I wrote up these thoughts on accessing and viewing films under lockdown for the students in my 'Music on Stage and Screen' course at Auckland Uni. Some info is unique to UoA, but I thought someone might like to read it.
Being at Level 3 gives us film scholars the time to catch up on some films. This is a little guide to what you can watch, how, and where.
First, a caveat. We like to think that we have access to ‘everything’ online, but that isn’t actually true. At the height of the Hollywood studio system (the 1930s-40s) each of the eight major studios released an average of 40-50 movies every year. Add to that the various independent producers and we’re looking at a corpus of more than 500 feature films each year, and that’s just the US. At that time there were also important film industries in the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union, plus burgeoning industries in places like Japan, India, Spain, and Brazil. Only a small fraction of that is actually available for streaming, or even for purchase on physical media. Much of it is lost: it is estimated that half of all films pre-1950 (mostly from the silent era) do not survive. Of my own collection of ca. 2500 films on DVD and Blu-Ray, I’d estimate that at least a third aren’t available anywhere on the internet for streaming or download.
Some studios have been more proactive than others in releasing their films either to streaming or on DVD: in the 1980s businessman Ted Turner bought most of the libraries of Warner Bros., RKO, and MGM and he realised that selling that pre-existing product on VHS was a cheap way to make money. That has been carried on by the Warner Archive, a DVD-on-demand service that has made huge portions of that material available. Many of those titles are also for sale on iTunes/Apple TV. The other studios (notably Paramount, Universal, Columbia, and Fox) have been more selective in what they have rereleased, but all have started some sort of on-demand system. They are not as scrupulous as Warners in finding the best source material for their digital transfers, though. Disney has also (sometimes quite aggressively) made their older product available. Even though Disney+ doesn’t have everything, almost all of the studio’s feature films are available on that service. It is important to realise that Disney+, unlike Warner Archive or the other on-demand studio units, is first and foremost for families, not scholars, so there is some self-censorship with the product. You won’t find Song of the South (1946) there any time soon. Now that Disney has bought Fox some older Fox films are turning up there, but only at a trickle, and it remains to be seen what they will do with the rest of Fox’s huge film library.
What about other streaming services? The picture (especially in NZ) isn’t great, unfortunately. Netflix is hopeless when it comes to older films. It is increasingly becoming its own studio (a high-quality one, at least) rather than a distributor of other studios’ products. Same for Amazon Prime. Neon is even more limited in older material. The best bet, although quite expensive because you have to pay for each film individually, is Apple TV/iTunes. Most of the major films of history can be purchased there. One of the best services is the Criterion Channel, US based but it works in NZ. It is really more of a museum than a streaming service, with carefully curated collections of films from all over the world.
DVDs remain the best bet for more obscure films. Our General Library has a very large DVD collection. Next week they’ll re-start the click-and-collect service, so you can essentially use it like a (free!) Blockbuster. Their DVDs are all in the main catalogue, as are some recordings of streamed films (legal because we are an academic institution). Because DVDs and Blu-Rays aren’t manufactured in NZ, it takes a long time and sometimes a lot of money to get them here. There are also strange licensing laws that mean some American films have never been released on home video in the US, but they have in France or the UK. It’s one of the great annoyances of my NZ scholarly life, to be honest…
Now, assuming that you’ve found the film you want, what are you actually watching? Before the 2000s film actually meant ‘film’, as in celluloid. Now nearly everything has shifted to digital filmmaking and distribution. Most of you will have likely never seen a film projected on actual film, except maybe when you were too young to care. I don’t know if there are even any film projectors still operating in NZ cinemas (if anyone knows, please tell me!). Celluloid works essentially the same way as analog photography, using light to make an impression on the material. The quality is as good as the film stock can pick up, and the impression of motion is created by showing 24 frames of film per second. Digital film works by putting coloured pixels in constantly shifting arrays. The quality of digital photography depends on the number of pixels available. DVDs are in what we now call ‘standard’ definition, with 480 pixels across the top of the frame. DVDs were a vast improvement over the