The Review/Interview/

The Save This Moment Film-Preservation Roundtable

TIFF shares its passion for film on film

by
Nov 18, 2016

The next generation’s passion for seeing film on film can’t be underestimated. TIFF is committed to the preservation and celebration of cinema, which is why the organization has recently acquired a print collection of over 1,300 titles that will be restored and protected for years to come. Included are works like Dazed and Confused, The Big Lebowski, Rear Window and The Thing, movies that have significantly shaped our lives and the lives of those around us. To talk about the importance of viewing film on film, we gathered a roundtable of cinema experts (among them an archivist, a cinematographer, a programmer, an educator, and a projectionist) to celebrate the unique beauty of the medium. You can donate to TIFF’s Save This Moment campaign at tiff.net/savethismoment.

Chandler Levack, Digital Editor, TIFF: Let’s start by discussing a film that you saw projected in a theatre that completely blew you away.

Theresa Scandiffio, Director of Adult Learning, TIFF: The first time I saw a film on film that blew me away was during a Norman McLaren series at Jackman Hall. Getting to see all the colours and the sound gave me a whole new appreciation of cinema.

Brad Deane, TIFF Cinematheque Programmer and Senior Manager of Film Programmes: It was a summer program at the University of Southern California. David E. James, a professor there, showed us Stan Brakhage's Mothlight. Afterwards, he took the film out of the projector, unspooled it and showed us the frames. Brakhage made this film without a camera, he had taken moth wings and placed them between two pieces of film and processed it. It was an amazing textural experience where you could actually see the physicality of the film, something I can't imagine in the digital world.

A strip of film from Mothlight (1963), directed by Stan Brakhage

James King, Senior Booth Manager, TIFF Bell Lightbox: When I was very young, I saw a print of Terminator 2: Judgement Day at the Cinesphere (Ontario Place’s former IMAX theatre) and the grandeur of it blew me away. More recently, when I was starting at TIFF Bell Lightbox, we had a 70mm print of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'd never seen clarity like that on the screen. The best way to describe it would be a “50-foot window.”

Christina Stewart, Assistant Archivist at Robarts Media Commons: I have a couple of “blow me away” moments. My first was seeing a new print of Gold Diggers of 1933 at the TCM Film Fest in 2011. I sat there in awe with my jaw open, feeling like, “I finally get it." The second was seeing Portrait of Jennie at the Nitrate Picture Show. It was a black-and-white film until the final reel, when it opened up into widescreen and ended with Technicolor. It was just marvellous; I'm getting goose pimples talking about it.

Bert Dunk, Cinematographer and Technology Supervisor at the Screen Industries Research and Training Centre: If you ever saw the movie Cinema Paradiso, I was the little guy in the booth watching the movie. When I was 13, I spent every night at my neighbourhood movie house with my best friend's brother, who was the projectionist. It was carbon arc light sources and the glow of the rectifiers was very exciting, including the changeover. The picture that blew me away was the premiere of Lawrence of Arabia at the Paramount Theatre in New York City, which was a thing in itself to behold. A beautiful, pristine, 70mm Technicolor print.

Theresa Scandiffio: I think a key point is emphasizing all the craftspeople involved in making a film. When we did a Master Class with Guillermo del Toro last week to discuss Buñuel’s Susana, he mentioned how a pristine print would celebrate the beautiful cinematography. With poor transfer and digital copy, you lose all the craftsmanship that everyone has put into this film.

Bert Dunk: The best part about shooting on film was going to the rushes at the end of the day. That was your reward for a long day’s work.

Chandler Levack: Let’s talk about the tangibility of film. In an age when people are consuming more online content than ever before, even watching movies on their phones… Here’s an object you’re directly handling; you’re shooting an image that can’t be seen on a monitor. Film is real and alive.

Bert Dunk: When I go into Panavision, you'd be surprised how many people open the door on the camera to smell the film. Film has a wonderful smell to it… it really sets you off. There are a lot of memories there.

Christina Stewart: I love digital and I see its pluses, but I also see the negatives. It's not about the film object itself. It doesn't take into account that object’s history, the materiality of cinema, which is tied to the content which blossoms on screen. You can see the history of the film print when it is projected. Scratches, cue marks, splices… we know we're coming up to a reel change because a film naturally looks a little more damaged at the heads and tails. There’s the motor start: – “1, 2, 3, 4" and you count, boom! And then you hear the changeover. Everything adds to this whole experience.

Bert Dunk: The size of the screen has a big impact. When I was a kid, the screen was bigger than life.

Brad Deane: Screen size and content are two things that drive me a little crazy. When you're watching something on your DVD player, on your television, or on your phone, it’s completely different than watching a movie in a theatre. It's important to remember that cinema is both form and content. Content’s maybe what you're looking at on your phone, but what you're looking at up on the screen is art.

Theresa Scandiffio: Projectionists are key to preservation; they are the handlers of the film. And it's invisible labour. It's only pointed out if there's ever a glitch, it's not the thousands of hours of perfection that takes place under James and (TIFF Director of Technical Production Services) Diane Cappelletto’s watch.

