Notebook: The Future of Film
Tacita Dean, FILM, 2011. Courtesy Frith Street Gallery, London, and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris; Photograph J. Fernandes, Tate Photography
Sitting on the cool concrete floor inside the dark, massive Turbine Hall of London’s Tate Modern museum watching Tacita Dean’s FILM was a singularly awesome and provocative experience. A short, silent, 35mm anamorphic movie projected on a white block nearly 50 feet high, Dean’s art installation was a film about film itself. Screened for free on a loop for five months at the Tate from late 2011 to early 2012, FILM filled the space with crowds and projected images, allowing its creator a platform to advocate for the future of the preferred medium for her work while at the same time mourning its potential demise. Even though film was seen as fading away, Dean’s FILM, filled with images of nature seen on a large scale, seemed so alive.
Three years later, the British artist placed a few frames of film stock in front of the 30 people (curators, archivists, filmmakers, and executives) joining her around a table in a boardroom at the Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles. As she sat down for a private meeting alongside Hollywood director Christopher Nolan on Sunday morning, Dean challenged her small audience of colleagues to pick up the film strip and study it. How could we let it slip away as a medium to shoot, project, and archive movies, she asked pointedly during the private session. The small art edition offered as a gift for each person in attendance was aimed at enlisting their support for her cause.
The goal of the private meeting was to develop plans to boost film’s image among filmmakers, particularly in relation to digital tools and technologies; emphasize the importance of education programs that incorporate film and analog filmmaking techniques; inspire initiatives to support museums, festivals, archives, and rep cinemas that want to screen movies on film; encourage engagement with film as an art form; and advocate establishing universal criteria for archiving films photochemically.
That afternoon, nearly 500 people gathered to hear Dean and Christopher Nolan consider how to reframe the future of film. Before it’s too late. “Film is another protagonist,” she explained during the discussion. “It invents things that you cannot imagine.” She said that she embraces the “resistance” that comes from working with film and explained that as an artist those challenges and hurdles are part of what makes working with the medium so special.
“You’ve got to stop viewing film as a technology. It’s a medium,” Dean implored Nolan when the two Brits met for lunch last year. It didn’t take much more convincing for Nolan to flex his considerable muscle in Hollywood, a city that could (and would) change the course of film’s future.
Tacita Dean (center) and Christopher Nolan (right) with Kerry Brougher from the Academy Museum (left) and Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke at the Getty Museum on Sunday. Photo by Nicole Shibata/The Getty Research Institute
Last summer was a dark time for the future of film, Nolan and Dean, sitting next to Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke, told insiders on Sunday during the private boardroom meeting. They’d rounded up Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences CEO Dawn Hudson, Los Angeles County Museum of Art Director Michael Govan, cinematographer John Bailey, editor Carol Littleton, and leaders from archives such as George Eastman House, UCLA, The Film Foundation, and about a dozen others for the strategy session and luncheon before their public talk.
“We are at a precarious juncture,” declared Kerry Brougher, Director of the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum that is slated to open in Los Angeles in two years. With good reason, Brougher struck a cautious tone as he started the conversation between Dean and Nolan on Sunday.
The fall from favor for film has been swift in recent years. Filmmakers working at all budget levels, both for the studios and on independent productions, have abandoned film as their medium of choice. Some have cited cost concerns while others have said that digital gives them greater opportunities in the postproduction process. Nolan argued this weekend that much is being lost amidst the shift, including the option of film for those like him who still prefer analog image capture, a medium-specific format for watching movies at museums, festivals, and rep cinemas, as well as a reliable process for archiving movies.
“What I’m hoping we are doing here today is acknowledging the need. That we need film projectors, we need film prints, we need these things forever,” Christopher Nolan said during the discussion. “We shouldn’t view film as a technology that is there to be supplanted, we should view it as a medium. We want to see a world where it’s there as a choice.”
Dean also emphasized her concern in her comments, reflecting a longstanding interest in a cherished medium facing extinction. In her art, Tacita Dean seems to be drawn to disappearance. “All the things I am attracted to are just about to disappear,” she was quoted as saying frequently in a 2011 New Yorker profile that noted her work’s elegiac tone. Earlier that year as she embarked on the grand Turbine Hall commission, she wrote an impassioned piece for the Guardian in the wake of learning that her local film lab would immediately stop printing 16mm film.
“Film is chemistry: chemistry that has produced the miracle of the moving image,” Tacita Dean wrote in the Guardian. “My relationship to film begins at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics but something deeper—something to do with poetry.”
Nolan’s first feature, Following, was made on 16mm film, and his subsequent work has been shot, produced, and projected on film. He met with Kodak CEO Jeff Clarke more than a year ago at the start of this campaign to preserve his analog manner of working. At the time the legendary company was on the brink of shutting down, having ceased several operations and having laid off many employees. Today, though, things are looking much brighter for a brand that has been practically synonymous with film for over a century.
Nolan (along with J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow, and other directors) recently instigated a deal between Kodak, the last remaining producer of film stock, and the big six Hollywood studios. The pact, announced last month, will keep Kodak in business as the supplier of film stock for the studios for production, postproduction, and archiving.
On Sunday, Nolan reiterated that critically acclaimed and award-winning movies are being shot on film. Recent examples include Oscar nominees such as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, and Nolan’s own Interstellar. Upcoming examples include Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck, which will sneak at SXSW this week; J.J. Abrams’s new Star Wars film along with other sequels and studio reboots (Batman v Superman, Jurassic World, Cinderella, Entourage); and the next James Bond installment.
On stage in the afternoon as well as at the private morning session, Kodak’s CEO Jeff Clarke was emphatic.
“We are all in,” he said of the company’s commitment to the medium of film. “I couldn’t say that six months ago.”
Christopher Nolan related that witnessing Kodak’s public pronouncement about its commitment to film was the most important thing he heard spoken on Sunday.
The recent survival of Kodak means that film’s death sentence has been stayed. The question facing filmmakers and the film industry is whether the recent successes are enough to completely revitalize the embattled medium. Kodak CEO Clarke admitted that the company is still losing money but added: “We are committed because we believe it is important artistically and that it is a business that will come back.”
Tacita Dean, Kodak, 2006. Frith Street Gallery, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York/Paris
If film is to survive, artists and aficionados will have to be convinced that it is a viable medium at a moment when the move to digital formats and platforms is considered forward-looking.
In the short term, Kodak intends to expand a program aimed at making it more inexpensive for independent filmmakers to shoot on film, and the Hollywood studios will bolster the film manufacturer with deals to guarantee usage. Now advocates are looking to educators, those at museums, archives and other institutions, media outlets, and film critics to help them frame the issue.
On Sunday afternoon in front of the standing-room-only audience at the Getty, Tacita Dean said that among her current concerns, are the very words used when film is discussed today.
“The thing we have to resist most of all is this description that it is dying, old-fashioned, and that if you want to use it, that you are in some way retrogressive, that you are a luddite,” Tacita Dean explained. “I think that has been so dangerous . . . No one wants to be seen as backward-looking, so they advocate for digital.”
As many agreed at the boardroom session, corporations have aggressively promoted digital products and platforms at the expense of film, and the need is clear for a reality in which analog and digital can coexist.