Footprint of Light
I have never worked as a projectionist, which is to say that I have never been paid for being a projectionist. It’s not that I didn’t try! When I first became acquainted with physical celluloid film in 2008, it became my immediate ambition to be able to handle film all the time (and hopefully support myself doing it). At that time I had never felt a draw to anything so strongly.
I ultimately elected to do a film production degree at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver for some reason that eludes me now. I had no idea what to expect—literally, my mind was empty. But I walked into that first class, and there was 16mm film strewn EVERYWHERE. On the tables, on the floor, some of it found footage, some leader, a bit of everything. There were also a few guillotine splicers and a beat up old Eiki RT-1, which had a sign taped to it: “I do not tolerate poor splices”. Our instructor, the venerable Chris Welsby, had us make loops of this film, draw on it, scratch it, bleach it. Someone stapled theirs, which gave Chris the opportunity to teach us the word “grindle”, which colloquially meant “when the projector ceases to like the film”.
From that moment, I was hooked. Since I lived on campus, I could walk down to the film building at night, haul out reels of found footage, and watch them. We would move the projectors around on their wheeled carts, swinging the beam like a baton. We would get right up close to the projector and close our eyes and stare into the lens (not advisable, by the way) and have the images play across our faces. And most importantly, I think, we would make loops and draw on the film as it entered the projector, building up over time until it went from a strip of clear leader to being a haze of hurried colours.
I knew pretty quickly that I needed my own projector, and I got a B&H 1502, cast iron, 50 pounds if it weighed an ounce. To me, it represented certainty and solidity in a world swirling with so many ephemeral objects and ideas. As I progressed through university, I worked to discover why I felt such a strong connection with film. I was often challenged for my strict advocacy of the use of film over digital, in both capture and projection, and I wanted to have educated-sounding rebuttals. I ultimately settled on the notion of indexicality, which I stole and distorted from the American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. In Peircean semiotics, the index is the mark left by anything that denotes its existence without actually being present: a good example is a footprint in the snow. I extrapolated this to be used in terms of the moving image and the photochemical process. In film, I argued, the light thrust upon the audience’s eyeballs, reflected off the projection screen and extruded from the projector, is indexically linked to the light that struck the original film in the camera. Because the characteristics of the film emulsion do not require a translation into any other sign, they are thus like a footprint in the snow. And no matter how many times the film is duplicated, the principle remains the same because each individual print has to be exposed to the light projected through its inverse.
I found it valuable, and in some cases necessary, that film, as opposed to a digital reconstruction, would not override any damage that occurred during copying or projection. Others have definitely noted this, but I felt it too: film was alive, not just a tool. It was born pristine, glistening, but would gradually acquire dust and scratches, the wrinkles and grey hair of a middle-aged print, and finally succumb to emulsion or structural deterioration and die.
Compared to digital projection systems, the deterioration of a film projector is easier to figure out because it mimics our own decline. A digital projector will, for the most part, work the same all through its life, and then one day it will die. Boom. No nothing. Many of my projectors, however, are in variously advanced life stages, and their belts all start to wear and change. The teeth on the gears get dull. They get covered in gunk and dust if they've been neglected. Infamously, some projectors (late model Eikis in particular) use a rubber sleeve on the end of the focus knob that holds friction against the lens barrel . . . this part gets dried out easily and leaves the focus of your image constantly wobbling around. But while these problems are serious in many cases, they are rarely systemic, which is to say fixing the problem often restores the functionality of the entire machine. The problems, too, are not too many in number and can be diagnosed deductively: projector running slow? Well, there's one or two belts that control the motion of all the drive wheels and shutter off the motor shaft. They are rubber, and so have likely loosened. Opening the cover of my digital projector, however, transports me to an alien planet. Is that a civilization down there? What could all this stuff possibly be for?
I soon began a body of research based on the performativity of the projector itself, something instilled after I happened to experience Alex MacKenzie’s transcendental live projection piece The Wooden Lightbox. At that point I was a filmmaker first, with my main work focused on photography and writing. But as soon as I completed my first projection-based experiment, I knew that my filmmaking would always be tied to its final exhibition method.
That experiment was called Embrace, and I showed it for only two days on campus. It consisted of a projector (that same battered Eiki RT-1, actually) pulling a screen towards itself with its film. As a filmmaker, I had often felt deprived of the ability to perform in front of an audience, to open that electric dialogue between performer and viewer that is present in almost all other fixed-length art forms. The projector, I thought, would be my performer by proxy. We spend a great deal of time locking projectors up in the back of the auditorium, soundproofing the booths they reside in, keeping them out of the public eye. My feeling was so strong that each projector has its own personality, its own liveliness to bring to the show, that I wanted it accessible where people could understand the way I felt. A delicate Pageant is going to give you a very different show from my metal 1502 or a plastic Telex slot-load. Each machine has a history and while they were all manufactured identical, they rarely stay identical for long. This is especially true of 16mm equipment, which is not built to the same standards as 35mm. Belts stretch and wear so speed is unpredictable (this is highly apparent with optical sound), lamps get hot spots and colour shifts over time and many older machines use a wide variety of archaic lamps (which are sculptural in and of themselves). Some projectors will skip a bad splice, and some will teach you a lesson. These are in many respects the problems that fuelled the advance of digital technology, but when a projector has these kinds of “problems”, it seems to me that it becomes much more human. And I would rather collaborate with machinery that has a personality than with something perfect that will repeat the same task ad infinitum.
I did another piece exploring this phenomenon of performativity. This one was called The Chase! Among other things, it incorporated three 16mm projectors all running the same 110’ loop of film. This one was a bit of a performance piece too, because since projectors vary slightly in speed as they run, I had to be on hand to stop any of them if they were starting to run short on slack provided by the upstream projector. I felt in this way that it was less of a film screening and more of a dance or theatre event in which I was cooperating with the machines that were making it possible.
I have loved machines my whole life, and it seemed to me that other people do too. Cars, sewing machines, power tools and especially nickelodeons and Rube Goldberg-style carnival apparatuses. I think when we can understand, on an intuitive, elemental level, how a machine works by observing it; we can bond with it by comparing it to our own physiology. This comparison and pathos present in analogue devices is missing from digital systems because they make use of an esoteric processing method that, while efficient, is certainly opaque. I theorise (and I’m not alone in this), that analogue projection will experience a revival as audiences realise what they're losing through digital projection. The vinyl record renaissance has proved that there is room in a market for more than one thriving form of recorded media. Until then, the film format will become the charge of a handful of stupidly passionate, stubborn individuals and their caches of equipment. Thank goodness it’s so durable.
© copyright caboose 2012
Ryder Thomas White is a filmmaker, cinematographer and visual artist in Vancouver, British Columbia. He has a trenchant interest in all things film, from his cameras to his darkroom to his projectors. He teaches workshops on Super 8 and 16mm hand-processing, and is a co-founder of the community art project Canadian Frame(lines), which will bring Super 8 cameras, processing and screening workshops to people all across the country. His most recent projects include Embrace (2011) and The Chase! (2012), which was installed at Trench Contemporary Art in Vancouver. If you ever want to turn your bathtub into a darkroom, give him a call.