“Enhanced in Entertainment Value By About 25% (In Our Estimation)”:
An Enlarged History of Magnascope

Magnascope_600Old Ironsides—the 1926 super-production, helmed by one of Paramount’s most important directors, James Cruze—isn’t much shown these days. It’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray, though it was briefly available on VHS in the late 1980s, when Paramount mined its silent library for a 75th anniversary promotion. If you’ve come across Old Ironsides at all, it’s likely been as a footnote in a film history textbook, duly credited as the film that introduced Magnascope—a widescreen projection process developed by Lorenzo Del Riccio that is itself a footnote in the development of Cinerama and CinemaScope.

But should we dismiss Magnascope so quickly? Yes, we can draw an evolutionary line between Magnascope and the more durable widescreen processes. We can also readily glimpse the Magnascope concept in today’s IMAX presentations. But Magnascope’s true legacy is something else, situated between chintzy striving and earnest grandeur, between what filmmakers thought they were making and what projectionists made instead. Continue reading

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An Enlarged History of Magnascope

Are You Ready for the Great Atomic Power?: Decontaminating Doom Town

DT_13Before tonight’s screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, we’ll be presenting a rare short: Doom Town. Call it a prelude or a grim appetizer to Tarkovsky’s vision of the apocalypse, but Doom Town is so compelling in its own right that it deserves a few words. Originally released in polarized 3-D, Doom Town will be screened in 2-D, in a print made directly from one of Doom Town’s original camera negatives.

Whenever I try to explain the Film Society’s interest in physical media to a mixed audience, I shamelessly shoplift from other disciplines. Approach film prints like an anthropologist, I suggest. Who made them? Who used them? What do the print’s material characteristics suggest about its origins and purpose? Continue reading

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Pause of the Clock – 20 Years Later

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Until relatively recently, 16mm and super 16 were the mediums of choice for anyone who wanted to make a feature film with limited resources. With the glut of independent features shot quickly and digitally over the past five years, it’s hard not to get excited about recent features like LISTEN UP PHILIP, HAPPY CHRISTMAS, and GOD HELP THE GIRL being shot on 16mm on relatively small budgets even though, to the best of our knowledge, these films were exhibited only on DCP.

The few film schools that still offer classes in 16mm production tend to warn their students that it takes a patient person to work with the medium. Unless you’re in California or New York, it takes several business days for your film to be processed and printed, and if you’re lucky enough to work with optical printers, that crossfade you can drop in in Final Cut Pro in a few seconds can take a few hours to set up and execute. Continue reading

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ORWO at the End of the World

ORWO
Depending on who you talk to, motion picture film is either dead, floundering, or very much alive.

In the past year, Kodak has announced the discontinuation of several 16mm stocks. Deluxe and Technicolor have closed their main film production labs and auctioned off all their equipment. (We got a couple splicers, other forward-thinking institutions purchased what they could, and much was scrapped). Seeing a first-run movie in 35mm is now such a rarity that we drove all the way to Madison to see the Liam Neeson thriller Non-Stop on film. (Chicago’s last remaining 35mm-only second-run house, The Brew & View, announced its own digital conversion two weeks ago.)

At the same time Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and others convinced major studios to place enough minimum orders with Kodak to keep film-on-film production a possibility for at least a few more years. Nolan’s Interstellar will open two days early on 35mm, 70mm, and 70mm IMAX, and the Weinstein Company announced that Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight would see the widest 70mm release in 20 years (presumably referencing Ron Howard’s Far and Away). On the other side of the world, Film Ferrania (a new company resurrecting equipment from the old Ferrania film factory) in Italy launched a  $250,000 Kickstarter campaign (so far wildly successful) to reopen their film production facilities and start producing color reversal film–both 35mm and medium format still camera film, as well as Super8 and 16mm motion picture film.

Earlier this fall we spoke to George Campbell of ORWO North America, the North American sales division of ORWO FilmoTec GmbH. For the past three years ORWO North America has been making black and white motion picture and sound recording film available in 16mm and 35mm to archives, amateurs, and filmmakers. At a time when the future of motion picture film is at best uncertain, ORWO presents a welcome light at the end of the tunnel, and is one of the many groups working to change in dialogue from the wimpy “film is not dead yet” to “film is alive.” Continue reading

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Our 2014 National Film Registry nomination

rp40
If you’ve ever come especially early to one of our screenings, you may have seen this image on the screen: the black and white pattern of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers‘s “RP 40” test loop that we use to set the 35mm projector’s focus and framing.

We’ve wanted to nominated it for inclusion in the National Film Registry for years, and now we’ve done it! (Cross your fingers, and maybe it’ll make the cut!)

