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Silver screen gone digital
Publication Date : 04-09-2013
Gone are the days where films are distributed on 35mm reels, today they exist digitally as binary codes.
When Singapore film-maker Chai Yee Wei released his first feature, Blood Ties, in 2009, the horror flick was distributed on traditional 35mm projection prints - the bulky "celluloid" reels of yore - sent around the island's cinemas and spooled up on machines with spinning hubs, clicky sprockets and humming motors.
Just four years later, his coming-of-age drama That Girl In Pinafore exists only as ones and zeroes on hard drives, USB flash drives and other digital formats.
Released last month and still showing in cinemas, the feature was zipped around to halls in containers many times smaller and lighter than the reels of his first movie, and was screened using computers in projection booths.
Money was saved in transport, storage and conversion costs compared with prints, says Chai, 37.
That Girl In Pinafore is screened in a format known as DCP, which stands for Digital Cinema Package. It is a high-quality format, typically higher than Blu-ray, intended for professional use and offers viewers a sharper, brighter image.
"Pinafore is 100 per cent DCP here, but it might still go to film, because in the rest of Asia, a lot of halls still use 35mm," Chai says.
The end of the road for film projection here is in sight, but few film-makers and distributors are shedding tears for the medium that has been closely tied to cinema since its birth in the early 20th century.
This year is a watershed for 35mm projection in Singapore. While all the major distributors, such as Fox, Warner Bros and Universal switched wholesale to DCP some years ago, smaller organisations which release works from independent film-makers occasionally handled the older format. Not because they wanted to, but because, sometimes, they had no choice.
Until now. Golden Village's last screening of a 35mm print release was last year with the Wes Anderson drama Moonrise Kingdom (2012), distributed here by Shaw. Golden Village told Life! that it has decided that the movie would be its last accepted for screening or distribution in that medium.
As for other "large independent" distributor Cathay-Keris Films, its swansong 35mm work is still showing in cinemas. But once the Mexican horror film We Are What We Are (2010) ends its run here, Cathay will cease 35mm print distribution in Singapore, for good.
Patrons watching the Mexican arthouse work might wax nostalgic, because it bears the classic quirks of the chemical print - a lack of crispness in the colours, surface scratches, momentary sound pops and dropouts.
The flaws are obvious compared to the pristine clarity of digital reproduction. One would think that veteran Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo, 45, would feel a twinge at the passing of an era. But for him, the pros of going digital far outweigh the cons.
He began his feature career in 1995 with Mee Pok Man, when prints were the only option. With his 2008 father-son drama My Magic, more markets were asking for digital copies. His last feature, the animated biopic Tatsumi (2011), was distributed digitally, save for a handful of prints for festivals.
"In the old days, we spent S$2,000 (US$1,564) to make each 35mm print. Now it costs around S$10,000 (US$7,824) to convert a film to DCP," says the pragmatic Khoo.
Transferring a work to DCP is an art and science, requiring skilled eyes to ensure that sound, colour and other elements are true to the intent of the film-maker. But once that is done, a film-maker can clone as many digital copies as needed cheaply. The drives can also be wiped and reused.
It was a "nightmare" dealing with physical prints, adds Khoo. Each feature would typically fit on six reels, he says.
The relative low cost of the digital medium in the entire production chain, from photography to projection, has made it cheaper for new film-makers to enter the game.
However, there are downsides. The drying up of 35mm print sources means that small venues that screen arthouse films and festival works need to consider installing DCP systems.
Vendors of DCP systems in Singapore say that even for a modest hall of fewer than 100 seats - the equivalent of the smaller halls at a cineplex such as Shaw Lido - the cost of upgrading starts at S$50,000 (US$39,123). If the venue wants the bells and whistles of sharper images, 3-D projection and a better sound system, the costs head north of S$100,000 (US$78,247).
William Phuan, 41, director of The Arts House, reckons that the arts space will have to one day consider buying a DCP system to complement its 35mm projector, now rarely used. It was last put into action two years ago during a film festival.
"It will be a huge chunk of money to upgrade. It will be difficult to justify the cost and we will have to get help from sponsors," he says.
Right now, the 75-seat Screening Room at The Arts House handles consumer-grade digital media, such as computer files, DVD and Blu-ray. That type of content has been a staple of its programmes in recent times.
Interestingly, he says that the impetus to upgrade will not be driven by fussy cinephiles seeking image and sound quality better than what they can get at home. "They come to watch films in a dark cinema... whether it's a Blu-ray or DVD is not much of a factor. They come for the communal experience," says Phuan, who also teaches film at the Nanyang Technological University and has experience curating film festivals here and in the United States.
Rather, the push for higher quality will come from film-makers, who prefer that halls have the equipment to showcase their works at the highest possible standard.
"They want it to be projected in the most pristine, clearest way. They are more particular about the technology," says Phuan.
Both Khoo and Phuan allow that a small number of cineastes are fans of the 35mm format - they say its flaws add warmth and character and are integral to the viewing experience, especially in the case of older films. Mr Phuan likens the fondness for prints to the preference for vinyl records by a subset of music fans.
These fans do not have to panic just yet: No major cinema exhibitor is about to completely ditch its 35mm system.
And it is not just independent venues such as The Arts House or the National Museum that are hanging on to them. Shaw, Golden Village and Cathay tell Life! they will keep their current 35mm systems in good running order, despite all of them having moved wholesale to digital projection.
The older systems are good to have just in case there is a need to screen a film for which no digital formats exist, they say.
Industry sources also say that for arthouse screenings, if DCP media is not available, commercial cinema operators prefer 35mm, avoiding DVD and Blu-ray media. This is because reel problems can be fixed by an experienced projectionist. But glitches with DVD and Blu-ray discs are unfixable. Operators hate any format that puts them at risk of ticket refunds.
Warren Sin, 35, assistant manager of audience development and partnerships at the National Museum of Singapore, oversees the projection systems at its Cinematheque venue. The organisation is looking into acquiring a DCP unit for the small arthouse, he says.
There is a price to be paid in the rush to go digital, he says. "In proper conditions, 35mm prints can last a hundred years or more, making it an ideal storage medium in itself," he says. Digital technologies can become obsolete, making playback of discarded formats difficult, he says.
Thomas Chia, 48, director of independent film distributor Lighthouse Pictures, last handled a 35mm print two years ago. Since then, it has been DCP all the way.
He, like Sin, is concerned about technological obsolescence - exemplified by abandoned consumer formats such as Laserdisc and Betamax - and the fragility of data bytes.
His Lighthouse Pictures, working with production house 13 Little Pictures and Cathay Asia Films, digitally cleaned up a near-mint 35mm print of the classic 1996 comedy Army Daze stored in Cathay's archives. The restored version was released in 2011 on DVD as Army Daze: 15th Anniversary.
Chia is not sure that DCP files stored on magnetic drives will last 15 years.
"Hard disks corrode, get damaged and go wonky after a while," he says.