Film festivals exist to gather and showcase a selection of the best new films, often before they’ve been acquired or distributed to the public. Influential festivals like Sundance in January, the Berlinale in February, and the New York Film Festival (NYFF) in September – each of which I’ve attended for decades – seek to select and showcase the best of the best. In so doing, they serve as indispensable bellwethers, pointing us to new directions and dimensions in current cinema.
But in addition to the essential scorekeeping — Which directors? Which films? Snatched up by which distributors? Which breakthroughs are discovered? Which retrospectives organized? — I have long used film festivals as yearly benchmarks to note shifts in form, technique, and technology in contemporary filmmaking.
For instance, attending festival screenings over the years I’ve witnessed the rise and fall of entire production formats. Both 16mm and 16mm-to-35mm blow-ups come to mind, from reversal and negative originals.
16mm projected as 16mm at festivals was always problematic. 16mm prints required more enlargement than 35mm to fill a big festival screen, yet they passed through a projector that relied on friction for registration and a small-bore lens for the long theater throw. This typically conferred a certain je ne sais quoi of softness and muted color that screamed “low budget.” Further, 16mm’s relatively slow speed through a projector — 36 feet/minute — sharply curtailed the soundtrack’s reproducible dynamic range.
Further, when a 16mm print’s optical soundtrack was not in perfect focus at the projector’s optical read head, the high end of the audio mix went missing. These and additional drawbacks were why, by the late 1990s and early 2000s, festivals had begun to replace 16mm projection with early digital projection, and 16mm prints with Betacam SP cassettes of film-to-tape transfers.
Gone, at last, were jittery images from loose 16mm projector gates. Glorious were high-fidelity audio mixes, now fully audible from magnetic videotape. All of this — it must be noted — at the expense of the familiar physical manifestations of 24fps 16mm projection — the flickering beam, the intermittent, clicking whir of the gate — which had contributed to the sensory viewing experience of independent and art cinema since their inception.
While 16mm-to-35mm blow-ups avoided these pitfalls of 16mm projection, the 16mm “camera original” film image still had to pass through a blow-up lens, which might or might not be optimal to the task, optically speaking. Same held true for 2-perf 35mm Techniscope original negative. In the process, each of these optically enlarged formats, touted in their time as economical alternatives to costly 35mm, added grit to the screen in the form of graininess and contrast, particularly in the case of black & white.
The result was a distinct period look that has been hard to recapture digitally. Victor Nuñez’s Gal Young Un, which premiered at the 1979 NYFF as a 16mm-t0-35mm blow-up, was “restored” in 2007 under Nuñez’s supervision at Goldcrest Post New York using an ARRISCAN scanner, from the original 16mm negative to an HDCAM SR master. Tonal scale and granularity of the original 16mm negative were so intrinsically different from those of the 1979 35mm screening print, that a precise match was essentially impossible.
Scarce 16mm and Super16 footage seen in current festival films is scanned directly to digital files upon lab processing, and from that point onward never departs the digital realm.
I’ve also seen analog video-to-35mm transfers come and go, which were popular in the 1980s, especially in the case of marathon 3-hour documentaries like the 1994 NYFF closing night film, Hoop Dreams, Richard Gordon & Carma Hinton’s The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995 NYFF), and Egon Humer’s Emigration, NY: The Story of an Expatriation (1996 NYFF).
Similarly, DV-to-35mm transfers grew popular in the late 1990s, like Bennett Miller’s career-making The Cruise (1999 Berlinale).
Next came HDCAM tape, which for awhile in the 2000’s, became a standard projection format at many festivals.
Today’s digital files have rendered any type of videotape a thing of the past, not only in production, but postproduction and theatrical exhibition too (as a DCP – Digital Cinema Package).
Since virtually all film postproduction is digital these days, 35mm is now primarily an origination medium. As a production format for festival films, it continues to survive where budgets permit, despite the collapse of the film lab business. Hollywood with its bigger budgets, for instance, continues to shoot a modicum of 4-perf 35mm, much of it widescreen anamorphic. The artier of these films continue to premiere at A-list and the larger festivals. Smaller-budgeted projects shot in 35mm tend to use 3-perf 35mm, with its 25% cost savings in raw stock, processing, and scanning. The 3-perf format also shares HD’s 16:9 aspect ratio, making it TV-friendly.
