Written by Hayley Wood.
Since its invention, theater has been a haven from the gleam of technology – a place of silence, strangers, and immersion into another world. The cackles, sighs, and tears from other audience members can make or break the experience of seeing a film for the first time.
Unfortunately, the rising popularity of online streaming and personal computers has overshadowed the movie-going experience. Box office sales have decreased by 17% in North America since 2004. For those who see movies in the theater, the quality of the picture is an afterthought. This is because the majority of theaters have been dominated by digital projection for quite some time. In fact, most college students have never experienced a film in its original format.
Before digital equipment arrived in the 1990’s, analogue film was the only available medium for directors and screenwriters. By the mid-00’s, most theaters had completely stopped using reel-to-reel projection because of digitalization. Technology had changed, and certain techniques were more expensive to maintain than others.
“Technology had changed, and certain techniques were more expensive to maintain than others.”
Simultaneously, the supply of well-trained projectionists dwindled. Film became more expensive to shoot and produce. Analogue film was less of a commodity to film makers, and as a result, companies stopped supplying it. This change crossed over to industry leaders, like Polaroid, who announced bankruptcy in 2008. Only a few years later, Kodak followed suit in 2012.
Digital production may be more practical on paper, but many aspects of analogue film are nearly impossible to recreate in post-production. Film differs from digital projection in hue, texture, and aesthetic. For some subjects, like natural lighting and skin tone, film can bring out a richer contrast and depth. A reel of film will also gather scratches and imperfections from handling, as well as routine wear and tear from projectors, over time. These imperfections are said to inspire a nostalgic experience in the viewer, which many cinephiles and analogue supporters appreciate.
“These imperfections are said to inspire a nostalgic experience in the viewer, which many cinephiles and analogue supporters appreciate.”
In a literal sense, film strips are a living material that degrades, fades, expands, and discolors. They show their scars on screen in the form of visual abrasions and crackles in audio. The picture on screen represents what was captured in front of the camera, and that can make the film feel alive.
Of course, an emphasis on nostalgia isn’t suitable for every genre. For instance, a film directed by J.J Abrams, such as one of the new Star Trek films, might be better off with the high definition of digital format. On the other hand, analogue film makes perfect sense for the grandiloquently violent movies of Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino’s films are vibrant and tongue-in-cheek. Many of his films mimic trends found in older cinema; such as film noir, Spaghetti westerns, or exploitation films.
The debate between digitalization and film is a contentious topic for nearly all industry directors. However, advocates like Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino, are firm in their support for film production. In a 2016 interview, Tarantino claimed that, “… the fight [for film] is lost if all we have is digital.”
“In a 2016 interview, Tarantino claimed that, “… the fight [for film] is lost if all we have is digital.”
Similarly, Christopher Nolan spoke on behalf of analogue film at a 2017 event with the National Film Preservation Board. Nolan, director of the oscar-winning film Dunkirk, claimed that analogue film possesses more “vibrancy,” and “life,” than digital production.
Directors often complain that film poses a huge threat to budget and distribution. When it comes to preservation, many think that digital archiving would ensure the immortality of a work. However, just as the nature of analogue film is fragile, digital formats are not invulnerable to damage. The shelf life of digital film can easily be a mere few years at a time, thanks to rapid changes to technology. Although film is expensive to shoot, process, and maintain, when properly preserved, it can last for up to 400-500 years.
Another reason that digital production is popular is because it allows for more shooting time— you aren’t limited to the finite length of a filmstrip.
“Another reason that digital production is popular is because it allows for more shooting time— you aren’t limited to the finite length of a filmstrip.”
Digital shooting doesn’t require reloading or the fraught possibility of wasting footage. But that kind of freedom can be a setback, too. With reel film, a limited number of frames forces a creator or director to think critically about composition and execution. Some directors argue this discipline yields better results of the content for a film because of the level of planning and preparation it demands.
More often than not, digital screens and streaming services alter resolution and omit important visual information. This can spoil the director’s vision for the audience, and the underlying artistic message of their work can be lost to a tiny, illuminated screen. Viewing a projected film may not enhance the content of the movie itself— a bad movie will remain a bad movie— but it will be watched as the filmmaker intended; free of digital interference. In a way, this is arguably more intimate. The analogue method can even cultivate a newfound appreciation for the film itself.
The fate of analogue film rests in the hands of the directors who still dare to use it, and the audience members who are attracted to its charm. Although the equipment is less common now, many major cities have independent theaters still ‘reeling it out’ with specialty 35mm and 70mm screenings. Both cinephiles and film novices have endless choices for their entertainment— and in this luminous age of technological advancement, movie-goers could benefit from finding some solace in the dark.