With the news that Fujifilm is no longer making film for the cinema industry
now would be a good time to post my personal history of 35mm film.
Although I never got to shoot with film, I have had a long affection for it that has only increased since it was pretty much killed off by digital. I’m not a Luddite by any stretch, but film has heart, it’s something you can touch and a great 70mm presentation still looks better than the highest definition digital presentation.
One of the joys of working at a cinema before the digital revolution took over completely (in fact, probably the only joy) was being able to work in projection with 35mm film. Although it was hard work and often frustrating (especially when the film would break, scratch or get tangled up – which was often) there was an undeniable excitement when those rusty old cans (which had probably been used for decades) turned up containing the reels that made up a film. Six reels was the average, four of five for a kid’s film and nine or ten for some Lord of the Rings style epic. We would take those cans over to the work bench where we would assemble them as quickly as possible (usually the prints would arrive less than 24 hours before the film had to be on screen).
Most reels would arrive “heads up”, but occasionally we would find some “tails up” reels mixed in. These would have to be rewound at the aptly named “Rewind bench” so that all the prints were the same orientation (prints always go head to tail, unless you want your audience to be very confused). If we were building heads first (i.e. from reel 1 to the final reel) we would also have to build a trailer pack before (in the rare case where we found reels all tails up, you could build the trailers last). This was actually the most difficult part of the process, where we would take the small rolls of film that made up the trailers and splice them together. Since trailers make frequent use of fades in and out, it would often be difficult to see exactly where the last frame was. Splice it out frame and suddenly the audience would see the image run off the top or bottom of the screen.
The splicer was a nifty little gadget with sprockets that would hold the perforated edges of the film in place and a blade on the side for cutting film. We would place two pieces of film in the center of the splicer, join them with a piece of yellow tape and then press down on the handle to cut the tape. In theory this worked great. Except when I couldn’t match the frame lines on the two pieces of film or the tape wouldn’t cut and I ended up throwing the splicer against the wall and breaking it even more.
We would splice together the trailers (cutting out the headers and footers of each one which would make horrible noises if they were allowed to run through the projector) and then start assembling them on a house reel (a big reel that could usually hold three or four of the smaller reels). Once the trailers were done, which always took longer than expected, we would start assembling the film using the same process. Once we had assembled all the reels that could fit on the house reel, then would come the most fun (and scary part) – rewinding the reels onto another house reel so they were in the heads up orientation needed to load it at the actual projector.
You would think rewinding the big reel (which even at full speed usually took about 5-10 minutes) would be a good time to have a cup of tea and watch some movies. But you would be wrong. Invariably, the moment I turned my back the film would slip off the reel or get tangled up in something and I’d have a whole section of the film chewed up or torn that I had to cut out. I still have around two seconds (48 frames) of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I that I had to cut out when that exact thing happened. Don't know if anyone in the audience noticed the film was a little "jumpy".
Once the film had rewound, we would have to do the same thing with the remaining reels. We would then have to carry or roll those heavy suckers over to the platter at the projector where the film would play (or screen for employees, when they still allowed us to). To load the film onto the platter (a set of three giant spinning wheels at each projector) we would put the house reel onto a makeup table, a motorized device that wound the film onto the platter. We would have to set the correct height and then let it go. Slow speeds were best, to avoid accidents and allow us to work on the other reels while the first ones were loading.
Once the entire film was wound onto the platter (which could take up to half an hour depending on how fast the operator was willing to go) we would then have to thread it through the various rollers that led to the projector and then all the little cogs and plates inside the machine itself. I won’t bore you with the details; suffice it to say that threading a projector was an art in itself, and one that took a while to learn to do off by heart.
One the film was threaded and in frame it was time to start it up (checking there was no slack or over tightness along the path that might cause it to shut down or damage the film). Usually we could hit the autostart button, the motor would start turning and the lamp would cut on, projecting the image in the auditorium (hopefully the right way up unless we had threaded it wrong).
Once the film was on screen, that wasn’t the end of our worries, though. A bad splice (where the tape connects two pieces of film) could cause the film to jump out of frame or even stop. The worst thing that ever happened to me was during a show of Hancock. One of the rollers actually ripped off the wall during the show and basically shredded half of the film. When the film got damaged we would have to order new prints which could take days.
When a film left, the process would reverse itself; we would break the film down into its individual reels and place it back in the cans to ship back to the studio. We would often take less care breaking the movie down then we did building it, but I never heard any complaints about the condition of the prints.
There was a brief golden age where managers could work in projection and get away from whatever craziness was going on downstairs in the lobby. It was a fortress of solitude, with only the soothing whir of the projector motors to keep us company. Even on crazy nights (like when The Dark Knight opened and we were struggling to get six+ prints built before the midnight show and having to interlock them between screens using a complex maze of film) there was a sense of camaraderie and fun between projectionists. Then it all went to hell.
As we converted our screens to digital, there was less and less to do in projection. Splicing film was replaced by the far less romantic process of droppings digital files on a playlist. There was less danger, and the whole thing was a lot quicker. But there was no art to it. And no joy of watching a movie that was assembled and projected by hand. Just a computer schedule deciding when to turn on a movie. The death of film coincided with the death of any enjoyment of my job.
Managers were kicked out of projection. Why have high paid staff up there when a trained monkey could start a digital projector? Removing the managers from projection was just an excuse to lay off staff. I’d say being a part of the projectionist union might have saved those jobs, but I’m sure that union has gone the way of the dodo too. We were also no longer allowed to get paid to screen movies before the public, which meant if there were any problems the paying customers would be the ones to complain. Then projectionists were taken away completely, once they got the bugs out of the autostart system. It was the last job in cinema that was a technical craft, and its retirement was the end of an era.
I like digital, but its greatest strengths are also its greatest weakness. Yes, it allows anyone who wants to make a feature film to do with so with a minimum of cost and effort, but that takes away some of the thought behind making a movie, since you no longer have to worry about wasting celluloid. That's one of the reasons we have so many terrible found footage movies being made. And yes, a digital print looks pristine every time with no scratches. But it still never looks as good as a master film print would. Then we have abominations like 48 fps. Call me old-fashioned, but I think film should look like film, not video. But you can't stop "progress".