Category Archives: film projection

Festival Dreams

The next Göteborg Film Festival is almost upon us.

The last festival I worked was three years ago almost to the day. Over the years, I ran literally thousands of shows for them, most in 35 mm but a select few in 70 mm and a couple of them in 16 mm. I was and remain a film projectionist. I did finish up with some videos, though, when they installed that Barco thing in the booth some years back. I quit when the format became the norm. In my last year, every single feature I ran was measured in pixels, so there was no longer a point in continuing. It was good while it lasted, though, and I don’t regret a single minute of it.

Every year, some weeks before the festival would begin, I’d have at least one dream about the festival and my projection booth. Sometimes I’d climb the stairs only to find that they’d rebuilt the booth or turned the projectors to point in the opposite direction, and sometimes they’d have relocated the whole theatre. I recall several dreams where the transport people – the guys and gals who’d carry the physical prints from one venue to the next – would turn up when I was about to start a show and ask me all kinds of questions about where print A was or if I had yet rewound print B or inspected print C that should actually be replaced with print D. They’d show up right about when I was pulling the curtain, interrupting me, disrupting my flow, bothering me. And inevitably something would go wrong.

I’ve dreamt a thousand variations of the basic theme. I’m about to start the first show; something happens to throw me off.

And here’s the funny thing: I still have those dreams, three years after leaving. And they’re still based on the same concept:  I still work at the festival and as I’m about to start the first show, something goes wrong. I guess this is how important the festival is to me, and how much I still miss it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a desire to run a single digital show again, ever. Not even fleetingly. Clicking Play is the very antithesis of everything I believe in terms of film projection. But I do miss the time when I was running actual film prints in a darkened booth, one after another, up to seven or eight features a day plus a number of shorts, trying my very best to provide the best show I could for each and every one. I miss leaping down the projection booth stairs to the auditorium to listen and to fine-tune the sound level. I miss inspecting the prints. I miss planning a show days in advance. I miss being one with my projection equipment.

And so, I guess, I have these dreams. I had the best profession in the whole wide world and it’s now all over.

Festival Midpoint

It’s the evening of the fifth film festival day as I write this, and here are my (technical) reflections this far:

  • Swedish short films are still bad, generally speaking. The technical quality and craftsmanship is poor, to put it kindly.
  • Come to think of it, Swedish feature-length films are not much better.
  • Finland, on the other hand, still outputs feature films to very high technical standards. The images are gorgeous and the sound mixes precise and crisp. It is obvious that their people know what they are doing.
  • If you disregard their independent productions, American films tend to look surprisingly bland on screen. Their catering budgets equal a minor third world country’s, but the images are featureless and boring. It is as if they had tried (and succeeded) to replicate the increasingly poor multiple generation 35mm prints of the last few years before the media died.
  • Digital cinema is here to stay. Unfortunately. I will not screen a single new 35mm feature this year. Not one. Can you imagine how sad this makes me feel?

I will probably post more comments later, at some point.

T-2 Days and Counting

The annual Göteborg Film Festival is almost upon us, with only two days left when I write this. 11 days of film and, for me, 11 days of clicking Play because it’s all digital now, with the exception of one (1) film.

I’ve written about the advent of digital film before, but also about the death of a profession, and while I briefly considered another stab at these two subjects, I quickly came to my senses; I feel that I’ve said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject. This year’s festival is merely a confirmation of those two blog posts, and there is little reason to reiterate any of it.

So I’ll write about the death of a cinema instead. More specifically, my cinema, the Draken, until recently the last surviving Cinerama theatre with its original appearance intact, until last summer mostly unchanged by both the ravages of time and pitiful small-screen multiplexes. It survived them both, although Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden’s only cinema owner of note, did have plans to convert the theatre into a double-screen abomination in the early seventies.

What it didn’t survive, in the end, was the long-planned “renovation” by its owner, Folkets hus, a k a Sweden’s working class movement. The original 1950s chandeliers were thrown away and holes cut into the marble walls to lead the way to toilets forced into the space under the auditorium. Light riggings were carelessly hung up in the auditorium  itself and computer-controlled fluorescent lights with only nominal dimming capabilities were allowed to replace the old auditorium lighting.

And in the large upper foyer, the maritime-themed painting that used to be the pride of the cinema has now been replaced by a motorised conference screen. My cinema has now been reduced into a pathetic two-screen cinema. Or, rather, conference hall. Well done, Folkets hus.

Those closest to you are the ones that can hurt you the most.

The Death of a Profession

The 36th edition (actually the 35th, but that’s another story) of the Göteborg International Film Festival started yesterday. I’ve been running projectors for the festival since 1987 and since 1990 as the projectionist at the festival’s main auditorium, the Draken.

This year (and to some extent, last) is different from every other year.

When I did my first year at the Draken, out of around 50 feature film prints most were in 35mm. Those that weren’t–I’m guessing one or two, without bothering to check the actual figures–were in 16mm. One (1) had stereo sound. All of the others were in mono.

This changed rapidly. In only a few years, all prints, excepting, perhaps, an occasional third-world effort, had stereo soundtracks. By 2000, several used Dolby Digital, Dolby’s six-channel digital sound.

And by 2010, all had Dolby Digital, excepting restored archive prints from bygone days, screened as parts of retrospectives and such.

When the digital sound arrived, we didn’t really consider it to be a revolution. Better sound, sure, but revolution, no. The prints were still in 35mm, handled about the same as always by the projectionists and causing the people who carried them from one cinema to the next bad backs and strained muscles. 35mm prints are heavy and carrying them around for ten days will cause you grief.

