Fetishizing Celluloid is Bad for Film Preservation

The film versus digital debate desperately needs to change.
Dunkirk Sea
By  · Published on June 4th, 2018

The film versus digital debate desperately needs to change.

When Christopher Nolan first became invested in film preservation it was, by his own admission, “as a result of a purely selfish impulse.” He’d filmed his debut feature on 16mm film stock and never looked back; this was his medium of choice and he feared that it would be denied to him in the future. But gradually, Nolan’s perspective shifted. Defending analog stopped being an issue of self-preservation, prestige, or even aesthetics—it became an issue of time.

And time is something that Nolan knows rather well. In fact to call it one of his preferred themes as a filmmaker sells his obsession short. And even then, I don’t mean obsession in the way that Hitchcock longs for vortexes or the way Tarantino lingers on feet. In Nolan’s case, as with most things, it’s a bit more clinical than that. Nolan is fascinated with time as a cinematic gesture. How it can be manipulated on-screen; how time can be stretched, distorted, and folded over onto itself like Inception’s Parisian skyline. How it can converge, crescendo, and mislead.

Time doesn’t bend in real life the way it does in Nolan’s films. It marches forward (and only forward) with the persistence of an eroding tide. It’s this unmatched resolve that makes time so easy to dismiss as white noise. We’ve been wired to respond to short-term problems like “how do I articulate the neck of my bat-suit?” and “how do I get off this beach?” But we’re bad at thinking about things longitudinally. Particularly when we are not the direct beneficiaries of such thinking. It’s so much easier to prioritize what feels important now when the big picture of something is only revealed to us as consequence.

Historically, this has been the through-line of film preservation: old film formats suffer for our lack of foresight. More often than not, film preservation is a flustered, mournful, “whoops.” A frantic third-period mad dash; a fruitless cursing of the ignorance of predecessors.

There was a time when the studio attitude was that film was unartistic trash that wasn’t worth the dignity of preservation. To bum a phrase from Martin Scorsese: “who will want to see that?—let it rot.” If stored incorrectly, photochemical film loves to rot. Even when studios had the foresight to store their canisters in vaults, nitrate film had an unfortunate habit of bursting into flame with the voracity of gunpowder. Every movie 20th Century-Fox made before 1932 was lost when a fire broke out in inadequately ventilated storage. Later, in the mid-60s, massive swaths of MGM‘s silent film history went up in smoke.

The ability of nitrate film to clear out a vault was perhaps only rivaled by the studios themselves, who regularly destroyed old prints to make space for new releases. Studios saw no financial incentive to keep silent films after the advent of sound, and it took the clout and coin of big names like Griffeth, Chaplin, and Pickford to properly safeguard their filmographies. An estimated three-quarters of silent movies have been destroyed, including more than 90 percent of pre-1929 films.  At the time, cinema was not thought of as an art form with a history worth protecting. It was a disposable product. “Who will want to see that?—let it rot.”

Some 100 years later, film has risen from the pedestrian ranks of a five-cent diversion to a veritable art form. The 160,000 reels of nitrate over which the Library of Congress presides are a treasure rather than an inconvenience, with archivists across the globe scrambling to protect and properly store neglected early cinematic heritage. Studios are no longer dumping film reels into the Pacific. As it stands, we are engaged in a virtuous, albeit desperate game of catch up.

Which makes our negligence all the more heartbreaking.

Digital formats took over Hollywood for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with studios wanting to save money. In this sense, the digital takeover was a symptom of the larger economic evolution taking place in Hollywood: digital lowered production and distribution costs and made cross-platform and global box-office releases cheaper and more feasible. Moreover, unlike film, you could show a digital copy as many times as you wanted. No matter how delicately you handle it, analog film degrades every time you run it through a projector; it bloats, blemishes, tears, and falls apart. And so it goes: film is mortal, digital is forever.

Except when it isn’t.

It turns out digital perishes too. No physical carrier of digital information will last anywhere near as long as the analog alternative. As long as you can keep the dehumidifier and the A/C running, you can preserve polyester and chemical film for a minimum of 400 to 500 years. Meanwhile, purely digital formats are condemned to a purgatory of hardware migration—where digital files have to be regularly moved from one piece of hardware to the next as they become routinely obsolete. We have had access to digital film and recording techniques for the past twenty years, and in that time we have undergone thirty different digital formats, each incompatible with its previous incarnation. 

Ironically, from a preservation standpoint, the films hit hardest by the death of analog are the ones that only exist digitally. Digital is not a long-term preservation format, and it’s a dangerous misconception that preservation ends once a film is digitized.

With digital formats changing as quickly as they are, physical film originals have never been more important. But I worry that this is not why people care about celluloid.

As a community, we seemingly care more about celluloid the artifact than celluloid the medium. As celluloid’s use dwindles, it has become more of a fetishized symbol of nostalgia than, in Nolan’s words, “just a way of telling a story.” Hitching the importance of film versus digital on artistic preference marches us straight into the sea of subjectivity and forces a distracting bipartisan divide. Pretentious squabbling about color-pop and grain texture should feel laughably insignificant in the shadow of more pressing questions, namely, loudly: how the heck are we going to sustainably preserve modern born-digital film if celluloid goes extinct?

To be clear: nostalgia is not the problem. In fact, I’m generally in agreement with Nolan that dismissing someone as nostalgic is often a cheap way to deride their genuine passion for something. The problem is that celluloid’s nostalgic appeal is dominating the conversation and characterizing celluloid as a format of the past, rather than as a tool for safeguarding film heritage for the future. That filmmakers are tripping over themselves to stan for their preferred format hasn’t helped ease the perception that the alleged debate boils down to an antiquated format being edged out by progress. Putting celluloid on a pedestal draws our focus from the urgent preservation needs of digital formats. As soon as we acknowledge celluloid’s role in digital film preservation, pedantic wrist-wringing over which format is superior starts to look grossly short-sighted.

I have no idea what it will take to properly reorient the conversation about celluloid’s disappearance. There’s a real possibility that we won’t truly understand the consequences of the death of analog film until it is too late. The weight of its absence might not be felt for decades (centuries, even) until some hapless film buff in the future tries to arrange a screening of Solaris only to come up short with rotted magnetic tape data that lacked the funding for format migration.

Nolan is no stranger to cinephilia. For Dunkirk, he sought out silent films to learn to conduct large crowds of extras. For Interstellar, he looked to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. He channeled Michael Mann in The Dark Knight, and Dick Donner in Batman Begins. But being an avid cinephile is one thing, stepping back and realizing that time doesn’t bend, is another.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).