The End Of The Physical – Welcome to the first Hope Lies Editorial. I’ve been toying with the idea of a regular soap-box for some time now, so lets see how this goes. These will appear every Sunday morning, with the intention being a discussion of one or more of the weeks key occurrences. There’s a veritable wealth of matter to wade through, with a number of key citations linked below, with the idea being that one might sit back and relax for thirty minutes or so with a number of articles and stories deemed worthy by yours truly.  

This week I’d like to take a few moments to discuss the digital revolution.

This week the IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service reported (projected?) that 35mm film exhibition will cease to be supported for new theatrical releases by the end of 2013 [I]. While certainly headline grabbing I wanted to look in to just how much of an effect the wholesale removal of bona-fide film from most commercial movie houses will have on the audience at large. 

I’m not against digital solutions, far from it in fact. Every aspect of my life is controlled or catered for by a digital solution. Every magazine subscription that I hold, bar two (Sight & Sound and Cineaste) come courtesy of digital channels – no more waiting three weeks for the latest Film Comment, no more piles of Empire. The same goes for comic books and paperbacks too. While there remains a certain attachment to the physical form of paper in hand, for the most part I’d argue that it’s little more than a form of nostalgia driven preference. And let’s not forget that the digital experience adds something a little bit extra too: in addition to the aforementioned convenience factor of procuring international magazines and journals and the space saving aspect, the structure of the humble magazine itself has adapted to the medium. Embedded videos, instant linkage to sources and citations, and social media connectivity can take the form in fresh and exciting ways too. Twitter integration is especially notable, with the opportunity that one might be able to contact the author of a specific piece of writing with queries, comments or further discourse quite literally at the end of a finger swipe of a touch screen computer device. Of course one mans pro’s may be another mans con’s – one might argue that the magazine/journal form is one that ought remain definitive and free from the modern model of theoretically continuously updated, never-necessary-complete web content, and to an extent I would agree.

But I digress.

The theatrical mode is very different to a magazine reading experience. Or a book reading experience. My gut instinct when it comes to viewing movies in a theatrical environment is to respect the medium on which the work was produced. Where possible. Now obviously this isn’t actually realistic in an age where the average modern multiplex doesn’t actually have the means to play 35mm anymore, so its a difficult rule to keep to. The distinction between film vs. digital has already led to a favourite new sport of mine, a sort of sincere, non-ironic game titled “Chase The Print™”. Both Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life and Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist saw this viewer attempt to seek out both digital and 35mm versions of the two films, in an attempt to compare tonal differences in the mediums being used to present the films. The Malick film was said to make for a surprisingly different experience in 35mm [II], while it felt only natural to see The Artist in film (in spite of whatever post-production techniques were utilised for the film to reach its final look). On a similar note, my biggest issue heading in to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo wasn’t that it was a 3D picture, but that it was shot on digital video, and not film, which is actually a point endemic to understanding my stance on the whole subject of film vs. digital: as I explain below I’m open as to the benefits of the digital revolution with regards to film exhibition, but please don’t mistake that as wholehearted support of digital filmmaking replacing film-filmmaking. I maintain that each film ought to be produced on the medium that the director intends for the project. 

Having worked in several real-world film environments I can attest to the challenges of working with 35mm prints. While running the prints for an international film festival a couple of years ago I had several thousand reels of film to look after and a courier fee reaching in to the £20,000’s. Several rooms were required to store the hundreds of prints in the weeks in the run up to the festival, and a fleet of vehicles were on stand-by for transportation from site to site and venue to venue. Digital methods of delivery were on the rise that year. I’m told that 12 months earlier there were 1/3rd more prints and £10,000 extra in shipping costs, so in just one year we’d seen a dramatic drop in costs thanks to digital. The films that arrived on digital formats (hard-drive, digi-beta and Blu-ray disc) were easily filed away in a cabinet, and could be handled with relative ease, with a days worth of programming fitting in to the average tote bag. 

Digital sources aren’t perfect. There was some discourse as to the faithfulness (in colour and framing) of a screening of a digital print of Barry Lyndon just last week at the BFI. It’s apt that Kubrick’s film came under such scrutiny, given the directors hyper-specific demands for the projection of his work [III]. It almost feels disrespectful to take the work of a deceased filmmaker and change the medium so dramatically (I haven’t seen the “print” in question, but do own the controversial Blu-ray edition of the film, that saw a slight shift in aspect ratio – more on that here). Blu-ray is proving to be something of a saviour for a number of independent filmmakers too. Thanks to the technical impressives of the format a director can send a fairly perfect iteration of their work to any place in the world for a relatively low cost. Elsewhere, volunteer run community cinemas and smaller film festivals are free of the stigmatic shackles of the noisy imaging and poor sound quality of DVD, yet with little increase in cost and space.  

In an interesting coincidence legendary science-fiction Ray Bradbury passed away on Tuesday, at the age of 91. While his most immediate cinematic reference point would be Francois Truffaut’s underrated adaptation of the writers best known novel, Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s influence on the wider science fiction scene is incalculable. His relevenacy within to the digital debate is whole too: Bradbury was insistant that his work not be made available on digital mediums such as Amazon’s Kindle service, or through Apple’s iTunes iBookstore [IV]. While Bradbury gave up the good fight just a few months ago, his arm forced when the writer signed a new publishing contract, he remained defiant to the end. In a rather classy move HarperCollins waited a whole two days after the authors death to announce that his work would soon be in “print” across digital devices. What better way to end this weeks editorial than with the words of Bradbury himself, who when asked for permission to spin one of his works in to an eBook responded with the following.

To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet. It’s distracting. It’s meaningless; it’s not real. It’s in the air somewhere.

Adam Batty – Editor-In-Chief

P.S. This month Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second climbed to number 12 in eBuzzing’s list of the most influential blogs on cinema. To say we’re ecstatic would be an understatement. The greatest of appreciation to you all. 

Further reading –
Margaret Atwood pays tribute to Ray Bradbury
[IV] Bradbury Vs. eBooks
[I] Deadlines article on the end of 35mm distribution
[II] Tree Of Life – Film Print Vs. Digital
[III] Stanley Kubrick’s letter to projectionists, regarding Barry Lyndon