Austrian director Michael Palm talks to various film experts including cinema superstars Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and Apichatpong Weerasethakul trying to grasp what technological change means for the art of film and our society.
Film industry should be looked at in the context of today’s technological boom. Everything gets smaller, more effective and less personal. Thousands of people working in analogue film manufacturing and processing have lost their jobs. The same is predicted to happen not only to drivers, cashiers, and farmers but also to doctors, accountants, lawyers, journalists, teachers and hundreds of other professionals.
The driving force behind digital revolution is profit. Film is expensive not only to shoot on but also to distribute in the multiplex cinema environment. In the first week of film release multiplexes need around 3000 – 4000 copies. Later most of these film strips can be thrown in a garbage can.
Now Kodak is the last dinosaur left to produce analogue film. The company can afford to do it because there are still some old superstars like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan who appreciate the physical presence of film material. Even though Kodak has promised to keep going, nobody knows how long it will stay financially profitable for the company to manufacture film. And even Spielberg and Nolan need to digitize their movies after shooting, as most cinemas are unable to screen analogue films. There are no film projectors produced any longer and the ones still running will not last forever.
Picturing fake reality
Recently, I was asked to take a photo of a middle-aged woman. She gave me very detailed instructions about the angle of which to photograph her from so her wrinkles and double chin would be less visible. The woman is an epitome to our society, which hates getting old.
The woman was still thinking in analogue ways to cheat reality. Now we live in an age where most public images are digitally manipulated. Not only bodies of skinny girls in fashion advertisements are improved but also more and more frames in commercial movies are changed. The actors are made skinnier and younger, so they better represent nowadays beauty standard.
«The next major question is how to save our collective memory captured on analogue film.»
We step away from reality and get closer to fantasy. In several articles movie stars are also listed as one of the dying professions. In the past, film was both a realisation of an artistic idea and a documentation of certain people in certain places – even if these people were actors with costumes and makeup. Now we can’t be sure about authenticity of images we see. Already Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (dir. Gareth Edwards, 2016) featured an actor who died in 1994. It’s possible that in the future actors will just need to sell their 3D scans to big studious and all the rest will be done by the special effect crew. Then more and more dead movie stars will be appearing in the newest films.
Our collective memory in danger
The next major question is how to save our collective memory captured on analogue film. Martin Scorsese says that already now 75 percent of all American silent films are gone forever. Film stripes aren’t immortal, they need to be taken good care of – scanned, restored, copied. Yet film restoration is an expensive process and not all the movies will be given the opportunity to survive. People working in archives, museums, cinematheques, and non-profit organisations are forced to take life and death decisions. There are certain concerns that only big names will get rescued – the same Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin movies again and again. But who are we to decide which films will be important to future scientists, researchers, and historians? Seeing films dying reminds me of ISIS destroying ancient historical temples in Iraq and Syria. In locked containers, an important part of our history is disappearing – only less visibly and this time nobody protests. We are trying to figure out how the ancient Egyptians made Pyramids but we ourselves are not taking enough responsibility to save and store all the necessary information for future generations.
However, not only film strips are in danger. Digital information is disappearing even more quickly, mostly because the programs change all the time. With digitalization, video has become available to masses. Almost everybody records their personal history – little moments of our lives. But if these video files are not upgraded and reformatted they can quickly vanish. The paradox is – the safest way to save a video is copy it on film. Nowadays analogue film can last up to 500 years – so, maybe it’s too early to say goodbye to film strips. We can still celebrate them as the most stable audio-visual preservation tool created till now.
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