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11 Movies that Shaped the Digital Revolution

March 14, 2014
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Hollywood is changing: Paramount Pictures no longer produces films on celluloid and Old Guard directors like Martin Scorsese are shooting their movies with digital cameras. Here’s a list of important films that helped propel Tinseltown’s controversial shift from film into digital, from niche-market fad to high-profile industry standard.

1. Julia and Julia

We’re not talking about the 2009 Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams movie about Julia Child here. This 1987 Italian drama directed by Peter del Monte and starring Kathleen Turner was the first movie shot with Sony’s High Definition Video System. At the time, the film had to be converted onto 35mm so it could be shown in theaters. See what you think about the nascent digital format for yourself—the entire film is available on YouTube above.

2. The Last Broadcast

Shot in a docudrama style, this low-budget 1998 American horror movie about searching for the Jersey Devil in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens predates the similarly inexpensive and much more famous Blair Witch Project by a year, and was allegedly the first feature length film shot and edited on consumer-grade equipment. The whole movie is available on YouTube for your spooky viewing pleasure.

3. and 4. The Celebration/The Idiots

These two films by infamous Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 and were shot using the Sony DCR-PC7E and DCR-VX1000, respectively. They somewhat adhere to the goals of the Dogme 95 movement, a set of restrictive cinematic rules set down by a group of filmmakers—including Vinterberg and von Trier—who sought to emphasize “actual story and the actors’ performances” above all else. Despite the fact that one of the rules states, “The film format must be Academy 35mm,” both movies ushered in a more widely accepted view of digital cinema that fit along nicely with the burgeoning independent film movement of the 1990s.

5. Once Upon a Time in Mexico

The third and final installment in director Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy featuring the El Mariachi character played by Antonio Banderas, Once Upon a Time in Mexico was shot in 2001 and released in 2003 and was among the first wide-release movies to be shot using 24-frames-per-second HD cameras meant to mimic the look of film. After seeing test footage shot by director George Lucas, Rodriguez would shoot all of his movies—including the highly stylized Sin City—digitally.

6. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

For director George Lucas, innovation has always come hand in hand with controversy. Though he and the CGI masters at Industrial Light and Magic would use some HD digital cameras for effects shots on The Phantom Menace, Lucas decided to shoot the middle chapter in his prequel trilogy entirely on Sony’s HDW-F900. It marked the first time that a massive blockbuster dared to question the sanctity of celluloid, and despite the relatively lackluster critical response, the film ushered in a new era of digital acceptance. Much like its unconventional predecessor Julia and Julia, many theaters showing the movie screened it in 35mm despite Lucas’ plea to convert their projectors to digital. Lucas would also shoot the last film in the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, digitally, and has been a big proponent of the digital revolution ever since.

7. Russian Ark

The same year that a blockbuster broke down digital barriers, an ambitious Russian film showed cinephiles just what the new format was capable of. Director Alexander Sokurov used HD video cameras to shoot his 2002 movie Russian Ark all in a single, unbroken 96-minute Steadicam shot. Numerous films had used long takes and had been edited to make them look like they were comprised of one continuous shot (perhaps most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), but never before had film been able to legitimately maintain the uninterrupted balletic narrative—not to mention the logistics—of Russian Ark.

8. Collateral

American auteur Michael Mann had dabbled in digital video while shooting certain sequences in his 2001 biopic Ali, but it wasn’t until 2004’s Collateral that he began to really embrace the new technology. Though some minimal shots are 35mm, Collateral’s mix of the Thomson VIPER FilmStream camera and Sony’s ubiquitous F900 gave the look and feel of nighttime Los Angeles the director required—something that couldn’t be achieved via normal lighting techniques on film. Mann has been a digital convert ever since and has paved the way for other auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher to go digital as well.

9. Slumdog Millionaire

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle could perhaps be labeled the godfather of digital cinema. Mantle served behind the camera for The Celebration and continued to quietly hone the use of digital cameras in movies from Danny Boyle’s zombie flick 28 Days Later to Lars von Trier’s sparse chamber pieces Dogville and Manderlay. But it wasn’t until 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire—also directed by Danny Boyle—that digital cinematography was finally accepted on a major scale. Though scenes were shot with 35mm, Slumdog became the very first movie with digital cinematography to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. It would also go on to win Best Picture. Mantle shot his next collaborations with von Trier (Antichrist) and Boyle (127 Hours) using digital cameras as well.

10. Avatar

The highest grossing movie of all time also happens to be the first 100 percent digitally photographed film to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Not since George Lucas’ Attack of the Clones had a director tried to fundamentally change the cinema-going experience and, love him or hate him, James Cameron meant to do just that. He immersed audiences in the alien world of Pandora by incorporating groundbreaking 3D along with the digital Fusion Camera System to capture his vision, ushering in the final shift towards digital cinema for the majority of major movie productions.

