Christopher Nolan Rallies the Troops to Save Celluloid Film

Director Christopher Nolan on the red carpet for the "Interstellar" premiere
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

There was no Bat-Signal shining in the skies over the Getty Museum last Sunday, but the distress call being sent by filmmaker Christopher Nolan and artist Tacita Dean was unmistakable — a beacon that said, in effect, “Save Our Celluloid.”

Heeding the call were some 30 representatives of the nation’s leading film archives, labs and presenting institutions, who accepted Dean and Nolan’s combined invitation to participate in an informal summit entitled “Reframing the Future of Film.” The two-part event sponsored by the Getty Research Institute (where Dean is currently an artist-in-residence) consisted of a private roundtable session in the morning, followed by a public afternoon event at which Dean and Nolan appeared in conversation with Kerry Brougher, director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ planned Wilshire Boulevard museum (scheduled to open in 2017).

While the Getty gathering was hardly the first-ever symposium devoted to the sustainability of film in the digital era, it was one of the few that sought to involve both Hollywood heavy-hitters and the public in a conversation that too often takes place only among like-minded specialists at events like the Cinema Ritrovato film restoration festival in Bologna and in the pages of Cineaste magazine. In that sense, the presence of Nolan — and his ability to draw a crowd — loomed as large as that of a certain caped crusader.

It was a shared passion for film that initially brought together Dean, the Turner Prize-nominated artist whose work is typically exhibited in museums and galleries, and Nolan, whose billion-dollar blockbusters are exhibited in thousands of cinemas across the globe. Much of Dean’s oeuvre — including the recent “JG,” a 26-minute short about the relationship between author J.G. Ballard and the “earth artist” Robert Smithson — has originated on 16mm or 35mm film stock. Despite rising to prominence amid the shift to digital production and distribution methods, Nolan has continued to shoot and post-produce his movies entirely on film, and to advocate for film exhibition — one of the loudest such voices in a generation of celluloid devotees that also includes J.J. Abrams, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, James Gray and Quentin Tarantino (who recently retrofitted his New Beverly Cinema to a 35mm-only screening venue).

If there was a constant refrain to Sunday’s discussion, it was that this love for film does not make such artists Luddites or the moviemaking equivalent of anti-vaxxers in a Big Pharma world. It simply means that they prefer one medium to another, the way a painter might choose oil paints over acrylics, or paper over canvas.

“Artists use stuff,” Dean stated at the start of the morning session (to which Variety was granted exclusive media access), held in the Getty’s private boardroom and attended by representatives of the Academy, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Film Foundation, Fotokem, Kodak, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Sundance and the UCLA film school.  But the “stuff” Dean and other film-based artists prefer to use has become increasingly scarce in an era that has witnessed the widespread closure of film labs and processing plants, like the Kodak factory in Chalon-sur-Saone, France, where Dean shot a 44-minute film, “Kodak” (2006), devoted to that very manufacturing process. Within a month of the shoot, the factory had closed for good.

Things hit closer to home in 2011, when Dean was beginning work on a new film project commissioned by the Tate Modern and learned that London’s Soho Film Laboratory, at the time the last 16mm film lab in the U.K., was abandoning the 16mm printing process. “Digital is not better than analogue, but different,” she wrote at the time in a Guardian op-ed entitled “Save Celluloid, For Art’s Sake.” “What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other,” she continued. But there was more bad news to come, including 20th Century Fox’s 2012 announcement that it planned to stop manufacturing film prints within the next two years, followed by similar news from Paramount in 2014 — the same year that saw the closure of the venerable Deluxe film lab in L.A., deemed by the Los Angeles Times to be “a further sign of film’s exit from the Hollywood stage.”

Yet, a spirit of constructive dialogue, rather than panic or aggrieved finger-pointing, prevailed at the Getty on Sunday, where the invited parties discussed the relative values of film and digital (or “video,” as Nolan prefers to call it) across the realms of production, distribution and — perhaps most importantly — preservation. No one had come to throw the Hollywood studios, the major electronics companies, or even George Lucas, under the ideological bus for their roles in ushering in the digital era. (It was Lucas’ insistence that 1999’s “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” be shown digitally in select theaters that started the dominoes falling on the exhibition side.) But at the same time, much received wisdom about the “revolutionary” benefits of digital technology was re-examined, debated and, in a few cases, debunked.

