The Imagery & Lexis of Film

Street Signage

The digital revolution in movie exhibition is complete.

After years of hints and warnings, the major Hollywood studios are no longer striking prints of their latest releases. Instead, most new movies are being distributed to cinemas on hard drives, which are read and played by sleek, expensive DCP (Digital Cinema Package) projectors.

And yet the iconography of film and film projection (whether 70, 35, 16 or 8 mm) is so deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness that it will take more than just a few years of digital projection to unravel it. Probably only popcorn – pictured either bursting fresh out of the machine or scooped and waiting, tantalizingly, in colourful paper bags (often – and unnecessarily – featuring the word “Popcorn!” emblazoned on the side) rivals the imagery of film as the quintessential visual representation of movies and the act of movie-going. Whether we’re talking about rolls spooling off circular reels or close-ups of individual frames, complete with those instantly-recognizable perforated squares along each edge, it is the physical material of film itself and the machinery used to screen it that have long been cinema’s key symbols.

In the same way people still use the word ‘celluloid’ to refer to film (highly flammable, celluloid was eventually replaced by other compounds like polyester mylar when it came to manufacturing film for motion pictures), I suspect people will still talk about ‘getting things on film’ and ‘producing films’ even when Hollywood is 100% digital. Those in the industry still use – and will likely continue to use – terms like ‘B-roll’ for 2nd unit footage (the word ‘footage’ itself originally referring to the actual length – in feet, obviously – of film stock), and will continue to talk of shots being ‘spliced’ together and scenes being left on ‘the cutting room floor’ even if the shots in question have just been command-shift-pasted, or the rejected scenes merely deleted from a memory card – without a roll of sticky tape or pair of scissors in sight. And I suspect we will find the ‘real/reel’ homophone pun in print for a long time to come.

The terminology, therefore, is still with us – even if the technology isn’t. I don’t believe this reliance on the old vocabulary is out of convenience or laziness, but rather because the iconography of film is so instantly evocative of the very best of our shared memories of the movie-going experience that to not refer to it would feel unnatural. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: many times over the last year or so, the Projection Project has noticed how often film tropes continue to be used to promote or celebrate movies or movie-related products or events. Whenever we were able to, we took a quick photo of these examples as we came across them. Some of these smartphone snaps are of vintage items (like the Disney movie soundtrack LP) produced when 35 mm film was still in wide use, but others (like the Cheerios promotion) are recent, suggesting that if a company today wishes to conjure up the glamour of the movies in the minds of its customers, depicting a DCP projector and a digital hard drive is not going to do the trick. Instead, they will need to give us perforated strips of film leaping off reels, old top-loaded projectors shooting out beams of telescoping light, and maybe a box of popcorn or two.

Watch our movie here:

The Lexis & Imagery of Film from Curtis Emde on Vimeo.

We invite you to keep your eyes out for any other examples of film imagery you happen to encounter. If you send us a photo to the email address below, we would love to add it to our Gallery:


text: Curtis Emde

About The Author

Silmara Emde is a photographer and graphic designer, and Curtis Emde is a writer and teacher. They are based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and together they form the Projection Project - a multi-media venture that documents the changing nature of movie-going as the 35mm film era ends and the digital era begins.