Julia Marchese’s Out of Print, The Dying of the Light, and Finishing a 16mm Film Circa 1990

January 5, 2017 | By

OutOfPrint2014_posterThose wanting to utterly ignore the bulk of this Editor’s Blog and go straight to the podcast links for my conversation with Out of Print director Julia Marchese plus related reviews (Cinemania, The Dying of the Light, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie, Side by Side) should scoot down to the end paragraphs, but come on… Give it a try.

Aren’t you the least bit curious to see how a 16mm movie was completed, circa 1990?

The pros and cons of editing film, mag-coated audio stock, and the various prints you have to strike during post before you can even make a release print?

Oh good! Then read on.

I’ve a somewhat love-hate relationship with film, partly because I grew up with it in tandem with home video, so the two co-existed in a weird way for a fairly lengthy period.

FairviewLibrary1976

Fairview Library, the first library near my hood, circa 1976.

Before buying a VCR, my dad & I used to rent a projector and 16mm film prints from Fairview Library, and had occasional movie nights.

We’d pick the films from a fat bible of dot-matrix printed sheets, book them, and come back that weekend to pick up the classic green Bell & Howell projector and a big canvas bag filled with film cans. We’d return them a few days later, and repeat the process once in a while… And then came the VCR and a colour TV, which killed film rentals for good.

The disappearance of 16mm film rentals as consumers switched to home video formats is a micro-event in home entertainment, but indicative of the constant struggle for one entertainment purveyor to keep consumers interested in their services, and no matter what type of delivery system is in play, another will seek to usurp audiences. For a while they might share audiences or offer niche services, but battles rarely leave a vanquished in good state.

BellHowell_projector

Classic green Bell & Howell 16mm projector. Easy to thread, operate, and standard for showing movies in classrooms for decades.

I learned how to use a 16mm projector before video, but my VCR’s editing features enabled me to learn audio editing by stumbling & bumbling, as did the tape deck, using the pause button, and with my finger cue the tape to a precise sweet spot, and create a longer version of a music track so it would fit a sequence in the Super 8 film I’d completed.

I had a VCR before a film camera, but I used the film camera in 1985 before even touching a video camera in university in 1988.

Between 1987-1991 I learned how to cut film and audio mag tracks, and bounced that knowledge to create what would likely be branded fan edits or mash-ups of films using a better VCR, where I’d remix and / or re-edit films with rejected music scores to see whether the dumped composer was wrong in his take on a scene or film as a whole, or experienced an undeserved dismissal.

The idea was to see how things worked, and if the creative decisions of the composer & filmmaker were the best for the film or misguided. I’d write an essay comparing the versions to see what worked best for the movie rather than someone’s ego.

But 16mm’s biggest problem for me was cost, and that’s a recurring issue in most of the docs I’m highlighting and in my conversation with Out of Print director Marchese.

Before I magically tie everything together at the end, let’s get into the guts of this blog.

 

EditingBench

Fairly classic editing bench set-up with hand-crank rewinds, a synchronizer, some cores, and a basket for your drooping footage and audio. Missing: viewer, but oh look in the upper left shelf corner: it’s a fucking squawk box.

 

There’s no hard drive, no mouse, no software, and no single workstation where everything can be accomplished in the den of your home. What exists in my 1990 are are rooms in university that behold bulky things needed for very specific stages, but yes, everything in the first stage of post-production happens at an editing bench.

 

Nagra

All-metal. Sublime precision, and just a beautiful example of industrial design. You wonder if Apple’s design team were influenced by the Nagra’s clean controls and use of stainless steel and aluminium.

 

So: you’ve bought film stock, shot the movie, and paid for the processing to make a copy of the footage for the initial editing; and you’ve finished transferring the audio recorded on ¼” tape using a Nagra to 16mm magnetic stock so the sound can be matched with the picture.

