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February 22 2011

Save celluloid, for art's sake

When Tacita Dean went to make a 16mm film for Tate Modern she was shocked to find the lab had stopped using it. Why can't digital and celluloid coexist, she asks

On Tuesday last week, the staff at Soho Film Laboratory were told by their new owners, Deluxe, that they were stopping the printing of 16mm film, effective immediately. Len Thornton, who looks after 16mm, was told he could take no new orders. That was it: medium eviction without notice. This news will devastate my working life and that of many others, and means that I will have to take the production of my work for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall commission out of Britain.

Soho Film Lab was the last professional lab to be printing 16mm in the UK. In recent years, as 16mm has grown as a medium for artists, the lab has been inundated with work, both from this country and abroad. Contrary to what people imagine, it is a growing and captive market, albeit a small one, with a new generation of younger artists turning to analogue technologies to make and show their work: Thornton says he handles work from more than 170 artists. Then there's the effect that this will have on the BFI and their conservation of the many thousands of reels of Movietone news footage, television, documentaries, features and much else.

These last few days have been like having my bag stolen and remembering, bit by bit, what I had inside it. My relationship with the lab is an intimate one; they watch over my work, and are, in a sense, its protectors. I have made more than 40 films, and each one has several internegatives (a copy of the original negative). In the vaults of Soho Film Lab are racks packed high with cans containing my life's work to date, including the negatives of films I never made. I order countless prints each year, as projecting my films on loop systems in museums and galleries inevitably means that they become scratched and exhausted. Thornton and his colleagues know the titles of all these films, and when I make a new film, I turn up at the lab and grade every colour in every scene. Film is chemistry: chemistry that has produced the miracle of the moving image. Decades of knowledge, skill and experience have gone into my saying, "I think that shot is too green, but the next one is too pink."

Deluxe (who responded that they have "nothing to say at this time") are, admittedly, ending only one tiny part of an ongoing process: they will not stop processing 16mm negative, and will continue to process and print 35mm. It is not as though they are giving up the chemicals and going dry. But they are stopping 16mm print because the cinema industry does not need it any more, and it is they who run the labs and are dictating that movies go digital and celluloid be phased out. Printing 16mm is an irritant to them, as it is time away from printing feature films, and features are the industry and all that matters. Pitched against this, art is voiceless and insignificant. My films are depictions of their subject and therefore closer to painting than they are to narrative cinema. I shoot on negative that is then taken to the lab, in much the same way you used to drop your photos off to be developed. The 16mm print I get back is called the rush print. The negative stays in the lab. Working alone on a cutting table over many weeks, I cut my film out of the rush print. Using tape, I stick the shots together, working as both artist and artisan. It is the heart of my process, and the way I form the film is intrinsically bound up with these solitary hours of watching, spooling and splicing.

When I have finished, I take my reel of taped film, now called my cutting copy, to a negative cutter, who cuts the original negative and delivers it to the lab, which then prints it as a film. My relationship to film begins at that moment of shooting, and ends in the moment of projection. Along the way, there are several stages of magical transformation that imbue the work with varying layers of intensity. This is why the film image is different from the digital image: it is not only emulsion versus pixels, or light versus electronics but something deeper – something to do with poetry.

Many of us are exhausted from grieving over the dismantling of analogue technologies. Digital is not better than analogue, but different. What we are asking for is co-existence: that analogue film might be allowed to remain an option for those who want it, and for the ascendency of one not to have to mean the extinguishing of the other.

The real crux of the difference is that artists exhibit, and so care about the final presentation and presence of the artwork in the space. Other professions have their work mediated into different formats: TV, magazines, billboards, books. It remains only in galleries and museums that the physical encounter is so critical, which is why artists, in the widest sense, are the most distressed by the obsolescence of analogue mediums. But it is also in these spaces that a younger generation born in the digital age are taking up analogue mediums in enormous numbers. At the recent Berlin art fair, 16mm film projections outnumbered digital projections by two to one.

The decision to end 16mm print at Soho Film Lab, newly named Deluxe Soho, seems to be worldwide policy (they have already ended 16mm printing in their labs in New York and Toronto), so it is unlikely we will be able to reverse the decision locally. I spent my weekend writing to Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who are both understood to care about celluloid film, even 16mm. I am also trying to make contact through the Guggenheim with the US owner of Deluxe, Ron Perelman, who, as a patron of the arts, might not have understood the devastating impact this presumably financially negligible decision might have on a growing group of contemporary artists, the galleries and museums that show them and the national collections that own their work.

In the end, the decision is more cultural than fiscal, and needs to be taken away from the cinema industry. What we need in the UK is a specialist laboratory for conservation-quality 16mm and 35mm prints, possibly affiliated to the BFI. This needs to happen quickly, before the equipment, technology and experience is irreparably dismantled, and Deluxe must help with this. In the meantime, I will look to the last remaining labs in Europe to print my 16mm films.


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November 03 2010

The Last Exorcism poster banned

ASA says it received complaints that the promotional images showed a girl who appeared to have suffered a sexual assault

The Advertising Standards Authority has banned a graphic poster for the Eli Roth-produced horror film The Last Exorcism following complaints that it was distressing and unsuitable for public display.

One promotional display for the film featured a young woman doubled over backwards with her dress covered in blood, while another showed her dishevelled and filthy in the top corner of a room. The movie, which is directed by Daniel Stamm and stars Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell, depicts a faithless evangelical minister who agrees to let his last exorcism be filmed by a documentary crew, only to discover that this time, the subject may be genuinely possessed. It was released here in September.

The ASA said most complainants found the images promoting the 15-rated film offensive, distressing and unsuitable for public display because the girl appeared to have suffered a sexual assault. The images appeared on buses and in the Cineworld's cinema chain's Unlimited film magazine. There was concern that the posters were likely to upset children because some posters were placed near schools and because the magazine was freely available.

The film's distributor, Optimum Releasing, said it did not intend the posters to cause distress and had instructed its media agency to remove any ads displayed near schools once it learned of the complaints. The ASA ruled that the first ad was likely to cause offence and distress and agreed that the image of the young girl covered in blood was unsuitable to be seen by children.

However, it said that because young children visiting the cinema were likely to be accompanied by an adult to see a 15-rated film, they were unlikely to see and be distressed by the ad in that context. The ASA ruled that the first ad must not appear again in its current form.


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October 27 2010

The scariest building in Britain?

Is the Royal Masonic School for Boys the scariest building in Britain? As Halloween looms, Jonathan Glancey visits the school adored by film-makers that's being turned into luxury flats

When the film-maker Merlin Ward was scouting for a location for his 2003 film Out of Bounds, a psychological thriller set in an eerie boarding school where bells toll ominously and a chill wind rarely stops moaning, he could scarcely believe his luck when he was shown the Royal Masonic School for Boys, a hulking structure built in 1903, in the Hertfordshire town of Bushey.

"It wasn't just that this vast Edwardian school was conveniently close to London and the film studios around Elstree," says Ward. "It was the gloriously spooky entrance tower and the sense of foreboding evoked by the surrounding buildings: cavernous, ominous, Halloween-like. I couldn't have asked for a more unnerving setting."

Nor could other directors. When Ward began filming in 2001, four other production companies were busy there. In fact, before it closed in 1977, the school had been a popular setting for murder mysteries and thrillers, including the cult 1960s TV show The Avengers. Since then, it has featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harry Potter movies, Monty Python's Meaning of Life, and 1985's Lifeforce, in which a shuttle returns to Earth carrying space vampires. Scarier still, it even served as a law court in EastEnders.

When the school, surely a contender for Britain's scariest building, closed, its next incarnation was as an international college, before becoming the property of Comer Homes, a company founded by Brian and Luke Comer, two plasterers from County Galway. They have redeveloped some great abandoned buildings, including Colney Hatch Asylum in London, which they rechristened Princess Park Manor, after turning it into sumptuous flats complete with gyms, swimming pools, spa facilities and pretty much every luxury expected by their clients, who include high-earning footballers. They have now repeated the trick with the Royal Masonic School – or Royal Connaught Park, to give it its new name.

