Making Movies


Christopher Nolan is one of the best directors working currently in cinema. The reason is simple: The Dark Knight Rises is more than just a film; more, even, than a great (and it is truly incredible) film . It’s a blueprint for how movies should be made.

Comparison of IMAX vs 35mm film

At a time when most of the industry is getting sidetracked into making films 3D, or relying too heavily on computer-generated effects, Nolan eschews all that crap in favour of something far more important: realism. Instead of resorting too readily to computer visuals, he does as much as is possible as visual effects in-camera. Instead of distracting, unnatural and often poorly-done 3D, Nolan instead shoots where he can in the IMAX format. There are few directors doing this currently; most of the films you can go see at your local IMAX cinema are the result of a process called Digital Media Remastering (DMR), in which films shot on standard 35mm film are ‘blown up’ to fill the IMAX screen. In fact, only The Dark KnightTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and The Dark Knight Rises have had sequences shot in true, 70mm IMAX (and the Star Trek and Hunger Games sequels are the only films on the horizon that are planning to make use of the format).

In the credits of The Dark Knight Rises is a line that is perhaps the most telling: Shot and finished entirely on film. The team working on TDKR are clearly proud of the work and methods they used to bring the film to the screen.

This sort of filmmaking excites me. I prefer film to digital cinema; digital is cold and inorganic compared to 35mm. And doing as much as possible as physical effects makes for a far more realistic looking film – no matter how good the CG, there is always a part of you that still knows its fake.

I really hope The Dark Knight Rises is a successful film (it certainly deserves to be) that leads to this style of filmmaking becoming more widespread. TDKR may not be my favourite film of all time, but watching it in the BFI London IMAX (the UK’s biggest screen) was the single greatest cinema going experience I’ve ever had. The difference between the footage shot in IMAX in comparison  to the 35mm scenes that had been through DMR. The gap was almost like standard definition versus high definition. The IMAX shots were truly jaw-droppingly amazingly stunning. In the wide, sweeping aerial shots of Gotham City you could see people on streets and rooftops. When there were closeup shots of people it felt like you could see individual skin cells.

It wasn’t just the resolution that was amazing; the daylight IMAX scenes were bright as much as sharp.

And the sound! The subwoofer sounded capable of concussing household animals, it actually made the seats shake. The opening sequence was a complete barrage against the senses, shot entirely in IMAX, loud, and above all without special effects. The best opening to a film since… well, since The Dark Knight.

This, however, is where my wife and I disagree on our methods of enjoying films. Whereas she is entirely engrossed in the story, I am also  impressed by the technical expertise that has gone into making the film. We both may have come out of the cinema gushing about the movie, but I was largely talking about the technical aspects; basically, the elements I’ve already covered in this post. Holly, meanwhile, loved the story (I felt compelled to tell her not to talk too loudly on the train, lest she give away spoilers; it was weird, I think I wanted to ensure everyone had the same epic move experience as I’d just had). It isn’t that I don’t enjoy the story of a film, but for me there is more to films than that. I can’t help noticing the technical side of a film; I’ve worked as a projectionist and in video editing so the construction side of a film interests me. My wife couldn’t really care less that they accidentally destroyed an IMAX camera filming both The Dark Knight (destroyed in the epic tunnel chase sequence) and The Dark Knight Rises (someone drove the BadPod into one). I’m surprised they still let Christopher Nolan shot IMAX, those cameras are about $300,000 each.

To me, 3D is a gimmicky filmmaking technique. Even the film that made the best use of 3D to date, Avatar, was a bit gimmicky in its implementation. I saw Avatar in the London IMAX and despite the impressive visuals, The Dark Knight Rises is the visually superior film, partly because of the higher resolution of the IMAX photography. I find the extra sharpness far far more engrossing than 3D. When done well, it can be effective, but that fact you’re watching three dimensional images on a two dimensional screen is damaging to the verisimilitude, no matter how effective it is.

When it comes down to it, we want to go back and see The Dark Knight Rises again, and I’m planning for it to once again be at the IMAX. I’m also very tempted to attend on of the midnight screenings of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, because if there’s one thing I really regret, it’s not seeing TDK at the IMAX.

Movies Pedantry Technology

Those limited edition film cell things are really stupid

Despite some slight reservations, I bought the complete Star Wars saga on Blu-ray the other month (I presume they call it a ‘saga’ rather than the more technically accurate ‘hexalogy’ because the latter sounds both a) stupid, and b) a little too Harry Potterish).