Here’s the text of our nomination, written by Film Society board member Andy Uhrich:

* * *

We’d like to recommend a film for the Registry. The title is 35mm Projector Alignment and Image Quality Test Film (Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, 1971/1995, silent, 00:02:13 or loop). It’s colloquially referred to as RP 40, which is the SMPTE standard that describes the construction and use of the film. Though it might be a well known film to you, we’ve included a still from the 1971 version of the film for your reference.

35mm Projector Alignment and Image Quality Test Film was created by SMPTE to, according to the standard’s documentation, “reproduce motion pictures to make faithful and pleasing reproductions of images and sound.” There’s only one image in the film. Its unchanging nature makes it a powerful tool to discover and fix issues that can be obscured during regular projection. RP 40’s seemingly abstract squares and lines become markers by which to set image focus, check the image resolution, adjust the projector’s shutter to remove travel ghost, and create plates for different aspect ratios.

Why recommend RP 40, which is clearly not an aesthetic work and doesn’t document an important social event?

The film was part of the everyday operations of a movie theater. In this way it can be seen as part of the sub-genre of functional films for cinema operation alongside snipes like 1953’s Let’s All Go to the Lobby.

It’s arguably one of the most common and most regularly projected American films of the last 40 years. Every projection booth worth its salt had one. Repertory and archival theaters still projecting film use it daily to ensure the highest standards of projection.

The RP 40 test film is a medium-specific use of film technology. It’s entirely about cinema as a projected art form. It exemplifies the practices and technologies that regulate the moviegoing experience.

35mm Projector Alignment and Image Quality Test Film is a calibration film recognized by projectionists and lab technicians everywhere. With the ending of film projecting in mainstream cinemas, adding RP 40 to the Registry is a way to honor the behind-the-scenes labor of projectionists as an occupation and skill that was central to twentieth century theatrical cinema.

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Andy Warhol’s Magic Trick: The Disappearing 16mm Projector

EikiIt’s not fair, the journalist reminds us, to pick apart and censure his headlines; the reporting is his work, but the boldface entrée is not. Case in point: Randy Kennedy’s informative dispatch on the state of the Andy Warhol film collection in last Thursday’s New York Times was saddled with a most unfortunate headline: “Digitizing Warhol’s Film Trove to Save It”—a premise that’s both wrong and not quite argued in the piece itself.

The gist of the article is simple enough: the archive of Andy Warhol’s prolific, prodigious film work—owned by the Warhol Museum, but stored and conserved at the Museum of Modern Art—has finally been slated for digitization. The scope of the collection is daunting; per the Times, only a tenth of Warhol’s surviving film work is available through MoMA in circulating 16mm prints. And even those can scarcely be said to be available because “[f]ewer and fewer people have the ability to show 16 millimeter,” according to Warhol Museum deputy director Patrick Moore. “I think the art world in particular, and hopefully the culture as a whole, will come to feel the way we do,” Moore adds, “which is that the films are every bit as significant and revolutionary as Warhol’s paintings.” Continue reading

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Who Will Save the Cinema?

Kodak_Vision 3A
The celluloid community received its first positive news in recent months when the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that a consortium of studios was negotiating a long-term arrangement with Eastman Kodak Co. to maintain the company’s film manufacturing capacity. The Hollywood Reporter followed up Wednesday with word that the deal was “all but finalized.”

The situation is, of course, rich in irony. The negotiating studios—Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount, Disney, and the Weinstein Company—have been trying for more than a decade to wean their industry away from these very film products, which built and sustained Hollywood over the last century. Kodak, meanwhile, had been striving to transform itself into a desktop printing company under the tenure of recently-departed CEO Antonio Perez, despite the fact that motion picture film remained the declining company’s only profit center. (Speaking of profits, it’s hard to decide which Journal take-away is more astonishing: that Kodak’s film orders had declined by 96% since 2006 or that the film unit was still in the black throughout much of this death spiral. Only in March 2014 did newly-installed Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke discover that demand was dropping sufficiently to threaten film’s profitability. If film manufacture truly remained profitable operating at 15% capacity, perhaps it was a better business proposition than anyone guessed.) Continue reading

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Remember The Alamo? Movies, Markets, and Misaligned Incentives

ALAMO 70mm

Film preservation is rarely a sexy endeavor, the fantasies of archivists themselves notwithstanding. Preserving or restoring a film often requires years of semi-scholastic drudgery—research, grant-writing, lab tests, hair-splitting assessments of continuity and color-timing. The reward at the end of the process is posterity—for the film, not the preservationist, who must be content with providing a sound bite on a DVD extra. (Bonus points allotted if the preservationist is shown at a messy desk, futzing with an ornery reel or holding it up to the light for inspection, like a fastidious jeweler.)