Brad Deane: I used to have my favourite projectionists when Cinematheque Ontario was showing films at Jackman Hall. I knew who would overmask a little bit, who had looser masking that I liked, who was a little quick on reel changes. I knew who was projecting just by watching the film and I could tell the difference.

Chandler Levack: I feel like what we associate about a movie and its beauty sometimes are those happy accidents. Bert, have you ever shot something on film that you thought was a mistake, but it ended up creating something beautiful?

Bert Dunk: I can tell you about a mistake that happened during a movie called Black Christmas (1974). I was camera operator. We had this high-speed shot where one of the girls was getting killed. Well, my camera assistant had threaded the camera one sprocketful too tight. The image had a jump to it because of the pulldown, but it actually made the thing even better. My assistant was ready to go kill himself and the director (Bob Clark) thought it was the best thing that ever happened. I had to agree.

Brad Deane: What is the biggest difference between shooting on film and digital?

Bert Dunk: Well, lighting is lighting. The biggest thing I find with digital is the on-set discipline. They don't call them directors anymore, they call them collectors. Because they leave the camera rolling. Previously, you were given your 5,000 or 7,000 feet of film to shoot, per day. You had to make it all count. Directors were better, everybody was better because you couldn’t waste the film.

Theresa Scandiffio: It’s about creating an experience where if the filmmaker was at the back of the cinema they’d say, “I’ve never seen it look this good.” It all keeps coming back to an exceptional presentation experience that broadens our perspective. Where someone says: “Now I get what that censorship issue was. Now I get what was so complex and beautiful about this scene that unravelled before our eyes."

Chandler Levack: How do seeing films in a theatre help to remind us of our humanity?

Theresa Scandiffio: Just from TIFF’s perspective — the audience wants it and craves it. We just had that 12-hour Master Class over three nights with del Toro. That’s 12 out of 72 hours of people's lives, and it was a huge, full cinema. It reminds me how every single piece of art has so many different lenses. If you're watching a movie by yourself, it's only your lens.

Brad Deane: A lot of hard work goes into this and it's great to see that the Cinematheque has never been more successful. I think that people do want to see things with other people. In the summer of 2007, we did a tribute to Janus films on their 50th anniversary. We were really worried because Janus Films is the theatrical division of the Criterion Collection, essentially. We thought, “Well, people can just stay at home and watch all these beautiful DVDs.” But it was one of the biggest series that we've had in a long time. We got a lot of younger audiences saying, “I’ve seen this on TV, I've seen it on DVD, I really want to see it on film now."

James King: I'm an enormous horror fan. You go into a dark theatre hoping to go through something horribly disturbing and traumatic. And if the narrative's done well, you really sink into it. I remember a Midnight Madness screening of a film called À l’intérieur (Inside). The credits and lights came up, and there was this silence across the whole audience. Everyone had the same reaction: “Oh my god, what did I just experience?"

Chandler Levack: My friend once saw a screening of Husbands in Germany. Every time there was a reel change, the film would break down. So the theatre opened up the bar and gave everyone free drinks. The audience started getting drunk. They would come back and watch the next reel, and then it would break down again and they would go get even more drinks... I loved the idea that the experience of watching the film was the same as being in the movie.

Brad Deane: They still probably drank more in the movie.

Theresa Scandiffio: I love when it's a screwball comedy and you hear people laughing because there's a different level to a joke that makes you pause and think, “Wait, what's the second layer that I didn’t get?" Kids giggling at Chaplin is the best.

Chandler Levack: I’ve heard the analogy that film could be like vinyl. In that, here is a way for a new generation to discover cinema as a living artifact.

Brad Deane: People say "film is dying." It was a commercial industry standard for over 100 years, and that’s changed. But you see labs opening up, theatres projecting on film, people shooting on 35mm and 16mm stock. It will continue to exist.

James King: The biggest threat is on the exhibition end. There hasn't been any development in cinema audio processors or projectors and all the manufacturers have closed down. I’m hoping that the technology starts catching up to handle digital and start supporting legacy formats. I know a lot of cinema technicians who are trying to support their theatres and they're searching for audio processors through eBay.

Theresa Scandiffio: The whole question of "film is dead, long live film" has existed throughout history. With the transition from silent films to sound — film is dead. With the transition to colour — film is dead.

Bert Dunk: Why give this up? How can something this good be dead?

Christina Stewart: It’s humbling when I see a great film on film. I enjoy watching the history on the print going through the projector, which I can hear in the back. I sit through the last of the credits as if to say thanks.

Theresa Scandiffio: I appreciate all the talented people that made the film itself. But also, the hands that went into making it, protecting it, projecting it. I'm always humbled by the artistry and how we live in a really cinematic city where film is a playground. The fact that we can have a full cinema makes me feel like we're surrounded by curious, curious folks. I’m grateful and excited and giddy, but mostly appreciative of the people behind the scenes who allow it to happen.


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