This is probably not much of a secret, but I’m going to spill the beans anyway: it’s becoming more and more infrequent to actually watch something projected from celluloid. The term “film” is still used, thrown around without meaning, but when you enter a movie theater what you’re most likely seeing, except in the rarest of circumstances, is something called a DCP — essentially, a digital file projected on screen.
This is exactly what you’ll be watching if you go to see “The Third Man,” which will be presented in a new 4K-resolution (ultra high-definition) digital restoration at Film Forum, beginning June 26. Deluxe Restoration, on behalf of Studiocanal, digitally restored the film from a fine grain master positive struck from the original negative. This sounds great, until you see the result. Carol Reed’s 1949 film noir, starring Joseph Cotton and featuring an unforgettable performance from Orson Welles, loses its shadowy intrigue when the restoration process oversteps the line of “making the film appear as it was originally intended,” using newfound digital tools to “clean up” the film. Skin tones look polished and movement is stabilized, giving the image a sharpness that was not originally there. In short, it begins to not look like film anymore.
This is an increasing problem, and one that many people outside the relatively small film community even recognize. Below, a primer on the struggle to keep films on celluloid.
What is a DCP exactly?
It’s a Digital Cinema Package, essentially high-quality digital files bundled together, sometimes on a hard-drive and other times transmitted to the theater over a broadband connection. The files are “typically around 150GB but as large as 400GB,” according to IBM, which recently announced the development of software to boost the speed of DCP transfer to movie theaters.
Do movie theaters show films on celluloid at all any more?
It’s rare. According to the New Republic, “nine out of ten U.S. movie screens have now made the switch from 35mm film to digital,” although without specific numbers to back up that claim, it’s hard to know for sure. But that seems pretty close.
For new releases, it seems that only if the director specifically requests that the film be presented in its original format (and has the clout to make such a request), like Christopher Nolan did for “Interstellar,” giving incentive to theaters to show the movie on film (if they were still equipped to do such a thing) by allowing them to screen it for audiences before the premiere date. Paul Thomas Anderson screened his latest, “Inherent Vice,” on 35mm at the New York Film Festival last year, but if you saw it during its theatrical release you most likely saw it projected digitally.
While repertory theaters continue to show 35mm prints of old films, the struggle to obtain those prints has become more difficult. Major studios are increasingly limiting the potential to loan prints of their older titles, offering instead a DCP, and even in some cases a Blu-Ray or DVD. Archivists, however, have not digitally scanned all movies and the fear is that, soon enough, nobody will be able to see the movies deemed not worthy of the digital transition.
Are DCP’s better than celluloid?
Not all digital restorations are terrible looking (the presentation of the restored “The Apu Trilogy” is an example that has been championed) but it’s only recently, with the advent of 4K-resolution technology, that a DCP has been able to closely approximate the look and feel of celluloid. (If a theater advertises a 2K restoration of a film, don’t bother; you could get the same quality watching a DVD on a computer screen.) When done with care, and extensive knowledge of the work they are restoring, a digital restoration can be illuminating. But often there is noticeable difference, and one that is not always welcome. Nick Pinkerton, in a column for Film Comment magazine, is instructive reading on the subject. He counters the view that a digital restoration would eliminate the problem of aging prints (with celluloid there is a natural degradation process, meaning every time the film runs through a projector, the quality gradually decreases) by offering the same experience seemingly forever. “[B]ut this presupposes that the movie looks good in the first place, as opposed to merely freshly scrubbed,” Pinkerton writes.
How do I know I’m watching a DCP instead of film?
There are people that will tell you that the difference is not noticeable. But they’re wrong. As mentioned above regarding “The Third Man,” there is often sharpness in a DCP that, as David Bordwell writes, is “too revealing.” With film, “the random scatter of photosensitive molecules in the emulsion creates an overall softness and shimmer,” Bordwell adds, but with a DCP, the desire for what Pinkerton calls “optimal image quality” leads to a movie that looks digitally rendered instead of photographed. In a sense, it looks eerily unreal.
That’s even if the movie works at all. I can speak from personal experience here, as somebody who watches and writes about moving images for a living, that I’ve lost count of the amount of times a DCP has failed in front of audience. I don’t mean that it doesn’t look good but rather that it literally didn’t load, or there is a glitch in the digital file, leading to a stuttering image, loss of sound, etc. This is the problem of dealing with finicky technology — sometimes it just doesn’t work.
So what is this really about?
Dollars and cents. While a digital restoration still requires people to oversee the restoration, the workflow is streamlined and quicker (but again, not always for the best). Digital distribution, on the other hand, benefits the studios simply because it cuts costs. Per the New Republic: “To produce and ship a 35mm print to an American cinema costs about $1,500. Multiply that by, say, 5,000 prints for a big movie and it comes to $7.5 million. Digital formats can do the same job for 90 percent less.”
In addition, theaters that are not equipped to show DCPs (which requires a system that costs between $60,000 and $150,000 each) are left in the dust. The movie industry, which recorded $10.37 billion dollars in revenue from ticket sales in 2014, touts its motives as part of the digital revolution. But as Pinkerton notes, what we’re actually seeing is a transition that “puts thousands of projectionists, lab techs, and auxiliaries of old-fashioned celluloid production, postproduction, distribution, and exhibition out of work, all in the name of the bottom line.”