Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Memorium: A Quiet Eulogy

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

- Dylan Thomas

There is a death permeating, slowly - over the course of the past year especially - that
hasn't really been spoken about and, unless you're in the business, you wouldn't really know to think about it. Really, to a lot of you, this kind of death seems like an obvious transition, something that of course makes sense in our modern times but there is something distinctly sad about this death, this passing.

I speak, in no uncertain terms, about 35mm film projectors.

In cinemas.

Back in high school, I used to work at the Cinemas in Chatswood. It was a pretty good job for  someone my age, with a decent wage ($10.50p/hour) and the staff benefit of two free movie tickets every day. They didn't stack, but still, it was pretty great for dating.

At the bottom of the food chain were people like me - snacks salespeople, ticket tearers, cinema cleaners - and then supervisors and managers. But somewhere in the middle, were the mysterious folk known as Projectionists. These guys got to dress in black polo shirts and spent the whole day up in the Projection Room where they would stick the reels of film onto the projector and click on, making sure to change the reel at the right time. For every film. In every cinema.

I had only ever seen the Projection Room once, on my tour of the cinema when I first got my job. It was at the top of the fire stairs. It was the goal of almost every popcorn monkey on staff to become a Projectionist.

You worked with the films.

You were the bringer of magic to the masses!

And, more importantly, you worked on your own.

Away from other staff.

Away from the managers.

Away. From. The. Public.

It was basically Hoyts' version of Living the Dream.

Movies are such a big part of who I am that this job was perfect for me. Unfortunately, I ended up leaving Hoyts before I got to Projectionist, but that's a story for another day.

I remember being awed by the dark, musty room at the top of the fire stairs, above all the cinemas. It smelled like film varnish and sticky tape. The loud "click-click-clicking" and shuttering of the projectors echoed throughout the cement walls of it. It was the tiny, magic place where dreams spewed forth in a stream of light, onto the screen and into my brain.

There was something inherently - again, for lack of better words - magical about seeing the reels change, sticking the different parts of film together to make sure the film was snipped together right. There was also a joy in keeping tiny, discarded pieces of snipped off film as a memento from whatever film - it was usually the "3, 2, beep" from the start of the film, but still, it was a part of the film and it was yours.

A friend of mine - we'll call her Emily - still works as a Hoyts Projectionist. Recently, she told me something upsetting.

"We're getting rid of all the old projectors," she said. "They're replacing them with digital versions."

"What?" I could hardly believe it.

"Yeah, it's all going onto hard drives. We even called our distributors to tell them not to send us anymore film."

It was impossible. Replace the Projectionist?

"They have me working candy bar now," she said, taking a sip of her drink. "I get to wear a manager's uniform and boss the underlings around, but still."

"But you still have to go up and press the play button, right?" I edged closer. "Right?"

"Nope," she sighed here. "It's all on an automated schedule. We just sometimes have to go up and make sure it's all running okay."

She said she wanted to show me, and that she had something to give me. We left the bar and we walked to the cinema. I hadn't been in the building in years but I remembered the smell of the trash room elevator. She swiped her card and we went up. Magical Projection Level 3A.

I got a small nervous excitement - I was going to see the Projection Room again! The elevator doors opened onto the cold. I remembered the constant air conditioning to keep the projectors cool and to prevent the film from burning or catching alight. But this was a different cool. I knew this cool.

This was Server Room cool - the air conditioned sanctity of the IT guy's domain. Emily switched the light on and where there were once rows of these huge, classical behemoths stood boxes with flashing lights and a small screen, shooting out the film onto the screen. Next to it stood another giant black box that I recognized as a hard drive hub.

"Oh, geez," I said, looking at it. "It's so cold."

"Yeah, doesn't have the same mystique, does it?"

"Not at all."

I turned and Emily fetched something out from her locker. An bright, orange wheel wrapped in dark brown.

"Here," she said, handing the weighty thing over to me. "I found it in the garbage and I just couldn't leave it there. I saw it and thought of you and knew you want it."

What I held in my hands, dear readers, was a reel of 35mm film.

"What's on it?" I didn't take my eyes off it.

"Nothing," she said, closing her locker. "It's a dud reel, nothing on it, a tester or whatever. We always get at least one. And they always have that lady in the first 3 frames."

I looked at it in the light and, sure enough, a lady in a red blazer smiled back at me and then an endless nothing of varnished brown.

"It's heavy, but it's yours if you want it."

I couldn't thank her enough. 

