The Last Projection
by Roy Cross
"Projecting a film will become first a special circumstance, then a rare occurrence, and finally an exceptional event. Eventually nothing at all will be projected… there will be a final screening attended by a final audience, perhaps indeed a lonely spectator."
- Paolo Cherchi Usai, The Death of Cinema
As we enter the 21st century, the death of celluloid seems more certain. Its slow, agonizing demise is evident as processing laboratories close and the selection of film stocks reduced. The digital video camera is producing stunningly “film-like” images and while somewhat behind in most cases, the projection of these images is almost bearable. Once the cost of refitting 35mm projection cinemas to digital drops and aging cinematographers are replaced by young shooters from the two inch LCD generation, the cycle of change will be complete. And the corporate manufacturing of emulsion and the subsidiary business of processing laboratories will end.
DISH. Digital Images Sent from Heaven (DISH) A system ----to deliver digital images to cinemas via satellite is quietly tested in one Seattle area theatre.
The first films projected are the standard North American variety, over-lit and lacking in image contrast, which provided a perfectly flat and bland image.
There are two occasions where the DISH is interrupted during a screening. One is during a heavy thunderstorm when weather played a significant factor in signal disruption. The other interruption occurs when the projectionist (whose job has been assumed by the candy-counter sales clerk) accidentally keys in a latte on the cinema’s DISH computer. The cash register for the candy counter and the DISH computer were built into the same touch screen computer system. Candy counter employees are then required to take a 90-minute course in order to be certified projection initiators.
Citing difficulties in adapting to environmental standards as well as diminished demand, many labs stop processing any reversal film stocks. Black and white paper for darkroom printing has to be special ordered from Europe.
Super 8 reversal stocks vanish. There is one company left who will produce a Super 8 negative, colour only.
More than half of North American film production originates on Super-Duper High Definition (which replaced the lowly HD in 2017)
The fill of North American cinema exhibition is by DISH. The need for release prints diminishes to all time lows.
Independent filmmakers and artists dedicated to working in emulsion must use mostly 35mm, since it is the gauge in which there still remains functioning cameras and a selection of stocks. Many take to processing their own film using bathtubs, buckets or small processing apparatus. Years later many exhibit higher than average rates of liver and kidney failure.
Film archiving, which has continued to proclaim long lasting preservation techniques, switches to polyester-based emulsion. However, the luxurious costs of creating the prints has many archivists opting for binary code solutions in spite of their professional and personal preferences.
Expertise in film projector repair and maintenance is increasingly specialized and expensive. For this reason and for conservation purposes, polyester films in various archives and museums are never shown.
Commercially produced Super 8 and 9.5mm film ends. Its demise passes virtually unnoticed.
The last major motion picture camera manufacturers is purchased by the Innterware* Company, which states that it is proud to hold and own the legacy of motion picture history, and announces a new line of software to enhance image making.
*Makers of enhancement software that interfaces image reproduction systems with human nerve pulses via an electrode sensor surgically implanted in consumers spinal cord.
The Innterware Company announces a new SuperDuper HD camera the size of a human fingernail. On the same day, it quietly closes all motion picture camera manufacturing plants. Innterware’s stock jumps 18%.
A West coast coffee shop franchise buys 1200 cinemas worldwide and installs sofas and couches. Groups can rent the cinemas for events and screening rooms come with a remote control.
With 35mm projection vanishing, the feasibility of commercially produced celluloid bottoms out. The last remaining companies stop all research into new emulsions or emulsion improvement.
North American film products are no longer produced. Months later, the last film emulsion producer in Europe discontinues its last print stock.
Filmmakers organize an open festival in Boise, Idaho. The festival is organized by a group of emulsion aficionados – or Collectors, as they liked to be called. Collectors happily show their films to anyone interested. They know that projecting a print will lead to the ultimate destruction of the film, but embrace a certain joie de vivre. They unspool their films without regret. There is an open screening room where Collectors bring Super 8 or regular 8 mm films. Home movies and soft-core porn loops make for a festive atmosphere.
There is a great void in emulsion for the next twenty years. There is the occasional screening or filmmaker showing works-in-progress at an art gallery. The hoarded film stocks are slowly used up, lost or forgotten. Fewer and fewer people have access to equipment, facilities or the fortitude to carry on the anachronistic practice of emulsion-based motion picture production. Occasionally someone would discover a lost and forgotten cache of filmstock, but eventually even the novelty wears off.
Art Show, last know person to mix film chemistry, or time a print at a commercial lab, dies at the age of 91.
The insatiable appetite for disposable images races onward. The race to build a fully integrated neurological image transmitter that can allow the viewer to see and experience moving images without the use of their eyes has begun.
A Collector in Berlin named Alex Anderplatz, age 99, pulls out two of his last remaining acetate film prints. One is a 16mm print of Stan Brakhage’s Dante Quartet and the other is a 35mm print of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s La Double Vie de Véronique. The Brakhage opus is a well-known hand-painted film and the Kieslowski film is a compelling 1990s drama of European flair. Both films have been in cold storage for the last 110 years, and were given to Anderplatz by a former Collector. Anderplatz books a small recital hall, normally used for chamber music concerts. It is a room that harkens back to the early 19th century, even before the era of cinema. He arranges for a 16mm and 35mm film projector (produced in the same year he was born) to be loaned from a museum.
The hall undergoes significant alterations to accommodate a film projection. Various engineers, architects and current media artists pitch in to recreate a 20th century screening facility. At times they are both perplexed and inspired by the simplistic nature of a flat-screen, real-time image.
Before the screenings, experts speak briefly about the work and put the films into historical perspective. They also prepare the audience for an “unassisted” viewing, “unassisted” as there are no Innterware connections, no access to rolling textnotes that explain the film, nor the ability to pause or stop the screening once it starts.
