Flicker and whir: why screening film on film matters

Ahead of the BFI Film on Film Festival, our head curator Robin Baker celebrates the unique appeal of film projected on film. 

24 May 2023

By Robin Baker

Jaws (1975): an original release print of Steven Spielberg’s film is screening as the closing night of the BFI Film on Film Festival

During the first 30+ years of my cinema-going life, every film I watched was necessarily projected on film – from The Railway Children (1970) to Apocalypse Now (1979) to In the Mood for Love (2000). At home, my family’s home movies were shot on Super 8 – at their most memorable, projected from a Eumig projector onto a large sheet draped over bushes at the bottom of the garden. And most of the films I watched at school were shown on 16mm, including a sex education film that resulted in one of my classmates fainting during the bit about contraception. Then things changed. 

There have been a number of revolutions during the 128-year story of film. The most famous of these was the advent of the talkies from 1927 onwards. The digital revolution of the 21st century that transformed cinemas – and the ways in which we were able to make and watch film – might have been a more quiet and subtle revolution, but has possibly been no less profound. It changed how we saw and experienced cinema. 

For anyone in the UK whose cinemagoing started after 2005, film on film screenings have become increasingly hard to track down. In most places they simply don’t exist. Of course there are exceptions – in its June 2023 issue Sight and Sound identifies almost 100 UK cinemas, festivals and film clubs that still incorporate film on film screenings as part of their programmes. Indeed, at BFI Southbank last month there were 30 programmes projected on film. But these are the exceptions, not the rules. 

Inside the projection booth at BFI Southbank NFT1

The purpose of the BFI Film on Film Festival is not about wallowing in nostalgia. 

On a practical level, most films made during the first 110 years of filmmaking still haven’t been digitised, so if you can’t show them on film, you can’t see them. 

Significantly, film and digital look and sound different. One’s not better or worse than the other. But we need to be able to experience these differences – and offer opportunities that take us closer to what people heard and saw in cinemas before the 21st century. Without the cigarette smoke, of course. 

So, how does digital look different to film? 

Well, the image looks brighter – more illuminated. The colour spectrum looks different – more vibrant. My particular bugbear is the digital reproduction of pillar box red, which never looks quite right. Or, at least, not how I perceive it should look. 

All film has grain, and bringing this into the digital realm changes it. It looks noisier, and if you’re too close to the screen it can appear as if a large swarm of mosquitoes has invaded the film. In digital screenings of classic films I try to sit towards the back of the auditorium as I can find the digital reproduction of film grain distracting. 

A strip of 35mm film

The digital image is invariably sharper, with more detail. That might not sound like a bad thing. And in many ways it isn’t. But I remember watching an otherwise excellent digital restoration of John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) and for the first time I could see every wig line and a large BandAid on Victor Mature’s face throughout the film. The film was lit and shot knowing that these wouldn’t be visible in the then wholly analogue world.

What I love about film prints is that they feel richer, softer, more nuanced, more mercurial. A film print looks and sounds more alive. As the millions who became part of the great vinyl revival will undoubtedly attest, the quality of analogue sound is different to digital. Analogue sound is more distorted and dynamically compressed, and results in a sound that the human ear tends to hear as warmer, softer and more rounded.

Film is more unpredictable than digital. Like ourselves film ages and changes, carrying its story with it. Each time a reel is projected it will look and sound a little different – maybe adding a small scratch to the picture or a pop, tick or crackle to the soundtrack – gaining a little ‘humanity’. A Digital Cinema Package (DCP) will look absolutely identical each time.

With a film print you also get the whir of the projector, the sound of the reel changes, subtle movement and the flicker created as the projector’s shutter opens and closes – generally – 24 times each second. There’s also the knowledge that a real human being is up there in the projection box, skilfully making it all happen for you. Like a theatre performance, the projection of physical film will never be exactly the same each time. There’s the nervous anticipation that something might even go wrong. This is part of the experience that adds to the magic of cinemagoing. 

Many of the film prints we’re showing in the festival are original release prints – exactly the same pieces of celluloid that were laced by a projectionist and watched by an audience decades ago. They’re like archaeological artefacts, directly connecting us with people of the past. When we watch Mildred Pierce (1945) projected on an original, 78-year-old 35mm nitrate release print (as the Film on Film Festival audience will do), it will be hard not to imagine the first audience who watched that print and whose clothes, hair and hats would not have been a million miles from those worn by Joan Crawford and co. 

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945): an original nitrate print is screening as the festival’s opening night film

That feels more emotional than a DCP. Indeed, there’s even research that demonstrates that our emotional response really is stronger when watching analogue film projected. 

It’s hardly surprising that some of the world’s leading filmmakers choose to shoot on film, including Ayo Akingbade, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, Robert Eggers, Joanna Hogg, Mark Jenkin, Marie Kreutzer, Christopher Nolan, Jordan Peele, Alice Rohrwacher, Steven Spielberg, Charlotte Wells, Edgar Wright… 

Film is no museum artefact. Physical film offers qualities that can’t yet be reproduced in the digital world. As long as that’s the case, its inherent aesthetics remain a vital part of cinema culture.  

The BFI Film on Film Festival runs 8 to 11 June 2023.

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free

Other things to explore

From the Sight and Sound archive

Elaine May: laughing matters

By Carrie Rickey

Elaine May: laughing matters

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

By Henry K Miller

O dreamlands: why Lindsay Anderson was never the realist he claimed to be

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema

By Tony Rayns

Bye Bye Love, 50th anniversary: this gender-fluid couple-on-the-run movie had no precedent in Japanese cinema