I rode home on the train with it in my lap, smiling. Scrawled on the side was, "STOP! Do not put BLUE FILM on here." And I smiled. I didn't know what blue film was, but I didn't care. There was something about it all that made me smile.

So, goodnight, I say, to you Projectors and Projectionists and 35mm film. Rest easy. No more are the days of cigarette burns at the top of the screen to indicate the change of reel; no more are the days of scratches and burns and character in the film print; no more can Tyler Durden splice into you single frames of pornography to shock the movie-goers and their children.

It may seem like a little thing to you, dear readers, but to me, it's everything.



  1. I understand what you're saying and I've experienced the same problem. Luckily I got out just as the transition was beginning, but it was clear to everyone where the future lay int he cinema industry.

    That being said, I am more hesitant than you to proclaim the death of 35mm: we just have to look at the history of film itself to realize that this probably won't happen. Silent film, black and white, even certain genre's all experienced their own 'deaths' at some point or another over the last hundred years, but they are still around and thriving (a -mostly- silent, black and white film just won best picture at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, and is nominated for the same at the Oscars, for example).

    The point is that the industry is in a transitional period that will see 35mm film not die, but move, like the others, into the real of independent, auteur and art film. Simply put, instead of dying out, 35mm film will move out of the mainstream and in to the realm of artists and culture-makers.

    And while it will mean it is less easily accessible, it will bolster the status of film (35mm especially) as a cultural artefact, and legitimise its use and the creation of high art (not unlike the time near the end of the silent and black and white eras where we saw some amazing things done with then supposedly obsolete medium). In addition, and to play devil's advocate somewhat, the advent of digital technology (not just in display, but also in production) gives the industry a chance to experiment and create some dazzling things we had never even considered in film before — though I concede we've yet to see any of these.

    And now, since I realise I'm rambling, I'll leave with this: despite the changes in the cinema industry, there is a culture of hanging on to pieces of nostalgia — the people on the ground (camera operators, editors, cinematographers etc) have a deep respect for their industry-heritage. If you'll allow me just one example: in the old days when the projector had to manually switch between each reel, there was a small black dot (called a cue mark or, in fight club terms, a cigarette burn) in the upper right corner around 8 seconds before the reels had to be changed. Although relying on multiple reels and manual changes has long since fallen out of fashion, we still continued to see the cue marks on every print that was was tradition. And sometimes (though I'll admit it isn't as common) you do still get these included in digital films.

    1. I am, admittedly, being a tad melodramatic. That article was originally written when I was in the throes of holding the reel of film and seeing the digital projector and feeling like it was going out the way of film in still cameras.

      I completely agree that 35mm will remain as a cultural artifact and will be elevated to high art status, just like its still-frame cousin. I know film-people have a deep respect for this part of cinema history - for example, Quentin Tarantino owns a cinema in the USA and he says "As long as I am rich and own a share in this cinema, we will only show 35mm films" which, I have to say, is pretty great.

      It was more, I felt, a dramatic turn for something less interesting, something more impersonal - like the rise of e-book readers (despite what they HAVE done for modern writers).

      I also find it sad that the projectionist is less of the mythical beast of the cinema, and more of a guy who pushes "play" now.

      I agree with everything you're saying, but I still find it sad to see 35mm leave cinemas, you know?

  2. I definitely agree, and I am not at all happy about the move, especially when it is done so (relatively) suddenly, and almost across-the-board. And most of the projectionists don't even push play anymore: mostly its the managers that do that, and the projectionists are either out of work or cleaning up coke spills with the 15-year-olds downstairs.

    I just also appreciate the fact that now that the mainstream industry has moved on to its new toy-of-the-week, it gives the rest of us — amateurs, independents, whatever, — a chance to make 35mm our own, and to finally not only treat the medium with the respect it deserves, but also allow it to realize its full potential as a form of artistic expression.

    Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate that you wrote this, the industry didn't give us much warning, and so we now need to deal with the consequences of this new technology like this: and it seems like there has been little to no dialogue surrounding this outside of Hollywood. So, thank you.

    1. Sorry, I meant that as a reply to the previous, not as a new comment.

    2. That was the most shocking thing, wasn't it? The suddenness of it. The immediacy. That's true, from what I've heard, it is the managers doing the "play" pushing now and projectionists are popcorn monkeys again. It's a shame.

      Toy of the week - that's exactly right. Couldn't have said it better. And yes, just like when digital replaced film in cameras, the artists/amateurs/independents can now flourish with this wonderful medium.

      From what I understand, there was no dialogue about it, you're right. It was pretty much "this is how we're doing it now" and that was that.

      Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the article! :)