Moving to Digital

With most surviving cinemas rapidly going digital, a lot of perfectly good film projection and cinema sound equipment is being replaced with their all-digital counterparts. It’s to be expected, of course, but what most people don’t realise is that the new technology is not yet even close to the old one in terms of quality.

A 35mm film strip, so far, is superior to the digital technology in just about every respect, from resolution to contrast to colours. Yes, you will hear a lot of hype from the industry about scratch-free and dust-free images, HD and the perceived (low) line density of 35mm answer prints, much like the music industry once hyped the compact disc, but I suggest you to trust your eyes instead.

If you are lucky enough to have an art house in your area, go see an old movie, preferably something from the fifties, filmed in Technicolor and Vista Vision. A lot of the old westerns were filmed using these technologies, as were some Hitchcock thrillers; you should be able to find one. Then buy a ticket to your nearest multiplex with the latest in digital technology and see for yourself.

Now, I’m betting that you’ll find the latter scratch-free and dust-free, but I’m also betting that you’ll find the former alive in a sense that just cannot be done today.

I talked to a cinematographer during the last Göteborg Film Festival a few weeks ago. He was responsible for the cinematography of the opening feature and understandably anxious about every aspect of film projection before the first show. They had shot the film using digital cameras and we, of course, had just installed the latest in digital projection technology. I thought he would be pleased. Yet, the film production crew was very anxious to screen a 35mm print of the film, rather than a digital copy.


Well, the cinematographer told me that they had added grain to the digital print using a computerised process. This was done in order to simulate the grain inherent in a 35mm print and make the film look more natural and alive, but the problem was that the image was still dead in a way that could never happen on film, not even when the image had been transferred from a digital original.

I screened the 35mm print, of course, and everyone was happy. What’s really interesting, though, is that several other film-makers approached me and the festival with similar opinions and requests. If a 35mm print was available, they much preferred it to a digital copy on a hard disk. Some went to the trouble of producing a 35mm print for the festival only.

Which means, of course, that while film-makers may still consider 35mm superior and make a print for film festivals only, what the audiences now have to get used to is digital technology. They do it to save money, of course. It costs a fortune to make and distribute heavy 35mm prints, requiring skilled projectionists at cinemas instead of low-level ushers clicking on Play.
Not only will the quality be lower but the risk of something going wrong without anyone in the cinema being able to fix the problem will be higher.

Me, I think that this will eventually marginalise cinemas, because that same quality of presentation can be achieved at home, but with the added bonuses of Fast Forward and Pause buttons, cold beverages from the fridge and the ability to share that digital image with others.

What do you think?

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