previous home video format, VHS, which transferred the image to magnetic video tape. I still remember the first time I watched a DVD (it was The Mummy, the Brendan Fraser one) and being blown away by how good it looked. Blu-Rays were the next major improvement, and they are still the highest quality digital material you can find at home. They work at ‘high definition’, 1080 pixels across (so about twice as many as DVDs). Now you can buy 2K (2000 pixels, twice as good again) Blu-Rays as well, if you have a TV that can show them. Many streaming services can now broadcast in 2K if you’ve got the bandwidth. If you go to the cinema these days you are usually watching 4K. If you’ve got lots of money you can do this at home, too, although the programming available at home in 4K is pretty limited. 4K does approach the definition you get on actual film, although because it’s still digital it doesn’t look quite the same. Digital photography has improved a lot over the last ten years; if you look at the first digitally-shot films now you can see the quality really isn’t very good. It’s especially noticeable in the blacks: black comes out as grey because digital doesn’t really do true blacks, and you lose a lot of the contrast you can get on film. When we watch older films we are watching digital transfers. A good transfer will attempt to recreate the look of film on the digital source. Beware of mere ‘upscalings’, where an earlier transfer (of DVD or even VHS quality) is shown at higher definition, as sometimes the result is even worse than the earlier transfer because the contrast and colours get out of whack. Some TVs automatically upscale; I turn this feature off on my TV.
What about sound? Again, remember we are almost always hearing digital sound, while older films were recorded with analog. Before the 1950s this was almost always mono (one channel), where now we have 5.1 at least (the 5 refers to five speakers surrounding you, the .1 is the subwoofer). Sound on DVD and Blu-Ray is quite a contentious issue. Should older films be remixed into 5.1 sound? Many releases will have both a remix (sometimes sensitively done but sometimes just a more or less automatic upscaling) and the original mono track. Unfortunately it’s usually just the 5.1 version that is also the restored version, while the mono track is left as it was, often with elements that have degraded over time. Hollywood sound technicians could work magic in getting a vast array of sounds, dialogue, and music onto a single mono track; remixing their work into 5.1 destroys its integrity. What you really want is a restored version of the original track. But the same is true for 5.1; if possible, these more recent films should be watched with some approximation of a 5.1 system if that is what it was mixed in. (I don’t have that myself since I don’t have the space; I use a Bose sound bar that does ‘virtual’ surround.) Many films are released now in special home video mixes, which simplify the cinema version. Often, good headphones will give you the best sound quality for older films if you can’t afford fancy speakers.
A word about aspect ratio. Some people (myself included) get very fussy about aspect ratios. This refers to the proportions of the film frame. Before the 1950s almost all films were shot and displayed in what is called the ‘Academy’ ratio, 1.37:1 (that means the top is 1.37 and the side is 1). That’s the size of a standard frame of 35mm film, less a bit on the side where the optical soundtrack goes. Old TVs are at 4:3, which is almost the same. In the 50s, as a way to combat the increasing importance of television, studios started making films in various wide ratios. The first to catch on was Fox’s CinemaScope, eventually standardised at 2.55:1. Each studio had its own version, all slightly different. CinemaScope worked anamorphically: a special lens squashed the image as it was recorded on the 35mm frame, which was then projected unsquashed. Other systems just masked the upper and lower parts of the standard frame and then projected it in on a bigger, wider screen. Eventually a 16:9 ratio became standard, since it was in between most of the various wide formats. This is the ratio of the TV you probably have at home. So when you watch pre-50s movies you should have black bars on either side, and when you watch something like CinemaScope there will be bars at the top and bottom. Some TVs automatically re-scale DVDs (although not Blu-Rays usually), which is dreadful because you either lose part of the image or it gets stretched out. So make sure you know what aspect ratio your film should be in, so you can turn off that re-scaling setting if necessary and so you can be sure you’re not watching a cropped image. When widescreen films were shown on 4:3 TVs or transferred to VHS they were usually ‘panned and scanned’, a barbaric practice where the cinematographer’s carefully-made compositions would be ruined by putting it in 4:3. When those films were released on DVD/Blu-Ray the studio almost always did it right, but you still find some dreadful old transfers. IMDB will tell you the original aspect ratio.