With a clutch of screenings, Film Forum makes a case for the switch from film to digital projection, and tries to soften the blow

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The Red Shoes is part of Film Forum's digital series (Courtesy MGM)
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The introduction to Film Forum's "This is DCP" series, which runs through Thursday, March 8, is a strange one: an odd mix of reassurance, self-promotion and apology.

The advent of digital movie-making, and, more importantly, of digital projection (the "DCP" stands for "Digital Cinema Package") threatens to make films shot on actual film all but impossible to see in their original form in the theater, if not altogether obsolete.

It seems like precisely the kind of technological advance that a venerable repertory house can be counted upon to stand against. Which explains the rather defensive language:

"[W]e're more than ever committed to showing classic films on film," Film Forum reassures its patrons in its introduction to the series, published on its website.

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But the set of screenings, which includes such Film Forum perennials as The Red Shoes and Rear Window, was meant to encourage regulars that they wouldn't be losing anything with a switch to D.C.P., but actually gaining. It's hard to tell whether Film Forum's most diehard film purists were in attendance, but most screenings were sellouts.

Already, more than 50 percent of movie theaters have switched from film to digital projection and, while estimates differ, most believe that film projection will be rare or nonexistent in commercial movie theaters within the next couple of years.

The change, as Film Forum openly concedes, "just can't be ignored."

The theater's short explanatory text ends on a less than enthusiastic note, encouraging people to come judge for themselves whether or not the new format offers the "same experience as watching a film print."

There's a friendly kind of optimism in that offer because, whatever the judgment rendered by the Film Forum audience, soon it will be just about the only kind of experience available to most moviegoers. Putting aside the use of digital projection for new films, it's not difficult to imagine a near future in which studios refuse to lend out fragile film prints and force even repertory houses to make a definitive switch.

Oddly, that didn't seem to be a major concern at Film Forum's D.C.P. screenings over the weekend; or, if it was, it wasn't one that many were willing to vocalize.

Saturday's sold-out screening of Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dr. Strangelove featured a side-by-side comparison of Sony's 4K D.C.P. restoration and a 35 mm print, as well as a Q & A with Grover Crisp, the aptly named Sony executive vice president in charge of asset management, film restoration, and digital mastering. Crisp personally oversaw the restoration of almost every film in the series (Goldfinger being the lone exception), and his presentation—one rather aggressive question about the link between promotion of D.C.P. by studios, and the ever-decreasing cost of digital production, which Crisp meandered around, notwithstanding—was exceptionally well-received.

According to Crisp, the restoration of Dr. Strangelove presented unique challenges; the original negative was destroyed in the '60s through over-printing.

Kubrick, after discovering that his original had been junked, demanded—and received—carte-blanche to oversee all subsequent print distribution. While he was alive, whenever a repertory house wanted to screen the film, Sony would have to put their request through Kubrick's office; he would make three or four prints from the duplicate negative that he had salvaged, and lend out the one he liked best.

(Kubrick was notoriously detail-oriented, and Crisp briefly drifted off-topic to tell an anecdote about his one personal interaction with the director: In the office early one morning, he was startled to receive call from Kubrick, inquiring about a problem a small broadcast station in Mexico was having with the Spanish sound dub of Dr. Strangelove. Crisp, who had already fixed the problem, was shocked that Kubrick had even heard about it—the director was calling because he wanted to fix it himself.)

Unfortunately, this kind of complete control had its downsides: the prints that Kubrick held onto weren't preserved or restored, which made the task facing Crisp’s team especially daunting.

THE FILM-TO-D.C.P. CONVERSION PROCESS—WHICH INVOLVES scanning original film negatives at an extremely high resolution (the standard is 4K, which translates into a horizontal resolution of approximately 4,000 pixels, or roughly four times the resolution of Blu-Ray) and then fixing color or shade problems and removing scratches, dust, and dirt frame-by-frame—typically takes about a year. Color films take longer—skin tones, for example, are very difficult to restore correctly—though it’s a boon for films whose original negatives are very faded: new film prints are impossible to make (this is apparently the case with Bye-Bye Birdie, which also showed over the weekend).

