There have been a lot of reports lately about the death of film. Panavision has ceased production on 35mm film cameras and now it’s only a matter of time before the only reasonable way to shoot a film is digitally. I would like to say that I’m disappointed in this, as though there is something irretrievably magical about film. Once it’s gone we will never get it back. Well, it’s partly true, and I do mourn for the end of a format that has defined my favourite art form for over a century.
There’s a problem with mourning too heavily, though. The truth is, film has died many times since its inception. What do I mean by this? Well, let me show you a bunch of still-frames from films made through the last century and maybe you’ll pick up on what I’m talking about:
See that? Those are images from films, almost all shot on film. (I’m not saying which ones aren’t.) Film is the name of a medium, but that medium has come in many formats. The shift to digital is simply the first of those formats that removes the celluloid and mechanically moving film strips from the equation. There are those who complain that it looks different from film, that it feels different, but come on now, do any of those stills really feel the same as one another? Film as a medium, and the formats it encompasses, has constantly evolved and changed. There have been plenty of losses along the way. Black-and-white is practically history. Three-strip Techincolor died quickly. Nobody shoots in VistaVision anymore, or the 70mm Ultra-Panavision format. It’s rare to see the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Cinerama didn’t last. Why have we not mourned all these losses?
You know what I mourn for? I mourn for the fact that nobody shoots in anamorphic black-and-white anymore. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Well, prepare to be educated!
First of all, what is anamorphic? We’re all familiar with widescreen these days. Well, anamorphic refers to a widescreen method/format. It’s also colloquially known as Scope, after the brand, CinemaScope. The most common aspect ratio for anamorphic films is 2.35:1. This is the kind of widescreen that still has fairly wide black letterbox bars even on a widescreen TV. But not all 2.35:1 films are anamorphic. Anamorphic is specifically the process in which the movie is shot on a full 35mm frame, and a specially designed lens horizontally squeezes a very wide angle onto that strip, and then a projector with a corresponding lens stretches that image back out into it’s full widescreen glory. Here’s what that process looks like:
Early on in the era of CinemaScope, there were films with an even wider ratio. Ben-Hur, which was shot with anamorphic lenses on a large format 70mm stock, had an incredible ratio of about 2.70:1. The real beauty of the anamorphic process is the way the very wide angle of the lenses creates very pleasing distortion. It’s sometimes subtle, sometimes not, but you get very interesting focus aberrations, vertical lines near the edges of the screen often become curved, the sense of a wide environment is more grand.
Most American films shot in anamorphic were also shot in colour, primarily for branding reasons. But here and there films did get shot in both anamorphic and black-and-white. In foreign territories where money was harder to come by, filmmakers were more likely to combine anamorphic photography with black-and-white film stock. In my opinion the results of this combination were, simply put, the most beautiful films ever shot.
There are a few reasons anamorphic black-and-white is so beautiful. The first is simply that well done black-and-white is incredibly striking. The contrasting blacks and whites and grays make for dynamic photography. There’s also the beauty of the anamorphic process and its imperfections. On top of this is the wide aspect ratio, which, while definitely an issue of preference, is really very pleasing to the eye. The wide angles and long canvas can convey both a sense of immense grandur and careful intimacy. The way the foreground is allowed to interact with the background in a 2.35:1 frame is majestic.
Then there’s the way that the anamorphic process combines with black-and-white. First of all, the foreground/background dynamic of the widescreen is enhanced by the great contrast available in black-and-white. Secondly, and this is particular true of earlier CinemaScope and anamorphic processes films, old colour stock had a harder time resolving light and so required lenses with a narrower depth of field. Shooting with black-and-white stocks was not only cheaper and easier, it also provided a greater range of depth and a greater ability to capture images in unique lighting conditions.
It’s a format that was pretty rarely used in the grand scheme of film’s long history, but boy do I wish it had lasted longer. How can you not want to spend as much time as possible watching beautiful images like these projected on the big screen:
So yes, I mourn the loss of film. But I also mourn those film formats that got lost even before the entire celluloid industry began to die. And I especially mourn the general lack of anamorphic black-and-white. At least the films that were made that way are still around to be watched and savoured. And savour them, I shall.