Reel loss

By David Hickey

Film is dead.


Not the art form itself. The cinema experience is still going strong with box-office records constantly under threat and the race for this year’s best picture Oscar one of the most hotly-contested in recent memory. The issue at hand is the future of those long black reels. After more than a century as the primary medium of recording and exhibiting motion pictures, celluloid film is well and truly on its way out.

In January this year the once titanic film company Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy and the primary manufacturers of motion picture film cameras (Panavision, Aaton and ARRI) ceased production of the ageing technology, focusing all their efforts on their digital replacements. Film cameras and celluloid reels will always be around, but decreased production means that film will become more expensive and inconvenient to obtain, use and develop, thus eliminating it as a viable option for most of the filmmaking market.

The digital revolution translates all the way to the cinema. Digital projectors were slowly popping up from the mid 2000s and then along came 3D. The main culprit? A little movie by the name of Avatar. Having the proper equipment to screen the latest film by James Cameron, whose previous work was the highest-grossing film of all time (Titanic), was the primary catalyst for the installation of 3D digital projectors worldwide. It proved to be a savvy business decision. Avatar went on to dethrone Titanic by a long margin, and nothing has come close since.

3D movies continued as a big audience drawcard and all levels of the film industry catered to its needs. Studios brought out more 3D features, and films were distributed digitally saving on the printing and transport of film reels, and cinemas installed more digital projectors. It’s estimated that 80 per cent of the worlds cinema projectors are now digital and the remaining 20 per cent are expected to vanish by 2014.

To an average audience member the transition to digital may not mean a whole lot, but to many a cinephile the change sparks a reaction more suited to a tragedy.

A projectionist in cinemas all over Sydney since the 1970s, John Molnar has witnessed the analogue to digital transition first hand and has had time to reflect on what it means for the industry.

“When it first arrived I hated digital but I guess I’m used to it now,” he says. “Some digital versions look okay but I definitely prefer film. It has a softer look about it; often digital can be too bright and far over the top. Digital is really sharply focused. You lose depth, it further reveals itself as a two-dimensional picture.”

It’s perhaps the equivalent of a DJ being replaced by a pre-recorded mix, or art being viewed on an iPad. The crux of the experience remains yet something is lacking, a sentiment with which Molnar agrees.

“Yes – me! I’ll be lacking!” he laughs. “When you remove the human element from something, it’s no longer an art form. Even if it wasn’t particularly artistic in the first place. It feels artificial. But the machines will all improve. Digital technology improves so rapidly and I don’t think it’ll slow down soon. We really are just at the beginning.

“Would a film be better if I was rolling it by hand? Of course not. Plus I’d be bloody tired.”

Perhaps the rise of digital isn’t a shameful breaking of tradition, but an evolution to reap rewards in the future. Whatever your views on the matter the loss of the film in film is a heavy and heartfelt blow, yet the good news is that it’s not all bad news.

“It’ll be able to mimic film perfectly soon, and then probably offer things that film can’t,” Molnar says. “In the future they’ll wonder how we ever lived without it.”


Featured image by Techy2610/CC/flickr

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