The London Film Festival 2015

This year’s London film festival featured many high profile films primed for the awards season, yet many other delights were to be found.

This year’s London film festival featured many high profile films primed for the awards season, yet many other delights were to be found.

The opening night gala Suffragette (Dir. Sarah Gavron) was a solid portrayal of how English activists fought to secure votes for women. Carey Mulligan was impressive in the lead role of Maud Watts, but there was all too brief cameo by Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst and the direction by Sarah Gavron from Abi Morgan’s script felt a bit pre-packaged at times.

The effective tension of the climatic scene at Epsom Derby was somewhat lacking throughout the rest of the film. Although the core issues of this film are still undeniably vital, it doesn’t ultimately do them justice and feels too much like an undercooked BBC television drama.

A superior issue-based film was Trumbo (Dir. Jay Roach) which managed to deftly combine history and politics of a later era, namely the blacklisting of Hollywood screenwriters during the 1950s through the figure of Dalton Trumbo. In the title role Bryan Cranston does an excellent job, bringing charisma and a surprisingly comic edge, given the travails Trumbo and his family had to endure during the Hollywood blacklist period.

It also takes risks (which mostly pay off) by showing iconic Hollywood figures of the period, like Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and John Wayne (David James Elliott), which along with Jay Roach’s intelligent direction make this one to look out for.

One might suspect a documentary about British comedian Russell Brand’s rise to fame might be a PR exercise, but Brand: A Second Coming (Dir. Ondi Timoner) was anything but. Charting his early life and later rise to fame, from UK TV shows to moderate Hollywood success, radio infamy with the Sachsgate affair and later YouTube political activism, this is a fairly riotous affair, skilfully weaving news footage and more intimate interviews.

Surprisingly, Brand has distanced himself from the project, saying he was uncomfortable watching it when it premiered at SXSW in March. Perhaps it was the raw depictions of his personal life that he didn’t like. But this is far from a hatchet job, rather a skilful portrait of a media figure, balancing his somewhat  with a raw honesty and a wry wit.

Since the advent of digital cinema and smartphones, the possibility of shooting an entire feature film with a camera in your pocket has felt tantalising close for indie directors. That dream now seems to have fully arrived with Tangerine (Dir. Sean S. Baker), a low-budget film shot on iPhone 5S, with special lens adapters. It is the tale of a transgender prostitute (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), just out of jail, who discovers from her friend (Mya Taylor), that her boyfriend/pimp (James Ransone) has cheated on her.

The resulting film is an energetic romp around nocturnal LA which uses the limitations of its budget wisely to create a film which made a splash at Sundance and the festival circuit. Performances are good all around and actually helped by the use of non-professional actors, which lend it a lot of charm and authenticity. The next challenge for director Baker is whether he will be able to repeat this winning formula on a bigger canvas.

One of the most extraordinary films of the year, perhaps the decade, was Beasts of No Nation (Dir. Cary Fukunaga) – a devastating portrait of child soldiers in war-torn West Africa. It follows the young Agu (an astonishing Abraham Attah) on his journey from innocent boyhood to gradual brutalisation as he comes under the sinister influence of a self-styled ‘Commandant’ (a brilliant Idris Elba).

Fukunaga proved his directing chops on Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and the first season of HBO’s True Detective (2014), this is on another level in terms of content and style. Shot with a stark realism – aside from a few memorable deviations – this is a highly absorbing piece, layered with stunning technical work and horrific sequences shot on location in Ghana. Although it bears some similarity to Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), this is essential viewing.

There can often be interesting talks and events at the London Film Festival and for me the highlight this year was Screen Talk: Christopher Nolan & Tacita Dean & 35mm: Quay Brothers Meet…. A two-part event at NFT1, the first section was a lengthy discussion about the merits of shooting and projecting on celluloid film (especially 35mm and 70mm). As you might expect, Nolan gave a passionate and convincing case for the format he loves, going into detail about the benefits of shooting on film.

Version 2

Dean was equally effusive, as an artist who has worked in film her whole life. The panel could have benefitted with a digital advocate, perhaps Tangerine’s director Sean S. Baker, but nonetheless was an absorbing experience. The second part, three avant-garde shorts by the Quay Brothers introduced by Nolan, was more curious. One in particular sounded like a 10 minute loop of a helicopter exploding.

Sometimes it is easy to forget the simple pleasures of a solid, well-made documentary and Hitchcock/Truffaut (Dir. Kent Jones) didn’t disappoint on this score. An admirable compression of the lengthy interviews the two iconic directors conducted in 1962, it also managed to include sterling contributions from contemporary directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Arnaud Desplechin, and Olivier Assayas.

