The film vs digital debate, which has been raging since the day independent cinema directors and DOPs – followed shortly by the big studios – started shooting digitally in the late 1990s, reached a climactic point last month when the once all-powerful Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy.
It’s almost ironic that Kodak’s troubles coincided with Hollywood’s rediscovery and celebration of the early days of cinema via the Oscar-winning The Artist (a French black and white silent film about a 1920s movie star’s inability to cope with the rise of the ‘talkies’) and Hugo (Martin Scorsese’s 3D love letter to science fiction and visual effects pioneer Georges Méliès , which also raises the importance of film preservation). The subject matter of both films, usually of interest to only a small group of film buffs, academics and historians, has been embraced by both mainstream media and international audiences.
Kodak’s misfortunes, however, seem to confirm what many have been saying for years: that film is dying a slow, painful death. But many others, particularly in the archiving and preservation sector, vigorously disagree. It’s true that film is struggling to maintain its relevance as a capture and projection medium, but it is still irreplaceable when it comes to ensuring that our audiovisual history, past, present and future, is properly preserved.
In an article recently published by The Toronto Star entitled ‘Is cinema facing a digital dark age?’, former NFSA CEO and current George Eastman House Motion Picture curator Paolo Cherchi Usai argued that the original cinema experience – 35mm film projected at 16 or 24 frames per second – is being ‘museumified’. In other words, archives and museums will be the only places offering the traditional film experience, and future audiences won’t know what films looked like in their original form.
NFSA Senior Curator Meg Labrum is more optimistic, and believes the current silent film awareness boost via The Artist, the overwhelming film/digital preservation debate heightened by Kodak’s troubles and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences release of the ‘The digital dilemma – Part 2 make this the right moment to get the public’s attention around these issues.
‘Paolo’s comments reflect a worldwide archival debate as we see traditional film giants like Kodak readjusting to the digital age, a new generation responding to silent cinema via The Artist, and Scorsese’s Hugo celebrating one of the world’s earliest silent cinema heroes, Georges Méliès,’ said Labrum.