Your main tools at the bench include very specific pieces you can’t live without, some being exceptionally crude. Rewinds to mount reels of the audio and film; a 4 or 6 gang synchronizer to thread the film and audio strips, make note of the footage count, and play back audio using a flexible audio head perched above each gang; a viewer to see the picture elements; a tape splicer for picture and sound; spare tape; white gloves to wipe away dirt & debris; a white grease pencil to mark sync, cut, and dissolve points in the picture; a red marker to mark I.D. info and sync points on the audio mag elements; and few other things I’ll point out along the way.

SquawkBox

Yes, really. Fucking Squawk box….

With the audio threaded from rewinds into the synchronizer, and the sliding audio head placed above the 16mm mag coated stock, you go through the material and listen first for the word “speed” and then the sync beep or clapper hit, and mark that one solid frame of noise with an red X, and write down the take and shot I.D. using what you can discern from the muddy audio coming from that awful shit-can speaker.

After marking where the audio ends (listen for “cut”), you grab the splicer and cut what’s now the audio portion of a take using the diagonal guillotine on the right side, because a straight cut will cause pops when mag tracks are played back. Take a piece of white tape, write the shot & take info down, and hang it on a trim bin – a large bin on wheels with hooks to hang your audio & picture strips using the sprocket holes.

Now do this for all your audio, and it’s on to picture.

FilmSynchronizer

A 4-gang 16mm synchronizer with footage counter. If synchronizer meets foot, foot will always lose.

Thread up the picture like the audio in the synchronizer, but bring in the viewer so you can see the footage, and with a white grease pencil, find the single frame where the clapper is slammed shut and mark that frame with a white X, and write the shot number and take.

Like the audio, chop the footage at its beginning and end, match it with the audio strip in the trim bin, and do that for all your picture footage.

After you’ve gone through all the picture and audio reels, grab each married pair from the trim bin and get them in sync. Thread both into the synchronizer, and align those pieces so both X’s are parallel.  Trim the heads & tails to ensure they’re both even length, and repeat this for every pair in the trim bin.

Once that’s done, start pulling off pairs, placing them in the synchronizer, and going through footage to find your edit points, but always remember to take every disused piece of picture and mag and tape them together so when you hang everything back on the trim bin hooks (which are sharp, and hurt), nothing is lost.

If you lose audio footage, you’ll either have to re-transfer the audio using a 16mm mag dubber, or keeping digging at the bottom of the trim bin and hope it’s there. If you lose the picture, well, let’s not go there…

 

TrimBins_1-2

Trim bin before esditing / Trim bin during editing, although none of our bins ever looked that neat (except Jacqueline’s), and two guys used to play bumper cars with their bins when late nights made them a bit toasty.

 

Once your film is cut, you have a Work Print [WP], and if you’re happy with the picture edits and have placed your in& out marks for fades & dissolves, you send that WP to the lab, and they make a Scratch Print [SP], a B&W copy with blown-out contrast levels that’s essentially your movie, looking like shit, but you’ll be able to see the grease marks that tell you when a dissolve begins & ends.

You use that SP to mix your film because you need a copy where all picture edits are final, and the print is free from splices that can jam during playback.

For audio mixing, whatever effects you’ve done as foley or brought from libraries, or any redubbed audio, you transfer those as well to 16mm mag using that dubber.

You go through the thousands of feet of mag stock and write I.D.s and hang them in the trim bin, or keep grouped effects in rolls on what’s called a core – a hub or spool that holds your film, and can be placed in a split-reel that you can slap onto a projector and watch / play immediately.

TapeSplicer

16mm film splicer with tape. Note diagonal guillotine at right for cutting (audio) mag stock.

Jumping back a bit, when you initially received your footage from the lab, it came on cores, and if you have access to a Steenback editing table with motorized platters, you place your cores of sound and picture on the platters, do the syncing, and cut your film (using a tape splicer) there instead of using a synchronizer and that goddamn squawk box.

Like the aforementioned workflow, the end goal is to create a WP that you hand over to the lab.

Important point: if film or mag isn’t tightly wound onto a core, core will fall out, and you will be fucked. You’ll have to place core on the Steenbeck’s rewind and slowly wind the footage back onto the core while holding the donut of footage above the rewind because THE IS NO WAY TO PUSH THE CORE WITH TETHERED FOOTAGE BACK INSIDE.