A feast for cinephiles, both the choice of archive material and editing were all excellent. It would be fascinating if Jones could somehow make a series for pay TV or VOD platform that utilised the full interviews. Although the original interviews go into considerable depth about Hitchcock, the choice of questions by Truffaut are also revealing about the French director, who had only made three films at this point in his career.

The success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) prompted a mini-boom of graceful martial arts films (also known as ‘wuxia’) such as Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004). The Assassin (Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is part of this tradition of filmmaking, telling the story of a female assassin (an excellent Shu Qi) recruited to kill a key member of a rival dynasty.

It subverts the genre by introducing a slower pace with longer edits, minimal dialogue and a square frame (1:37 aspect ratio) which often makes characters look surrounded by the landscapes of 8th century China. A gorgeous film to sink in to with stunning costume work and production design, director Hou Hsiao-Hsien has created a sensory feast. A polite warning: ignore anyone who says this film is ‘boring’ or ’too slow’. It richly deserves the prizes and praise it has collected since premiering at Cannes in May.

Although partly inspired by grim real life events Room (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson) is a brave and incredibly moving film. Novelist Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel which explores the kidnap and imprisonment of a woman (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay). Potentially difficult themes are sensitively handled, with director and writer providing a solid platform for the main actors to do some terrific work.

Larson and Tremblay are both extraordinary, bringing a range of emotions to their roles: the former builds on her excellent work in Short Term 12 (2013) whilst the latter gives one of the best child performances in years. It is amazing how several sequences wring out such tension in enclosed spaces and seemingly regular locations. A tough watch, but a rich and rewarding one that shows that smaller, independent films can still pack a real punch.

Among the film-related documentaries to show at the festival was Listen to Me Marlon (Dir. Stevan Riley), a startling portrait of acting icon Marlon Brando. In form and content this film is impeccable, brilliantly blending Brando’s own personal audio tapes with archive footage and stylish recreation of locations. For those who only remember Brando as the sad, reclusive figure of his later years, this film is essential viewing.

Like a cinematic time machine we are transported back: to his early life in Nebraska (an abusive, alcoholic father but a loving, sensitive mother; then on to New York, where he came under the tutelage  of famed acting coach Stella Adler; and the his stage and film breakthrough, with roles like The Wild One (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954) and later on The Godfather (1972). His seismic impact on acting and culture is well conveyed and the later tragedies of his life are handled with sensitivity and tact.

In a world of overblown franchises and dark arthouse material, audiences hungry for more elegant fare are often left feeling empty handed. However, the virtues of simplicity are evident in  Brooklyn (Dir. John Crowley), a skilfully crafted tale of immigration and love. Set amidst the contrasting landscapes 1950s rural Ireland and the New York borough of Brooklyn, screenwriter Nick Hornby and director John Crowley powerfully bring to life Colm Toibin’s novel with care and affection.

This is aided by some convincing production design by François Séguin on a relatively low budget and the excellent costume work by Odile Dicks-Mireaux. But the real heart of this film is the acting, most notably Saoirse Ronan in the lead role as a woman torn between two lives but, also from Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent and Emory Cohen. A polished jewel of a film and one of the highlights of the year, let alone the festival.

Horror is a genre that has badly lost its way in recent times, from the endless slew of torture-porn to more smarty pants hipster work. But a new and striking wakeup call was The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers), a genuinely creepy period piece set in 17th century Puritan New England. When a family is banished from their home village they are forced to survive in a sinister wood where mysterious things start to happen.

Although there are shades of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), this retains its own distinctive flavour. What makes this debut from Eggers so interesting is that it eschews obvious cliche and instead uses suggestion, soundscapes and realistic touches. Grounded performances and excellent location shooting also made this another festival highlight.

An interesting hybrid of drama and comedy Youth (Dir. Paolo Sorrentino) is another fine example of the the kind of delicious cinematic banquet served up by Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. The setting is a Swiss health spa, where a famous conductor (Michael Caine) contemplates his life, amongst a variety of fellow guests (including Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Rachel Weisz) and the backdrop of the Swiss Alps.

In a way this is a departure for the director, with none of the masterful intensity of Il Divo (2008) or the boozy magnificence of The Great Beauty (2013). However, the more muted and elegiac tone here is offset by some terrific performances (Caine in his best role for years) and the usual technical excellence Sorrentino and his crew provide. Whilst the film may divide audiences, alienating those who want a quick hit, this felt like something that may grow in stature as the years go by.

