- Digital Decay
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day; Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away; Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.Henry Francis Lyte , "Abide with Me," Stanza 2 [End Page xiii]
The fate of 35mm as an acquisition and exhibition medium is intimately connected with questions of future-proofing, archiving, preservation, and access, which are currently at the foreground of recent debates around screen heritage in the UK. In this article, I explore the threat of digital projection to the viability of the 35mm release print, the impact of this on film stock production, and how this will affect film preservation. Whilst these issues are universal, this article is oriented toward a UK perspective.
First, it is important to state my allegiances. I am not an archivist. I am a film-maker. My interest in this area stems from my current research through documentary film practice, making a film about the impact of digital technology on feature film production and consumption. Whilst I am not a Luddite, embracing digital technologies in my own [End Page 1] film practice, I do have a fondness for film as a medium. My fascination with, and passion for, film started when I was at film school at the University of Bristol, MA Film and TV Production. I majored as a film editor, learning to edit on 16mm film, using the English bench system, "pic synch," and Steenbeck at a time when the industry was switching wholesale over to nonlinear digital editing systems such as Avid. The act of handling the film, hanging it on hooks trailing spaghetti-like in the bin, the satisfying crunch of the splicer as it chops through a frame of celluloid: all these signal a tangible relationship with the medium. Whilst my classmates all cut on Avid, I chose to cut on film for the final project, the last student in the history of the degree to do so and, although I went on to work as an editor in the industry cutting on Avid, Lightworks, and later Final Cut Pro, the unique discipline of cutting on film has always remained with me. As part of our training, we visited the Technicolor labs, where I was struck by the smell of the developing baths, the sounds of whirring cogs and bubbling of liquid in neg cleaning, the intimate material relationship that the craftspeople (mostly men in white coats) have with celluloid as a medium, the practice of wearing white gloves to protect the film, the physical effort of rewinding a large film reel, the almost sensuous act of touching the film to one's lips in the dark to see which is cell-side up when preparing to lace-up the unprocessed film for the developing bath.
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This article is not intended as a nostalgic paean to the death of film, but as an objective look at the impact of digital exhibition and the potential end of [End Page 2] the 35mm release print on film preservation and archiving. The article draws on the insights garnered from the interviews I have been conducting in the course of my current practice-based research project. During Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)-funded promising researcher fellowship, July–December 2006, I began developing a documentary research project on the impact of digital technologies on the feature film industry.1 In the course of my research, I conducted interviews with key UK film companies, including Clive Ogden at Kodak, Jeff Allen, managing director of Panavision, and Lionel Runkel at Technicolor. In addition, I interviewed retired film projectionist Maurice Thornton, and Jon Webber, ex-manager of the Curzon Community Cinema, Clevedon, UK, which claims to be the "oldest, purpose-built, continually-operated cinema in the world" yet also has a brand new digital projector courtesy of the UK Film Council's Digital Screen Initiative.2 My current practice develops out of my own personal, tactile experience...