A Century Ago: Films of 1912—Part Two

ONE

Standing at the back of the Academy’s Dunn Theater in mid-December, hand cranking Joe Rinaudo’s  restored 1909 Power’s projector, I felt sucked back into the flow of cinema history. The Cat’s Paw, a one reeler from 1912, unspooled at a soothing rhythm just as it had a century ago in some Midwestern nickelodeon. Later that evening at home, I reflected back on my own history—starting out as a projectionist, then a camera assistant, and of the purely sensory pleasure of film raw stock moving through the camera gate during shooting, and the finished movie through the theater projector some months later. The Lumiere Cinematographe, which the brothers used to photograph their first films, was an inspired wonder; it was easily converted from a camera to a projector. The Cinematographe first captured workers leaving the Lumiere family factory in Lyons; this film and fewer than a dozen other single setup, one minute films were projected at the first public paid screening in the rented basement of Paris’ Grand Cafe on December 28, 1895. In the photo below, the camera is rigged as a projector, with the lamphouse as a freestanding device behind it. More than a century of technical innovation in cinema represents still a technology that the Lumieres would recognize.

m197816510005

 

John’s Bailiwick: “Auguste and Louis Lumière Meet Bertrand Tavernier” link

On April 16 last year, I received an email from Larry Salvato, co-author of Masters of Light, a book published by UC Press in 1984—conversations with fifteen then contemporary cinematographers. It remains in print, even as many of its featured subjects have retired or passed away. A staple reference for film school students, the bright yellow dust jacket evokes Kodak’s signature color, with the book’s title in white letters emerging from a deep red block. Below, a black and white photo of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Stefania Sandrelli from Bernardo Bertolucci’s Conformista recalls a key shot in one of that era’s most influential films—the film that influenced me, and many of my peers, to dedicate our lives to cinematography.

1. Masters-of-Light

Salvato wrote that UC Press was going to publish a new paperback edition of Masters of Light in January, 2013. He and Mary Francis, executive editor of Music and Cinema Studies at UC Press asked if I would write a foreword. Since I knew or had worked with all fourteen of the other interviewed cinematographers, I accepted instantly. I  re-read the more than twenty-five year old interviews to see what was still true, what had changed . What I discovered surprised me.

Much like the 1970 interviews of Conrad Hall, Hal Mohr, Arthur Miller, Hal Rosson, and Lucien Ballard in Leonard Maltin’s The Art of the Cinematographer or those in Vincent Lo Brutto’s 1999 Principal Photography (a baker’s dozen interviews, including two with women cinematographers)– the discussions of technique and aesthetics in Masters of Light remain a relevant guide to the ART of cinematography–  testimony to the axiom that “it’s not about the equipment.”

New UC Press edition.

Forthcoming UC Press edition.

One of the surprises is the fifteen interviewees’ lack of discussion of video. In 1984, video was not yet on the feature film cinematographer’s radar. While prepping Mishima in Japan, February of 1984, I had briefly flirted with using Sony’s brand new analog HD system for one section of the film—but Paul Schrader and I deemed it inadequate to capture the rich textural and color palette of production designer Eiko Ishioka’s sets and costumes.

Today, it is unimaginable that any new book on cinematography would not focus significantly on digital video imaging throughout the entire filmmaking chain: from pre-visualization, into production, editorial post, DI mastering, and increasingly, exhibition.

On September 13, Fuji Film made the startling announcement that it would cease production of most movie film products on December 31, 2012.

Fujifilm announcement link

2012 was also the year that Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and sold off hundreds of its signature patents. Arriflex and Panavision announced that they would no longer manufacture any new film cameras. Industry pundits were quick to pronounce “the death of film.” Some cinematographers jumped on the rising digital tide hoping to remain au courant amidst the rapid-fire, but ill-informed industry chatter. Rumors flew around the Internet and on movie sets that Kodak would soon abandon film manufacture as well, and some film archives began to buy motion picture raw stock as a hedge against its anticipated demise. The situation seemed dire indeed for the future of motion picture film as both a capture and exhibition medium. Then a strange thing happened. Some cinematographers, directors, VFX artists, and archivists began to speak out passionately about the continuing viability of film and its supremacy as a capture and storage medium. A recent interview in deadline.com of six cinematographers whose work is in contention for the 2012 Oscar and ASC nominations, foregrounds the primacy of film in many top films, including those in larger formats of 65mm and IMAX, while also integrating multiple video formats into the productions.

