Topic: Film Lives...in Toronto
Master Film Handler
From: Peoria, IL, USA
Registered: Jul 2001
posted 01-29-2017 01:15 PM
Reel devotion: Digital may have won the war, but the desire and love for film remains bigger than nostalgia
Calum Marsh | January 27, 2017 4:46 PM ET
Canada's National Post
A friend of mine spent the holidays visiting family in Exeter, New Hampshire, and while there dropped by the local theatre to take in a movie. But almost as soon as it began he noticed a problem: the picture was exceedingly dark. So he did as any vigilant moviegoer would and asked to speak to someone in management. The manager was sympathetic but unhelpful. “Someone must have left the 3D filter on from an earlier showing,” he explained. “If it’s on during a 2D movie, it darkens the screen.” My friend asked if the projectionist could remove it now, so that he could at least enjoy the rest of the film. The manager sighed. “No, no. I’d have to go up to the booth to change it myself,” he said. “No projectionists work here anymore.”
This is not a feature peculiar to the cinemas of Exeter. Projectionists have long since vanished all across the world. Mainstream theatre chains such as Cineplex and AMC do not employ them in their thousands of multiplexes any longer. Even independent rep houses have for the most part done away with the trade: many of them were obliged to let their full-time projectionists go when they made the transition to digital toward the end of the last decade. Digital projectors don’t require any specialized training to operate – even the custodial staff can run up to the booth and push play.
Film StripsRecently I paid a visit to the state-of-the-art projection booths at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Suspended above a trio of cinemas on the third floor looms the fascinating command headquarters, which has the slick, expensive-looking mystique of a NASA control room, and is teeming still with the last remaining holdouts of what appears to be a dying breed – full-time projectionists of the old-school, a whole team of them, lugging hefty reels of 35mm film around and threading prints through massive, antique machines.
It’s a place of intriguing contradiction. On the one hand, it’s all so sophisticated and ultra-modern, glittering with deluxe glamour. On the other hand, it’s rife with relics from another age. There are workbenches with lamps and illuminated tables. There are colossal metal canisters stacked up in towering piles. There are blinking banks of futuristic computers, like something out of a science-fiction movie. And there are projectors: sleek black digital gimmicks next to huge, complex analog wonders from the days of yore. It’s equal parts multiplex and museum.
That the Lightbox houses a private collection of outmoded arcana may be well and good for historical posterity. But the Lightbox isn’t a museum. It’s a cinema. And it continues, in 2017, to buck the trend of digital ubiquity and actually project movies new and old on 35mm film. Indeed, film is at the foundation of their daily programming, and they have shown a deep, unflagging commitment to sourcing, maintaining and projecting proper prints whenever possible. To take a recent example, 21 of the 24 features screening as part of their current seasonal retrospective, Volcano: The Films of Anna Magnani, will be presented on 35mm.
Such programs matter a great deal to the people behind the cinema. But why?
Cinephiles take the preference for granted. Filmmakers, analog diehards like Christopher Nolan and Alex Ross Perry especially, talk often of their distaste for digital and their affection for traditional film. But should the average moviegoer honestly care? I sat down with James Quandt, senior programmer at the Lightbox, and Brad Deane, senior manager of film programmes at TIFF, to try to better understand the appeal. Exactly how does a movie shown on film differ from a movie shown digitally? And why should the former be preferred?
“You can get technical,” says Quandt. “You can talk about grain. You can talk about the depths of colour registration. You can talk about the ‘sensuousness’ of film as compared to digital. But here’s the big mystery for me. There are films I’ve seen a dozen times that have always affected me emotionally, have devastated me, that just do not have the same effect on me when I see them projected digitally. I can’t explain that. It’s the same movie! It’s the same story! But there’s something different. I am really struck by this. We react to these formats differently on an emotional level.”
