Film vs. Digital: What’s the difference, and who cares?

Film

Cinemas can screen movies either from film or from a digital print. When a cinema says it’s screening something in 35mm or 70mm, it means it’s being projected from several reels of actual film. They’re old-school, come in heavy crates, are sensitive to atmosphere, and look like this:

film-reel

This does not necessarily mean that the movie will look any more “real” or “authentic”. Just as the quality of a record’s sound will depend on the mastering, the speakers, and how well the vinyl’s been treated, the look of a movie presented in 35mm/70mm depends on the film stock: if a particular film stock has been exposed to excessive warmth or sunlight, or spilled drinks, or scratches, or even excessive use, there’ll be problems. When I saw Hal Ashby’s Shampoo a few weeks ago in 35mm (for £1!), not only was it marred by pink coloration throughout, but the reel jumped halfway through the movie and ground to a halt. The film had to be stopped for several minutes, to be resumed several seconds (or was it minutes?) after where we’d left off. Digital is a much less sensitive format.

And yet… When a 35mm print has been well treated or newly struck, the results can be utterly magnificent. Last year at the Prince Charles I saw The Good, The Bad and the Ugly in a 35mm print that was less than ten years old (though the film is 51 years old this year) – it looked phenomenal. Even more gorgeous was Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, also screened a couple of years ago at the Prince Charles in a new 35mm print. Film stock (as opposed to digital) has a “tangibility” that’s difficult to put into words, and this is nothing to do with how old they are: László Nemes’s Son of Saul, released in 2015, benefited from 35mm print because the material reality of the Holocaust (as depicted) looked more “tangible” than it would on digital. Note: this isn’t necessarily better, just different. Danny Boyle capitalised on this difference for his Steve Jobs biopic Jobs: the early ’80s scenes were filmed in 16mm (a format used in the pre-digital days by students and amateur filmmakers), the late ’80s scenes in 35mm, and the late ’90s scenes in digital. This is a neat idea, I think.

Son of Saul
Son of Saul was filmed in 35mm

Some cinemas will loudly proclaim that they’re 70mm-equipped. Films in 70mm differ from their 35mm pals in one key way: they look bigger. They’re also a lot more detailed. Both are because the film strip itself is almost twice the size. 70mm film also contains more sonic potential: it traditionally contains six sound tracks, each track providing a “layer” of sound. If a cinema is equipped to project 70mm film, it will most likely have the Dolby audio equipment to match. Unquestionably, the 70mm experience is genuinely impressive.

The movie world (read: the Internet (read: my Internet)) was abuzz when Quentin Tarantino shot his latest movie The Hateful Eight on Ultra Panavision, a form of 70mm, but this was merely a subset of Tarantino hype: Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 movie The Master was filmed entirely on 70mm, the first big movie to do this since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996). I suppose the good thing about Tarantino hype is that it forced several cinemas to cater for 70mm screenings, and raised awareness of 70mm screenings in general.

But the reasons most films aren’t filmed or screened in 70mm these days are three: it’s expensive to film and distribute (for instance, it weighs twice as much as 35mm); it’s therefore expensive to exhibit, some of the cost being passed on to filmgoers; and it requires specialist projection equipment (and related maintenance) to screen, which many cinemas won’t deem cost-effective since 70mm screenings are by their nature occasional. So these days, only filmmakers with a dependably large commercial draw – Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, P.T. Anderson – shoot their movies in 70mm. (Anderson may not have quite as much box-office pull, but he’s a darling in the film industry and can pretty much do what he wants.) But plenty of old films are screened in 70mm. Utterly essential examples include 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia; pretty cool ones I’ve seen include Aliens (viewed on a gigantic screen at Picturehouse Central, on a day when they were celebrating their one-year anniversary by screening all movies for £1) and The Right Stuff.

The Right Stuff

However, 70mm will not make a good film great. The Master is an average movie for a bunch of reasons, and seeing it in 70mm wouldn’t fix certain things (though it did nicely reinforce the theme of loneliness and existential befuddlement. The characters were surrounded by a much wider landscape; this was particularly effective in the memorable motorcycle scene). Similarly, 70mm prints don’t always look pristine: when I saw The Right Stuff in 70mm at the Prince Charles, it looked “lived in”, with cigarette burns visible and crackles audible.

The London cinemas that are equipped to screen movies in 70mm are the Prince Charles Cinema, Picturehouse Central and Odeon Leicester Square. The UK’s other 70mm-ready cinemas include Parkway Cinema, in Barnsley; the Rex, in Berkhamsted; the Arts Picturehouse, in Cambridge; the Picturehouse at FACT, in Liverpool; Pictureville Cinema, part of the National Media Museum in Bradford; and the Filmhouse, in Edinburgh; and the Glasgow Film Theatre.

Digital

2K and 4K are easier to explain. Both refer to resolution, i.e. the number of pixels in a given space. 2K is 2048 x 1080 pixels. Since “Full HD” (i.e. your TV’s capabilities) is 1920 x 1080 pixels, you won’t hear cinemas bragging about 2K screenings. But 4K is 4096 x 2160 pixels, so expect a 4K screening to look very visually impressive indeed – that’s a lot of visual detail packed onto the screen at any given time. You may not notice that you’re noticing it, but you’ll be noticing it.

Nonetheless, most TVs and computers these days support 4K. Netflix streams Breaking Bad, House of Cards and others at 4K, and Amazon shoots its original series and even new pilots with 4K resolution. This is to say, 4K might look pretty cool – but 70mm is a format you can see only in a cinema, and, because of its size, will have a grandeur and beauty that will never feel “antiseptic”. People say good art is forever, but film stock is mortal – just like we are. That this mortality can be glimpsed on the screen (thanks to the occasional imperfection) might explain why for so many, 35mm and 70mm are the most emotionally satisfying ways to see movies.

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