The Hateful Eight and The Future of Film

In a recent featurette, The Hateful Eight flies the flag for celluloid projection, in a battle for the identity of cinema itself.

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

One of the by-products of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, The Hateful Eight, is the argument over the future of cinema, and the identity of the most visceral of creative industries.

The Hateful Eight, after all, alongside its supposed whopping 170 minute running time and potential inclusion of a 12 minute intermission, is the first film shot on 70mm’s ‘Ultra-Panavision’ for an entire generation. This format, in a 2.76:1 ratio, is a hallmark of the grand 70mm print, and is a pretty exceptional tool for, as Samuel L Jackson puts it in this recently released featurette for the movie, “When you absolutely, positively need to wow everyone in the room.”

Well to be precise, it is shot on 65mm, and then converted to 70mm. Though some technical speak strays beyond my understanding, even writers such as myself were able to glean from the video that frankly, this required an admirable level of camera gymnastics to really pull off.

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Whatever side of the aisle you sit on the digital vs film debate, this is the most explicit call of arms to the world of yesteryear.

In the circles of technical aficionados, it is a sight associated with classic pictures of yore, of a golden age at MGM studios where moguls would smoke cigars and post-war phrases such as “In this motion picture, there are more stars than there are in the heaven” could be said without sounding cringe-worthy or ripe. It was a heyday where posters for films were illustrated artist sketches, and upcoming films were advertised with stick-on-letters.

It is also perhaps, part of Tarantino’s usual attempts at legacy building. After all, throughout his career, Tarantino has routinely referred to his body of work, sometimes arrogantly (he called Kill Bill his “seminal achievement”), and at times very honestly in that he has genuine insecurities about betraying cinema by either making a bad film or letting celluloid die. The pop-cultural references and cine-literate illusions that characterise his array of productions are a by-product of this very romantic, nostalgic feeling he has towards the chief method of film-making: one that has served giants of the movie industry for decades.

Thus it is hardly surprising that Tarantino sought this form of projection for his upcoming picture. Throughout shooting, he used decades-old lenses that had been collecting dust since Khartoum. They were bestowed to him by Ultra-Panavision themselves, taken from the graveyard of a dark store room, but resurrected as they have; Quentin’s new feature is now in the same company as Ben Hur, El Cid, and Mutiny On The Bounty.

Hopefully as well as being compared to in terms of quality, his film will be compared to the feelings that those movies now evoke in 2016. The feelings of a classical time not hampered by the noise and technological androids that plague cinema today. A time more associated with grand roadshows, the handing of programmes, and bumper running times.

So it would be easy to see Tarantino armed with his usual intransigence and nervous energy, as really thinking only of himself, and biting the hand that feeds him by shooting with a format that most cinemas are unable to project. As his views on digital being little more than “TV in public” and a con remain relatively unchanged, it could also be seen as petulant kicking and screaming at an industry that he feels is ignoring him, while others argue is progressing.

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While there is maybe some truth in it being a case of nostalgia and self-indulgence, there are some very earnest reasons for Tarantino releasing his film in this way too.

Ever since George Lucas, irritated that his ’90s-developed playset on The Phantom Menace didn’t respond to his commands, was forced to shoot the first Star Warsprequel on film, the pendulum has swung in a direction not of Tarantino’s fancy.

Lucas developed Attack Of The Clones on digital, and since then things have not really been the same. Though other motion pictures considered and used digital, either partially and completely around that period of time, he was the first real movie-maker of note to endeavor to do so.

In 2002, he invited a batch of filmmakers to his ranch and showed them digital footage, considering it the future of motion pictures. Though many were skeptical, particularly as the results of his footage were mixed, Robert Rodriguez recalled in the documentary Side By Side that Lucas’ idea had real potential. As a one-man-show for the most part, he saw a real opportunity in being able to see what you had filmed almost instantaneously rather than having to wait for the dailies, while he also credits Lucas’ exhibition with giving him the visual aesthetic for Sin City.