“I don’t think film has ever been a restraint on creative expression,” Nolan said in response to the suggestion that digital cameras have significantly lowered the costs of production, making the medium more accessible to artists with minimal resources. He pointed to the example of his own 1998 debut feature, “Following,” produced for a budget of $6,000 on 16mm film stock at a time when digital cameras were already coming into vogue. The cinematographer John Bailey, who has worked extensively in both film and digital, then discussed his recent experience shooting the Robert Redford-Nick Nolte wilderness adventure “A Walk in the Woods.” Initially, said Bailey, the “Woods” producers insisted on shooting digitally, until he convinced them that, given the film’s remote, difficult-to-access locations, it actually made more sense — both financially and aesthetically — to shoot on a mix of film and digital formats.

“We had sequences of Redford and Nolte walking out on the Appalachian Trail, places far enough removed from any base camp or logistical backup that I knew the elaborate support system required for state-of-the-art video capture would be difficult for our small movie,” Bailey elaborated by email. “With film, we could just grab the camera and lenses, a tripod or steadicam, a few film magazines and head off into the woods. No elaborate video umbilical or ‘video village’ support.  We could move faster and farther.”

Bailey’s philosophy when it comes to film and digital echoes Dean’s: “Don’t Fight. Coexist.” But that simple, sensible sentiment has often been drowned out by the tsunami of PR and marketing efforts that have equated digital technology with the arrival of sound, color or CinemaScope — a campaign Nolan termed “a very aggressive industrial effort to say ‘the future is here.’” Theater chains now routinely trumpet “all digital projection” in their ads and grouse when a filmmaker like Nolan or Paul Thomas Anderson is perceived as trying to turn back the clock. Meanwhile, journalists attending film festivals report enthusiastically about the latest feature to be shot on an iPhone or some other consumer-grade product, but fail to note the significant number of moviemakers from across the budgetary spectrum that continue to work on film. (By contrast, Sundance programming director Trevor Groth said that his festival pointedly did not advertise the fact that 2015 marked its first edition in which all features, even those shot on film, were projected digitally.)

The problem, as Nolan sees it, is a fundamental mischaracterization of film as a technology rather than an artistic medium — the difference being that, while technologies become obsolete, art never does. It is a historical bias that dates all the way back to the earliest days of motion pictures (when movies were sold as a novelty attraction on par with peep shows and burlesque revues), and which pioneering institutions like Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art were still fighting decades later when they dared to suggest that film should be a permanent part of any venerable arts organization.

“There are certain inarguable tenets when you bring film into the world of art,” Nolan said, noting the presence in the room of both Brougher and LACMA director Michael Govan. Nolan and Dean went on to invoke the concept of “medium specificity” — the idea, popularized by critic Clement Greenberg, that each artistic medium contains certain inalienable properties that are unique to that particular format. In other words, a DVD of a Tacita Dean film can not be substituted for a 16mm print any more than a photograph of the “Mona Lisa” can be substituted for the original painting.

If such distinctions occasionally risked sending the Getty summit veering into art-world esoterica, the conversation quickly returned to such practical matters as the role film plays in ensuring access to the history of cinema for the current and future generations. Nolan cited 2006 as the year in which DCP — the current industry standard for digital projection — began to replace 35mm exhibition in commercial cinemas (a process that reached critical mass with the release of “Avatar” in 2009). But for those keeping count, that leaves 100-odd years of feature-length motion pictures initially released only on 35mm prints, with studios only slowly and selectively converting “library” titles to projection-quality digital elements, with canonical classics like “Citizen Kane,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Godfather” understandably rushed to the front of the queue. When Nolan himself recently tried to arrange a screening of Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 “Solaris,” he was alarmed to learn from the studio (Fox) that they had no 35mm print or DCP available. A standard-definition DVD (as no Blu-ray exists) or a high-definition digital download were the only options — adequate for home viewing, perhaps, but insufficient for projection on a large cinema screen.

While the crusade for film preservation is nothing new — and has benefited greatly from the efforts of film archives and restoration initiatives like Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation —  few people tend to think of movies made in the 1980s, ’90s and even ’00s as being in danger of oblivion. And yet, as anyone who has logged any time in the film programming trade can attest (as this writer did from 2010-2012, when I served as associate program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center), curators with far less clout than Nolan are constantly being asked by distributors to publicly exhibit DVDs or other low-resolution digital copies of movies for which 35mm prints either don’t exist or won’t be lent out for fear of incurring damage. Which is to say nothing of the many thousands of movies from cinema’s past that have never been made available on DVD, streaming, or any other consumer format and can be viewed only on physical film prints, most of them locked away in studio vaults, many in need of restoration.

