“Imagine that, on Sept. 12, 2001, an outraged Angelina Jolie had pulled out a pad of paper and some drafting tools and, all on her own, designed a sophisticated new missile system to attack al-Qaida. Now imagine that the design proved so innovative that it transcended weapons technology, and sparked a revolution in communications technology over the next half-century.”
But it was after leaving MGM in 1945 that she had her biggest success playing Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), which was the biggest hit of that year.
But she was more than just a pretty actress and her life reads like the most outlandish of movies.
After growing up in Vienna, she absorbed a lot of information on long walks with her father and his detailed explanations of how – then modern – technologies like printing presses actually worked.
After an unhappy marriage to an arms manufacturer for the Nazis, she escaped to London after learning that Louie B Mayer of MGM was scouting for actresses.
She then turned down his original offer before getting on the same boat as him back to the US and by the time it docked she had secured a better contract.
In what reads like a real-life super hero(ine) story, she then set about inventing things in her spare time rather than drinking or going to night clubs.
She was obsessed with creative ideas throughout her life: sugary cubes that would mix with water and a “skin-tautening technique based on the principles of the accordion” were just some of those she came up with in between takes.
Seventy-seven children were drowned in the attack.
She decided to do something but instead issuing a press release about world peace through the MGM press office, she sketched out a revolutionary radio guidance system for anti-submarine torpedoes.
Her neighbour, the avant garde composer George Antheil, had already experimented with automated control of musical instruments.
Their ideas contributed to the development of frequency hopping: if you could shift around radio frequencies used to guide torpedoes, then it would make it very difficult for the Nazis to detect or jam them.
They got a patent and then promptly gave it to the US Navy, who were interested but perhaps not too receptive to being outsmarted by a Hollywood actress.
Although others had pioneered the concept, such as Polish engineer Leonard Danilewicz, it was still incredible that an A-list actress and her musican neighbour were doing this as a past-time.
Instead Lamarr was encouraged to use her fame to sell war bonds, raising around $25 million, which is $340 million in today’s money.
However, after the war the Navy did revive the idea when they developed a sonar buoy to detect enemy ships: the basic concept was used to disguise radio signals as they were transmitted from the buoy to aircraft overhead.
But perhaps the lasting legacy is the application of frequency hopping in modern computing technologies.
As the computer revolution gathered pace over time, frequency hopping and Lamarr’s ideas came of age.
Gradually engineers discovered that it could be usefully applied for modern computing devices that use radio frequencies in what is termed “spread-spectrum broadcasting“.
Devices such as mobile phones and wi-fi routers all have to avoid intereference when communicating with one another and use a form of frequency hopping.
“In 1942 Lamarr, once named the “most beautiful woman in the world” and Antheil, dubbed “the bad boy of music” patented the concept of “frequency-hopping” that is now the basis for the spread spectrum radio systems used in the products of over 40 companies manufacturing items ranging from cell phones to wireless networking systems”
So the next time you use a Bluetooth headset or log on to a wi-fi router, think of the actress and the musician who played a part in making it possible.
Two years ago Scorsese joined the event live via satellite from New York City and his 20-minute address was moderated by Grover Crisp, the man in charge of film restoration and digital mastering for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
In the run up to Christmas sales of the home video format will be under renewed scrutiny, but it is worth looking at what was said via video of the event which someone has posted online in three parts:
Part 3: More on the Dr. Strangelove restoration and the dilemmas involved in doing it, Scorsese’s favourite film on Blu-ray, whether he considers the Blu-ray release before shooting a film and the benefits to future generations of filmmakers.
All this is interesting, not just because Scorsese is such a passionate authority on film, but because there is still is some confusion over the Blu-ray format.
The main problems have been: the needless format war which delayed the adoption of the format; mainstream confusion over how it differs from DVD; the costs of upgrading to a player and the recession.
I remember being sceptical about both high-definition disc formats (HD-DVD and Blu-ray) when they were given their first major marketing push in the run up to Christmas of 2007.
Was its introduction too soon after DVD?
I was invited to a screening of The Bourne Ultimatum on HD-DVD (still available on Amazon for some reason), projected in a cinema and the three guys there (publicity people mainly, but also a someone from Microsoft, who were involved in the format) were very bullish about why it would succeed and Blu-ray wouldn’t.
Two months later in February 2008 the HD-DVD format was dead, as Toshiba (the main electrical company behind the format) couldn’t sustain the costs after studios and retailers sided with Blu-ray.
During 2008 the cost of Blu-ray discs and systems was still relatively high, even though television was shifting to the HD era and it became hard to actually buy old-style analogue television sets.
The Dark Knight in late 2008 was perhaps the first truly blockbuster disc in the format, even though – compared to DVD – overall sales were still sluggish and anecdotally even people in the media I spoke to were confused, sceptical or didn’t care.
The main misunderstanding I encountered was the worry that DVDs couldn’t play on a Blu-ray player (they can) and just scepticism about upgrading their equipment.