You can also cut the footage after a take & end slate, tape the loose end of the donut onto a new core, and wind it until the footage is now properly on the core. Remember to label your new core.

You can also recombine the two cores into one using a tedious combination of bouncing the two halves to other cores, joining the original ends, and restoring the footage onto one core… but do it properly so your footage isn’t backwards, and you have to start again.

Let’s get back to audio, because it’s the phase most people hate, spend the least time on, and cut corners because the emphasis is often on visuals and performance, forgetting how much a good mix with clean dialogue, sound effects, music, and sound design can add to a film.

Steenbeck

Pretty close to the Steenbeck I used.

A Steenbeck lets you play back several audio tracks in tandem with picture. If you’re lucky, you’ve been able to edit your film from the pairs of picture and sound using a Steenbeck instead of a synchronizer-viewer-squawk box combo that’s just pure hell.

Using a Steenbeck, this is where you start to build you audio tracks, fixing dialogue and sound effects sync issues, noting crap quality and where things need to be redone, or bad edits and continuity gaffes in the picture that were missed in prior stages. (One of my films still has a flash frame that we never caught.)

When dialogue editing’s done, you add effects, then music, and where there’s no audio, you add track fill, which consists of old film prints with defective colours or sync that you buy and chop up and place between actual audio to ensure ever track remains in sync to the very end. Some of the rolls I hacked up included Ben-Hur, Superman: The Movie, and Batman. Others found episodes of M*A*S*H.

You’ll go through reels of this stuff, and if it’s too old, it’ll be brittle and useless, shattering during mixing and creating a few epic headaches (which I’ll get to later).

Once those elements are done, you keep playing back your final audio edits to make sure there are no missing words, sounds, music cues, or weird shit you never noticed or thought ‘I’ll deal with it later’ and postponed for too long.

DEAL WITH IT NOW.

When all your core audio is done, what’s left is ambient tracks and room tone that you MUST HAVE to cover up the points when any audio segment begins & ends.

If you have two people talking, when they stop talking, there’s only dead silence because of the track fill. You need room tone – the quietness of the location where the dialogue was captured during filming – to hide those in & out points of dialogue and sound effects. It really works.

Ambience is the first step to sound design, where you create a track that evokes the location – background street sounds, noisy neighbours above, music from a neighbour’ stereo, a radio in the room – that adds character and depth to the scene.

When you have these tracks – and there will be many: one for each major character, a few for sound effects, one for music, then room tone & ambience – you take these to the booked sound mix studio, where all sound reels are loaded onto playback units and synched with the picture (your SP).

You will hand the mixer charts that map out every track and every block of sound, problem area, or oddly paced effect so he / she knows what’s coming as the audio and picture are played back.

The mixer will essentially craft a balanced audio mix where dialogue is heard, music comes in & out discretely if so designed, and effects kick in where and how they should. If you’ve skimped on foley, they might be able to get a few staff to record handling, walking, whatever sounds.

The film mix can take all day or more if you’re unprepared, and each hour will add a substantive increase to the mixing house bill. It can get ugly.

I think for Alex’s’s movie in 4th year, Eating the Last Supper (1991), I cut the tracks until maybe midnight, did the mixing charts until 7am, drove sleep-deprived to the mixing house, and stayed there to the end. I left in early evening after calling in late for work, worked the night shift, went home and collapsed.

ADAT

An ADAT machine that could record multiple audio tracks onto a S-VHS tape.

When the mix is done, and if we’re talking circa 1990, you can have it mixed to an ADAT (multiple audio tracks recorded onto a S-VHS tape, as done for Alex’s film), or to 35mm mag-coated stock, which was my choice.

In both cases, at the end of the day, the mixer played back the mag or digitally recorded final mix, and compared it to a simulation of a 16mm optical track, which will be on your release print.

