the final sequences are interesting because of what has gone before. But with a darker and still satiric resolution I think the overall film would have been better.
This film is one of those rare beasts, a title distributed in Britain on a 4K DCP. The film is distributed by STX International. It was produced by The Imaginarium Studios with support both from BBC Films and the British Film Institute. Imaginarium is run by Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the real-life character who is the protagonist in this film. It was shot digitally (Codex), in colour and (oddly I thought) in Ultra-Panavision which gives an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, (remember The Hateful Eight, 2015).
In the 1950s Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) was struck down with polio. In that period the illness meant hospitalisation, reliance on a ventilator and a short life-span. Robin, clearly a strong-minded character, with his equally strong-minded wife Diana (Claire Foy), contested the prescribed treatment and set about giving the invalid something approaching a normal, as opposed to institutionalised, life. Successful, he became an advocate and pioneer for improved treatment of polio victims. He and his wife were assisted by a bevy of friends including amateur inventor Teddy Hall, (Hugh Bonneville). There was also an infant son, Jonathan (Dallon Brewer, Deacon Brewer, Jack Madigan, Frank Madigan, Harry Marcus, Dean-Charles Chapman at different ages) conceived before the onset of the illness. And, inevitably, there is a terrier, Bengy (Pixie), who gets an important scene.
The film appears to treat the main aspects of the story fairly accurately. However, there also appear to be quite a few lacunae. We do not in the film learn anything about the company set up with Government assistant to manufacture the invention, Littlemore Scientific Engineering. In fact, the whole economic aspect is scantily presented. Early in the film Diana is almost penniless, relying on unpaid support from her own childhood nanny. Then she spends £7,000 in cash on a small mansion with substantial grounds. Later Robin remarks that his shares have been profitable: all rather mysterious. I suspected that Cavendish had an army career prior to his civilian life but this is omitted as is his atheism. I am uncertain about the accuracy of all of the dates.
The film is well produced and the visual and aural qualities are excellent. The cast are uniformly good and Andrew Garfield gives an impressive performance as the immobilised patient whilst Claire Foy is excellent as the devoted wife. The Ultra-Panavision does seem odd because most of the film is small-scale with some occasional vistas of Kenya and Spain (both filmed in South Africa and the latter obviously so.).
The treatment is mainly upbeat. I felt the film presented this story almost in the mode of a romcom: and Hugh Bonneville in particular adds to this. There are a couple of slightly shocking moments: the BBFC decided 12A with
“infrequent bloody images”.
This is so typical, in fact there are two. More shocking is a visit to a German institution in the 1980s where the polio-stricken patients appear in a setting redolent of Britannia Hospital (1982). I was slightly uneasy at this almost stereotypical depiction of a German institution: I wondered how accurate it was. I also found the sequences referring to Kenya problematic, there were couple of brief references to the Mau-Mau independence struggle, something British cinema has never properly addressed.
The film runs just under two hours and whilst I found it always interesting I also found the rather one-dimensional treatment wearing towards the end. I saw the film at Picturehouse in Bradford’s Pictureville auditorium with 4K projection. So I got the full benefit of the 4K quality, though because of the 2.76:1 ratio we had black/gray bars above and below the frame. If you go to see it check and try and see it in 4K: several multiplexes now have 4K projectors but do not necessarily use 4K DCPs.
Roy commented in his review of ‘Jackie’ about the aspect ratios:
“The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting.”
Added to this the film recreates the famous CBS ‘tour’ of the White House with the First Lady and in a television ratio of 4:3: consequently even larger black bars.
I am not sure where Roy saw the feature, I watched it in Pictureville at the National Media Museum. This had masking but set to 1.85:1, which rather surprised me as I have seen the ratio properly masked at other screenings. The reason apparently is the much reduced projection team now that the film programming is provided by Picturehouse. Some screenings rely on the automated process where the DCP sends ‘signals’ that operate functions such as masking. It seems the cinema has not yet been able to include .1.66:1 masking in this process.
Like Roy I find this aspect of digital annoying., The black bars that surround the frame are not of the same density as masking and are clearly visible. In fact, they do not absorb light as effectively and can be more noticeable when the image is in high-key: whilst with low-key images it is often difficult to discern the edges of the frame.
Currently around West Yorkshire Picture House at the National Media Museum, The Cottage Road Cinema and the Hyde Park Picture House all provide masking for screenings. I think some of the other cinemas in the Morris chain do so and Hebden Bridge Picture House also has masking. The multiplexes almost uniformly do not. Frustratingly the Vue in The Light has [or certainly had] masking from 2.35:1 frame on its screens, [which apparently are 16:9 rather than 1.85:1] but does not use this anymore. The Bradford Odeon is better for some titles as it has masking by drapes for 1.85:1 and the screens are 2.35:1 so full widescreen is also masked.
Even with masking digital offers problems. Roy referred to Larrain’s earlier film No. Because the film was recreating events and television filming it was in a ratio of 1.40:1. But this was placed in a digital frame of 1.85:1. Bizarrely the British release, [I am uncertain about other territories] had yellow subtitles which ran the full width of the frame, so the screening had to be masked [if at all] to 1.85:1, with the problematic black bars on either side.
