If you’re really into cinema, and you’ve had the pleasure, I’m sure you’d agree that watching film ON film is the most enjoyable way to do so.
The whir of the projector if you’re in earshot of it, the popping and crackling on the screen and just knowing you’re watching it in the same manner as when the film was first released.
So hurrah then for the BFI, who hosted an entire three and a half day festival devoted to the art of Film on Film.
The festival not only showed movies, but also ran workshops and demonstrations showing everything from presenting film to grading it. And these seemed really popular – I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen the BFI Southbank so busy and buzzing with activity.
I had tickets for a wide variety of screenings starting with the opening gala – a rare Nitrate print of Mildred Pierce which was 78 years old. Nitrate is a bit of a risky format to show – it’s very flammable, and can only be shown in certain cinemas. In fact, the BFI Southbank is the only cinema in the UK who can show Nitrate and also one of the only cinemas in the world!
The formats volatility was demonstrated when the screening had to be substituted with a brand new 35mm print. There were safety concerns with the projector at the very last minute and you can never be too careful with something like that.
I was back on the Saturday for some 3D films, and I also ended up watching coming of age drama My Brilliant Career on a total whim, also on a new 35mm print. These new prints were made possible with a lottery grant and are a great way of preserving these movies so future generations can see how they were originally viewed.
The 3D screenings proved simultaneously what an incredible effort is put into screening them, and also why the 3D gimmick didn’t really last long. Two projectors are required to project two different reels at the same time onto a special silver screen (which reflects light better) – these reels need to be synced perfectly otherwise the whole film will be thrown out. This requires an intermission of about five or six minutes to swap the reels on both projectors, no matter how long the film!
I’ve always been a bit cynical of 3D. It’s always been a bit of a fad, and the most recent incarnation of it in the late noughties/early 2010s was particularly bad. Everything was 3D whether it needed to be or not (often not) so I was very impressed when watching the 3D selection at the festival.
John Wayne western Hondo probably made the best use of the format. The odd gimmicky arrow and axe hurtled towards the screen but it was better suited to displaying the depth of the epic vistas.
Personally, I didn’t really see the point of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder being in 3D. Being based on a play, it’s very stagey so there’s not the breadth of experienced in Hondo. Save the bit where Grace Kelly’s hand reaches frantically towards the screen not much was made of it. Very interesting to see it how it was originally intended though.
The lack of gimmicky wackiness was made up for in House of Wax though. Famously directed by Andre de Toth who could only see out of one eye, this really went for it – probably most famously the utterly ludicrous “ping pong” scene where the actor literally starts talking to the cinema audience. Ridiculous but FUN.
All problems with the Nitrate projection were sorted for Sunday where I saw No Way Out, Sidney Poitiers first film. The print was acquired by the BFI back in 1953 and this was the first screening since then…70 years! The showing was preceded by a quick guide to where the nearest fire exits were, just in case! It was incredible to watch the film like that. Sure a few bits of dialogue went astray and once or twice when the sound really crackled it made me flinch a bit but it felt like watching part of history.
Somehow they saved the best for last with a 35mm screening of Jaws, from an original print from 1975. Before it was remastered on DVD, Blu-ray, 4K etc it looked like this, and I’ve never seen it look so good. The sold out crowd in NFT1 were in agreement. Magical.
The weekend was a truly amazing tribute to the magic of film and to the incredibly talented people who project these images for us. It really felt great to be able to give them a round of applause too at each screening. Unsung heroes for sure.
There was a point during Mildred Pierce where Joan Crawford finally has enough and slaps her absolutely awful daughter. Somewhere behind me a guy loudly proclaims “YES!” and the entire screen bursts out laughing. These are the moments that truly make cinema. You don’t get that sitting on your couch at home.
Moments like that are also the reason I hope this festival returns next year. It’s very evident it’s a true labour of love, and one that seemed to proved incredibly popular with the hundreds of people who came out for it. It’s heartening to see the future of film on film is in such good hands.
Review by Thom
from press access kindly supplied by the BFI.