You’ll want to cry, because it’s like taking a 5.1 mix and filtering it down to mono as heard through a wet towel. (Okay, I’m exaggerating, but there’s a substantial qualitative difference between your mix on tape versus the narrower audio that’s typical of 16mm optical.)

HotSplicer

A 16mm hot splicer.

With your picture already cut (locked) and sound mixed, you take the WP and the negatives to a neg cutter who will conform the raw footage (your camera negatives) to your WP edits.

Remember that while you can re-tape an edit with your WP, to create a 16mm negative of your edited film, half of each frame following the last & next shot will be lost, because those halves are glued (hot-spliced) to black filler (if I recall) to create A & B rolls.

The checkerboarded shots in rolls A and B of your cut negative will play back at the lab as one fluidly edited movie – they’ll take you’re A & B rolls and your sound mix master and create a new print.

Fuzzy brain point: if my memory’s correct, I think you create a negative optical track from the master audio mix, and all prints are made from the A &B rolls + optical track neg.

The first print that’s struck is called an Answer Print, and it’s what you use to make sure the edits are good, the sound is good, everything’s in sync, and no one fucked up and missed a shot.

A colorist will go through each shot and colour time (grade) it to ensure scenes have balanced colour, brightness, etc. You then strike a second Answer Print to make sure the colour timing is correct / to your satisfaction. If it’s all good, you can now make release prints from the A & B rolls for festival screenings and other public showings.

In 1990, it was recommended to create a low-contrast print for video transfers because the video gear couldn’t handle certain levels well. I did that, and hated the way everything looked so dull.

To make video transfers, you can do a cheaper unsupervised transfer (which are actually fine), or spend a small fortune with a technician who’ll further balance your film (and fix fuck-ups like flash frames) when transferring to videotape.

C-Video

Then-standard 1″ videotape. Pretty sure that expensive transfer from 1990 looks terrible now.

I had the mixing house create both a mixed soundtrack (dialogue + music + effects) and a M&E mix (music & effects only), in case I ever wanted to dub the film for foreign releases (Ha! Like that would happen!), so when my film was transferred to 1” video, they transferred the full and M&E mixes from the single 35mm mag track to the 1”.

During the supervised transfer, we also ran off S-VHS and ¾” U-matic SP backups that I used to make VHS copies without touching the 1” broadcast master – a master that was used only once: my tape also has transfers of two other shorts (Neon Niagara and Paradise Unfolded), and the cinematographer of Neon borrowed it to create a backup for his showreel.

It’s been untouched since 1995, and rests in storage with every damn component of my film, because if you dropped a small fortune, would you dump the picture and sound elements?

Besides, more than 20 years ago I deposited my films – prints & video copies in various formats – at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, which during a relatively recent move were ‘lost,’ so whatever prints survive in my storage location are kind of important to me.

Each of these stages constitute a paid post-production service that in most cases had to be done outside of one’s home or office, and this was needed to make a movie from beginning to end.

My movie (The Bare Bones) cost about $15,000, circa 1990, including titles and one optical sequence with multiple dissolves, and certainly in the post-production phase, there were specific technicians I had to use to complete stages that were beyond my scope.

That’s why for all the affection lauded on film – and I share it – if each of the above stages were still mandatory when making a film print, you’d go broke, and this is for a 23 minute short.

Digital has its own massive array of technical areas that often require experts, but once a film is shot, it rests on a hard drive, where a few programs enable you to edit picture, sound, sound design, and render a hi-res copy in whatever format mandated by festivals.

There’s specific stages and an absurd variety of frame rates, codecs, and formats at your disposal – unless you’re going to blow-up 16mm to 35mm, there’s one gauge, one frame rate, and one mix, which for 16mm, is the optical track, and that’s mono – but everything’s now under your control; it’s a digital print that can be sent on a hard drive, a disc, or uploaded to DropBox or Google Drive, depending on its size and resolution.

