FILM ON FILM: 35mm at Ragtag Cinema

December 23, 2019

Ted Rogers, Cinema Programmer

Little Women opens on Christmas day here, and before I talk about the film, I want to take a minute to talk about the format itself. We’re one of a very small number of venues in Missouri that will be opening Little Women on 35mm. Films being shot and exhibited on film in our present era is a very significant concept that bears discussion.

Of course, it may seem flatly counterintuitive to suggest that a 127-year-old format is superior to contemporary equipment, however it may help to think of it this way:

Despite the lightning speed of the advances that digital cinema has made, we’re still playing catch up in terms of image quality.  

The ubiquity of digital projection is due to financial realities. Put plainly, digital is cheaper. Digital cinema is cheaper to shoot, post-production is faster and it can be distributed to more places, quicker, and projected by more people with less prerequisite technical skill. That said, digital cinema has opened doors. It has allowed us to discover and champion new films from new voices from all over the world and show them in Columbia, Missouri, of all places. Digital cinema and its associated accessibility features has opened up theatrical exhibition to the hard of sight and sound for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, digital cinema is wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it is perfect.

While, as of very recently, digital projection is capable of rivaling the resolution of film, that equipment isn’t in every theater. That resolution isn’t just about size, either—it's about color. If we can imagine contrast as a spectrum from black to white, most digital cinema you or I will see projected will exist along a gradient made up of somewhere around 1500 parts. 35mm can represent a spectrum, on average, made up of over 3000 gradations. And that contrast gradient holds true across the color wheel. While vision and experience is slightly subjective, if one were to answer the question: How much better does it look? one would not be out of line to say twice as nice.  

Now, as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson may be mourning the death of 35mm as the exhibition standard, I think it is important to note that we’re not really talking about standard, we’re talking about prestige.

Technical-specifics aside, cinema is still a spectacle, and prestige is certainly a driver. Studios have prioritized prestige over financial return on certain pictures every year. Prestige art films have been given higher budgets to shoot on film out of a sincere respect to artistic integrity, and this level of exhibition, while certainly not financially competitive, is something that home entertainment and streaming, especially, cannot compete with. As the theatrical landscape has changed, the types of films that theaters handle has changed as well. 20 years ago, major studios rarely-if-ever worked with independent art houses—especially this one. But in 2020, how many Cinemas can show 35mm? And if new films are being distributed on film for the sake of art, these prestige studio-releases may become a defining aspect of the art house cinema as a concept.

Speaking to the vision Greta Gerwig and her cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux had with Little Women, Le Saux stated: 

“Film is a treasure, and I believe 35mm was a really good thing to capture the natural and authentic-looking periods in Little Women. It delivers a sensation that you can reach out and touch the trees, shrubs and flowers on the exteriors and provides a real connection to the actors through its gorgeous rendition of skin tones on the close-ups. I hope people will enjoy the feeling of connection that Greta wanted when they watch the movie.” -kodak

At another time, we’ll talk about where classics, repertory and restoration factor into this conversation, but for now, Little Women will be exhibited on 35mm through January 9th. Shows will continue on DCP for the remainder of its theatrical run. Tickets for 35mm shows are available for presale on our website and at the box office through the holiday weekend (12/25-12/29).