SFIFF: The Challenge of Film Festival Projection

The San Francisco International Film Festival presents as many as 26 features, talks, and short subject collections a day. How do they handle all those movies?

Festival Technical Director Jeremy Stevermer was kind enough to sit down with me Thursday evening and explain how it’s done.

I was particularly curious about the challenges of running a festival at the Kabuki. After all, the Castro and the Pacific Film Archive project a wide variety of formats year round, and are well equipped for versatility. They’re also equipped for changeover projection, which allows 35mm films to be shown with a minimum of prep work. Like most multiplexes, the Kabuki uses only platter projection.

Before you can project a movie with platters, you have to transfer the film from multiple 2,000-foot reels onto a huge, horizontal platter beside the projector, removing the leader and spicing the film together. This saves a lot of work if you’re showing the same feature over and over for weeks, but it hardly seemed practical—or even possible—when you’re screening four or six movies a day on each of four screens. Yet that’s exactly what Jeremy and his staff of two to four projectionists do.

(See Methods of Projection for more on platter vs. changeover.)

How do they do it? With clamps. When a film comes in, one of them transfers it onto a platter. Then they use clamps to hold the thousands of feet of film (about 1,000 feet for every 11 minutes of runtime) together so they can lift it off the platter without it unraveling. They store these clamped films on racks, and carry them from projector to projector.

Needless to say, rare, archival prints can’t be handled this way—or, for that matter screened on platters. That’s why most of the classics shown at the festival are screened at the Castro or the PFA, where they have changeover projection.

But film is only part of the problem. The festival also gets a lot of stuff on video, and that comes in all sorts of formats. Jeremy told me that they try to get everything in either HDCam or Digibeta. “Ninety percent of our shows are in one of these formats,” but occasionally they have to deal with something else. To make things more complicated, the Kabuki’s screens don’t all have digital projectors. And only one, Theater 4, has the sort of professional DLP projection system turning up in more and more multiplexes.

It’s quite a job, and Jeremy starts planning for it in January. This is his 11th year on the festival’s tech team, and “the shows have gotten bigger.” And in some cases, the hardware has gotten smaller. The clips I saw at the Conversation with T Bone Burnett and Walter Murch’s State of Cinema Address PowerPoint presentation were both done on Jeremy’s laptop.

SFIFF: Everyone Else

B Everyone Else

Before I tell you a bit about the film, I have to want to discuss the experience of waiting in line for it.

Those attending the festival know the drill: You wait outside the Kabuki in a line with people going to two or three different films. Eventually, someone wearing a headset announced that those with tickets to insert title here can go forward and enter the theater. Everyone else has to wait a bit more.

Now, imagine that with a movie called Everyone Else. “If you’re waiting for Everyone Else, you can proceed into the theater. Everyone else will have to wait.” Other people in line waiting to see Cairo Time, another title that called for a “Who’s on first” routine.

Okay, now on to the film:

A young German couple, very much in love in a very physical way, deal witheveryoneelse relationship issues while on vacation in Sardinia. The man is a fairly calm, practical person. His girlfriend, on the other hand, is wild, unconventional, and just a little bit crazy. Unlike the relationship, this film is a low-key affair, and often feels like nothing is happening. Seeming disasters never quite turn into real ones. Even when one person threatens another with a knife, it’s done in such a calm, matter-of-fact way it was funny. Writer/director Maren Ade doesn’t bother with exposition, letting you figure out the relationships as the film unspools. You have to pay attention, but it’s worth doing so.

You have no more chances to see Everyone Else at the Festival, as I caught the last screening. But it’s scheduled to get a theatrical run at some point, so you can catch it then.

What’s Screening: April 30 – May 6

The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through Thursday, and dominates this newsletter. I’ll start with the non-festival recommendations and warnings.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, Elmwood, Thursday, May 6, 7:15. I haven’t seen this (relatively) widely-released documentary, and therefore have no opinion on its quality. But I’d like to point out that this particular screening is a benefit for Willard Middle School. So if you want to see the movie, this would be a good time to go. (Disclaimer: My wife works for the Berkeley Unified School District.)

A Mary Poppins, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. The best live-action moviemarypoppins Walt Disney ever made, and one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really lights up her first movie appearance, managing to upstage Dick Van Dyke and some wonderful special effects. So what if it takes liberties with the books?