I’m over-simplifying the digital post-production workflow, but think back to all the stages I outlined where every transfer – audiotape to mag stock – and ever variety of print struck – footage for editing, Scratch Print, optical sound negative, 1st and 2nd Answer Prints, Low-Con print for video, Broadcast master, and release prints – involved a cost, and you’ll see why some filmmakers decided Never Again.

For some, this very hands-on process is special. The tactile nature does force one to think about a cut carefully, and rather than create alternate versions, you have to compromise on the best version of your film that works and is the most marketable to distributors.

Just because you can revisit a movie and do a recut doesn’t mean it should happen. When you shoot on film, you roll the camera when everything’s ready, and cut when you’ve got what you need. It teaches you to make smart choices on the spot under duress and with consideration to the editor who’ll be going through the footage, organizing it before making a single cut.

I remember a Q&A with an award-winning commercial TV editor at the TIFF Bell Lightbox some years ago, and he said on one shoot, the crew never shut off the camera, so it kept recording their entire journey from set to rental house; on another shoot, a director let the camera roll between takes because video was cheaper than film. The editor is professionally obligated to watch every frame and catalogue it, which in these circumstances, is insane.

Directors who cut films in the head during a shoot developed that skill because film was expensive, and bad decisions cost money. When I shot BSV 1172, I simultaneously recorded most of the footage to tape for an alternate VHS cut (I know, I know), and often let the recorder run between takes out of laziness, although the footage recorded to disc was stopped accordingly.

Tape just has that stigma of being cheap – but if you’ve less than 10 mins. left and there’s still several key setups to tackle as time’s running out, then the Smart Brain kicks in, and every inch suddenly matters.

 

AudioDubbers

When the track fill breaks, you get a buzz saw. To stop the buzz saw, you need unsync dubber, switch off from operation, and gently tap then apply pressure to reel edge, and never allow fingers to drift into exposed area or you can no longer eat with chopsticks. If you don’t stop the reel, your track fill will be shredded in minutes.

 

I don’t want to go back to trim bins, cores, squawk boxes, and synchronizers, and I never mastered the fine art of mastering the Moviola, aka the Film Muncher, which many editors used in place of Steenbecks for decades.

I remember the Search for Missing Pieces in trim bins, and the headaches of operating dubbing machines – tall mechanical monsters (see above) that could turn into buzz saws if track fill broke, and take off your fingertips if you didn’t stay calm and address a potential mess with precision – and am glad I experienced them, but never want to go that route again.

 

Movieola

Of course Jack’s smiling. He’s never seen his footage get mangled by a Moviola. I call Bullshit.

 

Digital did a lot of good in getting rid of bulk, but there is something satisfying in holding up a print you and a team of creative minds hand-crafted without computers.

The subject of the docs in this review wave all deal with disappearing skills passed on through apprenticing, mediums kicked to the curb because of cost, and filmmakers who either have no sense of loss for film, or refuse to let go because in their hands, they can work magic, using its quirks to literally transcend the limits of that format.

Just as the stages of making a movie using 35mm film (or whatever gauge) shouldn’t disappear, neither should the film print. Everything should remain an option for filmmakers to create and exhibit their work, and it might literally be up to artists and creative technicians and fans to keep things alive.

KodakPlant_Downsview

The once-sprawling Kodak plant in Downsview. Go ahead – click on the link to see what happened to this beehive of chemical activities.

The former Kodak plant in Downsview where I drove in to pickup stock in 1990, and where Ektachrome 160 was processed is now a wasteland, with all the buildings razed and the lone structure vandalized.

The fact Kodak lacks the brand recognition of Sony or Apple or Adobe is sad, even though the company victimized itself by refusing to believe its core business of film stock would lose market share.

Kodak was the gold star in film stock, the brand everyone knew that made consumer cameras and professional film stock which enticed amateurs and professionals.

The fact filmmakers had to bully studios into saving the production of film stock is crazy, but where the studios would’ve allowed Kodak to die, the artists had to mount a rescue campaign. It’s noble and madness, but you can understand why Marchese was determined to show her film at festivals using a film print – it’s perhaps no different than releasing an album on vinyl to an appreciative niche market that isn’t likely to dwindle anytime soon.

