Changing reels, excessive lengths, the underappreciated death of 35mm prints, and the experience of seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug on film / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

The Hobbit

[Spoiler warning: This one rambles more than usual (as you may be able to tell by the title). I could pretend that I’m making a point by mimicking the excessiveness of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but that would be a lie, and I don’t like lying. I don’t think anything is necessarily useless (unlike much of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), just off topic.]

In the past week, I have seen three movies that push past the 150-minute mark: American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. Of them, American Hustle is the only one that doesn’t drag, but The Hobbit is the only one that feels as long as it is.

Last year, it struck me as a trend that films were getting longer and longer. Many of the biggest films stretched well past the two-hour mark, and while I don’t have a problem with long films, I do find myself less attracted to them. There’s something alluring about a film that’s less than 100 minutes, even more so if it’s less than 90. I see those runtimes and I think, “I can do that right now. What else am I doing? Nothing important, probably.” Television is the same way. I can marathon three hour-long episodes of an HBO show more easily than I can sit down to watch a movie more than 100 minutes. It’s just a quirk I’ve got.

(Admittedly, as films grow bigger, so do their credits, and most big films nowadays seem to be about ten minutes shorter than their runtime would indicate. So 100-minute movies may actually more like 95 minute ones.)

But I sat through those three films without a problem. I checked my watch at the two-hour mark of Wolf of Wall Street, and never with American Hustle. With The Hobbit, I didn’t need to, because it was a 35mm print. Which I found rather odd.

Here’s my controversial statement for the week: I don’t like prints. If given the choice between a high quality digital projection and a high quality print, I would choose the former every time. The only exception, really, is with IMAX films, because IMAX film projects at a much higher “resolution” than digital IMAX projectors do. (65mm films would theoretically be the same, but I can count on zero hands the number of those I’ve seen projected.)

But even if a 35mm print is objectively better than a 4K projection, I prefer the digital. Why? Three reasons:

1)   Film projectors are loud.

I am irritatingly sensitive to background noises, and when a print-projected film gets quiet and introspective, I hear the projector whirring in the background. It takes me out of what I’m watching every single time. Granted, big blockbusters don’t have a lot of those silent moments (The Hobbit sure doesn’t), but it’s always bothersome. For years, I would sit towards the front of the theater just because the noise would be less irritating. (I sat in the back row center for The Prestige, and the entire thing was ruined by that stupid sound.)

2)   Prints degrade.

Now this one is where I divert from some of my peers. Some people think that the change in quality of a 35mm print is cool, and that it gives personality to the film. No two viewings of a print will ever be the same. Which is true, each viewing will be slightly changed.

And that’s exactly why I dislike like it.

I don’t project (ha!) anything onto film stock. It doesn’t have a life, a personality, a wife and kids that it goes home to after a hard day’s work at the cinema. It’s just a bunch of film, and it gets old and decrepit at an alarmingly fast rate. By the time I saw The Hobbit, the print was already in poor shape. Admittedly, I was at a small movie theater where tickets were $4.50 each (which I didn’t even think was possible in this day and age), so they probably weren’t putting the utmost care into print preservation, but it still looked pretty bad. (Their projector also had a bizarre problem where any text in the bottom fifth of the screen was doubled, like it was meant for a 3D film. It only affected text, though. I have no idea what that was about.) But I wasn’t getting the best experience that I could have been.

In fact, I wasn’t even close, but I’ll get to that later.

3)   I don’t like the reel changes.

Now this one will probably seem stupid to most people (all of these will probably seem stupid to most people), but every time there’s that little blip up in the right-hand corner, I’m distracted. But that’s not the problem. The problem is the fact that it grounds me. I have a terrible sense of time. Twenty minutes may feel like 10 or 30, and I don’t really have any good way of keeping track internally (it’s part of why I wear a watch). I was part of a research study not too long ago and was told that overestimation of time (This took 15 minutes instead of 12) is potentially related to impulsivity. I was also told that I am on the cusp of rating for impulsivity.

I was also told to take that for what I will, and I don’t know that I’m particularly impulsive, but I am not hyper-conscious to the fact that I overestimate the amount of time things take. “Wow, I have been doing this for literally five hours.” … “And by literally five hours I mean three hours and twenty four minutes.” It’s unfortunate because it feels like the world is moving more slowly than it is, but it’s kind of nice because I actually have a lot more time to do things than I think I do.

Then again, I often arrive extremely early to things because I’m worried about how long things will take, which is strange because I’m actually extremely good at gauging how long something will take. Several of my friends call me Alec “Impeccable timing” Kubas-Meyer. Their other nicknames for me are less flattering.