But however you look at it, 35mm is clearly declining in use. (From attending film festivals outside the U.S., my impression is that while 35mm remains in greater use abroad than here, even this is changing.) And the facts remain that no new motion picture film cameras have been manufactured in the last five years, while crews with the necessary skills to shoot film are going gray. Meanwhile, I’ve seen recent digital cinema cameras from RED, ARRI, Sony, and Canon overcome and surpass the many traditional advantages of film cameras. Time is not on the side of 35mm origination.
In fact, today’s large-sensor digital motion picture cameras – at all price ranges – along with DSLRs and the new mirrorless cameras have leveled the playing field in terms of screen image quality. Glancing at festival films these days, it’s increasingly impossible to guess their camera technology or origination medium. A Canon 5D can, at times, pass for an ARRI Alexa, just as a Sony FS7 outputting RAW can pass for a RED Epic. (Hint: lenses can be the secret sauce that makes the most difference.)
“Tech specs,” as Variety used to tag them, simply no longer correlate to budget. Given the universally polished quality of today’s digital motion picture images, it can also be impossible to tell whether a film’s budget was $750,000 or $20M, solely based on the look of a film’s images. This, of course, is a godsend to today’s low-budget filmmakers. To wit, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, shot on an iPhone 5s, which premiered at Sundance 2015 to great acclaim. No one knocked it for image quality.
The point is, all festival films look gorgeous today, if they want to.
As years then decades have unfolded, how could I not fail to register this cavalcade of deep changes in the art form I hold dearest? These legacy production, post, and exhibition formats in their heyday impacted budget and production schedule, crew size, and post workflow to influence the look and feel of images on festival screens across the world.
So — what are the latest trends in form, technique and technology to watch for at upcoming film festivals?
• No longer a need to handicap projection. By fall 2012, the New York Film Festival — founded in 1963 and produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center — had switched almost entirely from film projection to digital, using DCP. (Each year I used to query former NYFF director Richard Peña about this.) In the case of Sundance, by January 2013 Park City theaters were down to five films projected as 35mm. This year’s Sundance was the first with no film projection at all. For each of these two touchstone festivals, the iconic film reel now exists in the realms of memory and metaphor.
• Established directors still switching to digital. With so much momentum and innovation in digital motion picture cameras, even the most established film directors are eventually seduced. At the 2013 NYFF, Jim Jarmusch, presenting his first digital feature, a vampire narrative entitled Only Lovers Left Alive, marveled out loud at the small “LED squares,” i.e. pixels, produced by the ARRI Alexa. However he was discomfited, he said, by what he felt was the added depth of field with digital, and he did not care for its skin tone rendition in daylight. On the other hand, he loved how faces set in deep shadow photographed during the night driving sequences. Which probably matters most in a vampire film anyway.
• Longer running times. I don’t know whether or not this is a consequence of the ease with which digital cameras and nonlinear editing encourage higher shooting ratios and multiple versioning, or the fact that a DCP on a hard drive, unlike yesteryear’s heavy I.C.C. shipping container filled with multiple 35mm reels, costs the same to ship whether it contains 90 minutes or four hours, but I’ve noticed a trend towards 2-hour films, at least at festivals. Only Lovers Left Alive, for instance, was 123 minutes. At the subsequent 2014 NYFF, Beloved Sisters, Birdman, Clouds of Sils Maria, Eden, Foxcatcher, Gone Girl, Inherent Vice, Mr. Turner, St. Laurent, and Time out of Mind each topped two hours or more, while others in the program were close runners-up.
• Filming with available light. This has been a staple of filmmaking since the days of D. W. Griffith, at least for daylight exteriors. For interiors and night scenes, a combination of slow lenses and even slower film stocks made necessary the use of heavy artificial lighting until the advent of fast lenses and color negatives in the late 1970s. Edgy directors like Jean-Luc Godard have long taken advantage of shooting interiors with available light, but digital technology has lately produced remarkably fast sensors that see further into darkness than the eye can.
Some narrative directors, taking after documentary filmmakers and photographers who’ve long exploited natural light, have abandoned generators and electrical tie-ins altogether. Films photographed handsomely in available light, day or night, at last year’s NYFF include Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, Eugéne Green’s La Sapienza, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, and the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night. (In Two Days, One Night, Marion Cotillard is often luminous, but that’s a special effect called acting.)