At the moment, the adoption of the format is still being hobbled by the resilience of the DVD format (a lot of great titles are still really cheap) and a lingering sense of confusion about Blu-ray outside the home video/cinephile realm.
There is a three-way split between DVD, Blu-ray and digital downloads (if you include Netflix, iTunes etc) but optical discs might be more resilient than people think.
Although there are analogies with where the music industry was ten years ago, the recent problems at Netflix suggest that the adoption of digital downloads and streaming might be slower than you think.
Which brings us back to Scorsese.
His point that Blu-ray offers the best quality and drives the restoration of classic films (a subject very close to his heart) are good ones and in a year of sequels and remakes at the cinema, releases like Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, Ben Hur and The Three Colours Trilogy have been most welcome.
Seeing classic films that have been restored with care and attention is a real joy that reminds you of the craft that originally made them so great.
Yesterday I went to a 20 minute preview of the new Mission Impossible film at the BFI London IMAX.
One of the biggest releases this Christmas season, it will only be the third mainstream release to have significant portions shot natively in the IMAX film format.
It appears Paramount see this as a long running franchise in the same way that United Artists saw the Bond series in the early 1970s.
The analogy isn’t precise as we are 15 years on from the first Mission Impossible (one of the big summer blockbusters of 1996) and there had been many more Bonds from 1962 to 1977 (9 to be exact).
But it seems like a flexible enough franchise to incorporate different characters and plot lines.
But if this one is a big hit, Tom Cruise will probably return, but the studio reportedly wanted Jeremy Renner (fresh off his Oscar-nominated turn in The Hurt Locker) as he was an actor could eventually extend the franchise.
…potentially carry the series on his own down the line, should Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character not continue to be the emphasis.
This is the first film in the series not to open in the summer, but that’s probably wise as not only do you avoid the logjam of releases but films like Avatar, and Sherlock Holmes have been huge hits during the busy Christmas period.
Its principal rival will be David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but is something of an unknown quantity – despite being based on a massive novel, will the R-rated violence be off-putting to mainstream audiences?
Then there is the choice of Brad Bird as director.
As one of the key key filmmakers at Pixar, he has been part of arguably the most creative and commercially successful movie company of the last decade.
Certain people have expressed surprise when I’ve told them that the director The Iron Giant, The Incredibles and Ratatouille (all excellent) is making this.
But if you’ve seen those films or ever heard him talk about movies, this is clearly a talented and experienced pair of hands with a formidable film knowledge (listen to him talk about Dr. Zhivago at the AFI here)
The other fascinating aspect is the decision to shoot certain sequences natively in IMAX as this is only the third major studio release to do so after The Dark Knight and Transformers 3 (which featured 9 mins compared to The Dark Knight’s 28 mins).
Although plenty of films have been shot on 35mm and blown up using IMAX’s proprietary DMR system (Digital Media Remastering), not many films have used the cameras.
The main problem is that the cameras are big and bulky and the actual cost of the film stock is high.
This means at the moment only certain sequences – usually action set-pieces – are shot natively in IMAX.
But the upside is that it looks absolutely extraordinary when you see it projected with the enhanced resolution and sound on the squarer screen of an IMAX cinema.
Some near me also reached out as if they wanted to touch the image, as the resolution was so good, it almost seemed tactile.
When the camera lurches over a window ledge, it also produced a feeling of vertigo.
David Keighley, the IMAX executive who oversaw post-production with Nolan and his team on The Dark Knight, has said that eleven of the prints screened in select cinemas – including London – were OCN’s (original color negatives) and that these were:
“the best projected versions of any film in history”
So the appeal of IMAX is clear to see and for a major action picture it is a seductive alternative to 3D, because the image isn’t dimmed by wearing glasses.
Which brings us to the two preview scenes in Ghost Protocol.
The story sees Ethan Hunt and his IMF team disavowed after a Kremlin bombing and they have to go to Dubai to find out who is behind it.
The first sequence involved the team trying to break in to the world’s tallest building in Dubai – the Burj Khalifa.
Not only was it a treat to see an action sequence shot with amazing clarity in bright sunlight, but it had been carefully planned to make the most out of Cruise doing his own stunts.
The second was a chase sequence set during a sandstorm, which involved Ethan and a mysterious man.
During this sequence a different visual approach was adopted – with the sand making the scene intentionally darker – but it seemed this was to enhance the sound, which is often an overlooked feature of IMAX.
Not only do you really feel the crashes and bumps but the audio texture of the whole film is considerably enhanced by the speakers being behind the actual screen and around the auditorium.
Obviously you can’t judge a whole movie from a preview footage screening but from a technical point of view it was interesting to see another live action film shot and projected in IMAX.
Major studios are perhaps feeling that 3D wasn’t quite the box office saviour they expected in the heady days of early 2010 when Avatar was smashing records in the format.
But even though IMAX versions of movies will only play in selected cities, it increases the resolution for when it comes to mastering the Blu-ray, and also keeps the flame for theatrical exhibition burning.
Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol is released at cinemas on December 21st
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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”
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.
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.