Monday, February 11, 2013

Last Men Standing

With so many movies being shot on digital these days, is it the end for film cameras? New documentary Side by Side, produced by Keanu Reeves, investigates the history, process and workflow of both digital and photochemical film creation. We talked to Paul Markey, IFI Projectionist, about the importance of grainy 35mmm film, old-school projectors and the future of cinema exhibition.   

Side by Side, screening from February 15th - 21st at the IFI

What’s so special about 35mm? Don’t we all care for quality and convenience these days? 

It’s not as cut and dried as you would imagine. 35mm and, more specifically, all its flaws became the universal cinema aesthetic these last hundred years. ‘Flaws’, such as graininess, can now be instantly corrected by digital conversion – in the case of old films, or never exist at all – in the case of new movies shot digitally. I think we are in a time of evolution in what is regarded as a quality picture. Many old films have been converted to digital with awful results – scrubbed of their grain and all slick and shiny. Even new movies, shot and released digitally, can suffer certain blandness when the final picture ends up on screen. So what defines a ‘quality’ image is in flux and has never been more in the eye of the beholder.

Becoming a projectionist doesn’t sound like an obvious career choice. Why did you choose this job? 

My father instilled in me a love of movies, so it's in my blood. Retired now, he worked as a Stand In and assistant to actors (he was Daniel Day Lewis' assistant on My Left Foot and got kicked in the face by Sean Connery during The Great Train Robbery). I supposed that's been my indirect root to show business!  I hate popcorn, but I like to write and am a bit of a night owl so I found a home in projection booths.  Plus ultimately, it’s the projectionist not the director, who has final cut!

Are all projectionists obsessed with cinema – you must have seen hundreds if not thousands of films?

The biggest surprise I found when first working in a cinema was that most people weren't film fanatics.  It was just a job. This is true of many projectionists, or they might be tech-heads and like working with the equipment.  For me it is all about the films. Embedded in that is a drive to put the picture on screen in the correct ratio - many cinemas take a very flippant approach to this, especially when it comes to trailers - and decent sound levels (harder than you think!). After serving time in a multiplex for 10 years, I realised that one's taste can become polluted and standards systematically lowered.  One has to strike a balance between the fast food of movies and the nourishment of film.  I love all genres and all types.  Some of my all-time favourites would be:  O Lucky Man, Subway, Yeopgi Girl, Sons of the Desert, Police Story, California Split, Mr. Vampire.

Working in the projection room, you’re watching the audiences’ backs from above. Any memorable stories to tell or any anecdotes from the dark side to share? 

Adults tend not to look up at where the light is coming from, but kids do all the time.  Over the years I've seen fights break out, been blinded by laser-pens, seen whole screens thrashed by thugs (on the opening night of the Veronica Guerin movie, the audience cheered and clapped when she was shot and wrecked the screen when the credits rolled). Oh, and the ratio of Irish male pattern-baldness remains about 3 to 1!  Don't get me started on cell phones...

The IFI is the only cinema in the country screening films in all possible formats – from Digibeta, DVD, Blu-ray and DCP, to 8, 16, 35 or 70mm. Why is it so important to maintain all these different forms of projection?

‘Grainy film’, as I mentioned at the start, is a flaw that is now an aesthetic element of the film picture.  This debate continues to rage as film stock is converted to DCPs and Blu-ray. The grain can be easily removed, but should it?  Also as regards digital, there is still little future-proofing.  I could easily lace up and project a film print struck 50 years ago, but decades from now will hard drives, servers and file compression be the same?  Nope.  It’s a big problem facing digital preservation.  In the short term we've gained a lot.  Many films are being restored and distributed widely thanks to the cost-effectiveness of digital cinema but we face big questions in the long term.  Our Blu-ray players and servers require regular updating as the file structure software changes, or they cease to function.  The lumbering film projectors, with a dash of oil and a bit of care, have been turning for years and will, at least in the IFI, continue to do so.

Side by Side is opening from February 15th – 21st, EXCLUSIVELY at the IFI. There will be a special screening of The Last Projectionist on February 16th (14.30) & 17th (16.20). 


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  2. Means and ends. We can have both these technologies simultaneously. And what should be good about this synergy is that the digital won't be pitted with the analogue; rather one supplants the other, by giving each other means for preservation. It's the information that counts, and however it should be kept and maintained, is what the industry should ought to be working on in the future. Especially since the worry behind digital isn't tradition or aesthetic, so much as the longevity of the material itself, like how this will be guaranteed by the digital medium itself.

    Ruby Badcoe