Being as it was a big bastard 9-disc edition of the saga (which takes up less space than the 4-disc edition of the original trilogy we previously had, I would like to mention), they felt compelled to include in the set one of those single film cells as some kind of ‘limited edition’ dohicky.

As much as I think they can look pretty cool – I admittedly have four frames of Jurassic Park at home, although those were pinched from a presentation reel after the film snapped whilst preparing the screening – the idea that these are something special and unique, as the marketing people often seen to claim, is complete rubbish.

To explain – it’s not like these are original film negatives or anything. They were not passing through the camera during filming. The cells have not been within mere metres of the stars of whatever film they’re from whilst they were acting the scene you can see. They’ve probably not been near the stars at any point at all.

In fact, the cells are most likely from the exact same prints as you see in the cinema, making them approximately as common as muck. Just in case you wanted to see the sums that got me to this conclusion:

Every film runs at the same frame rate – 24 frames a second (fps). So, for every second of a film you see at the cinema, 24 of those little film cells are shooting past. That’s 1,440 a minute, or 86,400 an hour, or roughly 130-172,000 frames for the average 1.5-2 hour film.

If the sheer number of frames is difficult to picture, let’s look at it another way. 24 fps translates as somewhere in the region of two or three feet of film in a second. A single reel of film is usually about 1,800 metres or thereabouts, and most standard Hollywood fare will run for six or seven reels – which works out to about 11 kilometres of film for a single movie.

That's a lot of film.

And that’s for just one copy of the film. Most big blockbusters these days open in somewhere in the region of 3,500 or more cinemas. The 2008 film Jumper, picking one partly at random although with a slight Star Wars connection, opened in 4,600 screens, meaning 4,600 copies of the film had to be produced and distributed – which, by my maths, works out at roughly 582,922,000 (nearly 583 million) frames of film, or 49 million kilometres.

When you look at your single cell at about an inch in length, you will see just how small a part of the whole it is. Remember, when talking about ‘limited edition’ stuff, ‘one in a million’ is bad. ‘One in a million’ isn’t really that limited at all.

It’s not quite that simple of course. Not every frame is usable for this purpose; some contain titles, or fades to black, or blurred action that doesn’t look that good as a single frame. Also, in my experience, major cinema chains don’t exactly treat their copies of the prints that well, and they are heavily abused during their time on cinemas, being screened multiple times daily for months, and usually end up being held together by tape by the end of a theatrical run.

So I’m pretty sure they make prints exclusively for this sort of memorabilia. My single Star Wars frame – which looks like it’s from Episode III – is almost certainly from a print deliberately produced for this purpose. This is because the film is in the Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, or the ‘very’ widescreen format that still has back bars when viewed on a widescreen TV; due to the technicalities of screening this type of film the image is distorted on the print (see the image right) and corrected by a lens on the projector. However, the cell I’ve got contains letterboxes and the image is correctly proportioned (not unlike the image at the top of this post). Also, the film only contains an analogue soundtrack – the waves on the image above – and none of the more advanced digital soundtracks (the blue strips and the black specks between the sprocket holes on said picture).

This is probably getting a bit technical. But as I warned some time ago, I love this stuff and can talk about it for hours.

The future of these little bits of memorabilia looks a bit uncertain when you consider that I read an article a few months ago that said that the world’s last film camera had rolled off of the production lines somewhere. The film industry is moving inexorably towards an all-digital system, from shooting to screening, and that does sadden me a little. Compared to film, digital projection looks cold, clinical, inorganic. Plus, film smells so much better. I love the photochemical scent of it, and that – along with the heavy mechanical sounds of a running projector – is something you only get from being in the projection room.

With new films being all-digital, will there still be the desire for these film cells? Surely they will lose their only appeal when modern films have as much in common with a sprocket hole as an iPod does with vinyl?

Maybe when film resolution gets high enough, they will start releasing larger print movie stills, which also have the added bonus of being visible from across the room.

Movies Silly

I couldn't resist


Movies Technology

An open letter to George Lucas

Dear George,

Come on now, enough is enough.

I let you be when you first started playing about with the original trilogy. You said you regarded the six films as a single story and as such, they weren’t finished until the last one came out – I accepted that. I can understand the desire to fix continuity errors brought about by starting in the middle or updating the special effects because its taken you thirty years to finish this thing and the newer bits are making the older ones look a little dated. I get that.

However, when you tinker with things seemingly just for the sake of tinkering, and even worse start actually changing the events of the films, then you start crossing the line. Why must you meddle so?

