Is It Worth Seeing 35mm Prints of Ghibli Movies?

by Justin Sevakis,

David asked:

Hi! I've noticed that several art house theaters in the NY metro area have started showing 35mm version of Ghibli classics like Mononoke and Nausicaa. is there any real benefit to seeing these over the "regular versions" more commonly shown? Why are the 35mm screenings so few and far between?

It's been a long time since most of us saw a film projected from, y'know, actual film. While 35mm used to be THE way movies were shot and exhibited, digital cinema technology replaced film almost entirely over a decade ago. Since then, there has been a lot of nostalgia about the old way of doing things. We've gotten a few film "revival" releases, like Interstellar and The Hateful Eight, but those are only played in specially equipped theaters in major cities. The film nerds turn out for these screenings and pay extra money to see them in these formats.

Just like with music, there's a lot of "magical thinking" about film and analog formats, and a lot of it is bunk, honestly. 35mm's film grain and warmth does indeed have a very special look that digital cinema has struggled to recreate. But film projection also had a TON of problems that were never really overcome. And while digital cinema doesn't have that film grain warmth, it's made up for it with better effective resolution, reliable color reproduction, better audio, and perfect reproduction every time. We've grown accustomed to that, and now going back to film can make for a jarring experience.

35mm still has merit as a photography format. I also can't dismiss its charm when it comes to actual presentation, if everything about that presentation is perfect. There's this warm glow of that film grain being projected that just flips every nostalgia switch in my soul. And that's to say nothing of the nifty mechanics of film reels, projectors and all that good old technology.

But there are SO many down sides. The biggest one, even under ideal circumstances, is audio: 35mm film can simply never come close to digital cinema's audio quality. The standard for digital cinema packages is 6-channel (5.1) uncompressed 24-bit audio tracks, which is as close to perfect as technology allows. For big-budgeted films, add-on technologies like Dolby Atmos can add even more tracks.

35mm can offer a few different audio tracks, and they all suck in different ways. The standard optical audio track on a film is simply a waveform printed along the edge of the film, which is then read by an optical reader. This is 1940s technology, and always sounded muffled and terrible -- like an AM radio station but worse. Noise reduction technologies like Dolby A and Dolby SR came along later to improve things, but they could only do so much. The audio could only be in "Surround" (stereo, built a certain way to allow some sounds to come from a rear speaker). And any scratches, splices or dirt on the film would be audible as pops and clicks.

Optical film audio was so bad that in the 90s, there were THREE different digital add-on technologies to replace it. The best sounding one was DTS, which added a timecode track to the edge of the film, and included two CD-ROMs with special players to play back the digital 5.1 audio in sync with the film. Unfortunately DTS only really caught on in Japan; everywhere else, those CD-ROMs constantly got lost and damaged. Sony's SDDS added a blue stripe of encoded digital data long the outer edges of the film. With normal wear and tear, that track was very easily damaged and rendered unplayable.

The edge of a 35mm film print. From left to right, the blue SDDS track, then the Dolby SRD track between the sprocket holes (note the tiny Dolby logo in the middle), then the old optical track, and finally the timecode track for DTS. (Source: WIkipedia)

And so most theaters opted to use the Dolby Digital track ("SRD"), which used little squares that looked like QR codes to encode data between each of the sprocket holes on one side of the film. These squares of data sounded pretty good for the time, and were able to withstand the damage occurring from normal use of a film. In the chance the track was too badly damaged to read, the Dolby processor would "fall back" to the old, crappy Optical track.

Dolby Digital is the same technology used on DVDs. And the bitrate of the film iteration of the format... was 384 kbps. For 5.1. That's literally the lowest allowable quality setting for DVDs. Even most DVDs that came out in 1998 sounded better than this. (DTS was a huge improvement, but SDDS wasn't much better, honestly.)

Film has more inherent drawbacks than just audio. Prints were often made with the chemical developing baths at a hotter temperature than normal, a cost-cutting technique that allowed film labs to make prints faster. This had the side effect of creating an overly-contrasted, warping image, losing fine details in dark areas of the picture. In fact, film in general is an inexact chemical science, and color often drifts from print to print.

But with older prints you run into a much bigger problem with film, and that is that it starts to deteriorate pretty fast. Every time the film gets played, it gets dirtier, a little bit more scratched, and a little more beat up. Every time the film moved to a new theater, the projectionist would have to splice together the 6-8 reels it arrived on, to combine it onto a big platter. Every time, the film would get more and more beaten to crap. The average film could only withstand 5-6 weeks of exhibition before it would start to look like it had survived a war. Bad projectionists could render a film unplayable by just not paying attention to what they were doing.

So, for 35mm prints that have been around for a long time and played at festivals and revivals, those prints look like HELL. They're scratched, they're mangled. The digital audio tracks (if they even exist) no longer work; the optical track sounds like a vinyl record that's been in a dog's mouth. Every reel change looks like an earthquake mixed with a volcano spewing ash all over everybody. Some distributors would combine the best reels of different prints in order to get a few more plays out of them, and often the colors from the different parts wouldn't match, and would shift suddenly. I suppose back in the day some of these things may not have bothered us so much, but in this era of perfect digital everything, severe film damage is incredibly distracting and really takes you out of watching a film.

And then there are subtitles. Adding titles the "right" way to 35mm film was a laborious, expensive process. For subtitles, which run the entire length of a movie, regular film titles were cost prohibitive. Instead, special film labs would use a laser to etch subtitles into every frame of the film by burning the emulsion layer off. This meant that the subtitles were always this smeary white font with basically no outline that danced slightly on screen, as the effect of the laser varied from frame to frame. If you were watching a bright scene in a movie, they could be next to impossible to make out.

Despite all that, watching a classic film -- that was shot and produced entirely on film -- in its original format can be a beautiful experience. There can indeed be a magic to it in that it simply doesn't feel the same as a digital presentation. In hip, bourgeois communities like those in New York City with film nerds looking for unique cinema experiences, 35mm revival prints still play. Sometimes you're really lucky and the distributor has ponied up the $1,000+ to have a new print made of a classic film.

But more often you're getting a print that has been through some bad times. Less nerdy audiences will likely not be happy with a presentation like that these days, and may demand their money back. There aren't many theaters around the country that have maintained their 35mm projectors, and fewer still with staff that know how to use them. There are few 35mm prints still in circulation, and very few film labs left that can make new ones. I don't know the condition of the films in GKids' circulating library, but most of the prints being shown these days look pretty rough. It may be sacrilege to my fellow film buffs, but to be perfectly honest I would take a digital presentation over that any day of the week.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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