Back to my point: I don’t like reel changes because it grounds me in real time instead of movie time. I instinctively keep a running mental tally of reel counts for films. I know that a 160-minute film will have between seven and nine reel changes, and I know where I am based on how many changes have happened. With The Hobbit, the only reason I really knew where I was in the film was because of the number of reels that were left. I mean, seriously, there’s so much going on in that movie (not a good thing), and then it ends on that goddamn cliffhanger? Peter Jackson should have made one five hour movie and been done with it.

But that’s not the point. The point is that this only happen with prints. A digital projection is clean, pristine, and free of any interruptions (unless the projector cuts out, which I have seen happen, but I’ve seen that happen to a film projector also, so that’s not necessarily a knock against digital). I never know how far into a film I am unless I check my watch, which I rarely do. I did it during Wolf of Wall Street because the film slowed down and I had absolutely no idea how much more I was going to be subjected to. Fortunately, It sped up again and I was totally fine with it being an hour longer, but that movie definitely could (should) have been shorter. Still, it’s a great film and definitely worth seeing. It’s not the best three-hour movie of 2013, but it would have been pretty darn hard to top Blue is the Warmest Color.

It’s the same reason I prefer eBooks to physical books. I do everything I can to not look at the bottom of my nook, because it has page numbers there, and I like to be surprised. When you know a film is in its final stages, there are fewer surprises, because you’re expecting an ending. When you’re reading a book and the chunk of pages in your left hand is significantly larger than the chunk in your right, you’re expecting the ending. But with an eBook or a digital film, it’s a surprise. Depending on the film, you may be able to guess where in the overall narrative you are, but that’s not always true. It certainly wasn’t true for The Hobbit. Goddamn that movie is long. Good, but long.

And now for something completely different.

When I saw The Artist at the New York Film Festival back in 2011, I thought it was fascinating that it was being projected digitally. I thought that maybe the film had been shot that way and the creative team had made some brilliant subversive statement about the proliferation of a new technology that is killing an old one (just as digital is rapidly doing to film). It turns out that it was shot on film (color film, actually, and then digitally desaturated because black-and-white film stock was too sharp), but there was something bizarre about seeing it digitally, simply because that film is about film. There’s that vaguely ironic statement about the death of film in projecting it that way, but I doubt that’s what NYFF was going for when they made that decision. And even if it was, that’s still kind of a weird thing to do.

As much as I dislike prints, I generally agree that films should be seen as they were meant to be seen. If a movie was shot on film, then it should theoretically be seen on film. If it was shot on IMAX film, it should definitely be seen in IMAX. (Although after Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, IMAX film will be effectively dead, so that will soon be impossible.)

That all being said, I know several former film-purists who were convinced that digital is a legitimate substitute by the 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia.

But with The Hobbit, that movie should be seen as a digital projection, because it was shot digitally. And not only that, it should be seen at 48 frames per second in 3D, because that’s how it was made. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that chance. The day I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was the day my local movie theater stopped showing it in HFR. (And obviously this particular theater didn’t have that option available for its sequel.) I want to see it in HFR 3D, because in some ways, that’s the point of it. It’s a big, extremely expensive tech demo. “Look at how we shot this entire movie on a green screen! Isn’t it gorgeous? Especially compared to that Amazing Spiderman 2 trailer that played earlier. Wow the CG in that looked bad. Like, 2004 called, they want their tech back.”

I get the feeling that I won’t particularly like the experience. I’ve shot footage at 60 fps and I don’t like the “realism” of it. I don’t even like the idea of the realism of it. Imagine a super-disturbing ultra-violent film shot in a way that looks real. I’m not really okay with that conceptually. For it to also be 3D makes me feel like crying.

But if that’s where a director wants to take their movie, I think it’s only fair to respect their wishes and see it that way when it’s available, which it often isn’t. I mean, no director really wants people watching their films on a Nexus 7, but sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

(Michael Bay’s crazy-kinetic editing style works better on television than it does in a theater, just because there’s less visual information to take in, but some would argue the spectacle of it requires a theater anyway. That’s a discussion for a different day, if ever.)

But the shift towards digital projection is matched by the growth of digital shooting. But so what? Several of the best-looking films of the past few years were shot digitally (Drive and Skyfall come to mind, gosh darn the Alexa looks good), and cameras are only getting better. The newest RED camera shoots at 6K. That’s crazy. And if RED is to be believed, it’s also objectively better than film.

So the death of film is overrated. Viva la revolución