From an early age I was fascinated with film and always wanted to work with it. I became interested in projection when I was in school in the late 1980s. I always remember the first screening I was involved in, which was a 16mm showing in the school hall of John Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I loved the excitement, the magic and the shared experience. I was bitten by the bug!
At university I became heavily involved with the Film Society and loved screening 16mm prints every week. It was a privilege because they had top-of-the-range Italian projectors with xenon lamp illumination and we could run changeovers too! I loved working with the prints, preparing them and screening them. And we had some incredible prints then – I always remember running an amazing copy of Jean de Florette. When we ran big Hollywood films it was just like being at the cinema, with packed houses in the lecture theatre!
Steven Soderbergh’s sound designer Larry Blake once said that projection is ‘post-post-production’, which I think is the best way I’ve ever heard it described. At least as much rigour if not more should be put into the exhibition of a film as was put into its production and post-production! That’s why it’s heartbreaking when people cheapen out on exhibition. And it’s actually very easy to get right. I think the biggest problem with poor presentation isn’t lack of knowledge – it’s a lack of understanding why getting it right is important, and why it is critical to the artistic message of the film.
I think it’s terrible how the multiplexes have ended up turning cinema into a bland, industrial commodity and taken the magic out of the whole experience. I worked in a couple of multiplexes and with one notable exception it was grim. I found the corporate lack of interest in theatrical presentation – curtain tabs, any kind of nice décor, proper pre-show music in the auditorium – soul destroying, and there was also a lot of employee abuse too, with deliberately poor pay and conditions. The absolute nadir in one job was when I was forced to show a beautiful Cinemascope film from a DVD! I’m so glad to be out of all that now.
I do wish – forlornly of course – that we could go back to the days of those magnificent picture palaces with 70mm presentation and showmanship. People have no idea how poor the cinema offering is today, because I think a lot of people don’t know how good it could be. I think that many multiplexes could end up becoming computer gaming venues – it’s not about art or even cinema any more, but about technology and the cheapest way to make a buck.
I’m a film person through and through and won’t have anything to do with digital projection (which is really video, but that word isn’t as sexy), with one exception being where the material is a documentary shot on video. In that case we know we’re watching reality and are not being asked to suspend our disbelief in the way that film allows us to do, so incredibly well.
There seems to me to have been a lack of understanding about the value of film and film projection. Right now I’m engaged with others in sourcing and examining research into how film projection provides, among other things, a less fatiguing viewing experience in the theatre than digital video does. With film projection you have the shutter that interrupts the image for about half the viewing time. Also, each film frame is (almost) completely still when being shown, like viewing a 35mm slide. But in digital video, not only is there no shutter, but the device forming the image is active even as each individual frame is being projected. So the upshot is that the brain has a lot more work to do in viewing large-screen video images. These insights also tie in with the well-known ‘dream-state’ response that watching film has often been said to induce, compared to an oft-reported soullessness, lack of engagement and lifelessness that goes with digital video. So film projection is really quite sophisticated and there needs to be a lot more awareness of its unique attributes.
Film is still the gold standard origination and projection medium. Film grain is incredible and actually allows the brain to perceive more detail because it is a form of ‘noise’ in the image, and the visual system responds to that much better when looking at pictures. Grain isn’t bad – it’s good! Likewise, every frame of film has a different, random grain pattern – experts point out that in effect, every frame of film is a new imaging device, whereas digital technologies are tied to a fixed grid in both cameras and projectors.
Film is natural and beautiful, and I can still tell even now in these days of the RED One and ARRI Alexa when a TV production has been shot on 35mm. Film guarantees consistent, 360 degree quality, and whereas the new digital cameras may look very good in many situations, some shots can still show clipping in highlights, and skin tones can often be monochromatic and unnatural. Another consideration is that it takes a lot of data to try to emulate film using digital. The problem then becomes one of data management and robustness, as well as cost and longevity. Film is still the only credible archival format – I wonder if it won’t in fact turn out to be the most cost-effective and reliable high-quality imaging medium in the long run.
To borrow from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge – Film is Beauty, Truth and Love! So here’s to even better film, and even better film projection!
© copyright caboose 2012
Brian Guckian has worked in the fields of film and video projection, picture and sound post-production and film distribution. Based in Dublin, Ireland, he now works in film projection on a freelance basis.