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Remembering Film Projection: A Q&A with Peter Flynn, Director of “The Dying of the Light”

I learned about the Sixth Annual DOC NYC Festival (Nov. 12-19) when a friend handed me a promotional card for “The Dying of the Light,” a documentary directed by Peter Flynn.

The film was having its world premiere on November 18th, scheduled for one showing. After reading a description of this documentary, I thought it would be an important film about a subject that interested me: the transition of film to digital.

I arrived early to the screening and waited to see how big an audience the documentary would attract.  For about ten minutes the theater was only half-full, but by showing time, the venue was packed with cinephiles, filmmakers, students, friends of the director, and the director himself.

Flynn introduced his film in a short but compelling manner. He reached into his pocket and took out a small thumb drive holding it up for all to see:

“I’ve something to show you.  I don’t know if you can see this but this is the film you are going to see tonight.  It is 99 gigabits of data stored on a 128 gigabit drive.  This drive is cheap plastic that I bought at COSCO for thirty dollars.  This is the film.  This is it.  Ninety-four minutes.

“Ten years ago, I might have arrived at this theater with close to two miles of film in two cases, and that film would have been laced up in a projector, here.  A very powerful electrical arc, from a carbon arc or from a bulb, the light of that would have been focused onto a postage stamp-sized film and then focused through a lens and it would have been projected onto this large screen.

“This (drive) was ingested into a computer; the light and the color values you will see on the screen are for the most part composed of ones and zeros.

“The film that I spent the last three-and-a-half years of my life making was an attempt to answer that question; what is lost with this transition to digital.

“A great many careers were lost; a tremendous level of expertise in a skill set was rendered obsolete for the most part; a culture that built things to last and built things to be beautiful has been lost, and when you add all that up, I think it amounts to a certain romance of motion picture presentation.”

Flynn was gracious enough to grant me an interview over the next three weeks and as we talked about “The Dying of the Light”, and related areas, the “romance of what has been lost,” was always hovering over our conversation.

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The NewsWhistle Q&A with Filmmaker Peter Flynn

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Peter Flynn

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What originally attracted you to film making?

I’ve always been in love with film.  My college background is in film studies, with a specific focus on early film history, but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of making film—the discipline and the craft of it.  It made sense to me rather than writing about film, I should be making films about film.  And that’s pretty much what I did.  In fact, my last film, “Blazing The Trail: The O’Kalems In Ireland”, about the NY-based Kalem Film Company and its pioneering visits to Ireland in the 1910s, started out as a book!

Mid-way through I realized it made for a perfect film.

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Were there any particular directors or specific films you modeled your first film on?

Not really. Like a magpie, you always steal bits and pieces from other filmmakers.  From a documentary standpoint, I’ve always been in love with the work of Kevin Brownlow. His series on Hollywood is just wonderful.  And that was certainly the main influence on “Blazing The Trail.”

With “The Dying of the Light,” I was more interested in capturing the look and feel of the booth, and of the picture palaces and movie theaters of the past.

So, in that sense, the idea was to move beyond the traditional technique of VO narrative, talking head interviews, and illustrative film clips, and be more cinematic, I suppose.

Robert Flaherty is the great documenter of space.  And I can only aspire to that level of cinema.

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Have all your films been in digital?

Yes.  Digital is very freeing.  It’s cheaper, obviously.  And you can be extremely portable.  You can work faster.  It’s less invasive. I shot on DSLR cameras and would have as many as three running in any given set-up.  They’re small and lightweight, easy to pack and carry, and require less light.  So they were perfect for shooting in dimly-lit cramped projection booths.

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Did you spend a long time researching the history of film before you started production on “The Dying of the Light”?

Making the film was research.  I teach film history for a living, so I had a good working knowledge of the history of film.  But the history of film presentation, of the development of film projection as a craft, that I knew very little about.  And as I talked to projectionists, I learned more and more.  It’s a history you can’t find in books.  The history is the memories of the projectionists.  It is almost entirely an oral or folk culture.  I felt very privileged to be documenting it.

