IFI Projectionist Paul Markey talks 70mm, Lawrence of Arabia and more
70mm showings of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk have proven to be very popular at the Irish Film Institute, just one factor in making the historical epic a major hit at the Irish box office. As part of the IFI’s commitment to exhibit, preserve and educate, they’re no strangers to showing films in a variety of formats, with authentic prints of films like The Right Stuff being regular features of IFI programming. The most recently announced example is upcoming screenings of a new 70mm print of David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia, which will be showing at the cinema from Oct 20 – 22. But what exactly is the difference between 70mm and the more modern digital? How do great films go from the booth behind you to the screen in front of you? It’s hardly just a matter of pushing play on a DVD, as the IFI’s projectionist Paul Markey explains. Film In Dublin spoke to Paul about the work that he does, different film formats and more.
What does a typical day in the projection booth involve?
Well, the IFI is not typical of a multiplex projection booth. As we’re sitting on the country’s archive we have to be continually able to deal with multiple formats. As it stands at the moment DVD, Blu-ray, Digibeta, 16mm, 35mm, 70mm. And of course DCP, the digital standard for movies now. So on my end, getting it on the screen there is a certain amount of IT work managing multiple servers. This is complicated by the fact that most new release movies are encrypted and require time sensitive keys to project them. Having the film on the server is only half of the process. We also have two 35mm projectors and one 70mm projector to maintain. Their usage varies, months could go by with projecting film stock, but then I could get a huge bursts of activity where all projectors are running on and off at the same time for weeks on end. This is happening at the moment. I’ve had to dig out my ear protectors again! With digital it’s not just push a button and there it is. Sound and picture quality need to be constantly focused on. You’re still dealing with a machine and a computer. The human element is essential to maintain high standards.
With so many different formats to work with, each requiring their own expertise, have you ever had any major mishaps?
I’m happy to say, very few in recent years. These days you might make a cut and paste error. For example Land of Mine and England is Mine are showing often in the same screen currently. Back in the 35mm multiplex days, it was often like running around keeping plates spinning. The odds are you were bound to lace up the wrong film on occasion, especially when there were two different features playing in the same screen. That would be problematic if one of those movies was a kids film and you laced up the more adult film that was playing in the evening. Once I projected Three Kings instead of Pokémon. I realised my mistake and ran like hell back to the projector because that film pretty much opens with a sex scene. I killed the picture just before they cut to the close up.
You got there just in the nick of time! So digital vs film is a big debate in cinematic circles but many cinema-goers don’t draw much of a distinction between the two. Can you talk about the differences between the different formats and if applicable, do you have a preference?
I love both, for different reasons. The standards of a younger generation of cinema goers have been affected by cell phones and tablets. I think they are willing to accept what could be defined as a lesser image, and likely sound for that matter. It can be put down to just a lack of training of the eye. I love digital cinema for its malleability and its consistency. The digital ‘print’ doesn’t wear during its run. It doesn’t tear, shed or shrink, no matter how many months your showing the movie. That being said not all DCPs are created equal. I still see some awful digital copies. Really murky and dead on the screen, despite the fact that there is a fixed technical specification for all digital prints. The best I’ve ever seen is the DCP of Blade Runner. This was struck in 2007 and looks simply amazing. It’s an example of the technical standard you can achieve with digital prints. It helps when you’ve got a very clear contrast to compare film and digital. I’ve experienced that recently with Dunkirk. I’ve been staring at that 70mm print four shows a day for weeks now. Last Thursday I took my dad to see it at the IMAX. He had a great experience and thought it was one of the best films he’s ever seen. The sound was amazing, but I was surprised at the contrasting difference of the picture. The lack of sharpness in the distant focus, especially in the Spitfire scenes. Really though, both formats can look fantastic if finalised to the highest standards. So I’m trying not to be prejudiced either way.
Filmmakers like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and in particular recently Nolan are very protective of film. During press tours for Dunkirk, Nolan said “every digital format so far is just an imitation of film”. The desire to preserve older methods is admirable but do you think they can get overly critical of digital?
I understand their love for it as that’s the format they grew up with and that is what inspired them to become film makers. Technically, with few exceptions, most digital prints don’t equal film. They have saved the industry a fortune in distribution costs, and have made it commercially viable to restore and re-release a huge amount of old films you would unlikely get to see in anything close to good picture quality, if at all. But there is a long term problem: a digital film stored on a hard drive will be viable for how long? Computer standards change, hard drive technology changes. As it stands today, in the very long run, it’s still probably safer to save your film on polystyrene film stock in a climate controlled environment. Then, you just need to maintain a working projector.
In this case multiple new prints are being struck by the distributor for a re-release. Often they are a bit more difficult to get our hands on. The last David Lean we ran in 70mm was Ryan’s Daughter, and we found at the Swedish Film Institute, it had subtitles on it and the colour was fading, but what a revelation! My previous experience of that picture was RTÉ 2 back in 1979! The storm scene alone was worth the work getting it up on screen. They’ve never let extras be put in that sort of jeopardy today! All of Lean’s epics have to be seen in the cinema. I’m personally looking forward to the new 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia as I’ve only seen the film once before, in 1992, in the Savoy when it was re-released following its then recent restoration. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a film I refuse to watch on a TV. The print itself will likely require two lace ups of the projector per show as it’s so long. Lean spent three years in the desert making it, his blood sweat and tears are all over it. They literally do not make films like that anymore.
To finish up, what film have you not yet gotten your hands on that you’d love to screen in its original format?
My Fair Lady in 70mm. It was restored some years ago by Robert Harris, who also restored Lawrence. I have the Blu-ray of course, but have never seen it even once in a cinema. Second would be Leo Carax’s Les Amants Du Point Neuf in 35mm. There’s not even a digital copy of it available. I saw it once at the Screen Cinema back in the nineties. I was about to leave for South America at the time and it had a great effect on me. Back then you weren’t bombarded by media and images the way you are now. Art could find its way more easily into your life and touch you. Film is still capable of that, no matter what eyes you see it with.