Thursday, November 17, 2011

The End of Film

If you've been keeping up with Roger Ebert's Journal, you'll know that he's been chronicling the sudden death of film. No, not the motion picture industry, but the actual, literal celluloid filmstrips that have been projected onto movie screens for over a century. Theaters are increasingly turning to digital projection, and being hastened along by the studios because of the cheaper distribution costs that digital allows. The cost of filmmaking is dropping too, as film cameras give way to video. "Like Crazy," the indie romance currently playing across the street from me, was shot with a $1500 camera. As a result, the production of film and film cameras has quietly been halted by many manufacturers. They will still be available to the directors who prefer film, probably for a long while, but the move signals that the days of celluloid are numbered.

This spells the end of an era in film, literally the end of physical film itself. We all should have seen it coming, since cheap digital cameras upended consumer photography and home video. It was only a matter of time before the technology improved to the point where it would impact Hollywood as well. But unlike Ebert and others, I'm not all that sad to see film go. I understand the sentimental feelings people have toward the film canisters and physically spooling reels and the flicker of the old projectors. I've read up on many of the arguments about the relative quality of film and digital projection, and I fully understand that the studios and the theaters are settling for the most economical system rather than the one that delivers the best viewing experience to their audiences. And I share the worries that archivists have voiced about the relative fragility of digital files compared to hardy physical celluloid.

However, I guess that I've learned to view media format changes as something of an inevitability. Records gave way to cassette tapes, that gave way to CDs and then MP3s. Betamax gave way to VHS, that gave way to DVDs and BluRays, and digital files are already encroaching on them. And don't get me started on the endless updates of my video and audio codecs. Some changes have been for the better and some have been for the worse, but they keep coming, and to try and make a stand against them is an exercise in futility.

Moreover, the history of motion pictures has always been a history of technical innovations. It's been a while since we've had something as dramatic as the dawn of sound or color or widescreen, but that doesn't mean the drive to improve has ever gone away. Most innovations are minor enough, that only real film connoisseurs can tell the difference in quality. I doubt that your average moviegoer would even notice if their local theater switched from 35mm to video projection. Hollywood's recent 3D boom has gotten a lot of attention, but it's more of a gimmick than a real lasting change in the way we watch movies, and none of the modern systems have really improved all that much on the 3D technology that's been around since 50s. Some innovations have never caught on, or proved economically unfeasible after the initial shine wore off. As Ebert notes, the 70mm film is long gone, too expensive for penny-pinching studios, and promising projection systems like Maxivision have remained unexploited. Instead, Hollywood turned to IMAX, which they could more easily justify charging a premium for. So it goes.

And don't think that this is the end of it. There are other innovations coming down the pipeline that might make an even greater impact. Right now, Peter Jackson is shooting his new "Hobbit" movies at 48 frames-per-second (fps) instead of the standard 24 fps, which is supposed to result in smoother movement and more immersive visuals. James Cameron and others have been talking about going as high as 60 fps. If the higher frame rates catch on and become new standards, it'll change the fundamental nature of film watching and film production.

So yes, this is the end of film, but it's far from the end of movies. The shift to digital cinema projection has plenty of benefits, like the lowered costs, some improvements in quality, more flexibility in putting together ads and trailers, and of course, digital prints don't wear out at the rate celluloid prints do. Film had a great run that should never be forgotten, but it's natural for the times and technology to change, and the old to make way for the new. In another hundred years, who knows if films will still be projected at all, or just beamed straight into out heads?

Until then, happy watching.

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