Still, better to be stored on physical media than somewhere in “the cloud.” As AMPAS CEO Dawn Hudson pointed out, two separate reports commissioned by the Academy’s Science and Technology Council (entitled “The Digital Dilemma” and “The Digital Dilemma 2” and available for free downloading) concluded in no uncertain terms that “there is no digital archival master format or process with longevity characteristics equivalent to that of film” and urged moviemakers working on digital to create 35mm preservation copies of their work, lest they risk disappearing into the digital void. But Fotokem Chief Strategy Officer Mike Broderson and others in the room voiced the concern that relatively few digital filmmakers — especially those working in the low-budget independent realm — are actively thinking about such preservation concerns. Like the millions of Americans who don’t plan adequately for their retirement, they assume that if their film exists on DCP or an online viewing platform like Vimeo, it’s secure for the ages — a strategy about as sound as stuffing a DVD under your mattress. Nolan likened the situation to the thousands of titles from Hollywood’s silent era that had been unthinkingly destroyed by the very studios that made them. “We’re in danger of committing all those same offenses again,” he said.

By far the most euphoric moment of the day came when Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke, whose embattled company only recently emerged from a painful Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring, allayed widespread fears that Kodak might be exiting the motion-picture film business altogether by stating that the company was fully committed to the continued production of celluloid (a renewed commitment that comes with complete its own social-media campaign: #FilmWorthy). “We’re all in,” said Clarke, to a hearty round of applause. “I couldn’t say that six months ago.” Even then, the question remains: Will the rest of the industry follow suit? Will studios and indie producers alike give filmmakers the option to shoot on film? (According to Filmmaker magazine, a mere 39 commercial U.S. releases were shot on 35mm in 2014, albeit including such Oscar heavyweights as “Boyhood,” “Foxcatcher,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “The Imitation Game.”) And will exhibitors maintain 35mm projectors and train a new generation of projectionists to use them?

After a friendly lunch, the panelists joined the sold-out crowd of more than 400 in the Getty’s Harold Williams auditorium for the public portion of the event, which readdressed many of the ideas from the morning session and delved deeper into a few of them. Before Nolan, Dean and Brougher took the stage, the lights dimmed and the audience was treated to a program of three rare 16mm short films curated by the Academy Film Archive’s Mark Toscano and meant to demonstrate the very “medium specificity” that had been discussed earlier in the day. In the first and perhaps most remarkable of the lot, Morgan Fisher’s 1976 “Projection Instructions,” a series of title cards flash on the screen (and are read aloud by Fisher on the soundtrack), making increasingly complicated demands of the film’s projectionist: “frame up,” “frame down,” “increase volume,” “decrease volume,” “throw out of focus,” etc.

Because Fisher’s film has none of these visual and sound effects built into the print itself, it requires a live human projectionist (at the Getty, Toscano himself) to comply with those instructions, meaning that no two screenings are ever exactly the same. It was followed by Dean’s own “Noir et Blanc” (2006), a companion piece to her “Kodak” film that uses 16mm black-and-white film stock to document the manufacturing of 16mm black-and-white film. Rounding things out was Gus van Sant’s “Junior” (1988), in which the “Good Will Hunting” director is seen strumming a guitar while his pet cat chases after the reflected light — a movie that lasts the precise length of a single roll of 16mm film, and which might be considered the progenitor of today’s YouTube cat videos. (Try finding any of these films on YouTube, however, and you will come up empty-handed.)

In the public conversation, Dean and Nolan lamented that so much of the dialogue around digital filmmaking has centered on the efforts of digital imagery to replicate the look of filmed imagery, with megapixels pitted against grain in imprecise mathematical equations. “For me, there are other reasons why I use film that have been completely forgotten in this discussion,” Dean said, citing the “unpredictability” of the filmed image, which can be glimpsed only after the chemical processes of exposure and development have taken place. “Film is another protagonist,” she said. “It invents things that you can not imagine.”

“If I speak like that, they think I’m a bit mad,” Nolan interjected. “As commercial filmmakers, we’re not allowed to think in those terms.” But as a commercial filmmaker whose movies have grossed in excess of $4 billion worldwide, Nolan is able to insist on working the way he wants, even when his reasons fall upon deaf ears. “What I would hate to see is a world where only filmmakers working at the budget levels I’ve been working at have the option to shoot film,” he added. One solution, said Nolan, is for distributors and exhibitors to sell film as a premium experience, the way that Paramount offered “Interstellar” two days early to 35mm and 70mm Imax cinemas, and continued to highlight those engagements (where, Nolan noted, the film delivered disproportionately high grosses) in its ad campaign.

“We can create a product that has a special value to it,” he said. And indeed, with the right combination of PR and audience education, it’s not inconceivable that film could eventually be widely seen as the farm-to-table cuisine of the moviemaking world. “There’s a reason filmmakers get very excited about shooting film and seeing film prints, and we have to communicate that to audiences around the world,” Nolan added. In which case, this past Sunday’s events may best be seen as small but significant steps on what remains a long and uncertain road toward film’s hoped-for salvation.