Death By Digital


By Dr. Lalit Dar

Is it a losing battle between the old and the new?

Do we let go of the celluloid and welcome the new age digital cinema?

Lalit Dar

Over the next few years, manufacturers of celluloid film stock are likely to stop producing it completely. Most cinemas have already shifted to digital content and the rest would have to follow suit. This would sound the death knell for films as we know it.

Digital formats are very convenient to distribute, as the files just have to be uploaded to cinemas with a click of the mouse. This obviously cuts on the cost of processing negatives in laboratories and making multiple prints of films on celluloid.

In addition, digital formats are more convenient for visual special effects and the rapidly growing 3D technology.

The economic benefits of digital technology have gradually led to the edging out of the long-familiar spools of film that were mounted and run on traditional projectors in cinemas. Photographic colour film production for non-digital cameras was stopped earlier by Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy in January 2012.

Digital files would end the traditional system of film distribution, which was physical rather than virtual. I remember that a cinema owner who owned more than one cinema in a city would sometimes schedule film shows in a staggered manner, to allow consecutive reels of film to be transported back and forth between two venues, saving the cost of an additional print. You could sometimes spot a bicycle arriving with the spools, as you waited for the film to start or continue, after a forced break due to the film being stuck in traffic!

Digital film is much easier to store on high capacity hard drives. This is a real advantage for film archiving, in terms of space and safety. Reels of stored film, though still perhaps the most stable format if a low temperature is maintained, have often been destroyed in fires in the past. This happened at the National Film Archive of India at Pune in 2003 and, previously, even at the French Cinematheque.

Incidentally, death by nitrate film stock (which preceded celluloid film) was used ingenuously by Quentin Tarantino. In Inglourious Basterds, a deliberate fire was started in a cinema to suffocate and kill a large contingent of trapped Nazis, including Hitler and Goebbler, creating a fictional alternative history.

Film enthusiasts would recognize this as an act of cinematic revenge against the German authorities in occupied France, who had actually ordered the destruction of all films made prior to 1937 and archived in one of the largest collections of film at the Cinematheque Francais, which was pioneered by the legendary cinephile, Henri Langlois.

However, there are also instances of digital media being destroyed by fire. Sony lost an estimated 30 million DVDs in a fire in its main optical disc distribution warehouse in the United Kingdom during the London riots in 2011. Add to this the risk of hard drive crashes, as well as the eternally changing digital formats, and you have an archivist’s nightmare.

There are many other problems with films in the digital format. For the creator, it means the loss of the magic of seeing an image being created in a dark room, just through photochemical reactions between solutions, emulsions, silver grains and gelatin. Even with high definition, digital formats are yet to reach the perfection of celluloid.

For the viewer, digital projection often means dimly lit images (sometimes due to lenses for 3D projection not being removed before 2D screenings, as pointed out by film critic Roger Ebert in one of his blogs), incorrect aspect ratios (most commonly, a horizontally ‘stretched’ image due to 4:3 ratio format films being projected at an aspect ratio of 16:9) and loss of resolution or bleaching of colour (due to projection from an excessively compressed digital file).

My worst digital experience was when I saw Terence Malick’s acclaimed ‘The Tree of Life ‘at a Delhi cinema in a late night show. It was a difficult and demanding film, which became quite impossible to watch due to the projection of a completely faded, dimly lit and washed-out digital copy.

My ire reached its peak when I later saw it again on DVD. The home video experience was much better at creating the impact the director would have wanted (and what he achieved at Cannes, where it won the Palm d’Or last year), compared with what was offered to me by the cinema.

At home, I could atleast adjust the colour, contrast and brightness according to my preference, even if it was not exactly as director intended. I was not dependent on a projectionist’s whims and ignorance. I realized when I viewed the film again that the cinematography was remarkable, with a continuous succession of luminously beautiful images.

I rued all that had been missed by the many who either slept through or walked out of the screening that night, thanks to the shoddy digital projection. For me, this episode made a strong case for watching really special films at home rather than wasting time, effort and money at a cinema with a low quality digital file or a technically-challenged projectionist.

We now have a new and expensive ‘boutique’ cinema, at a mall in South Delhi, that regularly screens old Hollywood and foreign films, with an occasional black and white classic thrown in.

I wonder if they are actually making an effort to procure celluloid prints or, at least, good quality digital files, rather than projecting digital images of variable quality. I’m just too scared to go and find out for myself, even though the cinema has screened everything from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane to Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love during the last few months.

I’m petrified of the risk that my favourite films would be killed by digital!


gcaffè ~The Gappuccino Question: Will The Celluloid Cinemas Shut Up Shop In 2015?

  • ashish

    very well put.i totally agree . digital cameras are very handy,but there is very less work to be shared by the director of photography. beauty of 24 frames per second is itself an embedded beauty.