By Gordon Meyer
During the holiday week, while I was in St. Louis visiting family, we decided to traipse over to a nearby AMC multiplex to see SKYFALL, the latest James Bond film. Surprisingly enough, this particular AMC location appears to be one of the few remaining that still runs 35mm on at least some of its screens. Following the digital pre-show filled with local and national ads, the trailers began in all their filmic glory, right down to the scratches.
Now to be fair to the projection staff at the Creve Coeur AMC, while visible enough to let me know I was watching actual 35mm film instead of a cluster of glowing pixels, the scratches really weren't that bad and the print itself was pristine. In fact, since, back in my college days, one of my work study jobs was as a projectionist (running 16mm, 35mm and 70mm, thank you very much), there was actually a bit of nostalgia for me when I saw the telltale changeover cues in the upper right corner of the screen every 20 minutes.
I make no bones about the fact that, in many ways, I'm a traditionalist. I love the almost intangible feel of film, which is why I spent so much time over the summer raving about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' "Last 70mm Film Festival." But I have to admit that with all the advancements in digital cinema, it's getting harder and harder for even seasoned observers to easily tell the difference between film and digital.
Of course one of the reasons for this is that camera vendors like Arri and Panavision take great pains to help filmmakers achieve the look and feel of 35mm film through a variety of means, beginning with a 24 fps frame rate and the use of lenses carefully engineered to provide a film-like look. Once digital post became the standard and the use of negative cutters increasingly rare, the visual differences between digital and film based projection became smaller and smaller.
Think about it. If a movie has been completely cut digitally and then that digital version has been transferred onto fine grain film stock, thus essentially losing a generation, which is going to more accurately reflect the director and DP's vision? The first generation digital print or a digital to film transfer?
When it comes to older films that were completely shot and edited on film, I still love the idea of watching them projected on the big screen from an actual film print. It's kind of a "circle of life" thing, I guess. But after seeing SKYFALL on film, then briefly slipping into an adjacent auditorium where it was screening digitally, I have to honestly say that, if it weren't for the occasional scratches or changeover cues, I couldn't have seen the difference. In fact, if anything, the digital version actually looked better because the image was rock solid, without the classic film jitter.
As someone who reveres tradition, I hope that there will always be a place for 35mm and 70mm exhibition. But this was another reminder to me that for the overwhelming majority of theatres in this country, the handwriting on the wall has never been stronger when it comes to the way movies will be shown. Circle of life.