Celluloid film: the format of the future

Alexa Raisbeck, co-founder of the Film & Projection Heritage Network which supports cinemas that present celluloid formats, argues that film has a vital future ahead.


The digital revolution was a commercial decision driven by the need to harness the latest technology available. The speed of change since pixels arrived has been awe-inspiring. The ability to show a film time and again without degradation, plus the savings and ease in digital distribution. What’s not to love?


Well, for me, it was the way celluloid was demonised as part of the marketing in the encouragement to adopt digital. Labelled unreliable and antiquated, it was vehemently jettisoned and gutted, as if complete oblivion would win the technological war. The problem with this path is that we’re now in a precarious place regarding the future of running celluloid film. Parts and equipment are hard to source, film consumables hard to purchase, well-trained projectionists have retired or moved on; knowledge is seeping away.


We are past the pivotal point where there is time to preserve what is needed for those that want to continue working with the medium. Celluloid’s supporters are often harangued for their advocacy, and told they are romancing a dead medium through rose-tinted glasses. Why? Why is 35mm pitted against digital? There is no ‘versus’ here. Film worked as a viable medium for over a century and defines much of our visual literacy, so much so that scratches, dirt and sepia tones are now added in post-production to indicate something historic. Digital is not a replacement. They are different mediums with separate characteristics. Should celluloid be available? Absolutely. An artist/auteur/director should be able to work in the medium they choose. Try telling an artist in any other line of work they can’t utilise a particular medium. It wouldn’t be done. Cinemas whose business models rely on repertory presentations need to continue to have the ability to show prints. Despite the advent of DCP technology, many films have yet to be transferred for cinematic presentation. DVDs and Blu-Rays are not the most cinematic or stable of playback mediums.


Other factors include our collective archive: stored properly, celluloid is still the most viable storage medium. It would take decades to digitise what is held on shelves and I am an advocate for seeing films in original mediums and ratios. Reels of film come with a provenance, a history which adds to their uniqueness as physical objects. Many savvy programmers go to great lengths to secure prints for their audiences. Film reels, projector mechanics and film strips are still utilised to indicate film and cinema. Hard drives and square silent boxes don’t invoke the same feelings. It is telling that 35mm and 70mm screenings have become events which tie into the general trend exhibition has taken to preserve itself from home entertainment mediums.


Digital is the standard, but over 100 cinemas in the UK alone have celluloid capability. When something becomes harder to experience its value increases. It’s why “Dunkirk” was released in 70mm, it’s why some cinemas that originally removed mechanical projectors are reinstalling them. I urge the industry to recognise this and acknowledge that 35mm isn’t a medium of the past but has a present and hopefully a future of co-existence. We’re in the business of telling stories — celluloid continues to do that eloquently.