They paved Paradiso and put up a parking Dec 15, 2011

They paved Paradiso and put up a parking  Dec 15, 2011

Marie Datch

In the old days (or what many people like to call “the 80s”), if you referred to someone as a “filmmaker” then that meant that he or she made features on well, film – in other words, moving pictures on celluloid reels that were the physical location of a moving image, and were at once tactile, transitory, temperamental…(and very flammable!) At that time, the indie filmmaker hoping for their feature to get a decent distribution deal really had only one format available to them – 35mm.

Today, the choices for the indie filmmaker seem endless. Regardless of what you use to capture your masterpiece, or how you hope to exhibit it, they are indeed real options, not merely compromises, to suit many budgets and voices. At DCIFF, we hope to support and exhibit artistic programming in whatever mediums our filmmakers choose to work in – which means that the weeks leading up to the festival will be spent securing the equipment necessary to best support those choices, no matter how obscure. The diversity of artistic expression that the rich array of formats affords makes this a labor of love.

graph showing fall in nos. of traditional projection cameras vs. rising digital ones
Ratio of traditional projection to digital projection - 50% at 2011

These efforts will come at a pivotal time in film technology. 2011 opened with the release of Happy Slapping, the first feature-length film shot entirely on a smartphone. Last month, the three major global camera manufacturers (AARI, Panavision, and Aeton) announced they would stop producing 35mm movie cameras, focusing instead solely on digital equipment. Additionally, just a few weeks ago, a report by the IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence service projected that, by DCIFF 2012’s opening night, a majority of movie screens globally will have converted to digital projection. What’s more, by 2015 it is predicted that only 17% of screens will support 35mm film, essentially making film-based projection a niche market rather than the industry standard.

Granted, this does not mean that in another year’s time everything will be produced digitally. Indie film auteurs often require the warm tones that only 35mm can provide, so many will use that format regardless of the constraints. Camera manufacturers still plan to sell, repair and rent their equipment for the foreseeable future. Such leading lights as Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino have gone so far as to insist that they will retire from filmmaking altogether the day theaters stop playing films on 35mm. And Michael Bay, a director whose special effects continue to lead the field, still prefers to use 35mm to capture his images, even if that means digitizing the 2D 35mm film into 3D in post production. However, this means that there will limit the venues where their films could be shown, and the audience that can experience their art.

Then why stop making something so beloved by such an important segment of users? We all know the answer – supply and demand (and cheaper production costs in other countries). Just as the bottom fell out of the typewriter market when word processors became the norm, and Kodak no longer manufactures film still cameras for the everyday consumer, the 35mm camera may be slated to go the way of the dinosaurs. This cannot solely be laid at the feet of the manufacturers – their production choices live and die by the bottom line.

The technological advances that have made 3D more accessible to more filmmakers, as well as the strides that were made in virtual CG and animation have done their part. Moreover, the audience has come to expect content which is best produced (sometimes can *only* be produced) digitally and released to support the need for instant gratification. A generation that has grown up with reality TV and YouTube will not blink at a film like Paranormal Activity – shot (by a video game programmer who had never directed before) on a digital camera is also likely to embrace the feature made with nothing more than an iPhone.

No one can argue that, by lowering the cost of production, these technological strides are a great friend to the indie filmmaker and his often limited budget. Robert Rodriguez estimates that 90% of El Mariachi‘s original production costs were film-related. David Lynch (who has been directing since P.T. Anderson and Tarantino were still in diapers) prefers digital precisely because it gives the indie filmmaker more freedom – not only financially, but also in terms of distribution and marketing options, and as an artist and storyteller. It can fulfill his vision without requiring the vast resources of a meddlesome studio, whose motives may relate more to finances and a successful weekend release than the auteur’s autonomy.

Filmmakers are at a crossroads, not a dead end, and as they give in to the lure of new technologies they will yearn for the things they no longer “need”. For the next few years at least, the industry will still have a place for such “nostalgia,” and the heights to which technology will take us will further anchor that niche in place. Whether its hand-cranked ice cream or 35mm film, the very obsolescence of these things is what endears them to us and preserves their value.

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