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Bob Throop of the Capitol Theatre in Rome, NY; The film is dedicated to his memory.

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Who was the first projectionist you interviews for this film?  Who was the last one?

Dave Leamon and David Kornfeld at the Brattle and Somerville theaters in Boston were my first interviewees.  My last interview was shot at Boston Light and Sound, just a few weeks before the film’s premiere at DOC NYC.  And there I interviewed Larry Shaw, co-owner of Boston Light and Sound, and a projectionist of many, many years.  When I first interviewed Larry a year or so ago, he was lamenting the death of film as a presentation medium, when I last interviewed him, he was busy readying more than a hundred 70mm projectors for the release of “The Hateful Eight.”

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Throughout “The Dying of the Light” several interviewees talked about the physical properties of film: the feel of it, the smell of it, the sound of it moving from reel to reel.  Do you think the romance of film will eventually disappear altogether?

It already has in large part.  Film will survive in a few select theaters—art houses, repertory houses, archival centers, and the like—but the culture of daily film presentation on a national scale, that’s gone. So film will survive on a much smaller, isolated, and specialized scale.  The lines between archivist and preservationist and projectionists will increasingly fall away as prints become scarcer and more valuable.

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Sara Myers, of the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA.

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What kind of responses did you receive when people (inside and outside of the industry) learned you were making this documentary?

Responses were very positive.  I think most people realize that this is a story that needs to be told.  The whole history of photochemical film presentation resides for the most part in the living memories of the last generation of career projectionists.  When they go, it will go with them.  The importance of capturing those memories was not lost on people, especially those projectionists who participated in the making of the film.

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Is the making and production of a digital film a faster process than film was?

Yes.  It’s very immediate. You can shoot and review your footage there and then. You can shoot in the morning and edit in the afternoon and go back for re-shoots that night (I’ve actually done that while making this film.)

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The Sutton Motor-In, Sutton, MA, also abandoned.

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Have you kept your old film cameras and projectors with an eye toward using them again one day?

Yes, out of nostalgia.  But cameras are tools and different films require different tools.  This film, with its (extremely) limited budget and crew (composed for the most part of just myself) required a number of lightweight cameras. I used 2-3 DSLR cameras for each shoot, a single light, and a shotgun mic.  All of which could fit in a backpack and shoulder bag.

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What effect(s) has the transition from film to digital projection had on the unions?

If the projectionists union’s membership roster has shrunk as drastically as the theaters showing films, who do the unions have contacts with now?

The impact of digital has been devastating.  The unions ensured and provided a steady workforce of trained professional projectionists.  But now you don’t need trained professional projectionists.  Digital has transformed what was once a very complicated craft, requiring a sophisticated skill set, into a minimum wage button-pushing job.  The unions have been pushed out of the industry entirely.

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Your film dealt with people and the culture and/or subculture of theatrical motion picture film projection, for the most part.  Did you or were you one point considering including more technical aspects and/or conversations on the mechanics of film projection?

Yes, I did.  But a film must have a very specific focus. My focus was on the history of the craft from the perspective of the craftspeople.  Anything we didn’t relate to that fully had to go.  And so much material was shot and edited that simply couldn’t make it into the film because it didn’t relate to that central theme.

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How do your students respond to watching films?

They so rarely get the opportunity to watch actual film that it’s now a novelty of sorts and, as such, has a renewed appeal.  Especially for those students who get the whole process of film presentation, of what it entailed.  I think there’s now an appreciation for it that wasn’t there 10 years ago.  It’s exotic and romantic in a way that it wasn’t 10 years ago.

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Dave Leamon, of the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA.

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What do you see is the legacy of film in spite of digital technology?

It will remain in a limited fashion.  It will continue to appeal to a specialized audience of cinephiles, I think.  Now that photochemical film is no longer being used, the experience of watching photochemical film is becoming a sought-after experience.  The attraction for cinephiles, for people who love film, will be the material of film itself, not simply the visuals, or the story, that the film conveys.   So the film medium itself will become part of the attraction.  It already has to a degree—as the upcoming release of “The Hateful Eight” indicates.