Deadline/Hollywood—“Oscars Q&A: Directors of Photography” link

I have continued to advocate film as my preferred imaging medium, even as 2012 unexpectedly became my own “Alexa Year.” The only motion picture film I exposed in 2012 was for green screen plates and a time-lapse credit sequence for The Angriest Man in Brooklyn. The body of that film, and the three I photographed that preceded it (The Way Way Back, The Snake and the Mongoose, and A.C.O.D) were made with the Arri Alexa at ProRes—the cameras for the drag racing film (The Snake and the Mongoose) rented from Alternative Rentals in Los Angeles, those for the other three movies from Panavision New York and Atlanta.

Arri Alexa

Arri Alexa

Though I have not yet used the new Sony F65 in a production, I was able to attend a summer workshop/demonstration class on Sony’s Stage 7 in Culver City.

So, what’s my own perspective of the future ebb or flow of film emulsion as I stand waist deep in the surging digital tide? Many of my longtime celluloid peers have spoken eloquently about how convenient cinematography has become with digital video: the idiomatic catch phrase “What you see is what you get.” Also, the whole tradition of dailies screening has been upended; it began with the near total elimination of film dailies and the substitution of HD dailies for film, then the proliferation of online dailies systems such as PIX. The much-loved habit of the crew viewing dailies projected on a screen larger than your television, was supplanted by its Balkanization on desk and laptop computers, an exercise in visual relativity. It makes for amusing on set discussions the next morning—a kind of Rashomon analysis of the default screen settings from a riot of different laptops.

Two of the movies, A.C.O.D., written and directed by Stu Zicherman, and The Way Way Back, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, were submitted to the 2013 Sundance Festival. Both have been accepted into the festival’s Premieres section and will be screened the third week of January. The DI for A.C.O.D. was done at Mega Playground in NYC; FotoKem in LA did the DI for The Way Way Back. Both films will be shown in DCPs—no film out negatives have yet been struck, a situation not uncommon for lower budget, indie financed features, prior to distribution.

TWO

As a barometer of how quickly things are changing in feature films, I offer my own recent history. Three years ago, I also photographed two films that were screened at Sundance. Both of them, The Greatest, written and directed by Shana Feste, and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, adapted from the David Foster Wallace short story anthology and directed by John Krasinski, were photographed on 35 mm film. Both had budgets smaller than this year’s three Alexa features—yet both were finished in the traditional IP/IN process from cut anamorphic camera negative. They were projected at the festival’s Eccles Theater in second-generation contact prints (struck from the original camera negative). No DI was made of either film for the Sundance screenings. That film negative would actually be “cut” today, and an IP/IN made before any video master—is, I suspect—nearly inconceivable. So much for a century old methodology.

This is in no way a lament against the inevitable march into the digital era. It is simply a personal reflection, identical to one I made almost twelve years ago after the completion of answer printing (on film) of my first video feature, The Anniversary Party, photographed on analog PAL . A few months before I wrote an article about it for the NY Times, several studio executives had been pictured in that newspaper holding up metal film cans—clearly empty of weighty release prints—as if to drop them into a nearby dumpster. My own riposte to this inane photo was simply to write an article for the Times titled: “Don’t fight; Co-exist.” The intention of the piece was to embrace the embryonic digital evolution while still supporting the ongoing viability of film. At the time, it seemed a modest proposal— but in retrospect, I clearly did not suspect the institutional commitment being made to digital exhibition, in no small part because of money saved by no longer striking bulky and expensive film prints.

One of the very real concerns about the premature abandonment of film technology with its inherent self-archiving properties is obvious in the current status of A.C.O.D. and The Way Way Back. Industry producers and directors clearly understand the necessity of creating archival filmout negative protection from the master digital intermediate files; many are also aware that the phrase “digital archive” is an oxymoron.  But many indie producers hope to make “film protection” once the distribution deal is signed. Sounds logical—providing that the time between the finish of post-production and the theatrical release is measured in months. But a more realistic template is that of the hundreds of films finished every year that never receiving theatrical distribution: movies that have no real archival protection. One of the more alarming statistics in the AMPAS Sci-Tech Council Digital Dilemma 2 report of last year is seen in the chart about how the IDA  (International Documentary Association) filmmakers store and “archive” their movies.

