The great exploitation director Frank Hennenlotter once told me an anecdote about the changeover of the various 42nd Street/Times Square porn houses from 35mm to video. This being the late 80s/early 90s, we’re not talking about the multi-million dollar kind of changeover that’s occurring in multiplexs the world over, but a basic addition of a large rear-screen projector (usually the kind on a stand, not the overhead ones) in front of the 35mm theater screen. The 35mm projectors would usually sit silent for months on end, but these theaters would play tapes mainly because that’s where the new product was and also because it was a hell of a lot cheaper than playing them on 35mm (theaters would occasionally screen older porn films, usually because the theaters had prints on hand). But since these theaters were smack dab in the middle of NYC, where the unions wielded a lot of power, all these places would have to employ union projectionist, all of whom were getting paid pretty good union wages to pretty much just change tapes and align rear projection monitors. Digital projection has been around for 10 years now, and while it isn’t quite as simple as changing tapes around, having now experienced how it really works it firsthand (beyond merely as a member of the audience), I can’t help but think about how it really is the end of film as the predominant form of projection and needless to say, that’s more than a little sad.
My office is based out of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Village theater, and starting on Monday we had a small team of technicians (including the Alamo’s tech geniuses, Andrew McEathron and Josh Jacobs) disassembling our 35mm projectors and installing new Sony 4K digital cinema systems (we did keep one 35mm projector on hand, thank goodness). Oddly bulkier than its 35mm cousin, they look like HAL 9000s or Colossus and don’t give the impression that they’re spitting out wondrous worlds of entertainment. Having been a former projectionist myself (non-union), I always marveled at the bizarre little system a movie would go through to pass its way from platter or reel through a projector tree, then the projector and onto the screen itself. With this new system, it’s just a giant box with a little monitor screen on one end and a lens on the other, but fuck me if it doesn’t give you a superb image on that big screen. The first time I look at it at the Village (to check out one of the few decent scenes in WATCHMEN) I had no idea that the digital convergence had taken place and thought it was just the normal film print, so to say I was floored when I was told of the change later is a bit of an understatement. I am usually very nitpicky about my projection and have taken a certain amount of pride in having been able to spot digital projection or photography in the past, but these Sony 4K projectors have fooled even my trained, world-weary eyes. I’ve seen 4K projection in the past and have always been impressed, but I always felt (and still do) that top-of-the-line 35mm projections could beat it outright, so I didn’t feel any need for it. To see it here at the Alamo Village with these state-of-the-art projectors (and in 3-D, too), however, I really do feel like I’ve seen where things are going. Yes, it’s been going in this direction for quite a while, but it feels to me like it’s finally being done right, and while I can’t say I welcome the change 100%, I have to admit that it works like a son of a bitch.
I can recall going to see the first digitally projected movie (STAR WARS EPISODE 1) ten years ago and coming out impressed but not convinced it really was the future, and subsequent screenings over the years have still not turned me into a believer. I think the problem was that all too often, digital projection has looked too digital - too clean, too bright – and never enough like film. The two words I always use to describe the difference between film and digital are "depth" and "texture", and I can always feel that shooting and projecting on film (even if the movie is complete shit) can provide that, while digital very rarely can. Digital seems to me to be about clarity of image – everything is allegedly 100% clear and in focus – which probably why it all looks the same, while film requires much more craft to it, but what you get is an image that feels more substantial and multi-layered. I don’t think that most filmmakers have really been able to make something like this with digital (the exceptions being Michael Mann’s stunning HD work and Soderberg’s CHE, shot with the Sony Red camera), while with film, everything can look distinctive an unique. But with these projectors, I can feel that they’re finally getting it right. This looks like film, never once revealing its digital origins and never once taking you out of the picture with something that doesn’t feel right. This might not seem like a big deal to most any of you, but for me it’s an eye-opener and I’m ready to drink more from the well. Thankfully, the Alamo will never give up its 35mm origins, and it’s also quite nice to know that Austin’s Paramount theater can also give us screenings in beautiful 70mm when need be (I saw WEST SIDE STORY there a few months back and was blown away), while IMAX still kicks all their collective asses. But I’ve seen the future now and it’s free of dirt, is always in focus and looks just right. I’m reminded of a quote from Francois Truffaut (sorry to get all hoity-toity on you here), where he once said, “Even if a film is bad, I like to look at the scratches”, and perhaps that is a pleasure of the moviegoing experience that is fading away, but it might also be time for it to step aside. If we can make it so that you never have to worry about lousy projection ever again, that would take away some of the trepidation we sometimes feel about the experience, and perhaps we can work on getting people to shut the hell up. That would be a wonderful thing.