Stop frame animation got a new jolt with Anomalisa (Dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson), screened in this year’s surprise slot. The problem in describing this marvellously inventive work is that there are few comparisons to turn to. As someone who generally agrees with the ‘Every thing is a remix’ idea (i.e. that no film can be 100% original, this stretched that notion to breaking point. The story depicts the stay of a successful but melancholy writer (voiced by David Thewlis) at a motel in Cincinnati, where he meets a woman (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh) who he connects with.

From the first frame to the last, one is struck with the craft and inventiveness on display. The dialogue, voice acting (including one treat I won’t spoil) and overall look of the film is stunning. In its own way this is ambitious as Kaufman’s last film – Synecdoche, New York (2008) – but perhaps Duke Johnson has helped add a slightly lighter tone to proceedings. There are scenes in this film which are as funny and truthful as any in recent memory.

Sometimes a film can be so audacious in content and style that it leaves you mentally exhausted. This one-take film Victoria (Dir. Sebastian Schipper) is just that, a heist movie which gloriously upends the genre. When a young woman (Laia Costa) is approached by a group of men as she leaves a Berlin nightclub, she doesn’t realise the long and eventful night ahead of her. Although, the narrative takes time to build (and hinges on on some implausible moments) it is well worth the ride.

Although there is no conventional editing, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and director Schipper constructed a fluid shooting style that not only works like editing but also feels true to the story. It goes without saying the actors and crew all contribute to this exercise, but Costa here is the standout. A lot rests on her shoulders as the main character and she delivers with flying colours in what is a remarkable achievement.

The closing night gala Steve Jobs (Dir. Danny Boyle) was a mixed bag – a technically impressive work, undermined by a  misguided and flawed screenplay. It presents the life of Steve Jobs in three acts: the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT system in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. Each segment in shot on different formats (16mm, 35mm and digital), which gives them a distinctive flavour, and a neat way of showing how technology progresses.

However, Aaron Sorkin’s script is the elephant in the room. Not only does it have a highly selective approach to Jobs personal and professional life but is so littered with outright inaccuracies that the whole enterprise comes crashing down. The lead actors all do their best but sequences involving Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogen border on the utterly ludicrous and there is no mention of cancer (the disease which killed Jobs) or Apple’s most iconic product, the iPhone. Of course screenwriters must compress, but here Sorkin took several liberties and in doing so wasted a golden opportunity, because the material he omitted was much more interesting.

> Official website for the 2015 London Film Festival
> Past winners of the Sutherland Trophy at Wikipedia


A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

A film of enormous ambition and stunning technical accomplishment, director Christopher Nolan’s space epic dares to dream big and mostly succeeds, even if its reach occasionally exceeds its grasp.

Set in a dystopian future where Earth’s resources are running dry, widowed farmer, engineer and ex-test pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is confronted with a dilemma when offered the chance to lead a last-ditch mission to save humanity by the elderly NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine).

This involves using custom-built spacecraft, advanced theoretical astrophysics and travelling to the far reaches of space and time. Apart from the obvious risks, he will have to leave his family behind: young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and son Tom (Timothee Chalamet), who are both devastated to see him go.

Joined by Brand’s own scientist daughter (Anne Hathaway), two other NASA (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) and a multifunctional robot called TARS (voiced by Bill Irwin), the team venture into the unknown, searching for potentially habitable worlds.

To say much more about their mission would be entering dangerous spoiler territory, suffice to say that what they experience in deep space is truly a sight to behold.

Nolan’s own challenge was to blend real-life theoretical science (with the help of world-renowned physicist Kip Thorne), interstellar space travel grounded in a semi-plausible way, and finally to explore the emotional toll this takes on human beings.

It is a tall order and using a blend of practical and digital effects, and a scientifically literate script, the writer-director weaves a patchwork of influences which he just about pulls it off.

The twists and turns of the story may be too much for some on first viewing, but this one where you have to strap in and embrace the ride into other worlds.

Dust-filled Earth and chilly deep space are realised with stunning clarity and imagination: cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let The Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) shoots the dark wonders of space and other worlds with a piercing intensity.

Visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin complements these with seamless digital transitions, working from stock NASA imagery and Thorne’s theories, the work he and his team at Double Negative have achieved here is truly exceptional.

