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.
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.
Global film production, post-production, distribution and exhibition has now reached a point of no return in relation to ‘digitisation’. Writing about the experience of watching films in cinemas has become problematic because the industry is in a state of flux and it is easy for any of us to get confused about what is happening. This posting is an attempt to lay out the current state of digital film and digital cinema as I understand them. Please add any other anecdotes, explanations, suggestions for additions etc. as a comment.
What we finally see on a screen as a moving image sequence depends on at least four separate processes. The first is image capture. It is often difficult to determine the exact format that was used in shooting a film. Today it is possible to shoot on virtually any known format from 16mm film through to an iPhone or a toy camera. It doesn’t really matter because anything can be digitised. Of course, the more image data that is captured (the higher the ‘resolution’), the more options are open in post-production. However, it is still possible to lose the advantage of high quality images if they are not processed correctly.
Editing is now routinely digital since all the source material has been digitised. This was the first part of the process to be converted. During the post-production process it is possible to manipulate images so that they resemble different sorts of film material. The end product of post-production is a ‘digital intermediate‘. This could still be printed back to 35mm film for distribution and projection but it is now most likely to be processed to produce a digital master and a DCP – a digital cinema package for digital cinema exhibition. The same master will also produce a range of digital formats for digital download, digital TV and DVD/Blu-ray, each of which will have different specifications. Films are now edited/post-produced in the knowledge that they must look good on several different formats The distributor creates the DCP and the exhibitor must ‘unlock’ it and decompress and download it for projection using a Theatre Management System (TMS) which places the film in a projector menu alongside ads, trailers and other material and probably commands to mask the screen, open curtains, lower lights etc.
So this is the basic process. Unfortunately it isn’t quite so simple in practice. The Hollywood majors want to remain in control of distribution in the major territories and so the seven studios (reduced to six when MGM became part of Sony) set up the Digital Cinema Initiatives (DCI) in order to create an international standard for digital cinema. You can access the specification and background details here. Any distributor or exhibitor that wants to handle Hollywood product going into cinemas must comply to the DCI standards (set by SMPTE, (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) and confirmed by ISO). DCI compliant technologies are part of ‘D-cinema‘. These standards are concerned with the creation of DCDMs (Digital Cinema Distribution Master) and DCPs and their projection. From the outset, the DCI standard was designed to include both 2K and 4K specifications. This means that either a 2K or a 4K DCP can be sent by a distributor to a cinema. The cinema may have either 2K or 4K projectors and it is possible to ‘extract’ a 2K file to project from a 4K package. Similarly, a 2K package can be ‘up-sampled’ by a 4K projector. Major cinema chains globally are now beginning to invest in 4K projectors – but most films are still being distributed in 2K DCPs.
Norway was the first territory to become completely digital for cinema distribution and other European territories are approaching 100%, although in larger territories with many small single screen independent cinemas the process may take longer. However, D-cinema is not the only digital cinema technology. Lower resolution digital formats have become known as ‘E-cinema‘ and in India E-cinema is in operation via satellite distribution, supplying smaller rural cinemas while in metropolitan multiplexes DCI-compliant prints are projected. The Indian satellite distribution system may produce a lower resolution image but the economics of the system make more sense and it’s possible that this form of E-cinema might be more suitable elsewhere in other parts of Asia and Africa. Since anything ‘sub 2K’ is classed as E-cinema there are already a range of E-cinema sites in Europe and North America, small community cinemas or screening rooms projecting from DVD or Blu-ray. (Sorry Keith, but for some exhibitors, Blu-ray is de facto a theatrical format.) Similarly, most film festivals now accept films on a variety of digital formats including HDCAM SR/HDCAM from Sony and the slightly lower specced DVCPRO HD from Panasonic. Unfortunately some also accept Digibeta or Beta SP. The problem is that digital projectors need careful treatment by knowledgeable projectionists to get the best out of different formats and in a festival context, even the best technicians don’t have time to tweak settings between showings so films that look great at one festival look terrible at another. (This rant from a US website offers an interesting perspective on the problems of preparing a film/digital file to show at festivals in North America – there is a lot of sensible info here and I certainly recognise the problems as seen by festival audiences.)
The unresolved question for cinemas that have still not converted is still who pays for this conversion to digital? The so-called Virtual Print Fee (VPF) is supposed to work by ‘spreading the load’ between the distributor and the exhibitor but it doesn’t work for everyone and especially for small distributors.
New distribution and exhibition practices
Rumours are circulating in the UK about the new distribution practices in a digital environment. I’ve heard stories that distributors are not maintaining the DCPs of films beyond their ‘normal’ release. The hard drives can easily be re-cycled/re-used so once a film has finished its run, the print won’t be kept. I don’t know if this is the policy but in the last couple of weeks I’ve had two education screenings. The first was for a 1990s film, a classic already re-released in the 2000s. It’s just too old to have been released as a DCP so the distributor sent a Blu-ray disc. This was an improvement on the last time I showed the film a few years ago when they sent a DVD. The Blu-ray looked very good on a very big screen. Apart from a few over-dark scenes I wouldn’t have noticed standing at the back of the auditorium. The second film was released as a ‘specialised film’ title earlier this year and I watched it on a DCP. Imagine my surprise when we were sent a slightly battered 35mm print. Fortunately, the cinema still had a working 35mm projector. The audience didn’t seem to mind but somebody asked me if the scratches had been added for authenticity and I don’t think that they were joking! The serious point here is how geared up are the distributors to handle education/festival/archive/repertory bookings? Is Blu-ray going to be what we can expect after an initial release on DCP?
Yesterday I heard about a new multiplex that has opened locally. It is completely digital and I’m told that the manager can virtually run the whole operation from his office, ‘dragging and dropping’ films and ads onto different projectors via the TMS. Pretty soon the films will arrive in the cinema by satellite in the UK and another ‘technical operation’ will be removed.
Overall, I’m happy to see the more consistent quality that we get from DCP, especially in multiplexes. But it comes at a cost in terms of employment and ‘de-skilling’ of projection staff. This was recently demonstrated in the UK by the widely-reported incident in which a projectionist in a multiplex, presumably looking after several screens at once, projected the first few scenes of a gruesome Cert 15 horror film to an audience of young children expecting a family animation. I’ve also been told horror stories about satellite links going down in live broadcasts – these now include Q & As with directors as well as live feeds of opera, ballet etc. My feeling is that satellite is a necessary evil in countries with transport problems, but I’m not totally convinced by the current technologies available in a country as densely populated as the major urban centres in the UK.
Finally, there is the important question about formats for proper film archive storage. Digital is not a good long-term storage medium since the longevity of physical discs and tapes etc. is not yet proven. But just as important, each time the technology improves, archivists will need to maintain a working example of each playback device. Keith is our local expert on archives, so I’ll leave him to write about these issues. He has already pointed us to the website of the FIAF.