A Book Review by Ted Knighton.
The profession has become endangered or has been deskilled into non-existence, which is why this beginners manual is so overdue.”–from the foreword by Tacita Dean and Christopher Nolan
In 2000, I was invited to show my short, 16mm film Six Insects at a local Philadelphia festival. I didn’t know what projection format the festival would use so the night of the screening, I brought both a 16mm print and, to be on the safe side, a VHS transfer. At the festival, there were two projectors, one video and one 16mm. It was clear the projectionists preferred video and assured me their video projector was state-of-the-art. They offered to demonstrate and, wanting to be a good sport, I agreed. Watching the video projection, I had to admit the image was sharper than I’d expected – my little film looked decent. I then asked them to show me the 16mm print, and with shrugging reluctance they threaded up the film projector….
Instantly, any thought of using video was swept away.
The film’s B/W reversal stock overpowered what moments ago had looked OK. Video projection had diluted my black-and-white film to grey-and-white; the film projection restored the ink-black darks that gave depth to the landscapes and faces. Whereas the video projector made the screen flat as a Ping-Pong table, the film projector opened it like a window to another world. The projectionists had been pushing video only because it made their job a little easier.
It was surprising how, at first, the video had appeared acceptable. It was my own film, and I had forgotten how it should look. It wasn’t until I saw film and video back-to-back that I realized what I was missing.
That was in 2000, and non-analogue projection has come a long way. Digital has replaced video, and over time pixilated images have gained contrast and clarity. Without a back-to-back comparison, a viewer may be uncertain if a projection is film or digital.
So what happens when the loss is subtle or passes unnoticed? When we become accustomed to the slightly milky darks and gentle, midrange color palate? Does this change the way directors and cinematographers approach their art? Does it matter…?
Well, the good people at the George Eastman Museum think so. They’ve recently published The Art of Film Projection: A Beginner’s Guide, an illustrated manual for those who value analogue projection, who want to learn how to properly handle physical film prints and present them to an audience.
Edited by the staff of the George Eastman Museum in collaboration with the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, this book introduces the reader to the practical aspects of motion picture projection; it dissects the sprocketed anatomies of film prints and projectors, diagrams the vital organs and inter-workings of projection booths, leads us through the choreography of reel changeovers, the cleaning and maintenance of equipment, and the projectionist’s safety practices and precautions (especially with flammable nitrate prints).
For a beginning projectionist, having a clear guide is essential, as the amount of required technical instruction can be intimidating. To put a film on a screen before an audience means conducting many individual elements and integrated technologies in elaborate sequence. Realizing that every part of the machinery comes in a variety of unique, often incompatible designs can make it all seem overwhelming.
TAOFP describes how, since its birth, the motion picture migrated to different parts of the globe, where its mechanisms evolved independently. The designs and proportions of film equipment became as varied as breeds of finches on neighboring islands, producing a daunting zoology of measurements, frame rates and aspect ratios.
This language of this book is clear, non-intimidating and a pleasure to read. It handles its each subject with the meticulous care and precision.”
Despite the industry’s efforts to establish universal standards, such as 24 fps, cinema’s relentless advancement produced a multitude of innovations over its 130-year history. Audio alone split into a spectrum of white light exciter lamps, silver and cyan-dye optical tracks, infrared light and red LED readers, solar cells, Spectral Recording, Dolby multi-channel sound splitting, Digital Theater Systems that communicate with CD Rom discs through the medium of optical timecodes…. As “Chapter 2: The Projector” acknowledges, “The wide variety of audio tracks available makes it nearly impossible for venues to accommodate them all.”
To grapple with this hydra of variables, the projectionist must be equipped with an arsenal of lenses, aperture plates, masking devices and, most of all, the comprehensive knowledge to deal with anything that comes through the projection booth’s door. In this regard, a guide like TAOFP is indispensible.
This language of this book is clear, non-intimidating and a pleasure to read. It handles its each subject with the meticulous care and precision of an archival projectionist and advances us through every lesson at a measured pace; we never become tangled in technical jargon. The result is focused learning that gives the reader the competence and confidence to engage with each task of film projection.
The book does not simply instruct; it inspires. To emphasize the crucial role a projectionist plays, the editors begin the book with a letter from Stanley Kubrick. In the note he sent to movie theaters in late 1975, Kubrick reminds projectionists of the massive effort that went into the making of his film Barry Lyndon. He then entrusts them with the fate of his film: “all of this work is now in your hands, and your attention to sharp focus, good sound and the careful handling of the film will make this effort worthwhile.” (William Friedkin and David Lynch are also famous for their personal contact with projectionists).
Like Kubrick, this book instills that sense of collaboration, treating the projectionist like another member of the film crew, “an integral part of the creative process”. TAOFP calls for high standards and asserts that goal of this job should be excellence, not easiness, stating, “An impeccable projection is the ultimate fulfillment of a filmmaker’s intention”. If the aim of each film is to entrance the audience, then any error in its projection can break the spell. All Kubrick’s horses, generals and armies can be thwarted by a single hair in the gate.
As stated in the title, this book is intended for beginners; for a seasoned projectionist there are texts such as The Advanced Projection Manual by Torkell Saetervadet, that go into greater depth. Indeed, the introduction to The Art of Film Projection offers this book as “an introductory manual, whose aim is to present the essential aspects of film projection in clear, concise and accessible terms for the benefit of those who wish to acquire the skills” of a projectionist.
This book is an attractive invitation, and the beauty of its graphic design matches the elegance of its language. Its vintage B/W stills have an exacting, Sven Nykvist-like purity, and the harmonious balance of image, text and uncluttered space makes each page a pleasure to behold.
The look and language serve to welcome the reader, especially someone just starting out or simply curious about film projection. The editors genuinely care about their readers, and ask them to “tell us what our mistakes were, so that we can improve upon this book in its future incarnations.” If film screenings are to continue, if this knowledge is to be passed on to new generations, it is best offered with hospitality.
Digital has almost entirely replaced analogue projection in commercial and even repertory movie houses, and most audiences probably don’t notice the difference, at least not consciously. The mistake would be to think that it doesn’t matter. Muted images give us a muted experience. We’re being cheated, whether we notice or not. And film prints should be “treated with the same respect and attention due to other artworks such as paintings, sculptures and illuminated manuscripts.”
The screening of a film print is now rare, and each occasion is a special event. We are more appreciative of the print as an authentic object, and of its projection as a live performance. No matter what dominant medium is used to make and display motion pictures, analogue film projection is necessary if we are to keep the bar high; a good print, properly projected, is cinema at its best, “a living reality, an experience to be shared with present and future audiences.” Like an original Rembrandt, the negative-struck print alone defines what the film is. TAOFP and its readers understand this.
Ted Knighton is a Philadelphia-based independent filmmaker and fine artist. Philadelphia’s International House as well as the Asian Arts Initiative have commissioned him to create several multimedia installations, and his short films have shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia and the Ann Arbor and Philadelphia Film Festivals, and are commercially distributed by Alpha Video.