11. Hugo

No contemporary figure has done more for the preservation and appreciation of film than director Martin Scorsese. He is, after all, the man who created The Film Foundation. So it was a surprising move for film fanatic Scorsese to shoot his 2011 movie Hugo using digital cameras. Hugo won an Academy Award win for Best Cinematography, and it was the first step leading to Scorsese abandoning film as a format altogether; his next film, The Wolf of Wall Street, was the first major studio film to be released to theaters exclusively in the digital format.

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This Week's Best Amazon Deals You Can Still Get
April 30, 2017
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As a recurring feature, we share some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. These items were the ones that were the most popular with our readers this week, and they’re still available.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers (including Amazon) and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

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When the FBI Went After Mad Magazine
April 29, 2017
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Warner Bros., IStock

In a memo dated November 30, 1957, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation identified as “A. Jones” raised an issue of critical importance: "Several complaints to the Bureau have been made concerning the 'Mad' comic book [sic], which at one time presented the horror of war to readers."

Attached to the document were pages taken from a recent issue of Mad that featured a tongue-in-cheek game about draft dodging. Players who earned such status were advised to write to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and request a membership card certifying themselves as a “full-fledged draft dodger.” At least three readers, the agent reported, did exactly that.

Mad, of course, was the wildly popular satirical magazine that was reaching upwards of a million readers every other month. Published by William Gaines, who had already gotten into some trouble with Congress when he was called to testify about his gruesome horror comics in 1954, Mad lampooned everyone and everything. But in name-checking the notoriously humorless Hoover, Gaines had invited the wrong kind of attention.

The memo got several facts incorrect: Mad had switched from a comic book to a magazine format in 1955, and it was Gaines’ E.C. Comics that had “presented the horror of war” in other titles. Despite getting these crucial pieces of information wrong, Jones didn’t hesitate to editorialize: "It is also of interest to note that…it is rather unfunny.”

The agent recommended the Bureau’s New York offices “make contact” with Mad’s headquarters to “advise them of our displeasure” and to make sure “that there be no repetition of such misuse of the Director’s name.”

Less than a week later, the Feds entered the hallowed hallways patrolled by Alfred E. Neuman. Their New York office would later report to Hoover directly that they had met with John Putnam, the magazine’s art director. (Conveniently, Gaines was not in that day.) Putnam told the agents he regretted the magazine using Hoover’s name and that nothing malicious was intended:

Putnam said that the use of the membership card and the name and address of the Director at the end of the game was referred to in their business as a 'gag' or 'kicker' in the same way that a comedian like Bob Hope or Milton Berle might use it.

Putnam swore that Mad would never again take Hoover’s name in vain; Gaines sent off a letter of sincere apology to the Director.

The Smoking Gun

Just two years later, in January 1960, Agent A. Jones was forced to file a second notice about the shenanigans at Mad. A recent issue had made not one, but two derogatory mentions of Hoover, including one in which he is blatantly and disrespectfully portrayed as being associated with a vacuum cleaner, “The Honorable J. Edgar Electrolux”:  

Obviously, Gaines was insincere in this promise…and has again placed the Director in a position of ridicule…it is felt we should contact Gaines…and firmly and severely admonish them concerning our displeasure…

It was by now clear Mad was not only polluting young minds, but that Gaines had absolutely no regard for the honorable Hoover’s position.

In June 1961, the FBI’s worst fears had been realized. Detailing an investigation into a Seattle-area extortion attempt led to the following:

Investigation … resulted in gaining admissions from the victim’s 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old companion that they had gotten the idea of preparing an extortion letter after reading the June issue of 'Mad' magazine.   

Working in concert with the Buffalo field office, the FBI determined another letter had been sent by a young boy demanding money in the style of a recent issue’s extortion advice. And there was a third under review that was sent to the agent of some professional wrestlers.

Mad was quickly becoming the scourge of the federal government. The FBI suggested the magazine be brought to the attention of the Attorney General for “instructing [readers] to deliberately violate the Federal Law.” They tried reaching out to Gaines, who was on vacation. (Time and again, Gaines simply not being in the office when called upon seemed to confound the FBI.)

Agent A. Jones, having exhausted all attempts to reason with these irresponsible anarchists, filed one last memo:

Despite assurances, they have continued to publish slurring remarks about the Bureau. In view of this situation, it was deemed useless to protest all such irresponsible remarks to a magazine of this poor judgment and capriciousness … we will have to wait and see if our action will result in increased discretion by this publication.

Poor A. Jones was unable to put an end to Mad’s reign of terror. But the magazine redeemed itself somewhat. In the 1970s, when the Bureau was trying to suppress the influence of the Ku Klux Klan, an agent suggested they copy and distribute a sticker from the magazine that read, “Support Mental Illness—Join the Klan!”

Hoover said no.

Additional Sources:
The Smoking Gun.

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