"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

The Death and Life of 35mm

Though reports of the death of 35mm have been rumored for some time now, the death knell has officially sounded in the form of a report from the IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, which marks 2012 as the year that digital technology will overtake 35mm projection.

What does this mean? For the first time in cinema’s 120 years, analogue film will no longer be the norm, but the exception. 35mm projectors will likely disappear from theaters by 2015. The technology and equipment required for 35mm filmmaking will be accessible only to a privileged few. And a treasure trove of 35mm prints will be left to rot in a vault somewhere, save for a few deemed worthy of preservation by a handful of film archives. Repertory houses who are devoted to the format will continue to the screen 35mm until distribution ceases. Most moviegoers will never notice the difference.

But there is a difference. Film is an index and retains a physical impression from its exposure to light, while digital movies are composed from a finite number of pixels. The fact that digital imitates film is purely superficial, and in fact, they undergo drastically different mechanical processes. Digital cameras record a series of 0s and 1s to create an approximation of a photograph, whereas the film camera catalyzes a chemical reaction between light and film stock.

There is also detectable difference in the look and feel of the two mediums. Digital is often noticeably digital: spotless, precise, or at worst, grotesquely pixelated. Whereas film has a certain texture that closer to the smoothness of a painting. The blacks are richer and have more depth, and actors’ faces are warmer and suffused with light. Digital is glacial, flat, and sterile-looking, and 35mm is full-bodied and radiant.

The shift to digital also disproportionately affects the distribution of older films, which were shot on 35mm with the intention of projecting that way. Many studios have said that they will stop producing 35mm prints of older films for use in repertory cinemas, and instead present those films only in digital formats. For serious film lovers, this is unthinkable.

The British artist Tacita Dean has mounted an incredibly eloquent protest in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Simply called Film, her installation is an elegaical plea for the continuation and the preservation of the medium. A short film in which she captures the legendary green ray (yes, that same rayon vert at the end of the eponymous Rohmer film) is perhaps the most poetic raison d’être for film—real film—that I’ve encountered.

I’m not dead
I’m merely changing places
I am still with you
In dreams you’ll see my traces

Category: art + video, film reviews, mystery flavor


3 Responses

  1. […] “The Death and Life of 35mm” From The Cynephile […]

  2. miconian says:

    Great post. I think it’s worth noting that digital projection doesn’t have to equal digital production. People can still shoot on film, and then convert it to digital and project it digitally. This is less than ideal, but it’s not the same as there being no more 35mm film. As for the equipment being only available to a privileged few, wasn’t that always the case? Digital is cheaper to do, the equipment easier to get, the whole operation requiring less money, time, and skill. Which is both a good and a bad thing.

  3. cynthia says:

    Thanks — It is important to distinguish between digital filming, digital projection, and digital distribution (DVDs, streaming, etc) and I do conflate them here.

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