There are also problems in the descriptions provided by distributors, exhibitors and reviewers. One is the anamorphic ratio of 2.39:1: though everybody continues to use the 2.35:1 term. This ratio appeared in the 1970s, a slight change from the existing 2.35:1. The specification was standardised in the early 1990s. The rationale was to deal with splices in the film. It continues to be used in the contemporary DCP format, though these does not have splices? It is unclear just how consistent the usage is? Most of the time the difference is not discernible but some films are apparently in 2.39:1 and some in 2.35:1. It complicates matters. I believe that both Pictureville and the Hyde Park have masking for 2.35:1. And of course, a whole host of films were shot in 2.35:1, but sometimes they are ‘stretched’ into 2.39:1. It is not really apparent though I sometimes notice a tiny edge under the drapes.
The lack of attention to specifics becomes more of a problem with greater differences in ratios. Take a film like 20th Century Women (USA 2016) which the Sight & Sound lists as 2.35:1 but which IMDB correctly describes as 2:1. It has to be projected in 1.85:1 with narrow [almost] black bars at the top and bottom of the frame. I assume this is intended by the filmmakers, but why?
There does seem to be a sloppy approach to ratio amongst some filmmakers. Digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa offer the filmmaker a variety of aspect ratios in-camera. I am not sure how carefully these are always checked or set. I have seen a number of foreign language films in 1.85:1 where there is a problem fitting the English subtitles on the screen; in at least some cases this seems to be because the frame ratio is not exactly 1.85:1. There are definitely filmmakers who use 1.78:1 for their films, despite this not being a cinematic ratio but a television ratio [16:9]. Presumably it is the influence of the latter that accounts for this.
And in parallel silent films were mostly 1.33:1: early sound was usually 1.20:1; and then the frame ratio was standardised in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1; but most masking appears to be set at 1.37:1 with a consequent overlap at the edge of the frame for 1.33:1.
A recent parallel was La La land (USA 2016), which, in paying homage to the classic Hollywood musical, used the early scope ratio of 2.55:1. However as the film was distributed on DCPs there were more black bars unless the cinema had appropriate masking. At least one projectionist was caught out, not having noticed the unusual ratio.
Distributors contribute to this sort of error. I have at least twice seen 35mm films in the wrong ratio, one was a 1.66:1 print screened in 1.85:1 and one was a 1.37:1 print screened in 1.85:1. In both cases the projectionist advised me that the print had come in cans marked 1.85:1, hence the mistake. In a different context the Hebden Bridge Picture House do not/did not have the appropriate lens on their old projector for 1.66:1. so I have seen a film there screened in 1.85:1 rather than its proper 1.66:1. The latter seems less of a problem than the black bars of digital.
Then we have filmmakers who take advantage of digital to play with ratios. The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA, Germany, UK 2014) used 1.37:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. There was a rationale for this in the treatment of the periods in the film so I did not find this a serious problem. Xavier Dolan used 1:1 in his Mommy (Canada 2014). Here also I felt the treatment justified the technique and the film offered a magnificent moment when the ratios changed. Most recently The Assassin (Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France 2015) was screened in 1.37:1 but had two short sequences in 1.85:1. Some screenings involved the said black bars: and at one cinema with masking the projectionists decided to mask it to 1.37:1 all the way through: I doubt that the director Hsiao-Hsien Hou would have approved.
The current release Hidden Figures (USA 2016) uses footage from the 1960s, apparently from NASA, newsreels and television. There is black and white footage in 2.35:1; colour film of J. F. K. in 1.37:1, with black bars and colour film of John Glenn in 2.35:1. The rationale, like some of the mathematics, escaped me. 20th Century Women has a clip from Casablanca, apparently slightly stretched and slightly cropped, full in the 2:1 frame. But a little later the film is watched on a television set in 4:3 [almost the correct ratio].
This type of playing with ratios is extremely suspect. The way the format handles ratios would seem to be a factor in the increased tendency to crop or stretched archival footage used in contemporary films. Serious filmmakers like Ken Loach, Andrej Wajda, Magarethe von Trotta and John Akomfrah have all made films for cinematic exhibition where the older footage is so treated: a lack of respect for fellow artists and craft people that I abhor.
There is some hope for the future, at least regarding the black bars. A friend has viewed a laser projection at an Imax venue. He said that the colour spectrum was definitely superior to current digital projection. In particular the black borders on a digital package were as dense as the masking for 35mm and were not noticeable. It seems that there are current discussion in the industry to agree specifications and standards for laser projection. The hardware is a lot more expensive than existing projection for digital and larger, but the running costs are lower, partly because the lamps do not need replacing. Torkell Saetervadet [FIAF] notes that:
“projectors based on lasers rather than xenon light bulbs a light source have the potential toapproximate the human colour range better.” (FIAF Digital projection Guide, 210).
Commentators also suggest that the contrast is equivalent to that of 35mm.
This improvement will still be dependent on the digital source material which [in the UK] is extremely variable. The ‘boxes’ in which DCPs arrive range in digital size [and therefore quality] from 150 to 300 gigabytes: quite a large variation. But it seems that some UK DCPs are as low as 90 gigabytes. Lasers will improve matters including offering a proper masking for the cinematic frame; but they will not solve all the problems.
Wikipedia has a detailed page on aspect ratios for film and used on television and video.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).
One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.
The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.
I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:
Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.
Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.
The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.
I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.
Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer:
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.