To be fair to digital, there are plenty of positives to be recognized. Alongside listing the numerous, vast and growing number of films that embraced the medium, it is important to realize how much it has done to democratize filmmaking. Digital processes of filmmaking are everywhere, and are so much more accessible to the filmmaker. It is also cheaper for amateur filmmakers who tend to want more editing and re-shooting, while it has become more adaptable as well.

Some of the most interesting and unconventional shots and images owe a debt to digital cinema. Not just because they happened to be shot on digital, but the best sequences in Slumdog Millionaire for instance, that highlighted the color, claustrophobia and uniqueness of the Bombay streets could only have been done on digital. The lighter cameras, the ability to reposition them and effectively break them apart is something Slumdog Millionaire owed a great debt to. Another case in point would be the boat sequence in The Social Network, something that showcased how digital cameras themselves can be repositioned better, put in more interesting places for unorthodox shots, and re-assembled and disassembled with an unusual rate of gusto.

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I would also challenge anyone to name a more a beautiful looking film than Her, a digital beast through and through.

Moreover, a DI suite, the production tool of digital filmmaking, allows you to manipulate the image with greater autonomy than ever before, while as earlier mentioned, digital offers immediate feedback of your work. Otherwise there is an over-reliance on the cinematographer, and the “dailies” being what you wanted them to be.

Another factor into the mix is the breakthroughs in stereoscopy. Though it is a technique as old as time itself, James Cameron made 3D plausible with Avatar. The fact that it was artistically credible and not a gimmick, meant it was a commercial gold mine. What cannot be denied is that it definitively added to the picture and made it an exceptionally immersive experience. It was a forefather that made the way for other 3D wonders like HugoLife Of Pi, andGravity. Industrial Light and Magic, the pioneers of this technology, were only able to make it compatible with digital technology, which made film increasingly redundant. The nails that had been hammered into celluloid’s coffin by the improving digital craft and the cheapness of its projection were complimented with a good few heaps of burial soil as Cameron’s first picture in twelve years took nearly three billion dollars at the box office.

Also, there is no doubt that some of the great event movies of the past decade have been enhanced with digital production. You can take your pick from much of the superhero world (basically anything from the Marvel stable), from the dystopian world of YA fiction (the Hunger Games series), and even from Disney. What’s more interesting is that eccentric pictures like Serenity, and the back catalogues of some terrific indie directors like Fincher and Soderbergh, have relied almost solely on digital.

What cannot be ruled out either is the sheer variety of directors that support digital. Alongside George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh are the likes of Michael Bay, Peter Jackson and the Wachowskis. Amongst that pack are some of the most commercially successful names to have graced a modern director’s chair, some so successful they have enough money to buy your local multiplex with their loose change. Since the early 21st century they have all, in their own ways, been enthusiasts for the technology.

To add to that is the fact that anarchic Lars von Trier, the maverick, takes the establishment position. Though most the directors I have mentioned tend to first talk about how they find the image clearer and sharper von Trier considers old movie-making as a cog in an establishment that was unfair to directors and writers. His belief that it streamlined out independent thought and the more interesting notions of directing is a hard pill to swallow for those who think the rise of digital is solely commercial.

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Also worthy of note is the emergence of converts to digital like of Danny Boyle. Not only is he a fan, but he is a fatalist about film, seeing it now as little more than a museum piece wheeled out on special occasions. Without being too fatalistic, not even Tarantino can pull film indefinitely from its funeral wake, or if he can, it will always operate in a reduced state. That is a reality that sentimentalists like me have to accept, especially as commercially, digital is seen as so much more viable.

Though as much as these positives are important, and as likely as it is that film can be at most a small player in the future of cinema, the rate of change has been somewhat sinister, both in its pace and in the motives. It is hard it to see, even amongst the more admirably utopian thinkers out there, how the digital future is being arranged out of solely aspirational motives, or in the best interest of cinema.

