Sunday, December 12, 2010

Death of the Projectionist?

I went to the movies tonight and saw Easy A. Both the film, and all the ads and trailers were in digital.

This has got me wondering - is my former trade (as a projectionist) now just a relic?

I've known for years that the extinction of projectionists was inevitable - it is one of the reasons I got off my ass and went to uni - but I'm pretty sure all of the films I've seen this year (excluding the festival films) have been in digital.

This blows my mind. I know that not all movies are released in digital - but to be honest, when I left projection (in 2008), films like Easy A and Tomorrow When The War Began just wouldn't have been released in this format, primarily because there were not enough projectors capable of playing them. Purely because the most basic equipment of a cinema was a 35mm projector, 35mm film was the delivery mode of choice, and 35mm meant more work for projectionists.

Sylvia Park was the first cinema in New Zealand to embrace digital projectors. I opened that place and believe me, digital cinema (once it worked - it took a few months to shake the bugs) was a GOD SEND. The digital projection process, when compared it 35mm, could be run by anyone with basic computer literacy. 35mm required knowledge and experience because so many things could go wrong. When it arrived, the only problem with this new-fangled digital technology was that the ad provider did not provide digital ads, and the distribution companies rarely provided digital trailers. We still had to run 35mm film for the ads and the trailers, followed by a digital feature.

Now, however, it seems everything is controlled by the digital system. This wipes out most of the responsibilities taken care of by the projectionist. There is no 'ad day' - the painful weekly task of removing all the ads and trailers from every movie in the complex (up to 20 movies in one week), and reassembling them into the new combinations, in the specified order, without fucking it up (examples of 'fucking it up' include upside down ads, and ads with no sound).

There is no 'making up' or 'breaking down' of films. Perhaps not right now, but very soon, only a small minority of films will require 35mm procedures. Digital films don't need checking. You can't permanently ruin a digital film with a simple, momentary mistake. Everything can be run from an office with cameras on the screen and a centralised automation system. 35mm will still be used in many cinemas and countries for years to come, but slowly this will be reduced as cinemas upgrade to better, easier technology and studios release more and more films in the format.

It makes me sad because I always thought of projection as somewhat of an art form. Every night or day I worked, I entertained thousands of people. I made the show happen. I used to sneak into cinemas to laugh or jump with an audience at my favourite bits. I would watch my favourite scenes over and over from my bio booth. If things went wrong my body would surge with adrenalin. People were often surprised at my running, jumping, and stair-climbing ability when something hit the fan. With multiple cinemas to look after, over multiple floors, I was constantly running, In my spare moments I taught anyone who was interested about how everything worked, because I loved projection. I loved the people I worked with, I loved the energy I needed to have. I loved it when everything went right, and I loved to hate it when everything went wrong. I was (and still am) passionate about it.

I don't have rose-tinted glasses on here, there were things I hated about the places I worked, but I loved being a projectionist.

It sounds daft, but I felt like each projector I worked with had its own personality. Some I liked, some I hated. Over my career I worked with 33 different projectors regularly and each and every one was different. I know digital comes with its problems, but they will not have the same problems we faced with 35mm because the number of things which can go wrong is more limited. For example, you cannot scratch and permanently ruin a digital film. You don't need to know what shit-fit cinema X is throwing today, it's a better process.

I hate to see this part of my life become a relic to technology. Much like The Beatles on vinyl, some movies are just better on film. Digital is awesome, and I have always thought it was an incredible step forward, but the death of the projectionist only makes me sad.

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow. I had no idea. This is a great post, I love how much of you is in it. I hear what you are saying Kat. To me, this is exactly why I make my own bread. Why I make jam and the like. It sounds to me like the primal, raw energy that went to the mechanical process really struck a chord with you. I have often thought of being a projectionist as quite a romantic thing.

    Thanks for sharing

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