Double Bill: Gilda & Gun Crazy, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Two film noirs I haven’t seen recently enough to grade. Although Gilda is the iconic Rita Hayworth movie, Gun Crazy sticks in my mind and is therefore, probably the better picture. The plot concerns male and female sharpshooters who fall in love and go on a crime spree, despite the man’s abhorrence to turning his gun on any living thing. One of the many films from the 1950s written by the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (original prints didn’t credit him; modern ones do).

F Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday, midnight; Sunday, 10:00am. In the 1980’s, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg collaborated on indiejonestempledoom two great Indiana Jones movies that are about as fun as escapist action flicks get. But the other Indiana Jones movie—the one made between the good ones—is a real stinker. It’s dark and dreary, with almost no comedy, as if Spielberg thought people should take silly Jones premise seriously. Ingénue Kate Capshaw (the future Mrs. Spielberg) is as charismatic as fingernails on a chalkboard. And the whole thing is viciously racist and imperialistic, treating India as the White Man’s burden.

San Francisco International Film Festival

Mel Novikoff Award Tribute to Roger Ebert, Castro, Saturday, 5:30. Over the past 40 years, has anyone else done as much to promote the art of cinema to the American people than Roger Ebert? In addition to a celebration of his long and important career, the presentation will include a screening of the recent but little-seen thriller Julia.

schamusKanbar Award Tribute to James Schamus, Kabuki, Saturday, 1:00. Includes a  screening of Ride with the Devil: Director’s Cut. If you’re a fan of Ang Lee, you’re a fan of his primary collaborator, screenwriter James Schamus, even if you’ve never heard of him. Schamus is more than a writer; he’s also a producer, a college professor, and head of Focus Films. He’s also a very entertaining speaker.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Castro, Tuesday, 8:30. No, this isn’t the Disney version. It’s the 1916 silent, which I saw on VHS long ago and hardly remember. Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields will handle the live musical accompaniment, with help from organist David Hegarty and author (and accordion player) Daniel Handler, better known as Lemany Snicket.

A The Day God Walked Away, Clay, daygodwalkedawayMonday, 6:45; Kabuki, Tuesday, 4:00, Wednesday, 4:15. Set during the Rwanda genocide, this intense work follows a young Tutsi woman as she struggles to survive killers as well as her own inner demons. She also refuses to bond with, or even talk to, the man who becomes her companion in hiding. More than just another film condemning genocide, it’s a portrait of a woman driven insane by an impossible situation, and thus making the situation worse. The best picture I’ve seen so far for this year’s SFIFF. I wrote more about this excellent film here.

A A Brand New Life, Clay, Sunday, 12:15; Kabuki, Tuesday, 6:45. It takes guts to make a feature totally dependent on a child’s performance, and writer/director Ounie Lecomte has those guts. More importantly, she has talent. So does the young Korean star, Kim Sae-ron. For reasons that are never fully explained, the little girl’s father brings her to a Catholic orphanage and leaves her there without a goodbye. Most of the film concerns itself with her adjustment to this sudden loss. There’s very little plot here, and none is necessary. It’s a story of good people trying to make the best of a difficult situation, and a child adjusting to a horrible, unexplained loss. A beautiful little film. Read my full review.

B+ Seducing Charlie Barker, Kabuki, Sunday, 6:30; Clay, Tueday, 6:45. Starting out as a relatively serious comedy,Seducing Charlie Barker manages the rare trick of seducingcharlieturning almost completely serious as the protagonist’s problems deepen. Charlie Barker, an unemployed actor with talent but little business sense, is not a happy man. Not only has his career stalled, but he’s financially dependent on his wife, who hates her high-pay, high-pressure behind-the-scenes job on a TV talk show. Wild sex with a young, gorgeous, horny, yet stupid sociopath will not, in the end, improve things. Read my full review.

B+ My Queen Karo, Kabuki, Sunday, 4:15; Wednesday, 9:15. 70’s radical chic was a strange way to grow up. This Belgium drama views the self-contained world of a 1974 Amsterdam squatters’ commune through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. Karo’s idealistic and charismatic father wants everything and everyone to be free. Free as in both “free love” and “free rent.” Her mother’s view of the world is less romantic, but considerably more practical. Young Karo, meanwhile, tries to live a normal life in this extremely abnormal environment. A moving tale of those who try to live their dreams, and those who have other people’s dreams imposed upon them. Not a must, but worth catching.

