Keeping It Reel

Keeping It Reel

As the Oscars approach, opinions abound on actors, directors, screenplays, special effects and more. But few of us give any thought to the physical film itself. While most people now watch their movies digitally, at home and in the theater, many directors still shoot in 35-millimeter, and if you want to see such films in their original format, there’s only one place left to go in New Haven County: 53 Wall Street, New Haven, home of the Whitney Humanities Center and the Yale Film Study Center.

Brian Meacham (pictured), the FSC’s archive and special collections manager, admits to being a little bit picky when weighing film versus digital. For the most part, he says, Blu-ray or streaming is satisfying enough for home viewing. But “watching a film on film is just a different experience.”

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That difference may not be obvious to the untrained eye, but audiences still seem to crave the 35-millimeter experience. “A few weeks ago we had 160 people come to a 35-millimeter screening of a film which you can watch on FilmStruck or you can get the DVD or you can probably watch it on YouTube even,” Meacham says. “They were there to get the introduction, to get the film notes, to see it on the big screen with an audience.” Part of the appeal comes down to a microscopic structural quirk of film: “unique crystals of silver halide that are different shapes and different sizes,” he says, “and that’s what gives film a kind of vibrancy and life. When you watch it on screen, the image is kind of dancing… It’s not a series of 1s and 0s, lights off or on.”

That’s not to say that DVDs or digital movies don’t have advantages. They’re “indispensable for spreading out film culture and film knowledge,” Meacham says, “and allowing people to see things that they never would have been able to see before.” Unlike a film reel, you can make copies of a digital movie without degrading the quality, and you don’t have to worry about it fading, curling or spontaneously combusting as some older film is wont to do.

But Meacham worries about “frightening preservation issues.” Digital “requires constant migration from one system to another. There’s no standard… No one has agreed on what a digital film format is.” And digital media is “all wrapped up in proprietary formats.”

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The Film Study Center is currently celebrating the 50th anniversary of the “first collection acquired for the purpose of teaching film and of collecting narrative film” at Yale. Though the center wasn’t founded until 1982, that initial procurement in 1968 “became the seed of our collection,” Meacham says. Now part of his job involves the acquisition of films, including Yale student films, many of which were made during a heyday from 1968 to 1980. Some original reels were rescued from labs that were closing. Others were found in people’s garages and closets. Others were donated once the center became known.

The Film Study Center doesn’t have its own lab, but just off Meacham’s office is a small room with an inspection bench where he can unreel a film and see what’s on it, determine its date and figure out next steps in the preservation process. In addition to holding nearly 6,000 different films in its collection, the center boasts 35,000-plus videos and DVDs for classroom use and entertainment that can be borrowed through the Sterling Memorial Library. Students and faculty can view movies in study carrels and small screening rooms and, for a quick look at old 35-millimeter reels, there’s a Steenbeck flatbed film editing table.

Most of this is off-limits to the public, but the Whitney Humanities Center’s 240-seat auditorium with 35-millimeter projection is open for frequent public screenings, including National Home Movie Day every October; a national documentary series called Indie Lens Pop-Up with local speakers leading discussions; and Treasures from the Yale Film Archive, now in its fourth year. The Treasures series shows everything from “‘popcorn films’ to art films, foreign films to preservation efforts to documentaries,” Meacham says, all “in their original 35mm format as they were meant to be seen,” the website adds.

As part of that series, documentary and industrial filmmaker Norman Weissman will be on hand for a screening and Q&A on February 28. Later in the semester, students from Meacham’s graduate film class will offer screenings of “16 mm rarities.” And moviegoers will have the chance to view several films in 35-millimeter, like the popular comedy School of Rock and Academy Award winners Antonia’s Line (Best Foreign Language Film, 1996) and The Aviator (Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design and Best Costume Design, 2005).

Which brings us back to the Oscars. Meacham has the inside scoop on that, too. His job before coming to Yale was as a film preservationist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He’s even walked the red carpet, albeit the secondary one where the paparazzi aren’t.

But while there may not be a red carpet outside 53 Wall Street, there are plenty of award- and other winners passing through its doors.

Yale Film Study Center
Whitney Humanities Center – 53 Wall St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 10am-10pm, Fri 10am-5pm, Sun 2-9pm (for Yale ID holders), plus public screenings
(203) 432-0148

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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