Last year, though, they installed a digital projector in my projection booth. Most films were still in 35mm, but I also ran a dozen or so shows digitally, many of them shorts. I’d upload a digital file from a hard drive to the server housed with the projector, “program” the show by dragging and dropping film clips, including the feature film itself, to a flow chart-like user interface on a flat screen, and finally click on Play when given the go ahead signal from the ushers.

The 35mm prints, on the other hand, are (and have been, for the last several decades) assembled from the six or so reels they arrive on to (usually) two larger ones. Those are then threaded into large projectors and handled manually, with a “change-over” taking place in the middle of the screening, hopefully invisible to the patrons.

Times, they are a-changin’.

Last year was just a mere warning of things to come, though. This year, the festival will be halfway over when I finally get to run my first 35mm print, and I’m only expecting four or five more of them.

But worse in some (to me) ever-so-subtle way is that they no longer provide us with a 35mm festival vignette to be spliced onto the first reel before shows. There are still a few 35mm prints, yes, but there are very few labs left to make them. One of the festival techs mentioned to me that he’d given up the idea after some research.

We had no vignettes when I worked my first festival in 1987, either. That was because the festival could not afford to make them. Now, 26 years later, they’d probably be too expensive to make, again. It doesn’t feel like a full circle to me, but I guess maybe it is.

Worst, however, is that with the death of the 35mm format follows the death of a century-old profession, that of the projectionist. We are being replaced by IT people, people who know their way around a computer. A colleague who’s been in the business since 1970 has real trouble using his new equipment at another festival cinema. He knows how to run a show but doesn’t realise that you can “click” on weird symbols on a screen to access functions he needs. A window to him is something you draw the blinds on during shows, a mouse a living thing and a menu something posh restaurants give you.

In only a year or two, we are not only no longer needed, what we do now can be done by IT people from home.

And that’s more than a little sad.

The Final (?) Take on Film Markup Language

As some of you may know, I sometimes project films at the Draken cinema when I’m not busy doing XML stuff. Also, as I’ve noted before, film projection is moving from analogue to digital and it’s all happening very, very fast. The commercial cinemas, multiplexes all of them, now run films on hot-swap hard drives in servers coupled with ugly digital projectors, and the one remaining 35mm cinema, an art house, is rumoured to close soon.

So today, after a call from the city council’s school cinema group, I started thinking and realised that while I did consider the advent of all things digital when I first wrote Film Markup Language, even updating the DTD to include some rudimentary support for 2k and 4k projection for my 2010 presentation on it in Prague, it’s too late to actually modernise the DTD or the spec for what’s actually going on today.

See, the digital thingies do use XML. It’s inconsistent and looks like some weird kind of committee hack, though, the kind of XML you might find in Java config files, but it’s XML and it seems to be enough. So, Film Markup Language is dead for all practical purposes.

It’s kind of sad.

Moving to Digital

With most surviving cinemas rapidly going digital, a lot of perfectly good film projection and cinema sound equipment is being replaced with their all-digital counterparts. It’s to be expected, of course, but what most people don’t realise is that the new technology is not yet even close to the old one in terms of quality.

A 35mm film strip, so far, is superior to the digital technology in just about every respect, from resolution to contrast to colours. Yes, you will hear a lot of hype from the industry about scratch-free and dust-free images, HD and the perceived (low) line density of 35mm answer prints, much like the music industry once hyped the compact disc, but I suggest you to trust your eyes instead.

If you are lucky enough to have an art house in your area, go see an old movie, preferably something from the fifties, filmed in Technicolor and Vista Vision. A lot of the old westerns were filmed using these technologies, as were some Hitchcock thrillers; you should be able to find one. Then buy a ticket to your nearest multiplex with the latest in digital technology and see for yourself.

Now, I’m betting that you’ll find the latter scratch-free and dust-free, but I’m also betting that you’ll find the former alive in a sense that just cannot be done today.

I talked to a cinematographer during the last Göteborg Film Festival a few weeks ago. He was responsible for the cinematography of the opening feature and understandably anxious about every aspect of film projection before the first show. They had shot the film using digital cameras and we, of course, had just installed the latest in digital projection technology. I thought he would be pleased. Yet, the film production crew was very anxious to screen a 35mm print of the film, rather than a digital copy.

Why?

Well, the cinematographer told me that they had added grain to the digital print using a computerised process. This was done in order to simulate the grain inherent in a 35mm print and make the film look more natural and alive, but the problem was that the image was still dead in a way that could never happen on film, not even when the image had been transferred from a digital original.

I screened the 35mm print, of course, and everyone was happy. What’s really interesting, though, is that several other film-makers approached me and the festival with similar opinions and requests. If a 35mm print was available, they much preferred it to a digital copy on a hard disk. Some went to the trouble of producing a 35mm print for the festival only.

Which means, of course, that while film-makers may still consider 35mm superior and make a print for film festivals only, what the audiences now have to get used to is digital technology. They do it to save money, of course. It costs a fortune to make and distribute heavy 35mm prints, requiring skilled projectionists at cinemas instead of low-level ushers clicking on Play.
Not only will the quality be lower but the risk of something going wrong without anyone in the cinema being able to fix the problem will be higher.

Me, I think that this will eventually marginalise cinemas, because that same quality of presentation can be achieved at home, but with the added bonuses of Fast Forward and Pause buttons, cold beverages from the fridge and the ability to share that digital image with others.

What do you think?