PRINT October 2015

Tacita Dean

David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, 35 mm, color, sound, 222 minutes.

ANYONE WHO WORKS WITH FILM, whether they shoot, project, or preserve it, will bear witness to the hitherto unimaginable speed and near-exhaustive prosecution with which the medium has been annihilated over the last half decade. The new digital technology inevitably excited and dominated the market with incentives and capitulations in equal measure, plunging film into probable economic extinction and an adversarial and defensive position with no chance of equivalence. “Old-fashioned,” “obsolete,” “dying”—“end-of-life technology”—became the ubiquitous fare of the press and the general rhetoric used by an industry newly set against the medium on which it was built. As film was rapidly vanquished, next to no value or consideration was given to the scale of the cultural and artistic losses that would result if film were allowed to just simply disappear.

As an artist who makes and exhibits film for reasons indexical to the medium, I had no choice but to resist the situation and try to counteract the overwhelming pessimism, intransigence, and ignorance, willful or otherwise, that surround any discussion about film. So as artist in residence at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, I collaborated with director Christopher Nolan and Kerry Brougher, director of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, to host an event last March that brought together around one table for the first time individuals from all areas of film use—commercial filmmaking, art, exhibition, and preservation—to develop strategies that would sustain, reinvigorate, and encourage the use of film. Involved in the conversation were institutional heads and representatives from various archives and organizations, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Film Foundation, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Sundance Institute, George Eastman House, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, FotoKem, and Kodak. The boardroom discussion was followed later in the day by a public conversation in the Getty Center’s Harold M. Williams Auditorium between Nolan, Brougher, and myself.

Despite every counterindication, film continues to show its resilience, and the tide appears to be turning. However, there is still considerable work to be done. A deal signed between Kodak and the six major movie studios in February 2015, which guaranteed the purchase of an agreed-upon amount of film stock, reenergized a company on the point of giving up motion-film production. And it needs to be clearly stated here: Had we lost Kodak, we would have lost film. In 2014, within his first twenty-four hours on the job, the company’s newly appointed CEO, Jeff Clarke, postponed an impending announcement to stop film manufacture in order to investigate what market still existed. He found many key directors and collaborators in the industry, and outside it too, still very committed to film. So, within the past eight months, Kodak has begun reinvesting in film production, both in terms of industrial applications (e.g., research into a new touch-screen-sensor technology) and as a moving-image medium, and in 2015 the company’s film division made its first quarterly profit after several years of losses and is actively innovating and reengaging with its consumers. “We’re all-in on film,” Clarke told a packed auditorium at the Getty, “and I couldn’t say that six months ago.”

Pivotal to any discussion about reframing film’s future is a greater understanding of its importance as a medium in the past. Film is as much a medium to artists and filmmakers as it has been a technology to the industry. Progress renders all technologies obsolete, but no medium is anachronistic to an artist. The intentional mischaracterization of film as merely technology has been extremely damaging, as it belies the truth about a medium’s many artistic differences and puts those invested in film in the unsympathetic position of being on the wrong side of progress and castigated as Luddites. However, film, unlike other artistic mediums, relies on industrial rather than artisanal manufacture. This might be the first time that a technology and a medium have been industrially, and therefore economically, conflated in such a way that the one brings the other down. This has been the anguish: how to make film manufacture practical on a smaller scale. Alternatively, Kodak might resolve this problem by finding supplementary industrial uses for their film-manufacturing plants, but as yet these possibilities are still only in the development stage.

Film is a different way of making and showing images, and it is crucial to keep the option available. Directors understand this. Artists understand this. The value of any medium is that it can act independently of the artist: Not every action is deliberate; not every gesture has intent, as any painter can attest. Film as a medium brings qualities to the work, some that the maker never intended—characteristics integral to its chemistry and to its internal disciplines and material resistance. As Nolan asked, Why are directors allowing line producers to decide something as fundamental as what medium they make their work in? That is, or should be, the first artistic decision of any project. It is commonly believed that digital is cheaper to use, but this isn’t necessarily the case. It might begin cheaper, but it tends to become increasingly expensive as the project progresses, especially in postproduction, whereas film’s initial costs start out high but then go down. There is no quantitative difference between the two within commercial filmmaking. If digital cinema is so economical to produce and distribute, Nolan argued, why has the price of cinema tickets not gone down?

One of the greatest misunderstandings around film is that only the content matters and needs preserving. But the content happens as a result of the medium; they cannot be separated. The content without the medium is profoundly altered, and is not the work. A painting is not just a picture but a painting. A film is not just pictures but a film. This should be indisputable—especially within the context of the museum—but sadly this is not the case, and poor decisions are being made at institutions around the world: More and more frequently, the original medium is not being respected in the presentation of film.

How to ensure that film will continue to be projected properly and the museum’s responsibility to exhibit works of art in their original form was the second area of discussion at the Getty. Brougher spoke of the precarious position in which museums find themselves. They have a mandate to show works in the mediums in which they were made. (Of course, there is a long history of exhibiting facsimiles or replicas, but with the understanding that visitors will be clearly informed that what they are experiencing is not the original work of art.) Medium specificity is a fundamental tenet of museum practice, yet it has become commonplace to see film and slide works exhibited digitally. I exhibit my 16-mm and 35-mm films as artworks on film; therefore I know, more than most, about the complications and resistance one faces in doing this. However, it is unequivocally clear to me that the experience of encountering my work as a film installation would be vastly different from that of encountering a digital version of it; therefore I neither countenance nor allow the digitization of my work. Museums will argue that practical reasons and cost are what prevent them from respecting the original medium in the display of moving-image works. But the greater problem is a mind-set invested in exploiting the cynical assumption that the viewer no longer knows, cares, or remembers how the work should be seen. This has ushered in a regrettable devaluing of the experience and memory of photochemical works of art within the museum. The first step toward improving the situation would be a reappreciation of the medium specificity of gallery works made on film and the proper theatrical presentation of films in museums and independent cinemas.