“There are specific differences,” Deane agrees. “There’s no shutter on a digital projector. With a shutter, there’s actually space between the frames that you’re watching, and that doesn’t exist on a digital movie. I think that spaces allows you to participate more.” He catches himself and laughs. “I don’t know if that actually means anything, what I just said. But I do think there’s something about it that’s hard to explain.” Most people I know who care about this sort of thing tend to feel similarly. It’s difficult to account for precisely why film is better than digital. It just feels unequivocally like it is.
You see this a lot with record collectors and people who contest the supposed superiority of Spotify or MP3s. Argue the technical specifics as much as you please, but at the end of the day the preference is deeply, unshakably emotional. The people want what they want.
Film StripsThe Lightbox is one of the few places in Canada with a team of full-time projectionists on staff. (They’re even unionized, part of IATSE Local 58.) They have a dedicated full-time reviser, whose job it is to inspect each film print as it arrives; the reviser runs a reel from beginning to end through his fingers on a light table with a motor control, scrutinizing it for serious scuffs or abrasions, and especially for broken perforations, just one of which could disengage a print from the projector and bring a screening to a halt. In this way, each print the Lightbox is trusted with is carefully and meticulously preserved. The reviser even fixes little cuts and tears by splicing faulty frames out and patching reels up with bits of tape.
James King, senior booth manager at the Lightbox, gave me the grand behind-the-scenes tour. King does much of his work in a small glass box decked out with computer monitors that hangs several storeys up from the lobby and looks out over half the building. Standing there with a headset on, he looks like Holly Hunter feeding lines to William Hurt in Broadcast News. It’s his duty to oversee the work of the projectionists and ensure that every film screening that day unfurls without a hitch – literally and figuratively.
The Lightbox, King told me, was expensively furnished with projectors and other analog gear from a German manufacturer called Kinoton, the industry-standard purveyor of such equipment – until they stopped producing 35mm projectors in 2012. That was when King called them up and asked if they’d sell him their remaining inventory. “What do you need?” they asked him. He shot back: “What do you have?” “We effectively cleaned them out of parts,” King says. They’ve been indispensable since, whenever a machine on hand is need of repair.
But while King maintains that this is all very durable, long-lasting equipment – it hardly needs any upkeep or maintenance at all – the loss of Kinoton is as discouraging to those who wish for the longevity of film as any other alarm. It’s like the projectionists themselves: these guys mainly came up in the 1970s and 1980s, when you couldn’t work the booth without an 800-hour apprenticeship and a license handed out after passing a government exam. They had expertise. They had skills. They were proficient craftsmen no different than mechanics or electricians.
The licenses were abolished in 2000 under the Red Tape Reduction Act, which was introduced as a corporate deregulation measure and which was lobbied for at great expense by theatre chains such as Famous Players, who felt they would no longer have to pay the trained professionals so much if they could instead hire people to do the same job without training. Thereafter, aspiring projectionists with any serious desire to honour the trade could learn only by example, picking up the knowledge second-hand working under their elders.
Film Strips I watched a projectionist run a reel. When one reel ends and another begins, it’s the projectionist’s job to switch them; and when it’s time for that to happen, as anyone who’s seen Fight Club can tell you, a little blip or cue mark pops up in the upper right corner, signalling the moment to change. Mess this up and the entire screening is spoiled. Nail it and nobody notices, but everyone enjoys.
“Getting it right is a matter of fractions of a second,” King tells me. “You have to get a feel for it. The only way is to do it hundreds and hundreds of times.” This kind of expertise – the kind that not only promises a smooth screening, with elegant reel changes and nary a hiccup to observe, but also the kind that protects the prints and guarantees their endurance for another night – has never been more important. It’s also never been more rare.
Back in the booth, the projectionists are hard at work threading the archival prints up and satisfying this new surge in niche-audience demand. But actually getting your hands on a movie on film is no easy task: prints are hard to come by, those who own them are reluctant to lend them out and even if a programmer manages to track down the movies they want, persuade their owners to give them up and arrange for the goods to be shipped over, physically handling and caring for the prints in question is a challenge undertaken with much stress and at great expense. Every step of the process is a burden. What ends up showing at your local cinematheque on 35mm is invariably the product of arduous work.