Editor Lee Smith also brings a wonderfully brisk pace to an epic that lasts 166 mins, whilst utilising the crosscutting technique that Nolan used to such great effect in his Batman trilogy (2005-12) and Inception (2010).

The production design by Nathan Crowley, costumes by Mary Zophres and sound design by Richard King all create a rich, immersive and at times even tactile quality, which is surprising for a film as expansive as this.

Given all the technical brilliance at work here, and perhaps because of it, the performances of the actors are occasionally dwarfed by the sheer scale, but McConaughey, Foy, Hathaway and Irwin are the standouts.

McConaughey especially delivers the goods as the engineer burdened with courage and a seemingly impossible inner conflict and Ellen Burstyn burns brightly in a small, but critical role.

Surprises abound in Interstellar, and although the obvious sci-fi influences are here – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – perhaps less expected are traces of Reds (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), The Abyss (1989), Solaris (2002) and Sunshine (2007).

Like Nolan’s other films it will almost certainly repay repeated viewing, but it bears all the hallmark of his very best work: smart, technically accomplished and leaving the viewer with a desire to experience it all over again.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic
> Interstellar at the IMDb
> Roundtable interview with Nolan and his cast with THR (26 mins)

Film Notes #14: Following (1998)

Christopher Nolan’s debut film is #14 in our Film Notes series.

Christopher Nolan’s debut film is #14 in our Film Notes series.

For newcomers, this series of posts involves me watching a different film every day for a month, with the following rules:

  • It must be a film I have already seen.
  • I must make notes whilst I’m watching it.
  • Pauses are allowed but the viewing must all be one session.
  • It can’t be a current cinema release.

Hopefully it will capture my instant thoughts about a movie, providing a snapshot of my film diet for 30 days and some interesting links to the film in question.

Here are my notes on Following (1998) which I watched on DVD on Friday 6th April.

  • The debut film of Christopher Nolan that he made for just £6,000
  • Originally conceived as ‘no budget’ movie, it is just 78 minutes long
  • Idea of the narrative was to not just tell a story chronologically but to construct a modular narrative that consists of three sections that pull at one another
  • The plot is about a young writer in London who starts following random strangers but when he comes across a burglar named Cobb, he gradually becomes sucked into a web of deception.
  • We absorb the story of the film in the fractured, fragmented way we do in real life.
  • Shot in and around London – principally Central London, Southwark and Highgate
  • Bolex wind up camera used to shoot Central London scenes at the beginning
  • There is a shot of Hungerford Bridge by Charing Cross Station
  • Nolan used a lot of natural light and real locations that he was able to get some kind of access to.
  • Although he often only had a day’s notice to shoot scenes on location, his actors had done 6 months rehearsal so they could adapt pretty easily to most situations
  • They shot without permits using real locations, which often included flats belonging to friends or family.
  • Did they use Framestore CFC as the location for the cafe?
  • Producer Emma Thomas can be seen in the background of that cafe scene early in the film.
  • Nolan got the idea for the film when he lived in Central London and constructed a story around the idea of focusing on one person in the crowd.
  • The story explores the barriers we put up by virtue of having to live in a city. In a sense it covers similar themes to TAXI DRIVER (1976) and CROCODILE DUNDEE (1986).
  • Note that the burglar character is called Cobb – also the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in INCEPTION (2010).
  • The other influence on the script was when Nolan’s flat was burgled in the early 90s and he realised that it wasn’t the lock on the door keeping them out but social convention.
  • Police told Nolan after his robbery that thieves often steal a bag during the robbery to their things in. He worked this into the script.
  • All the flats belonged to relatives or friends.
  • Shooting on rooftops is a handy way of getting a landscape view of city without permits.
  • Nightclub scenes shot at a bar called Detroit in Covent Garden.
  • Only had 3 or 4 lights to use in the nightclub – although it was “murderous” lighting job, it would have been harder to do in colour.
  • Note that make-up gets less severe as the film progresses
  • The Batman logo is on the door of the flat they rob!
  • Theobald’s physical appearance is a signifier of where the plot and narrative is at.
  • Nolan used an ARRI BL camera to shoot
  • The film plays very different on subsequent viewings – even then Nolan was very interested in the narrative possibilities of cinema.
  • Cobb knows the hidden side of London, which is what Nolan used for the locations.
  • Fractured narrative recalls Nic Roeg’s BAD TIMING (1980)
  • The guy who has his skull smashed looks a lot like Harry Potter
  • It would be interesting to know what system Nolan edited this on. It was just as digital, non-linear systems were becoming mainstream.
  • Black and white lighting is used to very good effect – gives it a film noir vibe
  • Typewriter and Minolta camera Theobald uses are actually Nolan’s.
  • Dialogue is a bit on the nose in parts but given the unusual structure that’s perhaps intentional.
  • Lucy Russell’s line on the intercom was ADR’d by Emma Thomas at the last minute as they needed it for the sound mix the next day.
  • The rooftop fight sequence posed a problem for post-synching as most no-budget films can’t really afford it.
  • Nolan got around this by maintaining the rough, unpolished vibe of the piece. The sound mix works within the world of the film.
  • You can see the seeds of MEMENTO (2000) in this film: haunted protagonist, fractured narrative, people deceiving each other and the rug being pulled out from the audience
  • Director’s uncle John Nolan is the policeman questioning Theobald at the beginning and end.
  • Note the pacing and editing as the film reaches its climax.
  • Final shot of the film was done at waist height so no-one could look into the camera (although if you look carefully somebody does for a split second).
  • The film was written and designed for the budget it was shot on – it made very good use of it’s limitations.
  • Is this the lowest budget feature film of all time?
  • It premièred at the San Francisco Film Festival in 1998 and Nolan got an agent and attention from other festivals including Slamdance, Amsterdam and Toronto.
  • He began principal photography on MEMENTO (2000) in September 1999 and it later had its world première at Venice in September 2000.

