Le Roi est mort, vive le Roi: Why Digital is Far Superior to Film

A little over a week ago Jay posted about an upcoming documentary entitled Side by Side, which focuses on the ongoing debate in film circles about analog versus digital film-making. Now Jay was being more than a bit hyperbolic when he called it a “war”, as its been apparent for sometime that analog film is hardly the present, let alone the future of cinema. Films have long been edited digitally, a growing number of theatres are equipped with digital sound systems, and increasingly, more and more films are being shot on digital cameras. If this is a war, its long since won.

But while the end of this conflict is hardly in doubt, I still find the debate to be fascinating. Granted, the most visible segments of this debate are the directors and DP’s who make the movies, and supply you with the thrills and chills that keep you coming out to the theatre week after week. But the digital vs analog debate hardly ends there, and that’s where I come in and I thought that I could shed a bit of light on my side of the cinematic coin.

Cinephiles cry out about the loss of film citing the lower picture quality and the dangerous precedent set on the levels of their oh so precious film grain, but frankly, after being in the film exhibition business (i.e. movie theatres, for those unencumbered by the burden of industry jargon) for over a decade, I see digital as a welcome upgrade. And in some instances, a god damn savior. Here’s why.

Now, I like film. I like the sound of the projector, the warm look of the picture and even the damn smell of a freshly struck print as you pull it out of the cans. I like cigarette burns, and watching the oil coat the gears while doing weekly maintenance, and I really like blowing up Xenon bulbs like any good Midwestern boy should. But after working in an entirely digital world over the last two years, there are a lot of things I don’t miss:

Film is fucking heavy. From the cans you have to lug around to the built print you have to carry up three flights of stairs, only to then fling it on to a platter 5 feet off the ground, film is a bitch to move around. And I weep for the poor soul who drops one while moving it. Oh yeah, don’t forget about the shipping cost to send that monstrosity anywhere in the country. You’re talking hundreds, if not thousands of dollars spent every single week by every theatre in the country.

Building up and tearing down a print takes time. Lots of time. If you are quick you can build a six reel print, with trailers, in under 30 minutes. That, of course, doesn’t include the time it takes to build the trailers, which is another 10 minutes in and of itself, and if you’re lucky the print you received has the heads out correctly and are properly labeled so you can just throw them on a platter in quick succession. You’re never lucky.

Europe can go fuck itself. Seriously, what jackass came up with the idea of putting film on a goddamn core? What is a core you ask? It’s a small plastic cylinder that a spool of film is wrapped around, creating a reel that has nothing to protect itself from the elements, those elements being the ground that you just dropped it on. American studios thankfully dropped them ages ago, but they are still popular in European markets. Probably because they are sadistic assholes. Also, because cores are always put on head first, you have to first unwind the reel onto another reel before putting it on the platter, essentially doubling the reel count for both buildup and tear down. Which means your hopefully 30 minute build could easily top an hour.

Building trailers are annoying as it is, pulling old ones on an already built reel is an art form that takes months to learn, and even then can be easily fucked up, leading to annoyance, cursing, and in the worst of cases, the dreaded brain wrap.

Brain Wraps
You ever see a movie when the picture starts skipping wildly and suddenly melts on screen? That’s caused by a brain wrap, in which the film gets hooked while unspooling, causing it to wrap tighter and tighter around the film platter’s “little black box”, which is called The Brain (insert ominous crash of thunder here). When a brain wrap occurs you’re fucked. Like Lisbeth Salander with a cattle prod kind of fucked. The fastest I’ve ever fixed a brain wrap was 40 minutes, and that was with two of us sweating our asses off as we chopped the print up and reassembled it on the fly, all in the hopes that we’d make it in time for the upcoming show start. Let it be noted, that 40 minutes to fix a brain wrap is pretty much unheard of. I was just lucky enough to learn a quick and dirty (and potentially stupid) way to fix them that saves literally hours of time. I’ve known of more than few instances where the poor saps tried to unwind the whole damn movie and rewind it back on to the platter. Poor bastards. I hear they still wake up with night sweats from the ordeal. That is if they’ve even finished yet.

Honestly I rather enjoy threading, but show me a projectionist who has never accidentally threaded up the wrong film and I will show you a liar.

Film Festivals
Oh sure, for cinephiles festivals are a veritable smorgasbord of pleasure. For projectionists they are the definition of Hell. Building and tearing print after print (I’ve done as many as 8 in a row, and I’m sure that is nothing compared to what a projectionist at a major festival would go through), many of them on cores, countless others dropped off less than an hour before they need to be onscreen, and god knows how many arriving in cardboard boxes with no labeling whatsoever leaving you to guess at what the hell you are building. It’s a wonder their aren’t more problems with prints during festivals, from entire scenes being cut (Oh hi, Thank You for Smoking!), movies shown upside down and backwards, or reels being put in the wrong order.

Black & White
I’m sure plenty of snobs derided the loss of black and white film making back in the day, but man, am I ever glad it is gone. You see, black and white prints tend to slough when they are projected, leaving a dusty film inside the projector after it has run through. This means you need to pull out a toothbrush and scrub that sucker after every presentation, otherwise you’ll run into issues with print quality and presentation. Also, because of the issues with sloughing, even with careful maintenance black and white prints tend to degrade far more rapidly than standard prints, meaning that in just a few weeks that once pristine print will look like it belongs in a grindhouse.

Yeah, I know, Fight Club romanticized the hell out of it. But splicing, while a pretty simple task, can be a huge pain if you muck it up. Because if you do you’ll throw the whole image off onscreen, causing the frame to suddenly slide up or down after a reel change. You then have to run up to the booth and manually adjust the frame at each reel change, while also marking the spot on the print so you can fix the splice once the film ends.