Point being, preservation work is a consummate behind-the-scenes job. On a certain level, that work should be invisible: if the goal is to return a film as close as possible to its original state, then eluding audience detection through seamless tradecraft is a mark of success. Hiding the gulf between disparate source elements and suppressing the ravages of time are laudable, essentially self-effacing, achievements. Film restoration hews closely to the physician’s Hippocratic Oath—first, do no harm. (By this standard, touting a new surround sound remix, digitally removing the intrinsic grain structure of the image, or valiantly intuiting a long-dead filmmaker’s unrealized intentions would automatically command suspicion, to say nothing of colorization, integration of new footage, and the like.) The highest compliment is not to be noticed at all.

The deliberations behind a restoration are even more obscure. They are almost always private and sometimes even proprietary: convincing a foundation that a particular film is culturally auspicious enough to merit underwriting its preservation, persuading a superior to allocate scarce discretionary funds to an emergency salvage project, negotiating a fair licensing agreement with a copyright holder. These are inherently delicate situations, so it’s no surprise that they don’t often unfold in the public square. Continue reading

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Sucking in the Seventies: Re-Examining the Wondrous, Incoherent Decade

ERRBI’m pretty sure the first movie book I read cover-to-cover was Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a high-calorie, sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ gross participation page-turner that maps the ascent and deflation of the “New Hollywood” filmmakers from 1967 to 1980. For a high schooler, it was a simple story with an irresistible through line and a cast of unsavory, irascible geniuses. Even without seeing all the films described in the book, this gossipy chronicle of long-haired movie brats sold a seductive premise: a vanished kingdom of personal, American auteurist cinema, wiped off the beach by Jaws and its blockbusting successors.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, published in 1998 shortly after the release of Boogie Nights, spawned a ’70s revival that has now calcified into a peculiar critical consensus. The best-seller inspired two talking-head documentaries (A Decade Under the Influence and another named for and adapted from the Biskind book) and endless appreciations of films that were hardly underappreciated in the first place: The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, Apocalypse Now.

Nor can we forget the recent films that consciously channeled the “New Hollywood Renaissance,” taking the procedural aloofness of All the President’s Men as a retro Rosetta Stone: Argo, The Informant!, Michael ClaytonZodiac, American Hustle, and host of less memorable pictures. Grain equals grit.

By now, the ’70s are accepted so reflexively as “Hollywood’s Last Golden Age” that there’s little point in quibbling. Still, it’s difficult to name another era in Hollywood filmmaking impervious to the critic’s naturally revisionist impulse. The Best Picture Oscar winners of the ’30s or the ’80s are roundly ridiculed, but the ’70s class (Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Annie Hall) remains lionized. Continue reading

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Crimes of Opportunity: Ben Hecht, Anti-Auteur

Crime Without Passion_FuryWe’re all auteurists now. The notion that the director is primary author of a film, once a fringe idea debated in little magazines and grindhouse theater lobbies, is now the implicit premise of movie production, criticism, and advertising. When 3 Days to Kill is promoted as “A McG Film” and Pompeii is, contractually speaking, “A Film by Paul W. S. Anderson,” we must recognize that the debate is well settled.

In our era of automatic auteurs, the contentious critical arguments of generations past can seem downright quaint, if not fitfully obscure. The once-controversial figure of the writer-director is a case in point.

In the earliest years of cinema, production roles were rarely delineated: actors and directors could improvise a scenario on standing sets, or a cameraman might call the shots. A quintessentially industrial art thrived on a pre-industrial division of labor. The growth of the studio system in the late 1910s and 1920s gradually forced filmmakers into more rigidly defined roles. The transformation culminated with the coming of sound, which introduced the idea of the modern screenwriter—not a semi-literate scenario scribbler or a witty intertitle aphorist, but someone who resembled a professional Broadway playwright.

The moguls aspired to employ sharp, college-educated playwrights, but the working conditions they offered were frequently demeaning and atrocious: no matter how fine a script was, the studio machinery would insist upon re-writes. The script would be passed from one employee to another as a matter of habit.  One cannot overstate how thoughtlessly this imperative unfolded in practice. The process that birthed Midnight (1939) may be apocryphal, but it remains illustrative: unsatisfied with Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s draft, Paramount threw the script into the rewrite pool and programmatically assigned the task to another team—Wilder and Brackett, as it turned out, who submitted their uncorrected ‘revision,’ which was judged a tremendous improvement. Continue reading

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