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film reel CLINGING TO THE PAST: The legacy of 35mm film is preserved at the George Eastman House Archive, as seen in the documentary 'Side by Side.' 2012 Company Films LLC

Splice of Life

Even if digital projection is inevitable, there remains the question of what the new technology entails: a new opportunity for theater owners, who no longer have to deal with the aging mechanics of reels, splices and projectors.

Some consider digital projection a monster unleashed before anyone knew what it was destroying—a force degrading the warmth of old-fashioned film and a financial problem throwing independent movie theaters out of business.

An expert on the subject, the theorist David Bordwell, refers to the double-edged nature of the new system in the title of his online book, Pandora's Digital Box. Small, independent theater exhibitors, hanging on by their fingernails already, now face an upgrade of at least $50,000 to rip out and replace their film projectors.

Efforts to save small theaters are numerous. Los Angeles' New Beverly Cinema has been showing second-run revival films since 1978. Julia Marchese of the theater is circulating a petition that reads: "I firmly believe that when you go out to the cinema, the film should be shown in 35mm. We still use a reel-to-reel projection system, and our projectionists care dearly about film, checking each print carefully before it screens and monitoring the film as it runs to ensure the best projection possible."

The digital version of The Godfather II was shown recently, like so many older films, as part of Fathom Events' series of classic motion pictures at the Cin–Arts chain. Critic David Thomson in The New Republic voted to stay away. He claimed wariness through previous exposure "to the technical coldness of the show, and an end to that feeling of light falling on skin." (The next TCM/Fathom Events screening will be To Kill a Mockingbird on Nov. 15.)

Roger Ebert elsewhere lamented the passing of 35mm film's "vibrato" or "shimmer." The various nicks and tiny stray defects that accumulate through wear on a 35mm print, if one wants to be fanciful, add to the surface of the film something like the warm analogue sound of an old LP, as opposed to the chillier cleanliness of a digital download.

Some critics have opposed the shift to digital on the basis of the visuals alone. There are still few answers to critic Duncan Shepherd's question about digital cinema back when it was making its advent: "What's in it for the audience?"

Sara Maria Vizcarrando, a local critic, a teacher at De Anza College and a former writer for Box Office Magazine, likes to quote filmmaker Carolyn Martel: "When did we first start believing that technological advancement is a human advancement?"

The downside of film is easy to list. Prints in 35mm are heavy and expensive, a headache for preservationists. The film can be scratched in the projector. The prints break. Sometimes, a frame gets caught in the gate and melts, like a psychedelic light show.

The rise of Pixar and the 3-D cartoon that digital exemplifies, is a terrific trend; they've practically monopolized the market for all-ages film—what once was a tradition in classic cinema, destroyed by overcareful marketing. When a first-rate cinematographer comes in, the results on digital certainly do equal film. Skyfall is the first James Bond film shot in digital, and it looks suitably epic and rich, thanks to the master cinematographer Roger Deakins.

There are exceptions to this superiority, however: an exterior as 007 stands on the deck of a sailboat on his way to an island of doom shows that the lambency of clear blue skies are still a little beyond digital photography. Yet a fight scene in a Shanghai skyscraper silhouetted against windows scribbled with laser-projected ads is the most futuristic a spy movie has looked since the 1960s; it's "a blitz of color," as Deakins described it to interviewer Kristopher Tapley.

Once the digital projection equipment is installed, the projectionist is expendable—a savings for the exhibitor. Ideally, digital is eternal. The 10,000th screening is as clear as the first.

"Ideally" must be used with quotes. There are glitches sometimes embarrassingly demonstrated right before press screenings. The movie can develop untreatable glitches or crash completely. If not treated with attention, a hard disk faces the same kind of decay a 35mm print does. DVDs were offered as an eternal format at first. Everyone knows they mosaic into patterns of enlarged pixels—or just stop altogether—before too long.

Who will preserve these hard drives? Many great motion pictures began as box office flops, and unpopular motion pictures lose their protectors. It's the old problem with the "orphan" films that the Library of Congress and other preservation groups face trying to keep our cinematic heritage from disappearing.

Digital projection closes the deal that began with digital photography. On one hand, it's a less expensive and more democratic format for motion pictures, bringing in talents who never could have afforded to make a movie otherwise. On the other hand, it's causing a glut that allows well-off self-promoters to squeeze out more worthy moviemakers.

Admittedly, digital photography has improved dramatically. Until recently, however, digital photography did metal better than flesh, artificial light better than sunlight, and neither one with the same clarity as film stock. Digital projection is the absolute best way to watch Iron Man blasting a skyscraper, with the cold, new-minted shine on the rocket suit and the blinding glow of the jets.

Contrast that with a scene that appears constantly in digitally photographed motion pictures. A synthetic raptor wings over a forest, acting as if it were the arrow on an old map, showing you which direction to look. The wing movements are mechanical. Evenly colored, salmon-pink clouds coast through vaguely fluorescent skies, with hues as fixed as the percentage of synthetic pollen in the air.

As yet, there aren't very many of what could be called "painterly" digital motion pictures. (It's why Wally Pfister in the film Side by Side describes digital as a box of crayons compared to the oil paints he has been using.) The computer-aided reassessment of color began, as all bad trends begin, with some genuine art: the Coen brothers' 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? tinted to a nostalgic sepia tone. Today, too many motion pictures are digitally rejiggered, sugared and gilded. In action scenes, there's a look that's been heralded as the beyond-the-grave triumph of Thomas Kinkade: black night and gold sparkles—tongues of fire, Pentecost every day.

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