Badly scratched films that so dissatisfied audiences in the recent past were the result of the platter systems used in multiplexes. As these venues have almost universally converted to digital, it is now possible to make good film projection a viewing event worth crossing a city for. Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino have all recently shown their films in 70 mm, reestablishing the classic cinema event as an experience irreproducible at home. In a time when audience numbers are growing at live events such as concerts and talks, in part out of frustration with the “you no longer need to leave your home” aspect of digital entertainment, cinemas can begin exploiting the asset potential of good film projection. But for this to become possible, studios and distributors must start lending their film prints again, instead of fetishizing them as the last of their kind and hoarding them within their vaults. With Kodak’s recent announcement of its continued commitment to film, there is no reason for museums and distributors to withhold their prints. Given that most of cinema is still available only on film, studios and archives need to facilitate the distribution of film prints to theaters that have an audience for them.

Likewise, festivals need to welcome the showing of film again, so that young directors shooting on film will have an incentive to finish on film and strike a print, knowing that there will be festival venues able to project it. One of the more telling moments in the boardroom discussion at the Getty was when Trevor Groth, director of programming for the Sundance Film Festival, admitted that this year marked the first time that they showed no 35-mm film. The striking point was that they chose not to announce the fact, whereas two years ago it might have been applauded as a sign of progress. This is an important juncture historically. Are we going to allow the coexistence of film and digital cinema? Film exhibition and distribution are at the heart of this decision.

Finally, what should be the most prominent issue in all discussions of this subject has become the least sure-footed of all, and that is the preservation of our film history. Nolan described how film is resolution independent, which means that the grain structure of film is a constant unaffected by ever-changing technology. Digital is continuously developing. Early digital transfers of film look compromised to our evolving perception, just as decade-old digital effects have aged and appear clumsy to our increasingly sophisticated eyes.

Digitizing is not preserving. Digitizing, as an archival tool, is good for repairs, diffusion, and access, but it does not protect the original document. Only the biggest films will get the attention needed to maintain them long-term in a digital form: Data loss (still an inevitable consequence of storing digital media) necessitates the storage of at least two copies, with constant migration between them, one acting permanently as backup for the other. Only studios have the resources to maintain this level of migration. As a consequence, archive funding becomes title driven, leaving huge gaps in what gets preserved. Digital archiving, which preserves only an approximation of the photochemical original, Nolan explained, is time-consuming, expensive, and reliant on ever-greater arsenals of equipment that will put a huge economic burden on archives. The archiving economy needs rethinking. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on preserving film at the budget stage of commercial cinema, not only as an act of responsibility but also to provide desperately needed income for underresourced archives and laboratories. Studios would do well to protect their originals, as the demand for in-home entertainment has rendered the asset potential of the studio film library increasingly quantifiable. History has taught us that the movies we value now are not necessarily those we will value in the future. We are not in a position to judge what will be the most loved and watched cinema fifty years from now; some of the greatest films failed at the box office only to be reevaluated and incorporated into the canon decades later. Thus, entire libraries must be preserved, not just those titles that are deemed most valuable today.

Storing films in cans at correct temperatures and keeping available the materials, infrastructure, and skills needed to make copy negatives and prints should be the standard practice of all film archives, yet these well-tested systems are succumbing to economic pressures to abandon photochemical altogether. One thing that art restoration has shown us over the centuries is that whatever is done to the original has to be reversible. Storing films properly, free of trending shifts in resolution and of the rapid obsolescence of digital formats, will enable them to be viewed at any future point with whatever technology is then available. If we lose the means to handle the original, we will lose this option.

Important long-term decisions regarding the future of photochemical archiving are about to be made. This is a critical moment: There has to be more clarity within the archive community. Its members need to stipulate more forcefully the best methods for preserving film rather than allow market-driven funding to legislate how. One suggestion, therefore, might be to introduce an Academy standard of best practice. With the publication of The Digital Dilemma 1 and 2 (2007, 2012), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has proved itself well versed in the dangers of relying on digital preservation, and there is a historical precedent for its setting such criteria, dating back as far as 1927, with the introduction of the Academy leader and Academy aspect ratios.

As Nolan told the audience at the Getty, there is something profound in knowing that the light that reflected off the desert sand and exposed the salt crystals in David Lean’s negative of Lawrence of Arabia is, through a bond of chemistry and process, the very same light captured in the print you are watching. Uniquely indexical to film and its reproduction, it is a continuous connection to a particular moment of time and place that will only get broken, Nolan said, if the work is digitized.

The institutions must take the initiative now in reframing film’s future or be responsible for standing by and letting one of humanity’s greatest inventions fall by the wayside of history. Artists and filmmakers have already made it clear that they want to continue to use film. The key to imagining a productive future is to understand that film is a medium and to start making decisions for artistic rather than purely financial reasons. Art is wedded to the fortunes of the industry by virtue of this shared medium. By agreeing to meet at the Getty, this small group of individuals—artist, director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, archivist, lab owner, technician, stock manufacturer, teacher, film historian, film journalist, festival programmer, museum director, industry professional, and Academy executive—put into motion a dialogue about the needs and necessities of every aspect of film use. The future of the medium rests on such collaboration.

Tacita Dean is a Berlin-based artist currently working as a guest researcher at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.