It starts with what Deane calls the “detective work” of rep programming. “When we decide what we want, we have to search. Our usual sources, increasingly, are fellow archives, because many of the sources that existed even five years ago have withdrawn their prints from circulation because they realize now how precious they are. Archives are tightening up loans; some studios have completely withdrawn their print holdings and will only loan out digital copies.” Tracking down that mid-70s Brian De Palma curio isn’t a matter of simply phoning up MGM. You’ve got to find someone who has it and would be willing to hand it over for a week. That demands savvy. That demands trust.
But receiving a print doesn’t always guarantee that it can be screened. Reels are misplaced; canisters of film go missing en route. The copy of The Nightwatch headed to the Rembrandt show at the National Gallery will of course be insured for many tens of millions dollars and be under armed guard nonstop; the copy of Au Hasard Balthazar making its way to the Vancouver Cinematheque on 35mm, however valuable it may be to the film community, remains at the mercy of the fine people at FedEx. Things can happen. “We’ve found missing reels under conveyor belts in UPS transfer stations a month after we lost them,” Quandt says. “Sometimes entire movies just disappear.”
Quandt can regale you with film-print horror stories. There have been times when foreign-language movies have turned up without working subtitles; there was the time when Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face turned up with only subtitles, and no image. An incredibly rare Robert Bresson print vanished on its way from Toronto to its next destination, never to be found again.
Once Quandt got a call from the projection booth just before Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 931-minute Berlin Alexanderplatz was to be screened: “The print had been shipped from Germany and the reels had not been secured. It all unwound in the box. Fifteen hours of film – all spaghetti.” The possibilities are truly endless. And that’s to say nothing of what could happen if the print does arrive.
Film StripsA reel of 35mm film is not exactly fragile: the polyester of which most prints are made can be twisted, bent or stretched without sustaining damage, and you couldn’t tear it in two with your hands if you tried. But it is susceptible to catastrophe of other kinds.
It can burn up in a projector, as the print of Rebel Without a Cause does on Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s romantic date in the middle of La La Land. It can be scuffed, scratched or marked with oily fingerprints if mishandled. Time alone can wreak all sorts of havoc: prints fade, darken, even change colours if left untouched in poor conditions for a long period of time. They can wind up looking beet-red or bleached or blackened. A reel that languishes in its canister in a damp basement for decades may melt and fuse into a celluloid blob.
Film shrinks. It warps. It disintegrates. It is not long for this world. Which makes the people who handle film – the projectionists disappearing at an alarming rate – more valuable to a place like the Lightbox than ever. Where digital has taken over the profession has faded into obsolescence. Where it’s still needed, it’s never been more in demand.
Is all this effort – this enormous expense, arduous maintenance and hair-pulling detective work – worthwhile? To hear the people behind the Lightbox tell it, very much so.
The all-film retrospectives organized routinely by the Lightbox, Quandt tells me, have become hugely attractive to moviegoers, not only in Toronto but all over North America and beyond. “A decade ago,” Quandt recalls, “archivists were talking about the possibility that a major film retrospective – let’s say Fritz Lang, all on 35mm – would eventually take on the status of a blockbuster museum show, where people would actually travel to be able see the films in their original format, projected the way they should be.”
Indeed that happened. As traditional theatres vanished and prints fell into widespread disuse, a film retrospective of any kind became a rarity, making every one that emerged a special event. It all just happened rather faster than the archivists once dreamed. “Film is now a selling point. It’s essential to any retrospective.”
Digital may have won the war for mainstream supremacy, but in its loss, film has become more than a mere martyr. The desire to see flickers of light and hear scratchy sound represents something bigger than simple nostalgia; something larger than a need to connect to the tangible in an increasingly digital world.
To search for it. To care for it. To screen it. Film requires devotion. And as anyone who has ever cherished anything knows, devotion is more often than not an unparalleled reward in its own right.
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