Those Who Junk History…

A couple of weeks ago, something incredibly rare and rather extraordinary happened: the BBC announced that two full episodes of 1960s Doctor Who had been recovered. One was “Air Lock”, the third episode in the four-part story “Galaxy 4”, with William Hartnell as the Doctor. The other was the second episode of “The Underwater Menace”, this time with Patrick Troughton in the lead.

This wasn’t just significant news for Doctor Who geeks (although, as a card-carrying one, I have to say it certainly was that), but also big news for cinephiles and movie lovers who may not care one iota about a black and white 60s UK series. Here’s why.

In the 1970s, the BBC began deleting their old TV shows. Tape was expensive, and back then it was practically and financially ridiculous to even consider repeating these old shows, so the likes of Dad’s Army, Z Cars, Steptoe and Son, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Not Only… But Also…, and Doctor Who began disappearing from the archives.

When it was realised by the fledgling fan community – made up of people who had only just realised, in pre-internet times, that there were others out there just like them and they could probably form a community of some sort – that these episodes were being wiped, an outcry began. The BBC’s policy changed overnight. They went from junking episodes to recovering them, and, with no small sense of irony, the search for the missing episodes begun.

It’s easy to scoff at the short-sightedness of the BBC, but back then television was not the eternal, well-preserved artform much of it is now. There was no home video, and repeat viewings were exceptionally rare. It was radio with pictures, ephemeral and soon forgotten, and the idea that they would one day be treasured, fifty years on, would not have crossed a single person’s mind.

So, with the benefit of that cautionary tale, with hindsight clear and present, why are we being so short-sighted now?

The big film studios have recently announced that they will soon stop renting archival 35mm prints of their old films to theatres, because the costs of storage and transport have become too hefty, and the number of vintage theatres too scarce. The old film prints, so goes the plan, are going to be junked, and replaced with a 4K digital scan.

On one level, I totally get this. Why have expensive physical copies of films when you could have a single hard drive with multiple hi-def movies stored with greater efficiency? When the rental is – or will one day be – the simple click of a button, rather than a pricey courier? Why continue pouring all these resources into films most people don’t really want to watch?

The answer – or answers, for there are many – should be obvious. We’re talking about our cultural heritage here. This is the modern artform. The actual, physical film that these movies exist on are not simply bulky storage methods, but an intrinsic part of the work. Digital prints are useful, but they don’t have the soul of the film print. And if you think I’m being needlessly sentimental here, ask yourself if you’d destroy the paintings of da Vinci, Picasso, Van Gogh, Pissarro, because someone took a photograph of them. The celluloid is the canvas.

But even if keeping exclusively digital copies was a good idea, we’re not there yet. The technology is great, but it doesn’t yet have the depth that film provides. If, as has been suggested, the replacement backups are in 4K, what will we think in a few years when 4K is superseded? The technology keeps getting better, and as crazy as it is to pointlessly draw a line in the sand, this is not the place to do it.

Melbourne’s Astor Theatre has been fighting the good fight for a while. Although it’s adapted to include 4K digital, it still regularly plays 35mm prints, as well as 70mm prints of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, and others. The theatre has its own distribution arm, Chapel Distribution, co-directed by Astor proprietor George Florence and Potential Films director Mark Spratt, who have worked to acquire as many prints as possible. The Astor even goes so far as to offer free storage of film prints to other, storage-challenged distributors to discourage them being junked. Many older films are kept in regular rotation on the calendar to keep the prints alive. The Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse double, for instance, plays every few months to ensure those prints remain in circulation. From 2014, the Astor is going to be one of the last few places in the country still projecting film.

Hasn’t the BBC’s immediate about-face on the junking of old programs taught us anything? Can’t we weigh up the importance of having these works against the mild inconvenience of storing them and arrive at the conclusion reached by the village idiot ahead of the film executive?

There’s a cinema in Los Angeles called the New Beverley, which is basically the spiritual sister of the Astor. It also plays classic doubles in 35mm, and is committed to film preservation. It has started an online petition to save film prints, and I urge you to take two seconds out of your day to sign it. You may not see the value in it at right this moment, but we’ve lost enough over the past century to recognise what we’ll one day wish, with clarity of hindsight, we’d saved.

