Category Archives: November 2015

The Way It Was Meant to be Seen, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Digital


Whatever the critics think or the box office returns, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful 8 will make history when it opens this Christmas. In spite of the fact that almost no major movie theaters in the United States still have film projectors, The Hateful 8 will premier on film, and not just any film. 70 millimeter Ultra Panavision film, the kind of wide screen screen experience that led Hollywood’s efforts to battle the encroachment of television in the 1950s but that has all but disappeared from movie technology. While a few recent movies such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar from last year featured a small number of 70mm film screenings, Tarantino, and more precisely his distributors the Weinstein Company, are going big. They are working to acquire enough film projectors to equip almost one hundred theaters across the US, a massive undertaking requiring millions of dollars, some detective work to locate still operational projectors, and a training effort to resurrect the almost forgotten art of running a film projector.

Stanley Kramer's 1964 epic comedy It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was shot in Ulra Panavision.
Stanley Kramer’s 1964 epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was shot in Ulra Panavision.

Why go to all this trouble, especially when the movie will expand in January to rely on the digital projection systems that dominate contemporary movie exhibition? The reason is Tarantino’s devotion to film (and the Weinstein Company’s devotion to their longtime star director). Along with a number of other super auteurs, like Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino only uses film to shoot his movies, even if the marketplace demands that they be turned into digital versions for exhibition. They are part of a cinephile community that reveres the look of film over the look of digital, and because of their reputations in the movie community, they were part of the successful effort to convince the Kodak company to keep manufacturing film stock.

To Tarantino—and to many film lovers—seeing The Hateful 8 on a film projector is the only way to “see it the way it’s supposed to be seen.” But this idea—that’s there is a “best” way to see a movie–points to a larger question and even argument that has been part of the discussion of movies from the beginning, an argument at the heart of the digital/film divide: is there really a “best” way to see a movie? Certainly Tarantino as a director has the right to insist on what he believes is the best way to see his movie. But do we have to agree? More to the point, is there any way to say whether he is “objectively” right?

Film lovers might begin by pointing to the material fact that film has historically been able to retain more visual information than digital technology, but that distance has largely been overcome (you can read a more detailed explanation here courtesy of Michael Archambault). The argument is really one of aesthetics, and usually one based on a perceived greater warmth to the film versus digital image. Of course, that’s a very simplified version of the argument, which you can find multiple versions of online, including Tarantino himself. And of course, it’s also significant that film is the older medium and digital the upstart (there’s even an argument that nitrate film—the flammable version of film used in the silent era and during much of the studios era—is preferable to the “safety” film that followed it.) The fact that the switch to digital was driven more by money than art also figures in.

A comparison to music recording can be instructive here, as well as point to another aspect of the digital/film debate that even the film purist Tarantino concedes: access. In a lot of ways, the film/digital debate in movies parallels the vinyl/digital debate among music lovers. Those of us of a certain age can remember the glory days of “hi fi,” a period ranging from the 1950s and reaching a zenith in the 1970s. Dedicated audiophiles not only collected vinyl records but ever more complex and sophisticated reproduction systems. You might start with a simple record player like this:


But you aspired to a home sound system like this:


The digital era transformed the music industry as dramatically as it would later the movie industry. Almost overnight, it seemed, vinyl records and turntable became obsolete, to be replaced by compact discs and MP3 files. And just like with the movies, certain artists and music lovers quickly began to complain about the quality of digital recording, one result being the resurrection of vinyl over the last fifteen years, not as the mainstream form of distributing and selling music, but as a kind of artisanal form for the serious music fan. At the same time, digital continues to dominate and evolve, with streaming services like Spotify increasing replacing the physical “record collection.”

But it’s also the record collection that distinguishes music from the movies when it comes to arguments over digital technology. The whole purpose of vinyl records was to allow fans to create their own personal and portable music collections. The people buying those high end stereo systems in the 1970s often owned dozens if not hundreds of records. Digital technology, of course, has only built on this legacy, as we can now carry thousands of songs around with on our phones and tablets.

Before the 1980s, however, it was almost impossible for a movie fan to be a movie collector. Only a tiny fraction of cinephiles actually owned movies in their physical form. Instead, they had to rely on professional exhibitors with the requisite equipment to see a favorite movie. The issue of access changed dramatically with the rise of television, as now the small screen greatly expanded the availability of movie screen experiences, but viewers still didn’t own the movies, relying instead on the programming whims of the television channels.

All that changed in the 1980s with the introduction of what almost all movie fans agree is the worst form of movie reproduction ever invented: the video cassette. For all their fragility, susceptibility to dust and dirt, and “tracking” issues (ask your parents if you don’t know what this means), video cassettes not only greatly expanded access to the history and variety of the movies but for the first time allowed movie fans to become movie collectors, to assemble home libraries of their favorite screen experiences. The video cassette also forms a part of Quentin Tarantino’s legend, his years working in a video rental story serving as a kind of film school for the future auteur.

A videocassette having a bad day.
A videocassette having a bad day.

Compared to the clunky and unreliable video cassette, the first DVDs and later Blu-ray discs seemed like giant leaps forward in quality and ease of access for viewers. At the same time, digital technology was also democratizing movie production, first with the home camcorder and today with the digital movie cameras many of carry with us in our pockets. For Hollywood, the financial benefits were clear. Once digital technology developed to the point that audiences would accept digital movies as equal to film, the drastically lowered production costs of using digital—along with the new universe of movie effects created by CGI technology—meant the digital future was inevitable.

That crucial benchmark of audience acceptance was the real turning point, and the reality is—and whether this is a sad reality or not depends on where you stand in the argument—most audiences either don’t see a difference between film and digital or don’t see enough to make a difference. The same situation holds in music; it’s hard to find even a vinyl devotee who doesn’t also take advantage of the convenience of digital audio files. For these audiophiles, “close enough” is good enough.

The larger reality—and it’s the reality that serves as the basis for Screen Ages—is that we have always experienced the movies in a variety of contexts and technological situations. In fact, many of us developed our own cinephilia on the basis of what could easily be seen as substandard screen experiences. Many people in my generation, for example, were introduced to and grew to love—or fear, or at least be fascinated by—The Wizard of Oz on small black-and-white TV screens. When my family would watch the annual appearance of the movie on NBC in the 1960s, my mother would always tell us that when Dorothy stepped into the land of Oz, the movie switched to dazzling color, but I just had to take her word for it. It wouldn’t be until I was an adult that I saw The Wizard of Oz in color, “the way it was meant to be seen,” or at least closer to whatever that way was. Was it better in color? To be honest, it’s hard to say. The Technicolor is dazzling for sure, but there’s something to be said for the emotional power of having a melting witch—even in black and white–scare the bejeezus out of you when you’re six years old.

Better this way?
Better this way?
Or this?
Or this?

The final irony of all these debates is that ultimately, art isn’t progressive. Old technologies of artistic expression never go away completely; instead, they transform from a default mode (as when print books were the only game in town) to an artistic choice (e-readers are convenient, but there’s also something nice about curling up with a print book). In fact, even supposedly “substandard” transitional technologies become valued for the very qualities that once marked them as substandard. Digital music programs, for example, have features that allow musicians to recreate the distinctive hiss of cassette tapes or the crackle and pop of worn vinyl. In 2013, the indie auteur Andrew Bujalski went back to the technological future for his Computer Chess, a movie set at the dawn of the computer age in 1981 and using vintage 1981 black and white video cameras. Suddenly, the inability of these cameras to very bright light without washing out completely, or the tendency for light sources to stream and blur when the camera moved, moved from being frustrating flaws that proved the superiority of film to interesting visual effects that both evoked an era and provided a kind of surreal dimension to the movie.

So, bottom line. When The Hateful 8 comes out, will I try to see it in 70 MM Ultra Panavision. You bet! But I’m also glad I’ll be able to get a Blu-ray copy later.