Storage media used by IDA documentarians.

Storage media used by IDA documentarians.

Only about 25% of those movies are archived on film. Hard drive storage constitutes almost 70%, DVCAM (probably camera original tapes) also 70%. These multiple digital storage formats are considered a kind of insurance—a digital redundancy (however illusory that belief). LTO tape and D5, the main tape storage systems cited in the study, barely elicit a blip on the graph. When we also consider that most current documentaries, and increasing numbers of indie features, are photographed with digital video cameras, it becomes all too evident that the shift to filmmaking without a means of long term preservation (aside from the fail-safe myth of “migration”)—presents a worrisome risk to our motion picture legacy.

I am mindful of this because as recently as 2010, all the movies I’ve photographed had film finishing—either in the traditional chain of film capture to film finish, or  in video capture, to digital intermediate, to film out negative. But all four films I photographed in 2012 are not yet guaranteed this protection. Here’s a question. If distributors and exhibitors are moving so rapidly to DCP theater display and have no need of film prints—why should they feel compelled to produce film protection? They may be interested primarily in the short-term financial return that comes with the movie’s initial release and the quick follow-up of home video. The distributors may not be the copyright holders. What happens to the movie in five years may not concern them, so why should they be willing to pay for a film out negative to protect the movie? And if the producers also fail to follow through with film protection—what may be the fate of the movie? Film vaults are stuffed with orphaned movies. Unlike the films of 1912 that I enjoyed at the Dunn Theater— in less than a decade, some movies of 2012 photographed with digital cameras may no longer exist, victims of what archivists call “digital nitrate.”

This scenario may seem unlikely; but consider the view, nor uncommon today, that regards movies as just another disposable product with a commercial shelf life of a few months. What if the work of archiving or preservation of their films falls significantly into the arms of the directors—who may well be moving onto new films? As an example, I remember sitting next to the great writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz at a Venice Film Festival retrospective of his features. He told me he had not seen most of his films since their initial release. His movies were all shot on film, produced, exhibited and archived by major studios (the copyright holders) invested in maintaining their product in the studio vaults. Segue to my friend Chris Kenneally, the director of this year’s documentary exploration of the film/video dialogue, Side by Side. When asked recently how he planned to archive his HD digital video documentary, he told the audience that he hoped to raise money to make a filmout negative. The movie  had been in exhibition for several months, but still existed only on digital files.

THREE

Last November 19, I received an email from James Owsley of Sony Colorworks, writing that he and Grover Crisp of Asset Management at Sony were planning to do a 4K data transfer of Groundhog Day, a film I had photographed 20 years ago.

Bill Murray and friend.

Bill Murray and friend, Phil.

Sony is creating content for their new 4K, 84” Bravia Ultra HD LCD television. There is not yet any broadcast band at 4K, nor consumer discs—select movies from their library are being made available to the Bravia buyers on drives. The television sells for a more than modest $25,000– but it includes passive 3D glasses.

Sony 84" Ultra HD television.

Sony 84″ Ultra HD television.

It was an invigorating experience to work on the re-mastering of Groundhog Day with colorist John Dunn at Sony’s Stage 6 Colorworks facility. We were seated at the Baselight at a screen height distance of less than 2x; the clarity and detail from the scanned negative at 4K was staggering. The process of re-mastering this much beloved film was a revelation. John and I were able to extract incredible detail, retiming shots with subtle color and density controls, as well as selecting multiple power windows—generating a level of scene to scene consistency that had not been possible with the limited controls of the photochemical era. Consistency in this film is especially important because of the oft-repeated scenes shot on successive production days in changing light. The richly dense and fine grain Kodak negative clearly contained even more than the 4K data scanned. After an initial runthrough, I asked John to exploit his full digital “toolbox” in his first pass at re-mastering. “This is no sacred cow,” I said.

