Early & Silent Film

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Hitchcock’s Nine Silent Films

Posted by keith1942 on September 9, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville at work

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville at work

Alfred Hitchcock directed ten films before the arrival of sound, [including a silent version of the 1929 Blackmail]. Charles Barr discusses these in detail in his excellent English Hitchcock (Movie 1999). And in 2012 the British Film Institute proudly announced the restoration of these nine surviving films, including making them available on both 35mm and DCP formats. In the case of some of these films this meant the feature became a new viewing experience: The Pleasure Garden (1926) now has a coherent plot and takes on the status of a masterful debut for the young director. I have actually seen this film in both the DCP and 35mm versions and I am quite sure that the 35mm print gives greater quality and a better presentation for the film.

However, I have found it extremely difficult to actually see these films in their original format of 35mm. I have asked exhibitors on the occasion of seeing a digital version and it seems that the 35mm format is not available, certainly most of the time. However, the 35mm prints have been seen at several Film Festivals overseas. Il Cinema Ritrovato featured all nine, all on 35mm. At the first screening, The Pleasure Garden, we were informed that “the BFI really wanted to show the films in 35mm” at the Festival. Given the BFI and the National Film Archive are mainly paid for out of the pockets of ordinary British taxpayers I think the BFI needs to review its priorities.

Despite the frequent claims of many distributors and of digital manufacturers there is not an equivalence between 35mm and DCP’s. In the case of modern films, especially when filmed on digital, the benefits are often with digital projection. But for older classics, shot on celluloid and within the technical parameters of that format, it is a different matter.

Early films were predominantly shot in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, though often also in slightly different ratios, for example 1.20:1. 35mm projector have removable plates and when handled by experienced technical staff, it is relatively simple to get the right ratio on the screen. Digital packages come with this function ‘baked in’, i.e. set already in the folders. In fact the image is projected in a 1.85:1 image with masking either side of the frame. However, this masking lacks the density of the projection plates, and unless the blacking masks the frame this can be quite noticeable. Moreover, the ratios are not always correct [though I think the bfi prints are]: I have seen a number of digital projections where the image is slightly cropped – I suspect they sometimes use the standard sound ratio of 1.37:1 instead of 1.33:1, [there is a similar problem with the masking in some cinemas].

Another function ‘baked in’ the folder is the frame rate. When theatrical digital exhibition was introduced the standard rate was 24 fps with no provision for slower rates. But early film was most commonly projected at slower than 24 fps: this can be as low as 16 fps. For 35mm projection the technical staff can set the frame rate. I have been to screenings where the projectionist trailed the print before settling on a rate that looked correct, say 20 fps. There are a couple of ways of ‘adjusting’ digital versions to take account of this. The most common is ‘step-printing’, adding extra frames to allow the faster rate. I have seen projections of Hitchcock’s silent films at rates varying between 18 and 22 fps, which means adding up to six frames for every projection second of the print. FIAF has now introduced specifications for slower rates, between 16 and 24 fps. And it seems that the manufactures have agreed to provide either hardware or software in order to implement these. The problem is, how long will such a transition take. Even at Festivals in 2013 we are still getting DCP versions running at 24 fps.

Then at present nearly all these transfers to digital are being done for 2K packages. There is a lot of argument about what quality approximates to good 35mm projection. However, my experience and readings convince me that it needs to be at least 4K. It is not just pixels versus film grain: there is colour range and resolution and the dynamic contrast. Moreover, whilst this does not apply to the bfi distribution, exhibitors can [and frequently do] use DVD or Blu-Ray for digital screenings. The increasing tendency to less and less information about the formats being used aggravates this.

It is mainly people who patronise UK screens who have funded the BFI and its National Archive. I can understand the kudos for the bfi in screening mint 35mm prints of acknowledged quality films at Festivals. But I do think UK audiences deserve better. I am sure some one will say [or at least think] that the majority does not notice the difference. I am not convinced this is true, but surely to the extent that some people do not discriminate then they are entitled to the opportunity to develop such discrimination. In other areas of the arts there are powerful tendencies for the experience of the actual art object, as originally intended. This is true at the current Promenade Concerts and at galleries like the Tate Modern. It also true in Leeds at the Town Hall concerts and at the Henry Moore Institute, though [unfortunately] the local Assembly Rooms offer live music and DVDs on occasions. I would like the former to be the same for Alfred Hitchcock.

2 Responses to “Hitchcock’s Nine Silent Films”

  1. Grant Janssen said

    checkout archive frame rates – these permit DCPs to run at 16, 200/11(≈18), 20 and 240/11(≈22) FPS.

  2. keith1942 said

    Thanks. I assume the reference is to the FIAF recommended frame rates for digital. These have been around for a couple of years but there is little sign of them coming into general use in the UK. I have checked out quite a few of the BFI digital releases and they all seem to run at 24fps. This means in most cases that they have been step-printed via a computer. And critics do not pay much attention. They frequently use euphemisms, like ‘as the original’ And the fact that the running times are usually the same confuses the issue.
    What is even more problematic is that there is an increasing tendency to use DVD or Blu-Ray in theatrical exhibition. This means you get step-printed versions with lower image quality.

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