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Keeping FILM Alive

The Continued Survival of Celluloid

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By Ron Merk

For those of ups who grew up with the movies, the term “film” is one that not only means the movie, itself, but also the stuff on which the movie was made and presented, the film stock. There have been rumors for years now that film is dead. Well, it would seem that there are those who would forestall film’s extinction for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is unique and should not be lost to those who create and watch films because of its qualities.

Imagine a work like Da Vinci’s The Last Supper being done as a watercolor instead of a mural in a church, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night as an etching. Of course, you can’t. Another analogy is the difference between oil color and water color paintings. The medium is almost as important as the subject. Each renders a totally different look not possible in the other. Film has qualities that digital does not, and vice versa. But digital, like a giant high tech meteor hitting the world of film, has practically eradicated the use of film by most filmmakers today. Many consider film technology a clumsy, heavy (and expensive) dinosaur deserving of extinction. But there are a few of us, thank goodness, who see the value of this clumsy, plodding old creature called film.

In a small way, groups like Mono No Aware keep working with film and teaching young filmmakers that film has special qualities not found in video and digital. You can hold it in your hands, look at the images without any equipment, and cut it into pieces, re-assemble them with a splicer to make a film that is greater than the sum of its part because of the effects one created by editing. Many people love the fact that certain artifacts are there, light leaks in the camera and the way the light strikes the raw stock to create effects not possible in digital (unless we add them as special effects later, and still they do not have that organic look that happens only in original photography). The BBC did a wonderful segment recently about Mono No Aware, which you can view at: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-28559326

At the center of the idea that film may be lost to us is the sad tale of one of the great giants of filmmaking, the Eastman Kodak Company, which has fallen on hard times due to the shift from film to digital filmmaking and distribution, resulting in the loss of 96% of its film business over the last few years. Add MORE HERE.

Side by Side is a project done by actor Keanu Reeves (ably assisted by director Martin Scorcese) in which digital and film formats are compared. Their film looks at all the aspects of both media that are considered by filmmakers and observed by viewers. It’s a very interesting look at this pressing issue of whether or not film vs. digital is a discussion or a war. You can read more about it at: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-21457702

More recently, some big Hollywood names have put pressure on the studios to put pressure on Kodak to keep manufacturing film. They include the J.J. Abrams, Judd Apatow, Christopher Nolan, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, among many, who are insisting that their projects continue to be originated on 35mm film. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/kodak-studios-negotiating-last-ditch-722187

Faced with the possible extinction of the material that made Hollywood famous, a coalition of studios is close to a deal to keep Eastman Kodak Co. in the business of producing movie film. http://online.wsj.com/articles/kodak-movie-film-at-deaths-door-gets-a-reprieve-1406674752?mod=WSJ_hp_RightTopStories

The result is that Kodak will most likely agree to continue making film, with the studios agreeing to purchase certain amounts of it, keeping the film manufacturing line in Rochester chugging along for a few more years at least. The news is good, at least for the meantime, for film.

If not, Kodak won’t have to look over its shoulder for too long to notice that there are other old dinosaurs that will chase after that “film manufacturing business niche” and take over where Kodak has been forced to let go of its core business. In Europe there are a few companies who are still making film material, including one that’s rising from the ashes, Ferrannia, in Italy. So, at least for the rest of my career, I think I’ll still be able to find some film to shoot or print on. As for the next generation, well, it’s really up to them to figure out what to do with the future of film.

At the recent San Francisco Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco, the Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, made a gallant effort to get 35mm prints of these classic films to present at his annual event at the Castro Theater. Maybe the subtlety of a film moving through a machine, with its shutter opening and closing, and the effect of the light passing through the celluloid is lost on some people, but not on me.

I find it ironic that no matter which medium is used to originate movies today, and to project them, we still keep calling them films. Maybe not so ironic, after all. Film is in our blood and our collective consciousness. When someone wants an iconic image for “film” do they show us a hard drive or a sensor? No, they use an illustration of a reel of film unspooling or flickering through a projector. No, film is not dead, despite the rumors, and if they stop making film, people will continue to make “films.” Yes, I guess it is ironic. Or perhaps, iconic!