One of the links on this blog is for Silent Film Calendar. This is a very helpful service that offers a fairly comprehensive list of the screenings of Silent Films up and down Britain. It includes Festivals, Film Clubs/Societies and cinemas. After the title the pages offer information on the format in use, though almost all of these contain the legend ‘format not known’.
Almost without exception when I see an interesting screening coming up I have to contact the venue and try and establish whether they are using 35mm, 16mm, DCP, or some digital video format. The latter is far more common than is healthy for Silent Film programming.
Even prestige Festivals are increasingly using digital formats, though thankfully the Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto use very little digital video. The Golden Fleece of the Silent Film Festival circuit is now the George Eastman Nitrate weekend where the films are not just all on 35mm but in the actual format in which they were originally shot and exhibited.
In Britain the digital theatrical format is almost always 2K DCPs. 4K DCPs are pretty rare and this seems to be the case even when it is a title that I have seen in 4K at a Festival. It is fairly clear that 2K digital does not offer the resolution of 35mm and 4K would seem not to either when we are referring to good quality 35mm.
Moreover when the specifications for theatrical digital formats was laid down the equivalent projection speeds were set at 24 and 48 fps, forgetting about any provision for the slower speeds of silent films. FIAF has now provided specifications for silent film speeds, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 fps. However, it is rare to find screenings in the UK that offer this; the norm appears to be 24fps with the consequent step printing of title to provide a suitable rate and running time.
Technically it seems quit easy to adjust digital projectors to alternative speeds to 24 or 48 fps. However, DCPs come ‘baked in’ [the phrase used] both in terms of projection speeds and aspect ratios.
The latter also means that unless cinemas have screen masking the framing offers an image in 1.33:1 [or a variation] with black bars either side of the image. The bars on digital projection lack the density of masking, so they are quite noticeable and, in addition, they absorb less light so high key images reflect on them.
The situation is far worse when exhibitors use some digital video format. The quality is lower than for DCP plus DVDs and Blu-ray run at 25 or 24 fps. So invariably, [except for a few late silent titles] the print has been step-printed for transfer. It also seems that the norm these days is to use computer software and these [or at least some of them] use composite frames at edit points, hence the ‘ghosting’ that is a problem on many of these.
Step-printing varies in its effect on any film. But clearly films with fast editing, such as the Soviet masterworks, are likely to suffer from this. Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Patyomkin, USSR 1925) has as few as two or three frames in some shots, and an additional frame for every two existing ones is likely when the films run below 20 fps.
Aspect ratios are also a problem in other ways. A friend went to see the screening of a rare New York Yiddish title which was screened in 16:9! Recently the BFI produced a digital version of Abel Gance’s masterwork Napoleon (France 1927). The most famous sequence in this film is the use of a three-screen triptych for the final sequence as the revolutionary army crosses the alps into Italy. At 35mm screenings with three projectors and screens [or equivalents] this image expands to the colossal and impressive finale. For the digital version the BFI used the following technique:
“The whole film is mastered in a scope DCP wrapper and can be projected in one format, the triptych will work on any scope screen (it won’t work on a flat screen).” (BFI Information).
A friend who attended a screening of this version complained than rather than expanding for an impressive finale, the image shrunk, thus reducing the impact.
I can understand film fans wanting to have copies of favourite films to watch at home: but that is domestic viewing and is in a different category from theatrical presentations, [or at least it should be]. And digital versions obviously allow screenings for groups who may not be able to access the infrequent 35mm presentations and venues that do not possess 35mm projection. But, unfortunately, digital also seems to encourage archive and distributors to use these formats instead of offering the films in their original and proper form. Exhibitors compound the problem by the paucity of information on formats. Few cinemas actually distinguish between film [35mm] and digital versions in their publicity and brochures. Even fewer actually indicate when the screenings rely on digital video: and this dereliction also applies to a number of Film Festivals.
A few years back the BFI produced restorations of the nine silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Britain in the 1920s. I was involved in screenings of these in West Yorkshire. Some of our screenings offered 35mm but on a couple of occasions the BFI replied to a request by sending a DCP. Yet later on I saw the same titles on 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. So the BFI could send the prints over a thousand miles to Italy but not north by only 200 miles. More recently The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Islands (Britain 1927) was released round the countries. It seems that the only screenings were from DCPs. Yet there was a 35mm print. In fact the BFI sent the 35mm print [courtesy of a RAF transport plane] all the way down for a screening to the British settler colony on the Malvinas.
We actually have the odd situation now where a screening from a digital video has live musical accompaniment: seemingly the musicians cost more than the expense of renting and transporting a 35mm print. Torkell Sætervadet, in his Introduction to the ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide’, writes as follows:
“[he argues for] the aim of presenting films exactly the way they were i8ntended to be presented – without any compromises with regard to picture, sound and appearance. Cinémathèques, film archives and film institutes have a particular responsibility to respect the integrity of the work of art that they are exhibiting and the inevitable consequence is that the technical requirements will be pretty rigid.”
I wonder how many people in the British Film Industry have read this fine volume or even have a copy. It would seem that the Cinémathèques Française have: as I was advised that in 2016 they declined to license a title for public screening when the source was digital video. Bravo!