For every great 3D feature like Gravity, there are dozens of post-production converts like Clash Of The Titans, or unconvincing 3D touch ups like those given to the disappointing Alice In Wonderland. These films, a product of the digital and 3D revolutions, have only made these decisions to chase a fast buck, while the cinema-goer is disempowered by seeing 2D screenings of their favorite new releases shoehorned into inconvenient times or disappearing altogether.

Thankfully there has been a sea change on this, with 3D being seen as a treat for blockbusters rather than an enforced norm, however, digital projection itself has not lowered the admission price of a film ticket. Even if it has taken projectionists out of their jobs and made running your movies comparable in price to the production of their rip-off popcorn.

Troubling in the extreme is the bigotry that has crept into the debate. Whatever disparaging remarks people may make about Tarantino’s insistence on film, the casting aspersions of film defenders as luddites and fools is a fraudulent claim. This is not like defending a Betamax player or leaded gasoline; this is defending the name of cinema. The flickering of still images at 24 frames per second through a movie camera, as a craft, and as unique experience for the viewer, is something worth saving. Something that is worth keeping as a medium of expression, alongside the great strides in digital projection.

There is also a fundamental ignorance of storytelling being exposed in the digital shift. I hope I was not the only one who winced hearing George Lucas say colour was always better than black and white. 

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The digital wipe-out of film ignores that role it must play in preserving our culture. Martin Scorsese, who is also somewhat fatalist about keeping films in their celluloid format as a financially viable option for making movies, understands that they will be vital for the storage of movies and archiving of material, something he is a great believer in. Unlike digital technology which constantly changes and allows former models and methods to go obsolete within a span of years, traditional film is versatile enough to allow us to archive the important works of our time.

Tarantino is part of a movement that hates this complacency. His new film will be a defiant rebuke to a movie industry that nearly canned the Kodak production of film stock, the last mass creator of the substance. Were it not for the dogged resistance of JJ Abrams (who recently filmed Star Wars on the material) and Christopher Nolan, both joining arms with Tarantino, then digital may have been the only game in town from 2014, with Kodak protesting of the lack of interest in such a supposedly archaic form of production.

Thus it has become increasingly difficult to see, even amongst the more admirably utopian pioneers out there, how the digital future is being arranged out of solely aspirational motives, or in the best interest of cinema.

The failure to allow 35mm and its sisters to effectively co-exist, even in reduced terms, alongside an ascending computer-inflected medium is a cinematic tragedy that betrays us all.

Tarantino is acting out of concern and a passion for cinema. To the point that it would be simplistic to say this is part of some bitter vendetta against digital, or just another example of his recurring intransigence.

As stated before, I consider his rationale sincere.

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70mm, of course, cannot be projected in mainstream cinema to proper effect, especially where in the States, 93% of cinemas run solely off digital (it’s a lot higher if you take out independent chains), Tarantino is able to release the film as part of a roadshow. He is planning to tour across the States, subsiding cinema costs for projecting in his favoured format in order to advertise the beauty and importance of cinema.

Along the way, Tarantino is sure to engage with his legions of fans, and really highlight how traditional forms of movie-making encourage a greater conversation and respect for cinema. Due to how many people will turn up these screenings, it will also be a showcase of the popular demand and love of film projection and what Tarantino stands for. It may even be the first time some of these people see proper film projection, due to the wildly fluctuating ages of his fan base.

What Tarantino realized from his success in stalling the stalling of Kodak’s flagging film business was that individuals of great renown in the industry could really make headway in this conversation. He can motivate people, and the wider community to see cinema differently, and to value film. It is not something that people can be apathetic about much longer, and judging by the popularity of his roadshow, before the film will hit conventional cinema and be converted to more conventional formats, these are changes that people haven’t really had a say on. This film will be a possibility for engagement with legions of fans over how film projection matters, how much cinema matters, and why the audience need autonomy over their decisions, and directors need all the options in their creative choices.

Not only will this momentarily bring back the golden times of cinema, where watching film was event in the same way that air travel and hotel resorts used to be, but it could save a precious method of movie-making from extinction and show case its capabilities to the world.

Cinema after all, is a place to be revered.