5 thoughts on “Those Who Junk History…

  1. Great piece. I’d add re: technology that it’s not just an issue of quality, but longevity — digital storage media degrade much more quickly than properly archived film, and as of yet nobody has found a solution for long-term digital storage. Junking 35mm until the archiving problem gets solved properly is pure madness. At this rate, we’re already at risk of many of the first generation digital-only films starting an irrevocable process of decay — source files, copies, everything. And there’s no negative to fall back on.

  2. Very well said. 4K scans are already outdated if the internet is to be believed. The bluray release of Baraka was scanned at 8K and RED cameras can shoot at 5k. I get where they’re coming from with digital distribution but the least they could do is give cinemas the choice. They’re called films for a reason. Without it I may as well buy a projector and watch at home.

  3. Well spoken, and you briefly touched on a point that I feel is worth expanding.

    Whilst binning the Mona Lisa in favour of a digital photograph isn’t the most accurate analogy – it’s probably closer to, say, work by artist like Warhol or Dali who made and supervised short print runs of thier work.

    But the point remains, Directors (and DoPs and Colour Graders) sit in studios for days getting the settings for their print just right. It’s a vital part of the making of a film and 9 times out of 10 they are all left out of the Digital Archiving process. We don’t edit Dickens or Joyce, nor do we re-work Warhol or Dali and we certainly wouldn’t dream of binning the original manuscripts in favour of our new, “fixed” version.

    There’s also big misconception regarding digital technology – that digital prints are “identical” versions of film prints and that the only quality control is how many Ks you have. In fact, there is far less standardisation and quality control on digital scanners and digital projectors and as a result the look of a digitally project film can vary wildly even between two screens in the same cinema. And the “better” these scanners get (more Ks, wider lattitudes, bigger colour gamuts) these things actually become harder to control.

    I can see the appeal and in a big way it’s largely the fault of techno-fetishists who want to grab headlines and make money with their 50K, 200fps Super-Ultra-Mega-Def monsters that sound very impressive on paper but don’t actually improve anyone’s experience.

    You know what. Fuck it. Let’s just colourise every B&W film, over-dub all the silent movies and put everything on You Tube. And add some cats.

  4. Nice post. I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ but for the sake of argument I don’t think all of your points hold.

    The analogy to paintings (“celluloid is the canvas”) isn’t entirely valid. As films are now being made completely in digital from production to projection, they never even touch celluloid in some cases. I know many are simply lamenting the loss of the physical presence of film in the same way they became unsettled when music production moved to an electronic sphere (no actual people playing instruments but rather total electronic music made in a computer). Are we arguing to keep 35mm prints alive of films made in 2012? In some cases the ‘soul’ of 35mm reminds me of the hipster nostalgic argument between vinyl and CD.

    Also just on a semantic technical note. A 4K projection is actually much more detailed than a general 35mm film print. Roger Deakins is a cinematographer we all can agree on respecting and he has very clearly stated his preference for digital 4K projections. He has clarified that while original shooting negatives are considered to have a resolution of higher than 5K, once distribution prints are struck the resolution you are often seeing in a theatre showing a generic 35mm print is comparable to a 2K presentation. As a cinematographer he is often disappointed that the vision he sees on his dailies and during his color grades is not matched by general 35mm presentation.

    I say all of the above not to actively argue against preserving 35mm screenings and prints but to maybe let one consider that the future of digital projection is not bleak. 35mm needs to be preserved for historical reasons and certain cinemas need to keep screening those prints but the future of 4K (and higher) projection can be considered a pretty cool thing to look forward to.

  5. Thanks for the comments, all. To prove what a technical whiz I am, I’ve only now figured out how to leave comments on my own blog. Anyone want to hire me as their IT guy?

    Rich, I wasn’t arguing against the future of digital. In fact, I’m really excited about it. Given some of the 4K prints I’ve seen at the Astor, I’d be crazy not to be. (Although, I also saw a terrible digital projection of Moneyball at a major cinema chain I won’t mention, so it’s a slippery slope.) Hell, I’m not even against seeing digital prints of classic films. The *only* thing I’m arguing against is the needless destruction of 35mm prints because they’re seen as obsolete. There is no way we won’t be regretting that decision in years to come.

    If we continue to develop digital but still preserve our film heritage, that’s a win-win scenario.

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