Thursday, 30 July 2009

How it all works

Of all the questions people ask me, the most frequent is - how do films arrive? In a box? In a reel? The fascination with the mechanics of how we show films has always been there...I suppose it's the cousin of that other curiosity, how films are made.

The biggest treat for most people is a visit to the projection box, where our 1950/1970s hybrid projector lives alongside the more modern digital NEC and Doremi server. (The picture here is from when both 1950s projectors were working intact).

Films these days arrive in two formats: 35mm or Digital. When it's the former, it usually gets delivered in a box in five or six different reels (depending on film length, each reel is about 15 minutes long). These are then put together onto one big reel and played through the projector. Old fashioned systems used to play one reel at a time, with a second projector starting the next reel - this was called the changeover (recreated superbly in FIGHT CLUB) - the cue indicated by a mark on the upper right hand corner of the print - keep an eye out for that mark every fifteen minutes or so next time you watch a film.

When it arrives digitally, it's a little simpler (and less glamorous). We upload the drive, usually between 100-150GB (no bigger than a small book) into our 1.5 tetrabyte server, and hit play. I've already bored you with why digital is so much nicer (perfect focus, sound, no scratches, etc) and this is just one more reason.

So next time you sit back at the Dukes, see if you can tell the difference.


  1. So let me get this right: the film distributors send you a physical hard drive with the film on it?

  2. Indeed. The size of the is so big that's the only way it'll fit!

  3. How does digital projection impact on the work of a projectionist? If it is less labour intensive does this mean that projectionists may lose their jobs? Does it mean that fewer people will learn how to run a film projector?

    What are the draw-backs to digital (if any)?

  4. Yes it is a lot less labour intensive and it does mean that the job of the projectionist will eventually fade into memory - however, we have Jimmy, who's been with us 30 years and will remain until he can't do the job anymore. Projectionists dont just show movies, they also test the digital films, maintain the equipment, do all the special events....
    there are no technical drawbacks - only social consequences (as with every technology).

  5. Two words: Public Enemies. I saw a Preview of this movie on 35mm... And then I saw it again two days later at The Duke's, as it was meant to be seen, in the Digital format - SUPERB! However, your recent 35mm Print of Moon had its own particular charm. At least you can be trusted to give whatever format you are given due care and attention... I am a Picture Houses member and also (for my sins!) a Cineworld Unlimited cardholder - I mop up all my "trash" there! The way they present 35mm films is, frequently, nothing short of shocking - it's as if they THROW the picture at the screen!?! Often out of focus (especially for a Down-The-Front-Boy like myself!) and framed incorrectly. Their Digital presentations are cathing up... slowly!
    I'm less convinced by Digital Restorations, however. Some have been great (The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) and some less than great (Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia) Still looking forward to The Thing, though!

  6. Good to hear someone is noticing!
    With the digital reissues - often its a matter of someone just making a digital transfer from an old print rather than a restoration. There are fewer restorations because they cost money. That said, reissues do have superb sound and can be played over and over without the scratches and entire missing frames that you get with archive or old repertory prints. I have high hopes for The Thing.