B Constantin and Elena, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 2:00. This quiet documentary from Romania plants a stationary camera in front of two people who have been very much in love for a very long time. In fact, the filmmaker, Andrei Dascalescu, is their grandson. Their lives are simple, and seem very fulfilling. They farm, care for their animals, cook, and fix things around the house. Elena also weaves beautiful rugs. And they talk, remember the past, and joke with each other. They go to church. They’re visited by their grandchildren. If this sounds boring…well, it occasionally is. But most of the time, this peak at two lives well-lived is touching, poignant, and occasionally funny. Read my full review.

B The High Line, Kabuki, Thursday, 5:00. The advantage of short subjects is that the bad movies are over quickly. Unfortunately, so are the good ones. Luckily, the good ones were usually longer than the bad ones in this collection of animated shorts. The best is “Logorama,” a big, hilarious parody of action movies and, even more so, of product placement. You can read more at my full review.

D+ You Think You’re the Prettiest, but You Are the Sluttiest, Clay, Monday, 9:30; Kabuki, Thursday, 6:15. Wealthy teenagers hook up badly for sex in this dreary drama from Chile. (Maybe it’s a comedy. I’m not sure, as it was neither funny nor dramatic.)prettiestsluttiest Javier performs badly in bed with Valentina, who understandably prefers his best friend, Nicolás. So Javier spends the night wandering the town, talking to men and hitting on women. All that might have worked if writer/director Ché Sandoval had created likeable, believable, or even moderately unique characters. But he didn’t—at least not with the leads. I’m giving the movie a D+ because a handful of characters you only see briefly are interesting or entertaining. Too bad the young lovers at the center of the movie are not.

SFIFF: Seducing Charlie Barker

B+ Seducing Charlie Barker

Seducing Charlie Barker starts as a comedy and grows serious, a trick few films manage this well. It helps that, even in the early scenes, it’s a pretty serious comedy.

Charlie Barker (Stephen Barker Turner) is not a happy man. Wild sex with a young, gorgeous, horny, yet stupid sociopath will only make things worse.

An unemployed actor with talent but little business sense, Charlie is financially dependent on his wife Stella (Daphne Zuniga), who hates her high-pay, high-pressure behind-the-scenes job on a TV talk show. The two are planning to adopt a Chinese orphan, and Stella is trying to get Charlie to kiss the required asses for reviving his career. I have no idea if this film is at all autobiographical, but if it is, I suspect that Stella is a stand-in for writer Theresa Rebeck.

Then Charlie meets Clea (newcomer Heather Gordon, in a performance that would seducingcharlie make her a star if the movie gets decent exposure). Soon, they’re banging away like crazy.

Clea is obviously bad news from the start. Stunningly beautiful in that artificial, Hollywood way, she’s a motormouth with very serious entitlement issues. She’s the type of person who insists she doesn’t drink, then asks for a vodka, then is offended when people don’t take her not drinking seriously. 

I’m not giving anything away by telling you that Charlie pays for his adultery to the point of becoming homeless. You’re told as much at the very beginning of the movie.

Director Amy Glazer handles the actors well and keeps the film well-paced, although at times the movie feels like a stage play (Rebeck first wrote it as one, called The Scene). This is a writer’s and actors’ movie, and Glazer wisely sticks to storytelling.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ending, but that’s something I really can’t discuss with people who haven’t seen the movie.

I saw Seducing Charlie Barker on a screener DVD. It will screen for audiences at the Kabuki on Sunday, May 2, at 6:30, and at the Clay on Tuesday, May 4, at 6:45.

SFIFF State of Cinema Address: Walter Murch

I spent a wonderful 90 minutes Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival’s State of Cinema Address address. The speaker was film editor, sound designer, and general cinematic genius Walter Murch.

murchsfiff He talked mostly about the birth of cinema, but not in the sense of Edison inventing it or Griffith turning it into an art. He talked about movements in other art forms that culturally prepared people for what cinema had to offer.

Murch wasn’t much interested in predicting the future (“We don’t know where we’ll be ten years from now”). People confront new technology and “usually notice what’s lacking,” he argued. For instance, with the iPad, “people are asking ‘Where’s the USB port.’” (For the record, Murch spoke with a Mac laptop by his side, controlling an onscreen PowerPoint presentation. When there were technical problems for which he needed help, he admitted he wasn’t familiar with that computer.) He described how Gorky looked at a motion picture in 1896 and asked “Where’s the sound? