Someday we'll find it, the film grain connection.
January 5, 2008 1:24 PM   Subscribe

Why are films from the 70s so grainy?

Watching The Muppet Movie with the family this afternoon, I commented on how grainy I remember the film being from my childhood -- and how most films from my childhood seemed to look similarly grainy. On the other hand, color films from the 30s through to the 60s often don't have similar problems, nor do films from the mid-80s on (unless a filmmaker is going for a 70s look, like Tarantino or Gallo).

So, I know it has something to do with the Eastman color stock used during that era... but that's all I can find, no specifics. Was there a conscious effort by filmmakers to attain that look, a known flaw in the film that filmmakers felt they could live with for a price cut, or something that just sort of happened along the way?
posted by eschatfische to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is off the top of my head but I think in the 70s there was a move away from being studio based, with big cameras and big lights, out into the streets, certainly by the more radical (or just plain cheap) film makers of the time... the less light meant the use of faster, more sensitive films that was more grainy, which was something you just had to put up with. Kodak then came up T-Grain film in 1980 which solved the problem.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:38 PM on January 5, 2008

The use of older, large format cameras became vogue in the 70s.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 4:53 PM on January 5, 2008

Some of it has to do with the state of the print. If the print you see (on VHS or DVD ect) was an older print when it was transferred it can be grainy. I believe the fact that it's a color print has something to do with this as well, also I read once that film stock was not of the best quality around the late 60s and 70s.

For example; The Holy Mountain (NSFW) was recently restored, this clip shows you a earlier print. But the newer looks much cleaner do to the updated print they used.
posted by nola at 8:03 PM on January 5, 2008

It's hard to tell from youtube clips but here is a before and after; first the Wild Bunch trailer

Next a cleaned up copy from the same move

I may be missing something but this is how it works as best I understand.
posted by nola at 8:11 PM on January 5, 2008

There were great modifications in film stock which my Googling can't quite clarify at the moment. But here is one wiki link:
"In the early 1980s, there were some radical improvements in film stock. It became possible to shoot color film in very low light and produce a fine-grained image with a good range of midtones."

In addition to the technical developments, it's probably important to note stylistic developments.

"Easy Rider" was hugely influential and showed filmmakers that popular stories could be told with simple equipment.

Coppola made the "Godfather" movies and "Apocalypse Now" with lush film stock. But "The Conversation" (my favorite of his) was shot with grainier stock (Coppola concentrated on the audio for that one).

For a real visual clash, check out "Mr. Roberts" from the 50's when candy-coated Technicolor was trying to compete with TV.

Nowadays, people would be surprised to discover that "Collateral" was shot on digital video. Michael Mann chose DV because the dynamic range worked better for the night shots (which is most of the movie).

Great question. When I look at an 80's movie like "Terminator" I can see the 80's stylings (aside from the haircuts and the stop-motion). If those elements were not there, the film stock would still be instantly recognizable.
posted by McLir at 9:30 PM on January 5, 2008

If "The Muppet Movie" seems markedly different today from when you watched it as a kid, there may be another factor. A broadcast today or a DVD/video has most likely been restored from the negative or master. But back when that movie was making its first rounds of network television, it was more likely to have been a tape made from a 35 mm print (using telecine, in which a film is actually projected onto a special TV camera.) Heck, in 1981 or 82, they may have actually been broadcasting the 35 mm print itself. One telltale sign of either scenario would be cue marks (those roughly circular marks in the corner of the screen) at regular intervals.
posted by evilcolonel at 8:50 AM on January 6, 2008

Although it doesn't have one specific answer, this thread on a cinematography site has film makers discussing how to reproduce it and suggests a lot of reasons – cost, speed, transfer to video equipment that wasn't as nice as what we have now, etc.

This quote:
Think about the lights available at that time period: no HMI's, all tungsten and arc's.
So it usually had to be hard lit, multi-shadows.
Think 5K's, 10K'S, 9-lights, etc...
no hampshire diffusions...almost always spun.

Makes no sense to me, but perhaps you'll understand it enough to have an answer?
posted by Gucky at 4:26 PM on January 9, 2008

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