On the first evening of last month, Tata Theatre was completely packed, with a buzz that was almost palpable. It wasn’t for a performance: instead, a thousand people, most of them young, came to see and hear Christopher Nolan on ‘Reframing the Future of Film’. One wonders how many came out of interest in the subject; most of them probably came to hear the director of Dunkirk, Inception, Dark Night, Interstellar, Batman Begins and Memento
The discussion was about ‘film’, meaning celluloid, the photochemical film which till recently all movies were shot on, until the advance of digital technology made film obsolete. Nolan has begun a crusade to save film, and his Mumbai visit was part of his international campaign to make sure it survived. His collaborator in the campaign, Tacita Dean, was there too. None of us has seen her work—for that we need to go to London: ‘Landscape, Portrait, Still Life’ is the title of her exhibition, a rare joint effort of Britain`s Royal Academy of Arts, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery.
Film history, of course, begins with 35 mm film. If you remember, this was a thin, flexible strip of transparent base material, coated with a light-sensitive emulsion on which photographic images were registered. The strip`s width was 35 mm and there were 16 frames per foot, each frame approximately ¾ of an inch in height and each bordered by four perforations on each side which helped it unspool in the projector. These standards were established as early as 1899, the first year of the commercial introduction of cellulose-base film (hence ‘celluloid’) by the Eastman Kodak Company. In the early days of silent cinema, the film travelled through cameras at 16 frames per second, which increased to 24 frames per second when sound came in. The sound track appeared as a strip along one edge inside the perforations; later it came on both sides for stereophonic sound. The base material of film was the highly inflammable and perishable cellulose nitrate. Only in 1950 was it changed to a cellulose acetate base, which came to be known as safety film. Other advances came in the form of 70 mm film and the IMAX format, till film itself was superseded by digital cameras, recording and projection.
You may remember the cans of film that were transported from studio to cinema theatres, each round, flat can containing one reel of the finished movie (14 reels was the length of a standard Bollywood movie, with 18 reels reserved for the big epics). Film prints were expensive and film raw stock was imported into India and was ‘rationed’, which is why you generally didn`t see multiple theatre releases of a movie. A film ran in one theatre, and when successful, celebrated its ‘Silver Jubilee’! Now digital projection enables movies to be distributed to cinemas through dedicated satellite links or by sending hard drives or Blu-ray discs. So you get multi-screen showings of the same film, and in one week you may have many more shows than in a silver jubilee run. It`s all so easy now: no longer stories of a blockbuster movie being simultaneously shown in two separate Mumbai theatres, which agreed to have slightly different show times so that ‘runners’ could take a reel already projected at New Empire Theatre to the wailing projectionist at New Excelsior, and back again to fetch the next reel.
The convenience and economy of digital distribution and projection has almost completely wiped out the old film projection. Even more importantly, shooting a film itself has become incredibly easier and cheaper with small, light and flexible cameras which do not require all the elaborate lighting which movies shot on film needed. (Apparently Steven Soderbergh, the award winning director of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Traffic , has shot his latest movie using his cell phone!).
So why is Christopher Nolan fighting what`s clearly a losing battle? He makes it clear he is not fighting against digital technology; instead, he is fighting for film technology to survive. All film-makers agree that the quality of a movie shot and projected on film is far superior to the digital product: there`s more depth, colours are warmer and richer, even the sound quality is superior. Luckily, Kodak hasn`t given up on manufacturing film, with one facility still functioning in the US.
Will the movement spread? Most unlikely: Christopher Nolan, whose movies have grossed nearly 5 billion dollars, can indulge in film`s superior technology because producers indulge a film maker with his kind of track record. But to put things into perspective, Nolan’s films make more money than our entire film industry put together. So he can continue to make his Dunkirks on high quality and expensive film, while we are stuck, for better or worse, with digital.
And who is to say that digital will not make rapid technological advances in double quick time? Come another day, a new dawn.