Because splicing errors can be such a huge pain to fix, and because more and more chains are employing younger, and thus cheaper, people as projectionists to save on labor costs, several theatre chains insist on previewing every print of every movie before they are shown to the general public. This means if your theatre got 5 prints of Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore for the big Friday release, you have to watch all 5 copies to make sure they pass muster. Maybe now you know why I’m so fucking surly on the Row Three Cinecast.

I’ll admit I was intrigued at the opportunity of working at an all digital theatre. Up until that point the only digital projector I had dealt with was an absolute joke used by Landmark that I’m quite certain retailed for $149.99 back in 2002 and was still in use up until last year. It wasn’t exactly great to use and the picture quality was piss poor. But when I saw what digital was truly capable of I was bowled over.

Building a print now took mere seconds as it was just dragging and dropping on a computer. Film schedules were automatic, eliminating threading and meaning everything started on time. Picture quality was as good the first show as it would be twenty weeks later. Prints could be moved from auditorium to auditorium with just the press of a button, and you could keep a half dozen or more films on a single screen server, meaning you could easily swap prints and adjust film schedules on the fly to maximize profit from ticket sales. Meaning you could make your film schedule look like a jigsaw puzzle to maximize profit potential and screen space, all in less time and from the comfort of a cubicle rather than running around blindly with an 80lb print on your arm.

A full-time projectionist was no longer needed simply because you can build, push and schedule an entire weeks worth of prints in a few hours, which used to take multiple people several days to complete. Change overs were a thing of the past as all of those could be programmed into the build, meaning that scope and flat changes could all be done by computer.

Perhaps even most amazing? All of these things could be done remotely on a laptop. Our “projectionist” didn’t even need to be on the same continent. He could dial in to our server, via WiFi, and update schedules, build and move prints and even monitor the projectors. Heck, if he wanted to manually start a movie and tweak the volume he could do that too. And most amazing, the film could be paused and rewound. So if for any reason the film was interrupted, you could back up the film to make sure no one missed anything that happened.

It was as if I had gone from riding my Big Wheel to piloting the Starship Enterprise in the course of a day!

And this is just from the manual labor perspective. Shipping prints became far cheaper, as pairs of 40lb cans are replaced with a 1lb hard drive, labor costs plummet, the presentation quality bar raised as the the print remains pristine and bulbs can be set to maintain their brightness levels throughout their life thus making the picture clear and bright throughout its run. Then add in that more and more new releases are being released digitally, and there is a growing number of out-of-print movies that are now available digitally, making even repertory programming easier and potentially cheaper with a wider selection of films to program that had been available in years, if not decades.

So yes, I understand that you want to shed a tear for the loss of a perfectly good medium, one that you’ve grown up on and are perfectly happy with. But, for better or worse, digital is taking over; it has taken over, and by doing so it is opening up avenues and opportunities that for years never existed. And sure, those of us who work behind the scenes are benefiting in ways you could probably never imagine, but these benefits are spilling out so the entire movie going culture is now starting to reap the rewards.

Analog is dead, long live the king!

Matt Gamble observes and obfuscates on obscure cinema at Where the Long Tail Ends and has even managed to squeak out an elven year career in the movie industry. He is also known to regularly shout down his co-hosts on the Row Three Cinecast. And, on special occasions, he calls Jay Cheel a “Cocksucker!” in a crowded theatre.

  • @Matt

    Leading up to the holidays this last year, we had like 4 straight weeks of bigger new releases that we DIDN’T get digital prints of that sold out on at least opening night, and then what happened weeks later was that we DID get digital prints of them when they were pretty much on their way out, which makes NO sense whatsoever. “Muppets”, which had been selling out it’s opening weekend and doing decent business for a while, was playing in a digital theater in it’s sixth week, while “Devil Inside” was packed. Most of the people that came to “Devil Inside” opening weekend were douchebags anyway, and the people that couldn’t get in because of it being sold out were just BIGGER douchebags.

  • Gerry

    To clear something up, I had assumed that digital screenings were supplied on huge capacity hard drives, not blu rays. Is my assumption wrong? I take the point re rarities like the Fernando di Leo collection mentioned above.

    And if some films projected digitally are indeed supplied on big hard drives are they truly that awful when screened? Seeing how good blu rays with good transfers look, i.e. like film, I had assumed that bigger file sizes equalled near film quality on the big screen.

  • Gerry

    And what about digital intermediates?

    These are ‘the final creative adjustment done on a motion picture before presenting to the audience. The process involves digitizing a movie and manupulating the colour and image characteristics to create the final desired mood.’

    If you look up films technical details on IMDB you’ll see that some of these digital intermediates are only 2k. Is there such a thing as a true film film any more?

  • Oddly enough, the last three films I saw theatrically in regular release (Haywire, The Grey, Chronicle) were all projected off of analogue prints. So yea, there’s still a few years left.

  • Yeah, about 4. That’s when studios are going to stop producing celluloid prints.

  • As someone who doesn’t have to keep the projectors runnin’ or deal with all of the things pointed out above. I’m going to savour those four years.

  • @Gerry
    The answer is pretty much no. Pretty much every film that comes out of Hollywood is edited digitally, as it is a huge cost savings.

    As for theatrical releases, they are released almost entirely on digital hard drives and the file sizes dwarf Blu-ray capability (usually by anywhere from 4 to 10 times the file size). That being said, Blu-ray’s project very well on screen and are a big improvement from DVD’s.

    Honestly, anything I say would be a guess, though I’m quite confident it is just a fraction of what is archived is available for theatrical viewing. Especially in terms of analog formats. Maybe 1%? Pretty much anything available digitally is available for screening as distributors don’t have to supply the prints/discs. I know some rep houses just get the Blu-rays off of Netflix or even torrent the movies.