Crisp’s year of hard work on Strangelove met with what seemed like unanimous approval: each time the projection switched from 35mm to D.C.P., during the side-by-side presentation, there were audible gasps. And it was impressive—compared to the D.C.P. projection, the 35mm print seemed smudged, tinged with blue, lacking in detail. In D.C.P., the whites looked brighter, the blacks inkier; in an early scene that takes place in General Buck Turgidson’s bedroom, a table topped with dishes was visible in the mirror in the 35mm print, but only in D.C.P. could you count the place settings. It was not unlike putting on glasses for the first time.

Crisp also showed a brief scene from Lawrence of Arabia, which his team is in the process of restoring now. The film print was marred not only by scratches, but also by a foggy vertical line caused by the film’s emulsion cracking and then resealing after being exposed to heat and cold in quick succession. The D.C.P. projection was flawless.  

Crisp was keen to stress his desire to be faithful to filmmakers' original visions. Many of the questions from the audience centered on whether the D.C.P. projection was closer to what audiences in 1964 would have seen than a restored 35mm print would be. Crisp seemed confident that it was. He spoke of consulting with Kubrick’s assistant and cinematographer about the appropriate color temperature, and which details were meant to remain invisible. (He conceded that it’s possible to make a digital conversion look too sharp.)

He wanted, he said, to “complete these films." And digital projection, he noted, meant that prints couldn’t be damaged by improper projection or overuse. “People should be able to see what we see,” he said, referring to the pristine images that he and his technicians would get to see after restoring a 35mm print to its former glory, “and they never do.”

Yet the shift to digital means that our vision is being, if not compromised, then certainly negotiated. The physicality of film may make it fragile and prone to deterioration, but that is also integral to its appeal, its magic—the thin strip of material, the flickering light, the pictures actually moving above the audience’s head, in the projection booth. Damaged prints may be heartbreaking, but it’s also more affecting to see a film that’s been restored in 35mm than a permanently pristine version being projected digitally. There’s a presence that’s lost; a texture; a humanity. A digitally perfect print might be closer to the ideal version of the director’s vision in letter, but it falls short in spirit.

These are more or less intangible quibbles, because by and large, it’s difficult to argue with the pure visual quality of the images on offer. Making edges too sharp does seem to collapse depth occasionally in a way that can be problematic—a barroom brawl scene in From Here to Eternity looked oddly flat, as if all the players were arranged on a single plane instead of three or four, and when characters were relatively small against their backgrounds, they sometimes had the appearance of cutouts. The image also occasionally seemed to swim with small, wiggling dots—pixels—this was most prevalent in blocks of white, detail-free space, and, in general, hardly noticeable.

Still, there were shots that were undeniably breathtaking: In From Here to Eternity, Deborah Kerr’s hair, glinting in the sunlight, was so richly rendered it seemed almost possible to reach out and touch her gentle curls; the lurid '70s-era colors in Five Easy Pieces—a mint-green car; a waitress’s uniform the shade of a creamsicle; butter-yellow walls; a bright pink dress worn by a woman with platinum blond hair—were so vibrant one wondered how people were ever able to live in such a wildly colored world.

But for those who have watched old films on 35mm, who found the inherent trade-off—a perfectly crisp image for an imperfect but theoretically palpable one—not only acceptable but even rewarding, an instinctive discomfort with the digital image remains, and this series is itself proof of that. Still, it seems the jury may be wrapping up deliberations: A preview before From Here to Eternity advertised an upcoming screening of The Children of Paradise, restored from the original negative. A peek at the Film Forum website reveals that it’s not a new print, but a 4K scan.

'This Is DCP' continues through March 8 at Film Forum, with screenings of  '2001: A Space Odyssey,' 'Dr. Strangelove,' 'Rear Window,' 'The Red Shoes,' 'The Searchers,' 'The Shining,' 'Taxi Driver,' and 'West Side Story.'