What does this suggest about a decade of DIs that have been rendered at 2K resolution—and of the filmout negatives struck from those files? Sony is rescanning and remastering many popular titles in their catalog, movies that initially had been exhibited from 2K digital intermediate files, as film prints or as DCPs—but now rescanning from the original camera negatives at 4K resolution. This remastering of the OCN may be viable for films that have been successful enough to warrant such added expense, but what about those films that have not made the cut, films, for the moment at least, shelved because of an indifferent box office— and waiting for a possible redemptive rlate inclusion in the critical canon or as a cult favorite? Citizen Kane was largely forgotten for several decades. Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a film roundly pilloried on its initial release in 1971, recently received a glorious 2 DVD and Blu-Ray release by the Criterion Collection and has just been included in the 2012 National Film Registry.

Unless rescanned, movies mastered with a 2K DI, and a 2K filmout negative, are married to that resolution, even allowing for the evolving technology of uprezing. Will many of us just have to accept that the past decade of our work will be trapped in a rapidly obsolescent 2K format? What more apparent “watermark” of an era of filmmaking can you imagine than a generation of movies marked as substandard?

This is a lamentable prospect as well for filmmakers who have embraced digital video capture as their choice. The ruling caveat of movies has always been, “The only constant is change.” This year’s lean forward technology is doomed to become next year’s pratfall. I include myself, at least in part, among the leaners. All four of the feature films I photographed in 2012 were at Arri ProRes 4444 Log C resolution. There were many reasons the directors, producers and I made this choice over any higher resolution video or film capture; these were valid choices given multiple factors affecting the movie’s aesthetic or financial bottom line.

I am excited about the dramatic quality of these two movies finished for Sundance 2013— but also about their technical quality. Seeing them on large screen projection, the emotional intimacy and human scale of their stories are not much compromised by the ProRes format choice. But there does remain an indisputable fact:  All four of these movies exist at their capture level as essentially HD digital video files. As Sony colorist John Dunn said, a propos of the rich negative of Groundhog Day, “The difference is that with 35mm film negative you can keep going back to the well.” For the several dozen movies I have photographed on 35mm film at full aperture, anamorphic aspect ratio—the “well” is likely to contain (depending on your predilection) an equivalent 8K image. What is important to accept here is that the media and format choices that we filmmakers make at the ground zero of image capture—are “baked in.” For Silverado, Larry Kasdan and I chose Super 35 (then called Super-Techniscope) over anamorphic, just as we chose anamorphic over 1:85 for our next film, The Accidental Tourist; these were for strictly aesthetic reasons just as Zak Penn, Werner Herzog and I chose a low end, standard def, Panasonic prosumer camera for Incident at Loch Ness, and just as Anthony Dod Mantle and Thomas Vinterberg chose for Celebration.

FOUR

Fellow cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and I are on the National Film Preservation Board, representing the ICG and the ASC. Each December, the Board selects 25 titles to be added to the National Film Registry. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, in the recent press release said, These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring importance to American culture. They reflect who we are as a people and as a nation.

This year the selections range from the 1897 Corbett-Fitzsimmons Title Fight to The Matrix from 1999. You can find the full list with historical background information here:

Library of Congress: “2012 National Film Registry Picks in A League of Their Own” link

 

The Registry now contains 600 titles and represents a broad spectrum of our nation’s fiction and non-fiction movie record.

Participating on the National Film Preservation Board and attending the annual weekend of restoration and archiving presentations, The Reel Thing, created by Grover Crisp and Michael Friend, I have become acutely aware of the fragility of our visual and aural recorded history, especially as we move ever deeper into the digital era.

AMIA: The Reel Thing link

There is an uncanny dichotomy before us.  Exciting digital platforms are enabling us to make magisterial restorations of at-risk films, such as the near five hour 1934 French Les Misèrables by director Raymond Bernard, now available in an edition by the Criterion Collection:

Criterion Collection: Les Misérables link

 

Criterion Eclipse Series

Criterion Eclipse Series

Or the extraordinary reconstruction in color of the 1902 Méliès Voyage to the Moon, first shown at the 2011 Cannes Festival with a soundtrack by Air.