Del Toro and Nolan on Memento

Earlier this year Guillermo Del Toro sat down with Christopher Nolan to discuss Memento in Los Angeles.

Earlier this year Guillermo Del Toro sat down with Christopher Nolan to discuss Memento in Los Angeles.

It was after a screening at the Egyptian Theater to promote the restored Blu-ray release of the film and was a fascinating discussion between two of the best directors currently working in Hollywood.

Although it looks like it was officially filmed for future release, Michael Midnight was in the audience and managed to capture edited highlights of the conversation.

Amongst the things they discussed were:

  • The influence of Jorge Luis Borges on Nolan’s writing
  • Why Nolan has never watched the ‘chronologically correct’ version
  • Distribution chief Bob Berney (who masterminded the release of Memento and Pan’s Labyrinth)
  • Why seeing Memento connect with audiences inspired Inception
  • The importance of ‘restless’ actors like Guy Pearce
  • The mix of emotion and genre
  • How Nolan’s brother Jonathan persuaded him to never reveal the truth about the ending
  • Nolan’s stripped down approach to dialogue
  • Casting Guy Pearce and Carrie Anne Moss
  • The IMAX film camera

> Christopher Nolan and Guillermo Del Toro at Wikipedia
> Visual representations of Memento

From Celluloid to Digital

The digital revolution in how films are seen and made is currently spelling a slow death for celluloid.

The digital revolution in how films are seen and made is currently spelling a slow death for celluloid.

Since the early days of photographic film in the late 19th century, moving pictures have been captured and then projected via some form of celluloid print.

The origin of the name “film” even comes from the process and has been the primary method for recording and displaying motion pictures for over a century.

But with the advent of digital technology over the last decade the days of film-based production and projection are numbered.

This also presents an an interesting paradox: what will we call films once they are no longer shot or projected on film? (Should I rename this very website?)

But whilst we ponder that, it is worth exploring why this is all happening and the differences between the old and new processes.


From the early days of cinema until very recently light has shone through a piece of celluloid and the resultant moving image was then projected on to a cinema screen.

This video by the Phoenix Cinema in Finchley shows how film projection has traditionally worked:

In the last few years cinemas around the world have been gradually replacing the above method with digital projectors, which essentially replace cans of film with a large hard drive of data which is then projected via a computer system.

This video from the Electric Cinema in Birmingham shows how a local UK cinema is dealing with the transition to digital:

But why is this happening?

Think back to the first four months of 1998 when Titanic was dominating the global box office.

In cinemas around the world 35mm prints of that movie had been delivered in cans and spooled through projectors on to screens.

Although it was a box office phenomenon that played for an unusually long time, James Cameron has since revealed an interesting technical paradox about its success.

At the Cinema Con conference back in April he claimed that the only reason it didn’t play longer was because the prints physically wore out after 16 weeks.

“Titanic played so long that our prints fell apart. We actually only left theaters because our prints [had become] unwatchable. We hit the upper boundary of how long prints can run in theaters, and I can tell you how long that is – its 16 weeks. It’s a good problem to have but for the last half of that [theatrical run] they looked pretty ragged, they were all scratched up… so all that stuff is in the past and we’re really in a brave new world right now.”