"It's sad in a way that it's been redeveloped," says Ward. "The school was such a brilliant studio. It was highly atmospheric. We camped out there during our shoot. It was cold and forbidding. We never saw a ghost, sadly, not even in the mortuary." The mortuary? "Oh yes – the boys who came here as orphans from the Boer and great war would sometimes die of flu and TB, if not from beatings. It seems odd today, but there was nothing unusual about a school mortuary then."

Comer Homes employed architects ADP, specialists in such work, to exorcise the Halloween spirit from the old school. "I've spent more years involved with Royal Connaught Park than any schoolboy did," says project architect Catherine Yeatman, who, with Comer's Basil Nwalema, is taking me on a tour. "Planning began in 1998, and it has evolved gradually ever since."

There are 157 flats in the old buildings, with 200 to come in new residencies hidden in a dip in the extensive grounds. The cheapest flat, which has just one bedroom but could never be described as cramped, costs £369,000; the most expensive, a three-bedroom penthouse, is £2.5m.

"It's hardly a fast-buck project," says Nwalema, "but this type of complex – big and beautifully built, at a time when British architecture was exceptionally well crafted – makes for special homes today."

As a mournful drizzle sets in, we start off from under the clock tower. Originally built by freemasons for sons of impoverished and bereaved families, the white-stone-and-red-brick complex was designed by the firm Gordon, Lowther and Gunton. Their approach was, to say the least, eclectic. For their schools, chapels and office blocks, the architects employed a pageant of styles drawn from the spectrum of British history: the daunting tower alone reads like an encyclopedia of gothic design.

Their work could be epic, though. It takes an age to walk from the tower to the enormous dining hall at the far end of a cloistered quadrangle. Almost too large for the eye to take in, the hall, which will be used for big social events, boasts dark timber panelling, exposed beams and lofty gothic windows that pour light into an echoing cavern. I'm assuming it wasn't much fun here. A record of school life written by Geoff Kirby, a pupil from 1949 to 1953, is divided into sections entitled: I Enter Hell, The Curse of Games, Censored Letters and Beaten Bare Buttocks, and My Eyes Are Ruined By Incompetent Medical Staff.

Today, a glazed section in the dining hall floor gives a glimpse of the luxurious underground swimming pool. Its blue waters look enticing: for a happy moment, all the daunting school architecture is warmed and tamed. Yet if the old dining hall, with its horribly long echo, feels in any way sinister, the unrestored assembly hall is the stuff of a Hammer House of Horror nightmare. Yeatman tells me that this appallingly large room will eventually be conjured into five four-storey flats, each with a pair of cathedral-sized windows.

We move on to imposing towers and wings, now flats, some big enough to house an entire football team. There is an impressive gym with gothic decor; and that swimming pool, underground yet ingeniously daylit; as well as other rooms due to be turned into club rooms and restaurants. A magnificent kitchen block, with clerestory windows, is to be made into further flats boasting impressive top-lit, oak-beamed roofs.

"One of the good things," says Yeatman, "is that we've been able to demolish poor ancillary buildings that grew up alongside the walls of the Edwardian school like architectural fungus. Now the school has been turned into homes, you see it more as it was [originally]. We've also been able to replace black-pitch yards and playgrounds with gardens."

"And," says Nwalema, "the birds have returned, along with a lot of wildlife." Just as I'm about to suggest bats, rats and giant spiders – if not vampires and zombies – a murder of crows alight on a gothic gable and arrange themselves into a line, cawing menacingly.

There are still a large number of buildings like this in Britain: schools, hospitals, asylums dating from a time when Britain was able to indulge in architecture that was the stuff of architects' dreams and gothic horror nightmares. While it is good to see them returning to favour, their ghosts and demons expelled, it does pose a question: where will directors of the future go to find places as scary and Halloween-like as the Royal Masonic School for Boys?


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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