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.
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.