The rise of digital cinema projection began in 1999 just when digital optical discs were gaining traction in the home market with the DVD format.

The first major film to be digitally projected was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, although it was only shown on a limited number of screens in New York and Los Angeles.

Over the next decade, digital projection gradually become a reality: 2002 saw the major studios form a joint initiative to agree on technical standards and by 2007 many multiplex and arthouse screens in the UK began upgrading to digital systems.

But for wide acceptance the new system still needed a boost and in the same way that Star Wars in 1977 convinced cinemas to upgrade their sound systems, Avatar would be a game changer for visuals.

When James Cameron was making his sci-fi epic, he felt that 3D films would ride on the back of digital cinema, only to find out that its staggering commercial success actually drove the digital conversion of the remaining cinemas, as 3D movies can only be shown on digital screens.

So in the heady days of early 2010 as Avatar was overtaking Titanic as the all-time box office champ, many executives in Hollywood were convinced 3D was a magic formula, especially as it was quickly followed by the huge commercial successes of Tim Burton’s 3D version of Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3.

You could debate that those films were going to be hits anyway but studios and cinema owners looked at the numbers and felt they would be missing out if they didn’t have digital screens to show 3D movies, even if the quality was poor (as was the case with Clash of the Titans that Easter).

During 2009 there were 650 digital screens in the UK, but just a year later this had nearly trebled to 1400, with 1080 of them 3D enabled. This meant that 80 per cent of all cinema releases in the UK were on digital prints, compared to France where the figure was just 20 per cent.

Another driver has been hugely profitable animated films in 3D, such as the recent Pixar movies (Up, Toy Story 3) and even less acclaimed films like Ice Age 3 and Rio, which have been enormously profitable for studios.

The formula is a seductive one – they aren’t as risky or expensive to make as a big-budget live action film and they have a wide appeal to family audiences who often go more than once and buy their kids related merchandise.

This is why cinemas during school holidays increasingly resemble an animation convention.

But the post-Avatar boom in 3D titles has given way to a dip of sorts, with some questioning just how much it has boosted recent blockbusters, but whether the 3D trend continues or not, digital projection is here to stay.

But how long before film-based projection will effectively end?

It seems the end of 2013 will be a key moment.

Part of what is driving the digital revolution is raw economics and the reduced costs of shipping digital versions of movies to cinemas as opposed to cans of film.

At a movie conference in Australia earlier this year a participant said that major studios have made deals that will effectively end the wide distribution of film prints by 2013.

After that an independent cinema could still rent an old celluloid print, but the rise in costs will make it prohibitive for them, so in a few years this projection method will effectively be over.

At CinemCon earlier this year in Las Vegas, the head of NATO (North American Theater Owners) John Fithian said that almost 16,000 screens out of a total of 39,000 had been converted to digital and confirmed that the end of 2013 was effectively a cut off date.

He essentially urged members who hadn’t made the jump yet to get on board or go out of business:

“For any exhibitor who can hear my voice who hasn’t begun your digital transition, I urge you to get moving. The distribution and exhibition industries achieved history when we agreed to technical standards and a virtual print fee model to enable this transition. But the VPFs won’t last forever. Domestically, you must be installed by the end of 2012 if you want to qualify. Equally significantly, based on our assessment of the roll-out schedule and our conversations with our distribution partners, I believe that film prints could be unavailable as early as the end of 2013. Simply put, if you don’t make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business.”

Is this a sad development or the start of a new and exciting era?

There is a lot of misplaced nostalgia about a print being lovingly threaded through a projector by a dedicated projectionist and that there is something inherently special in 35 mm.

It is true that a good print in a decent cinema looks great, but if you ventured outside of the premium cinemas that critics and filmmakers view films on, there was a different story.

Back in 2007 I saw Ocean’s Thirteen projected digitally at Warner Bros in London and it looked and sounded great – colours popped and the image was stable.

When I saw an analogue equivalent a few weeks later at a multiplex in East London, the image was dim, the print was scratched and the whole experience was less than satisfactory.

During 2009 I saw major releases such as Funny People and Sherlock Holmes on opening night at a suburban multiplex and not only were the celluloid prints degraded but it was also shown in the wrong aspect ratio (i.e. the widescreen image was clipped at the sides).

Part of the reason you don’t often hear about poor projection in the media is that most audiences don’t know any better (and who would they complain to if they did?) whilst journalists writing about films tend to see them at preview screenings at decent cinemas.