8. voyage to the moon

Although not available for commercial publication, you can read the absorbing Technicolor Foundation account of this restoration online at:

Technicolor Foundation: A book about A Trip to the Moon and Georges Méliès link

Just click “read online.” The English text begins on pg. 60 and offers good resolution at full screen. The historic photos are amazing.

Technicolor's record of the restoration.

Technicolor’s record of the restoration.

Though much of our film record of the early decades remains lost,  much is being found in unlikely locations on a regular basis, and restored to close to pristine condition through our ever more flexible digital tools. The irony is that the same digital systems that we  use to restore and re-master these older movies, we also use  to create our latest work—  work that is more and more being recorded and completed in a very vulnerable medium, digital video.

Frankly, I am worried. Aside from whatever value you may or may not attach to motion picture film as a still viable medium for filmmaking–instead of, or side by side with digital video–there is universal consensus that there is still no alternative to film to preserve and archive our movies. “Migration” may be the buzzword du jour  but it is not a solution. So, I find myself, a cinematographer still at the helm of a celluloid schooner in possibly the last decade of the film era, but also deep in digital technology– way too aware of the shoals and reefs as this digital tide pushes us toward an uncertain shore. How many movies already made or yet to be made in video will sink into a digital maelstrom never to be seen again?  How many of the digital movies of 2012 might not be able to be seen by anyone in 2112? What legacy might we have lost if anyone were curious a century from now to see the films of “A Century Ago?”

Oscars.org—The Digital Dilemma 2 link

AMPAS Sci-Tech Council report.

AMPAS Sci-Tech Council report.

 

Next: A look at the 2013 ASC International Cinematographer Award honoree.

 

 

2 Responses to “A Century Ago: Films of 1912—Part Two”

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  • Great continuation of part 1. This is very insightful and I truly appreciate your dedication to film education.
    Best,
    Matthias

  • John,

    The issues of archiving and preservation have been overlooked, or more acurately, ignored by networks and producers of television series as well. I have brought up the subject many times at the start of a new series and my question usually gets a laugh.

    The concern for preservation is about as low as one gets on the priority scale. Not being cancelled and being brought back for a second season is on everyone’s mind. The quickness with which an episode is written, produced, shot, edited and aired is the engine that drives the project.

    However, even in 1951 Desi Arnaz thought enough about preservation before one script was written for “I Love Lucy” that we are able to enjoy the series to this day. Broadcast standards and technology are changing so quickly that series shot digitaly today will only exist in today’s digital HD format with no allowance for future changes.

    Some series like “The West Wing” were originally shot on 16mm but soon were promoted to 35mm in its first or second season. “Gilmore Girls”, a series I worked on for many seasons, was shot strictly on Super 16mm. Both of these shows were conformed and finished on tape and the negative was not initially cut. However, Warner Brothers has a policy to eventually cut the negative for archival purposes. Though certainly effects and transitions will be missing because they were originally done digitally, the optical count sheets and paperwork were turned over by the assistant editors for future use and at least all the crucial image information has a more stable home.

    The more current shows are tipically shot on the Arri Alexa on a ProRes format. Even the raw data on the P2 cards, the daily originals, are erased and recycled once the day’s work has been transferred to a hard drive. These shows will exist only as long as these hard drives remain valid. That, as we all know, is a very iffy proposition. Even Japan’s tsunami took out the only factory Sony had that made the popular HD-Cam SR, spurring a run to D5 and other formats and many shows remain tape based. If someone gave me a hard drive from 1995 I doubt I would even be able to access the media in any kind of relevant shape.

    There are too many shows and too much turnover for the networks to spend the capital for this kind of archiving, but it seems ironic that a show from the very dawn of the sitcom in the early 50’s has a better shelf life than many of today’s high tech, high def projects.

    Raul

    JOHN’S REPLY: It’s great to get this history and time line from an editor who has been working episodic in the Alexa era. It only confirms our worst fears for the future until sometime comes up with a viable and cheap archival medium. On the other hand, I have been very gratified by the many young cinematographers I spoke with during the recent ASC awards weekend who are arguing to shoot Super 16 because they believe the facts about archiving– and after all, they’d like to know that their work won’t turn into digital nitrate.

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