I don’t mind you going back and adding Hayden Christiansen to the end of Return of the Jedi. No one knows who the heck the other guy was so we don’t really care (although I hope he does still get some token royalties, you greedy bastard). Adding Ian McDiarmid to A New Hope didn’t upset me that much because again, continuity. I don’t mind all of the CG things walking around the background in Tatooine in the original trilogy because you’re updating the older films to look a little more in line with the newer ones. This, as I said, is fair enough. You’re also at least going back and fixing the new problems you created with your pervious meddling, which I guess serves you right.

But – but – please don’t go back and change the actual fucking story. Don’t go and make Greedo shoot first. Don’t make Darth Vader scream “Noooo!” when he throws the Emperor down the shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi.

Oh yes, and Yoda looks much, much better as a puppet. How can you go from campaigning for Frank Oz to be awarded an Oscar for his performance as Yoda to replacing him with a substandard digital version? At least you’re only doing it in Episode I and leaving the original trilogy be on that front.

I would love to be able to say that, with today’s release of the Blu-ray versions of the films, that you might sit back and quit meddling for a while. But no – next year, you’re starting this shit all over again by brining out A Phantom Menace in 3D. Hopefully you’ll be so busy trying to be the first person to do a 2D to 3D conversion that doesn’t look like complete shit (James Cameron hurt you, didn’t he, when he released Avatar and became the new pioneer of motion picture technology?) that you don’t have the time to fiddle about with anything else.

It does sadden me, dearest George, that a man who has done more for the film industry than anyone – you’re the father of modern special effects and cinema sound – now spends so much of his time continuously playing with his one hit rather than working on anything else. There’s Indiana Jones, of course, but as much of a part you played in that series it’s still Spielberg’s baby.

I’ve bought the Blu-rays, of course, because I’m an idiot and don’t have the gusto to stand up to you. But at least you’ve worked some of that old Lucas magic, as I understand the picture and audio quality on the discs are second to none.

But George, really, isn’t it time to retire to Skywalker Ranch and leave well enough alone?




Movies Work

Artistic Films


Just a quick one about artistic films. Not artsy films as in the ones that look good but nothing of any real interest happens, or ‘artistic’ films which look stylised or just flat out impressive, I’m talking about art films. Abstract films. Ones you find in modern art galleries and art installations.

I’ve ranted in writing about modern art before. Not here, it was written before blogging was a ‘thing’ that people did so it was just a rant I had to write down. I might post it if I remember to look for it when I get home (and if it’s as good as I remember). The short version: it makes no sense, and not in a good way. More in a ‘are you feeling all right? You sound funny, as you having a stroke?’ sort of way.

This post is not about modern art. It’s not even really about these modern arty films. It’s about the poor bastard projectionists who have to screen them, and the lack of consideration for them when the ‘artist’ is putting their work together.

Take today for instance. I have been talked with screening a 16mm art film as part of what has been dubbed an ‘installation’ but which really is a cinema system equipped lecture theatre.

First, a quick technical point about 16mm. Unlike 35mm (which you find in most modern cinemas), 16mm only has sprocket holes down one side of the print. The other side is reserved for the film’s soundtrack. If the film has no sound, the space often contains sprocket holes, just because. Unfortunately, the soundtrack is the best way of making sure you’re running the film forwards, and in the right orientation. In 35mm the soundtrack sits inside the left sprocket holes, but that’s not really relevant. I just find it all fascinating and could go on about it for ages. Don’t worry, I’m not going to.

Back to this film. It is unfortunately silent, meaning it is double sprocketed (ie it has sprocket holes down both sides). It also does not feature the other staple of film prints, the numbered header (the handy bit that counts down to the start of the film).

What does this mean for the hapless projectionist? Well, lets just say that in the case of this particular art film, I had run it for 15 minutes before I even realised it was upside down. And it ran for a further ten minutes before I was able to confirm that it was in fact going backwards. It still might be back-to-front (ie mirrored). Fortunately this was a test screening to an empty auditorium so no harm done. Yet.

I’m reasonably experienced at this game. I’ve run artistic films with the director standing at my shoulder. But even I could only just tell that the film was going backwards and was upside down.

The question that then occurs to the projectionist is, what if it’s supposed to be like that? It’s an artistic film, who can actually tell? I’ve encountered that one before. Usually you wait for someone who can tell to come along and point you in the right direction.

It’s just slightly embarrassing when it’s the person who actually made the film in the first place.