Here is an anecdotal account from one of the engineers in charge of the projection:
The room was about 25 meters by 40 meters with a 10-meter ceiling. We built a small room inside the main room to house the projectors. Both projectors were in fairly good shape considering they were 100 years old. I oiled a few bearings and the projection lamp and the optical sound lamp were special order. The real issue concerned the condition of the prints..
The prints had been stored at –25 degrees Celsius for the past 110 years. The emulsion on the 35mm print was in pretty good shape however the base had become quite brittle and less elastic. The 16mm print was in rough shape and I was quite concerned. I spoke with the Collector and he assured me that the condition of the prints after the projection was not an issue. In a few more years the prints would be un-projectable and they had been digitally archived in the World Binary Image Bank thus preserving the content. His only concern was the condition of the projection. He explained to me that the film was not what ran through the projector but rather what was reflected on the screen through the wonder of intermittent motion and the optical phenomenon of persistence of vision. “A film is not a film unless it is seen” he said with a smile. I assured him that I was confident the films would make it through the gate but not so sure what would happen after that. He asked me to check the focus and disappeared into the screening room.
I started the 16mm projection without any problems. The countdown leader allowed me to focus and frame the image. It is a silent film. It chattered in the projector but the image on the screen was steady.
I cannot say what the film was about and I thought that perhaps the film had been destroyed from years of storage. There was just a series of flashing colours on the screen without any form or content. I did my best to focus the image hoping that the audience would not be disappointed. The film was very short. At the conclusion there was applause coming from the audience and I was not sure if it was for the film or the projection. In any event I took that as a sign of satisfaction
The next film I had managed to spool entirely onto one large projection reel. The 35mm projector was bigger and louder and I started the Kieslowski film. It was an imperfect image with scratches and sparkles on the film but it had a texture and easiness that I have never experienced. I had never before seen a film projection. I was concentrating quite a bit on the technical aspects of the projection but I can say that I have never seen so many different variations of light. It almost felt like I was dreaming.
My technical partner went into the room to check the stereophonic sound level. When she left that is when I noticed the damage. The film was rolling through the gate ok and past the sound lamp, but the violent intermittent motion was putting so much stress on the film that it was disintegrating inside the projector. All that was coming out the take up side of the projector was bits and pieces of dried up emulsion and acetate base. It looked like a pile of finely sifted sand. I looked up at the image on the screen and it was as dreamlike as ever. I left the projection room in search of the Collector.
I was stunned when I walked into the room. Other than the sound emanating from the simplistic stereophonic system, the sitting area was silent. Then I remembered that they did not have control over the projection, they were viewers, and their participation was in the form of engaging with the image and sound - not controlling it. I found the Collector and politely and unobtrusively as possible whispered to him what was happening to his film print. He paused for a moment, then patted me on the shoulder and told me to continue. I walked back to the exit when I stopped for a moment and then I looked up.
The image drew me in and covered me. It was like coming out of the lake from a swim and picking up a towel that had been warming in the sun and wrapping it around my shoulders just as a cool breeze picked up. I am not a poet so I cannot accurately describe what I felt – other than to say I lost myself. A woman was traveling on a train, she was alone and looking out the window. The landscape rolled past her outside. She held a tiny glass ball to the window and looked through it. The world outside the train turned upside down as seen through the glass ball. The woman seemed to have a glow around her hair and for just a moment I believed her. I believed her. The same image held for a very long time on the screen then there was a flutter that pushed my thoughts back to the projection room
The film print was still pouring like sand out the bottom of the projector and I cleaned up the dust; depositing it in a plastic garbage bag. The projection continued and the film ended. The audience remained for a series of text on the screen. I later learned these were call credits - detailing persons who worked on the production of the film.
The audience sat through this rolling text in silence, some moving slightly. I guess it was a waking up period. There was silence as people shuffled most unable to look at the others who had just experienced what they did. I spent the next half hour cleaning up the floor and managed to shovel the entire film into two large garbage bags. I left them in the projection room for either the Collector or the cleaning staff.
Two years after the last known emulsion screening, three young women and one man who were in attendance begin a new Artist Run Collective of emulsion fans. They are image-makers working in SDHD (Super Duper High Definition) who want to experiment with an emulsion-based image. A 16mm projection machine is discovered to be less expensive to service and restore, which motivates the image-makers to find a suitable 16mm camera. They find a camera that requires no external or internal power. It is a simplistic mechanism of gears that function on the kinetic energy of a wound spring.
They then set out to make their own filmstock, using chemistry and photographic textbooks from the 20th century, to create their own light sensitive emulsion and then suspend it onto a plastic base. Oddly enough, they find the most useful information from the late 19th century when the first emulsions were commercially produced on glass and then plastic.
They manage to have the plastic base produced locally to their 16mm specifications and they ingeniously use a simple aerosol spray device to coat the plastic with the emulsion. After numerous failed attempts they manage to create a suitable recipe. They shoot the film using the spring-wound camera and process it in a simple, hand-powered developing device. The resulting film is projected in a small gallery attended by the filmmakers and their close friends.
The films look like dreams, like what a child must see when she opens her eyes for the first time. Sometimes in focus, an image of a face, a tree, and a lake appear - then white, then black. The fragile emulsion of each frame, at times almost lifting off the base as the hot white light passes through it, the image striking on the painted wall, reflecting back like passing clouds of white and gray – and then melting away like a distant memory of falling in love. A light filled with softness, translucent at times, caressing the eyes. There is something no one can explain – someone calls it a flicker, but others say it is a shimmer. A shimmer, a spirit surrounding the images like a ghost.
Yes, like a ghost indeed.