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Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “The Hateful Eight,” was filmed in 70mm Ultra Panavision. According to an article, “only 10 films have ever been made using the extra-wide format, which uses an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 to 35mm anamorphic film’s 2.39:1. The last was 1966’s Kartoum.”  Do you have any thoughts on Tarantino’s noble last-stand-use of film?

I think it’s great. And I hope it’s a success. If it is, then we may see more films shot and released in 70mm.  It’s still the best we have in terms of resolution.  Nothing we see in the multiplexes even comes close to that.  Not even the so-called IMAX presentations. So it would be great to see that happen—to see 70mm film make a return, in a limited fashion, for special presentations.

But ultimately audiences will decide that.

If the film is a success, then yes, we could potentially see one or two theaters in any given multiplex equipped for the film.

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The Victory Theater in Holyoke MA, now abandoned.

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Do you think digital projection will or has sparked an increased desire (and greater effort) to preserve old films in digital?

The real issue when you move from one format to another-say from VHS to DVD-many titles get lost.  Countless films released on VHS were never digitized for digital. And the same is happening now.  Many titles get restored in 2k or 4k for theatrical or home video release, but many more do not. And those that do not fall from public consciousness and get forgotten.  So, to answer your question as best I can, the shift to digital actually results in many films (previously available on VHS, or before that 16mm or 8mm) being lost.

But the other issues, is that digital is not a proven preservation medium.  In fact, because digital technologies change so fast, we cannot rely on digital means of storage.

I’m sure you have many old digital files, old WordPerfect files maybe, that cannot be opened on your current computer/OS.  But a film from the 1890s will play in a projector built today.

We also know that film can be stored and preserved for at least a hundred years and still retain its original quality. So, film continues to be the medium of choice for motion picture archivists.

Digital is so unreliable as an archival format that it simply isn’t used by professional archivists.  Film remains the most reliable way of preserving film!  So labs will continue to work with film for archival purposes.  Whether we’ll see them running exhibition prints is another matter entirely.

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What do you consider the greatest film experiences of all time, historically and personally? And why?

I have to say that for me it’s less whole films, and more scenes or images.  Any one of Welles’ low angle shots of himself in “Kane,” “Touch of Evil,” and “Chimes at Midnight.” Bergman’s close-up shots of Liv Ullmann.  (Proof that there’s nothing more interesting in cinema than the human face.)  Truffaut’s tracking shots of Antoine Doinel in “The 400 Blows” – and that final devastating freeze frame.  All of John Ford’s Monument Valley scenes – with the opening and closing shots of “The Searchers” above all the others.

As a whole I find “The Searchers” somewhat overrated, but those shots are magnificent–so deep and rich in meaning.  “Vertigo” is another film I find overrated, but those beautiful scenes as Scotty pursues and obsesses over Madeline.  So mysterious.  David Lynch taps into the same undercurrents in “Blue Velvet,” and that’s a film that strikes me deeply in ways I can’t fully explain, with its weird mixture of horror and beauty, sacred and profane.  I never tire of seeing it.  So many great scenes.

And finally, for me, the greatest, most powerful, moving scene in cinema-the final scene of “City Lights.”  I’ve seen it countless times. And it continues to move me deeply.  Again, it’s something I can’t fully explain.  In those closing shots, Chaplin pushes past comedy and tragedy and reaches the sublime.  And the whole orchestration of that scene is just beautiful.

Silent Hollywood was beautiful.  And that’s the last film of the silent Hollywood era-and nothing in the sound era has ever rivaled it, I think.

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Images Courtesy of Peter Flynn

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About Erik La Prade:

Erik La Prade lives in New York.  His interviews and articles have appeared in Art In America, The Brooklyn Rail, artcritical, and others. His last book was Breaking Through: Richard Bellamy and The Green Gallery, 1960-1965. 2010.  MidMarch Arts Press. Some of his poems currently appear in J Journal.  He has a B.A. and M.A. from City College.