Hence you hear a lot about the decline of the projectionist as opposed to how poor the image and sound quality could be for most people who weren’t able to get to a decent cinema.

But with digital projection there are issues that still need to be addressed such as the brightness levels of 3D films and the wrong projector lenses being left on for 2D films.

As with any new technology, there will be teething problems. During a press screening at last month’s London film festival at the Odeon Leicester Square (probably the most high profile cinema in the country) faulty audio issues meant that the film had to be paused (as it was digitally projected, the image held on screen just like a DVD player)

But this isn’t primarily a technical issue, but a human one – if cinemas employed the right people to make the necessary checks then issues like this wouldn’t happen.

Multiplexes should actually continue to employ projectionists to oversee what the audience sees – cutting costs here is damaging to the long term health of the cinema experience.

In an age where it is much cheaper for audiences to rent or download a wide range of high quality films in the home, this is something they should be wary of.

As for the art-house chains in the UK, such as Picturehouse and Curzon, you could argue digital has been a success: not only is there a reduced cost for distributor and cinema but a film like Senna definitely benefited.

Watching Asif Kapadia’s documentary this summer at the HMV Curzon cinema in Wimbledon was an eye-opening experience: not only were the sound and audio excellent, but it was a good example of how digital can benefit lower budget films, as well as the big tent pole releases.

Although distributed by the UK arm of a major studio (Universal) it was a specialist release at selected cinemas which needed careful planning and the reduced costs in digital distribution almost certainly helped it become the highest grossing documentary so far this year.

It is also worth noting that digital has reduced costs for documentary filmmakers, which is perhaps why we are seeing a resurgence this year with films shot in the format from such heavy hitters such as Errol Morris (Tabloid) and Werner Herzog (Into the Abyss), along with directors newer to the genre like Kapadia.


The death of celluloid as a projection medium is only two years away, but arguably has a longer life as a tool to capture the action we end up seeing on screen.

But the long term future is less assured.

Last month the world’s leading film camera manufacturers – Arri, Panavision and Aaton – confirmed that they would cease production on traditional cameras and now focus entirely on digital models.

Arri’s VP for cameras Bill Russell said to Creative Cow recently:

“The demand for film cameras on a global basis has all but disappeared. There are still some markets – not in the U.S. – where film cameras are still sold, but those numbers are far fewer than they used to be. If you talk to the people in camera rentals, the amount of film camera utilization in the overall schedule is probably between 30 to 40 percent. In two or three years, it could be 85 percent digital and 15 percent film. But the date of the complete disappearance of film? No one knows.”

Although there will still be plenty of older camera bodies available for some time to come, it did seem to mark the end of an era: what would the medium of film be without film stock?

That question would seem to lie with Kodak and Fujifilm, the two main suppliers to the film industry.

But with the proliferation of consumer digital cameras in the home, 2011 is not a great time to be manufacturing celluloid – back in September the Wall Street Journal reported that Kodak’s share price had dropped to an all-time low as it hired lawyers to help restructure its business.

Ominously for fans of the older process, the large service companies that print and distribute celluloid for the major studios, principally Technicolor and Deluxe, have been hit by the rise of digital and are moving their processes in accordance with the times.

Technicolor recently shut their film labs in Hollywood and Montreal whilst Deluxe ceased processing 35mm and 16mm negatives at two UK facilities.

In preparation for a recent exhibition, artist Tacita Dean was shocked to discover that Deluxe had stopped processing 16mm film stock altogether.

Her latest work is simply called ‘Film’ and is essentially a love letter to the declining medium – a silent 35mm looped film projected onto a monolith standing 13 metres tall inside the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London.

In the Creative Cow article, Deluxe executive Gray Ainsworth basically admitted that they were preparing for a digital future:

“From the lab side, obviously film as a distribution medium is changing from the physical print world to file-based delivery and Digital Cinema. The big factories are absolutely in decline. Part of the planning for this has been significant investments and acquisitions to bolster the non-photochemical lab part of our business.”

With Technicolor also making investments in visual effects and 2D-to-3D conversion it seems that that two pillars of the old order are preparing for a future without celluloid.

However, film capture will remain for a few years to come with high profile directors like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan staying loyal to the traditional photochemical process.

But there is no doubt that over the last decade digital has gradually found favour with filmmakers such as Michael Mann, David Fincher and James Cameron.