With the exception of Two Days, One Night, each of these films also featured nighttime interiors lit only with candlelight, once famously the province of Stanley Kubrick. Now that cameras can penetrate shadows and reproduce scenes so low-key that they deserve to be called “no-key,” it’s incumbent upon festivals, more than ever, to secure the very best digital projection. Why? No current digital projector is capable of a true black; at best they manage a dark gray. At worst, however, a light gray. In the latter case, delicate “no-key” scenes can appear faded and indistinct rather than crisp and darkly detailed.
• Renaissance of 2.40 widescreen aspect ratio. Once requiring heavy, expensive, slow anamorphic lenses, the 2.40 screen shape associated with classic Cinemascope is now relatively easy and cheap to obtain. 16:9 images are readily cropped top and bottom (this works especially well if they’re 4K to begin with) to produce 2.40. Alternatively, a digital camera like the ARRI Studio camera with a 4:3 Super 35 sensor can accept traditional anamorphic lenses that apply a 2x horizontal squeeze.
Tangerine, cited above, is 2.40. Other films I saw at Sundance this year in 2.40 aspect ratio included Yann Demange’s ’71, Adam Salky’s I Smile Back, Craig Zobel’s Z For Zacharia, and two documentaries, Michael Madsen’s The Visit, and Ilinca Calugareanu’s Chuck Norris vs. Communism.
• Old lenses never die, they just get a cleaning. For those who think digital moving images are too clinical and pristine compared to film, there is a growing movement towards use of vintage lenses like classic Cooke Speed Panchro series from Hollywood’s mid-century golden years. This is exactly what Bill Pope did in lensing Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, as he explained to the press at last year’s NYFF. With far fewer anti-reflection coatings than modern lenses, these older Cookes are softer, noticeably flaring at times. Pope claimed they were the same set used on Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus, shot by Russell Metty. Expect to see a lot more festival films boasting lenses with pedigree.
• Tossing editing syntax and composition to the wind. As we have acclimated to screen direction that violates the 180º rule (thanks, Ozu), jarring audio discontinuities (thanks, J-L Godard), and stuttering jump cuts that collapse action (thanks, Dogme 95), we must now accept intercutting two headshots each facing outward, towards the near side of the frame and seemingly away from each other. I saw this eye-catching (but wrong-looking, to my eye) framing in quite a few documentaries at Sundance this year. If you’re a fan, as I already am, of Rami Malek’s character in USA Network’s upcoming summer series, Mr. Robot (inaugural episode premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival), you’ll come to expect this technique every Wednesday night, as well as excessive headroom in framing. It’s a “thing” now; expect to see much more of it, especially in commercials.
• Classical and serious music redux. Speaking of Mr. Robot, the use of stirring classical music to infuse gravitas into contemporary themes and situations is on an upswing – which is a good thing. Godard, who perhaps started it all, was represented at last year’s NYFF by Goodbye to Language, its soundtrack strewn, as is his long habit, with snippets of classical music. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, also at last year’s NYFF, seasoned its jazz solo drumming score with clips of Ravel, Mahler, and Rachmaninoff.
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher at the 2014 NYFF quietly tapped Arvo Pärt, as did The Visit at this year’s Sundance in January. Also at Sundance, Tangerine unexpectedly and most effectively deployed Beethoven’s thrusting, portentous Coriolan Overture during a scene in which Sin-Dee waits for a bus, while Best of Enemies, the rollicking documentary by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon recalling the nationally televised verbal slugfests between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. during the 1968 Republican Convention, explodes with Handel and Purcell, including Moog synth versions made famous by Wendy Carlos.
I also noticed long, sophisticated, well-developed scores in several of this year’s Sundance documentaries, notably Ilinca Calugareanu’s Chuck Norris vs. Communism, Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack, and Chad Gracia’s The Russian Woodpecker. I’m certain that advances in digital music scoring have enabled this development, just as digital cameras have liberated the image. The chemistry between film and music is so essential and potent, this can only be a most thrilling development.
• Credits that roll even longer. Pixar feature-length animations may lose their championship title to the most extensive end credits. The New York Times reported that seventeen films at Sundance this year utilized Kickstarter funding. The actual number, including fundraising for distribution, is probably higher. Which means – you guessed it – crowd-funding sponsors, no matter how minor, will increasingly get their names on the screen, especially at festivals.
But who said they must all be readable? Perhaps it’s time for film credits to discover the venerable technique of fine print!