Ode to a Frame of Celluloid

Guest Blog: Who would have dreamed that film, that magic medium of the past century, would die so quickly?

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

– John Keats


Poets and scholars alike have waxed nostalgic about loved ones no longer here. With last Thursday’s announcement that Kodak is selling off the rest of its print film business, there's yet another old friend leaving us: film.

In the last year, the major manufacturers of motion picture film cameras, Aaton, ARRI and Panavision all ceased production of new film cameras. Actual 35mm celluloid running through a projector is disappearing. Now Kodak, who seemed invulnerable to change, pulls out of a business it helped define. Film as we know it is dead.

Who would have dreamed that film, that magic medium of the past century, would die so quickly? I doubt Kodak saw this coming, either. Only a few years ago, I was telling friends that digital formats would never win over the time-honored process of light shining through celluloid. The image created was far superior to anything shot digitally, the colors rich and vibrant, not harsh and cold, as HD video can be.

My thinking was the consumer would always want the best quality available, and by that standard, how could you improve upon film? While quality is important, I forgot to acknowledge another important driver: the entertainment industry’s thirst for innovation. From TV to VHS to DVD, we’ve always wanted technology that improves our viewing experience. The fact is that film reached its apex. In the race for faster and cheaper, it could not keep up.

For over 100 years, film ruled the roost. At their peak, movies accounted for more than 12 billion feet of film processing each year, according to HIS. That’s enough to fly back and forth to the moon five times! But a changing economic landscape made studios look toward other options.

With digital formats, studios save billions of dollars in film stock and processing costs. Once the decision is made to shoot on digital, it’s a logical leap to want to project digitally as well. Today, half of the world's screens show movies on digital projectors further eroding the necessity for film. In this new order, there isn’t a place for film. From a strictly financial perspective, the change makes sense. In my heart, it doesn’t.

There’s a tactile beauty to celluloid that’s so seductive with the silver halide crystals forming different patterns on every frame of film. It’s a romantic medium, like oil paints or clay. Studio bosses speak of the “silver screen,” and directors wax nostalgic about film being run through a projector at 24 frames per second. And anyone who grew up going to the movies knows there’s something about being in a darkened theater and listening to a film projector’s gears turning softly in the background while images appear on the screen. Film wasn’t perfect, but there was a mystical alchemy to how it worked that made it magical.

Part of the nostalgia I feel for film stems from my childhood. My Dad took a Super 8 camera with him on every vacation. In junior high I lived in the A/V room, setting up projectors, respooling reels and repairing tears in 16mm science documentaries. Later, working with celluloid was my job, as a projectionist at a six-screen theater in Colorado. These interactions with film fueled my creativity. I don’t want to lose that connection to my childhood with its swift demise.

Purists may continue to shoot movies on film, and the celluloid dream may live at film festivals and various shrines of cinema. But with film processing houses disappearing and some studios shutting down their film rental business, if will become increasingly difficult for exhibitors to show celluloid. They will have to scramble to import prints from overseas or private archives or simply scrap plans to show certain films altogether. The worst-case scenario will be movie houses closing altogether, since upgrading to digital projection is not only undesirable but beyond their tight-budgeted means.

For now, film transitions from the theaters of Hollywood to auctions on eBay. It’s tough to witness this slow decline of my favorite medium, akin to watching a dear relative succumb to illness. You want to do something but know there’s nothing you can do. As celluloid retires from public life and becomes a museum relic that auteurs wax poetic about, let’s raise a glass and toast its glorious past. Film you will be missed but never forgotten.

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,— that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'