Kirsten Strayer June 28 2019

There will never be a final film format (Part 1): The future of celluloid


Decrying the death of celluloid is essentially equating film form to The Highlanders in that there can only one be one- but of course, that's not quite true. There has never been a singular film format the first place; the technologies of cinema, as well as our reception of them, are constantly changing. And, while most mainstream venues have already exchanged 35mm projectors for digital ones, many commercial filmmakers still shoot in 16, 35, or even 70mm. For example, Nolan’s large-scale WWII production Dunkirk was shot in 70mm, as was Sean Baker’s independent, Oscar-nominated The Florida Project.

Instead of deciding whether or not celluloid is already one foot in the grave, what’s far more interesting is to think through the format’s shifts in relation to other, more contemporary formats. While it may no longer be the go-to format for American commercial filmmaker, it nevertheless has taken on more weight as a tactile form, one that has a certain kind of visual and aesthetic depth that digital cinema lacks. Today, celluloid has both an inescapable artistic aura and a tactile sensibility that is very difficult to imitate. This Spotlight explores films that engage with celluloid's sense of authenticity as well as its specific aesthetic qualities. 

The filmstrip continues to foment experimentation and play. The experimental film Prima Materia (Charlotte Pryce, 2015) plays with color, exposure, and movement to highlight the essential elements of the world and their transference to filmstrip. In its play with celluloid, Prima Materia explores the chemical appeal of filmstrip. Between powdery images, burn holes, and negative image, the film creates a moving vision of what the filmmaker calls “the luminous particles of the alchemist’s dream”.

Prima Materia (Charlotte Pryce, 2015)

Lunar Almanac (Malena Szlam, 2013), meanwhile, plays with the materiality of film stock, the specifics of which are almost as crucial to appearance the format itself. Using Kodak’s Ektachrome 16mm, the film highlights the retro reds and golds that that particular film is known for. In 2011, Ektachrome was discontinued due to declining sales, but support from filmmakers and photographers led to its return in 2018. Lunar Almanac was created during the pause, a celebration of the role that film format can play in capturing celestial beauty.

Lunar Almanac (Malena Szlam, 2013)

Celluloid retains its gravitas—in its ability to capture visuals as they are—in fictional texts as well. In Celluloid Dreams (Jonathan Dillion, 2014), an elderly man looks back at his life on home movies and figures out that he can go into the filmstrip to change the past. After fixing a broken 8mm projector, the man looks at old home movies of him and his new wife purchasing their first home. The wife, we later learn through flashbacks, died in a car accident not long after. As the man watches the film, however, the film—and his long-dead wife—begins to physically affect him. When his wife splashes water in the film, he is hit in real life. His physical interaction with the filmstrip recalls the idea of the trace, that, with celluloid, the film retains an actual, physical part of the captured subject. In science fiction and fantasy, this imprint has the power to reconstitute the past, even resurrect the dead.

Celluloid Dreams (Jonathan Dillion, 2014)

The Irish faux-documentary The Chronoscope (Andrew Legge, 2012) also plays with the film/time travel metaphor. In this case, the chronoscope, a fictional device that resembles an early film camera uses “waves” to let people see through time. The Chronoscope is not an analog film camera but it is analogous to it, with the appearance of its images mimicking early modern documentary film reels.  Although the device is heralded as a radical scientific breakthrough when invented (1938, according to the film’s timeline), governments hate it, as it shows the dirty, unmythic sides of the past that interfere with national nostalgia. The Chronoscope plays with the idea that it—or film--can give its audiences an unvarnished “truth,” or that we would even be interested in it at all. Because that truth challenges mythic national perceptions and replacing them with—as one character says—fat men squatting in huts—the Chronoscope breaks history instead of creating it.

The Chronoscope (Andrew Legge, 2012)

Finally, in Cliché (Vincent Lacrocq, 2012), a young photographer tries to buy some illegal film stock and finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into the black markets. The cliché here stems from the film as opiates analogy that dominates the piece. But the film’s joy lies in imagining celluloid film stock, specifically, as the only respite for the addicted filmmaker. The juxtaposition of film styles at the end reinforces the unique beauty of celluloid film stock, one in which texture and movement take on a specific sensibility that digital lacks.

Cliché (Vincent Lacrocq, 2012)

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.

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