JuliaMarchese_picKey issues running through the docs include the gradual reduction of choice among cinema programmers and film festivals to screen not only pints, but unique and now inaccessible titles.

It’s also an issue I touch upon at length in the outro of my podcast with Marchese, which is now live on iTunes, Libsyn, and YouTube [to follow].

Yes, this may be the most epic preamble ever to one of my podcasts and review links, but I wanted to provide a particular context as to why some see no loss in losing parts of filmmaking via celluloid, or worse, the whole thing.

Kevin Smith, whom Marchese interviewed, has a great moment when he blurts ‘Look at poor film, look at it dying. Isn’t it sad?’

There has to be a way to make it thrive within an appreciative niche environment like vinyl, which itself isn’t cheap to make, involves complex stages that might need a redo if there’s a grievous flaw, and isn’t cheap to ship or buy.

It’s a premium product available through devoted retailers, and the fact a new plant opened in Burlington, ON, sporting high-tech mastering and pressing capabilities shows faith in the technology, faith in the medium, and faith in a consumer base that wants more.

We know film fans have faith in the art form; its venues in neighbourhood cinemas, cinematheques, and movie palaces; and filmmakers in the media and the arcane, hands-on processes that go into the complex creation of a movie. Perhaps the major quandary is how to make it cost-effective while providing cinemas with the rare, odd, marginalized titles filmgoers want – titles that are more often than not owned by studios.

So let’s wrap up with  links, and some teasing info of an upcoming podcast.

OutOfPrint2014_sIn terms of reviews, I’ve posted an updated review of Out of Print (2014) which made its debut on DVD in December via Level 33 Entertainment in a special edition packed with deleted material.

Her film focuses on the New Beverly Cinema and its challenges in fulfilling a mandate to entertain, educate, and inspire using film prints.

 

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DyingOfTheLight2015_sNewly added is Peter Flynn’s documentary The Dying of the Light (2015), one of my favourite docs from 2015 because it deals with the dying artistry of film projectionists. Every time I see footage of the Michigan Theatre, my eyes water. It’s such a horrible fate for a formerly grand movie palace whose cadaver is still being picked apart for salvageable artifacts. If you see the doc, you’ll know what I’m referring to.

 

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Cinemania2002_sAlso new is a review of Angela Christlieb and Stephan Kijak’s Cinemania (2002), which Wellspring released a while ago and focuses on the eccentric patrons of rep cinemas and film festivals. The five uber-fans tracked by the directors are what keep cinemas alive; if you lose them, survival becomes tougher.

 

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SideBySide2012Also of note is Christopher Kenneally’s doc Side by Side (2012) hosted by Keanu Reeves, which specifically examines the shift in filmmaking from film to digital. It’s an outstanding doc with sharp arguments that remain relevant, and you hear both fans and detractors of 35mm films. Christopher Nolan adores the format, while Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher never want to touch it again; each is allowed to explain his / her stance, and no one sounds crazy, which makes the battle immortal as long as the choice to make movies in either format continues to exist.

 

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GoingAttractions_sLastly, there’s April Wright’s Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie (2013), which covers the development, rise, and fall of the drive-in cinemas that once littered North America. Those that remain cater to niche audiences, but it’s also a chronicle of a specific form of theatrical exhibition that offered add-ons (kids rides, comfort and exotic foods & snacks) to keep customers coming back during the drive-in season. Like the challenges in shooting on film and exhibiting film prints, the drive-in’s fall is rooted in economics, changes in the way fans want to see movies, and the inevitable friction between convenience and quality.

 

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And finally, coming soon will be a podcast tied to the success of vinyl in a digital age. It was supposed to be tied to the November 2016 2-LP release of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), but the soundtrack’s release date’s been pushed back from November to December, and now February (!).

Universal kind of bungled the overall release of the score (more on that in a future blog), and I have to find a unique LP release or two that’ll support the podcast and act as a portent to my review of TMWFTE album when it finally streets.

Thanks for reading, and your patience,

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com

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