During the much publicized run of Quentin Tarantino’s new 70mm film The Hateful Eight, Steppenwolf staff members Greta Honold and Joel Moorman popped into The Music Box’s projection booth to chat with three of their projectionists, Julian Antos, Daniel Knox and Rebecca Lyon, about the mechanics, history and beauty of film, and the contentious transition to digital.
1. 35mm (was) the standard.
For most of the 20th century, 35mm, the kind of film shown at the movie theater featured in The Flick, was the most common film size for projection in movie houses because it offered the best quality in the most economical fashion. Film is developed through a photochemical process, a series of still images printed onto film stock that then moves through a projector. Most theaters now screen what is called a DCP or “digital cinema package,” which is basically just a container for a series of files, delivered on a small hard drive, downloaded onto a server, and then projected.
2. Film is over 100 years old.
The film industry was born at the end of the 19th century. In the early decades of American cinema 200 to 300 prints of a film would be created and distributed to movie houses, mainly in urban areas,and there were many small production facilities working all across the country. According to Antos, the late 1970’s marked a major turning point. The film industry boomed and Kodak became the primary film manufacturer, cranking out tons of film each day and destroying smaller production facilities in the process. This made it increasingly difficult to create small batches of film, and initiated the widening gulf between mainstream and what we’d now call “independent” film. It also showed the strong effect economic interests can have on the film industry, arguably foreshadowing the shift from film to digital.
3. In 2016, digital rules.
Over the last decade the lm industry has seen a sudden and sweeping transition from film to digital projection, largely driven by economics. With digital projection, everything is operated by computers, not people. And there’s no need to maintain and staff facilities that create the physical film. The way the transition occurred was, in Lyon’s words, “a bit sinister.” The transition was prompted and largely dictated by the studios, and supported by the major exhibitors and digital projector manufacturers, all of whom benefitted economically from the switch. No filmmakers were consulted. An argument can be made that the quality of film is
better than digital in terms of resolution. According to Knox, you can see the difference clearly in dissolves, and when the camera moves quickly. Yet Antos, Knox and Lyon don’t see digital projection itself as the problem. The quality is still, overall, high. The problem is that we have all been forced to choose between digital and film. Lyon asks, “Can’t we have both?”
4. Film is beautiful.
When asked why we should care about preserving film, Antos, Knox and Lyon acknowledged that it’s a qualitative argument. “It’s just beautiful,” says Antos. Its physical object is beautiful, the very human skill of projecting film is beautiful, and the experience of watching film is, to them, an irreplaceable experience. Lyon says, “There are contrast differences and color differences. You can define these things numerically... but I know that I am happy when I am sitting in a theater watching a beautiful 35mm film being projected.”
5. And many people agree.
Antos, Knox and Lyon are not alone in their love for film and sadness about its inevitable demise. And it does feel inevitable. “We are losing,” says Lyon. But from their perch at The Music Box they see a lot of young people in particular seeking out the film experience. And as The Hateful Eight flickered and rolled in the background of our conversation, they spoke excitedly about the efforts being made by high- profile filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and particularly Christopher Nolan, to push back on the studios to keep film alive. There seems to be general agreement that at this point the shift to digital can never be reversed. And no one here was arguing for that. But these projectionists, and audience members and filmmakers across the country, seem to feel that this alternative movie watching experience which has defined much of film’s history, needs to be kept alive.
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