Friday, October 12, 2012

Technology and Moving Pictures

Writing for the Washington City Paper, Ian Buckwalter laments the movie industry’s phasing from film to digital. In case you haven‘t noticed, the newest projection systems in today’s booths aren't just another updated version of what they used to be.    

Click here to read “E Street and Bethesda Row Theaters Convert to All-Digital Projection.”

Yes, the distinct sound of a strip of film winding its way through a projector’s gears, past the light source, past the sound head, is becoming a thing of the past. With digital movies there are no reels of film. Which reminds me of another change that was underway in movie theater booths from coast-to-coast, some 40 years ago.

In the fall of 1974 Richmond's Biograph Theatre, which I managed at the time, closed down for a month to be converted into a twin cinema. With construction workers toiling 24 hours a day that accomplishment remains a story of extremes, all to itself. Some of them were gobbling up white crosses like they were Sno-Caps or Jujyfruits. The middle-of-the-night Liar's Poker games with 15 guys playing were outrageous.

After the construction work was completed, with two booths and a hallway between them, automating the change-overs from one 35mm projector to the other was essential to controlling costs. Among other things that necessitated switching to Xenon lamps -- high intensity bulbs that could be ignited by switches -- to replace our out-of-date, manually-operated carbon arc lamps.

On the day the exchange was made I got to see the same scene projected onto the screen with the two light sources. The light from the old system, which used two burning carbon rods, was whiter and gave the picture more depth and sparkle. The Xenon light was slightly yellow and had a flattening effect on the image.

So when cranky old folks tell you the movies looked better in their salad days, don’t roll your eyes. There’s actually a good reason for making that claim.

Once again, technology is in the process of changing the film exhibition business. In theory, by cutting costs in the long run, it's going to save some movie houses. That, while this change will surely force the shuttering of others that won't be able to keep up with the trend. 

Same as it ever was ... the show must go on.

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