Professor Tom Doherty on “The Last Bow for 35mm Film”

Professor Tom Doherty, currently in Singapore teaching, wrote a timely piece for the History News Network that focuses on the Oscars, film history, and the end of 35mm film:

For a medium born in the nineteenth century, 35mm motion picture projection has had a remarkably long run. The system was initially fired up in 1895 in Paris, when the pioneering filmmaker-entrepreneurs Auguste and Louis Lumiere first projected 35mm celluloid onto a screen in public space for money, which is a pretty good definition of the movies. Throughout the twentieth century, the 35mm format remained the standard gauge for filming and exhibition. The Kodak film stock got more sensitive, the resolution sharper, and the light cast on the screen more powerful, but the size of the strip remained the constant gold standard for the spectacle of cinema, the difference between a big night out at the Bijou and a mere home movie, the latter being shot in formats of 16mm, 8mm, and super-8mm, before videotape cameras deep-sixed the lower film gauges.  Practically every director in Hollywood had to pose for the same publicity shot: unspooling a strip of 35mm at an editing board, he narrows his eyes and pretends to inspect the image on the frame.

After a century of unquestioned hegemony, however, 35mm is being wiped off the screen. Perhaps not coincidentally, the close of 2011 witnessed this pair of heartfelt elegies for the old medium: Hugo, a love letter to early cinema and film preservation, and The Artist, a homage to the silent era and an argument for the superfluity of spoken dialogue. Both, appropriately, have deep-French connections, both luxuriate in all things filmy, and both showcase protagonists who get literally entwined and almost consumed by strips of 35mm celluloid.

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