If you take A-list directors as a group they are at something of a crossroads, with the film side claiming that digital is still visually inferior, whilst the digital camp say that cameras have not only caught up, but will get better and that a digital work flow saves money and time.

This split was best seen in early 2010 at a panel during the Santa Barbara Film Festival in the run up to last year’s Oscars when Quentin Tarantino declared that he would rather burn his LA repertory cinema down rather than show a digital print there [beginning at 5.20].

Whilst the crowd are laughing and applauding at Quentin for his defence of 35mm film prints, fellow panellist James Cameron can be seen shaking his head slightly as if he couldn’t disagree more, given his advocacy for digital capture and projection as the future of cinema.

Only a couple of months ago he was unveiling a new 3D rig for Arri’s Alexa M camera and said:

“People are welcoming that they can finally drive a stake through the heart of film”

From Cameron’s point of view the hurdle has been two-fold: to get filmmakers conditioned to using celluloid to embrace digital cameras and 3D.

Part of the reason is that film-based processes don’t work if you are shooting natively in 3D (as opposed to post-converting) as you need to sync both stereo channels with precision, which can’t really be achieved using conventional film cameras.

Whilst the jury may be out on 3D, it seems that the last 18 months have marked a tipping point for sceptical directors and cinematographers.

Arri were instrumental in shaping the film camera throughout the twentieth century, inventing the world’s first reflex shutter camera in 1937 – the Arri 35 – and then its successor the Arri 35 II, which is amongst the most influential 35mm cameras ever built, with its portable and durable design gracing numerous features and documentaries.

The Arri Alexa could be to the digital era what the 35 II was for the age of celluloid, with world class cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Robert Richardson using it, with Deakins saying in a recent interview with the British Society of Cinematographers:

“I was surprised how quickly I became comfortable shooting with a digital camera”

Richardson shot the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo in 3D using the aforementioned Alexa M camera and films such as Melancholia, Drive and Anonymous were all shot using the camera and the quality of the images appears to have won over many digital sceptics.

Anna Foerster, the DP on Roland Emmerich’s new film Anonymous, has said of the camera:

“It was interesting because so far I have always shot on 35 mm and I kind of felt lucky that I had escaped digital for so long. I think that the moment I was confronted with digital was the moment we reached a level that is absolutely amazing and incomparable to what has come before”

The pioneering company in the digital realm were RED whose cameras were embraced by Steven Soderbergh, Doug Liman and David Fincher and with the new Hobbit films being shot on them it would appear Peter Jackson has fully signed up to the digital revolution.

Soderbergh has shot all of his recent films on the RED camera (starting with Che in 2008) and talks here about what it means for directors:

Interestingly, the biggest release of next year will buck the digital trend – The Dark Knight Rises will be shot on a combination of IMAX and 35mm film stock, which will provide resolutions higher than any current digital camera can muster.

But even Christopher Nolan has admitted that the bulk of camera research and development over the last decade has gone into digital, so he represents an exception rather than the rule.

However, Nolan and his DP Wally Pfister are stout defenders of film-based cameras for a reason – the image captured on them can look phenomenal if done correctly.

At this year’s Cine Gear Expo 2011 Rob Hummel gave a talk as to why film is still a superior capture format:

Again at the recent London film festival I saw back-to-back press screenings of Like Crazy and Pariah on the NFT screen at the BFI Southbank, which is one of the best cinema screens in the country.

There was no question that Like Crazy (shot on Canon DSLR cameras) looked inferior to Pariah (shot using 35mm on an Arri Camlite), which demonstrates that film stock still has a place as a capture medium.

Cinematographer John Bailey spoke earlier this year about why he still shoots on film and the dilemma facing movie archives if we eventually move in to an all digital world:

But what does this march towards digital capture and projection mean for the industry and the average cinema goer?

Whilst some audience members won’t immediately notice the difference, digital projection means greater stability of image and perhaps an opportunity for lower budget films to make a greater mark, as it reduces distribution costs in the long run.

For many filmmakers, it represents the dawn of a new era in which workflows and resolutions will improve as sensors, lenses and on-set data systems (such as those used on Hugo) allow greater flexibility once they have adapted to the possibilities afforded to them by newer and ever improving technology.

For celluloid though the end has already begun, as the photochemical process which sustained cinema for over a century slowly fades into an oncoming digital reality.

> More on film stock at Wikipedia
> Matt Zoeller Seitz at Salon on the death of film
> WSJ on Kodak’s problems
> DLP cinema
> Time Out on the decline of projectionists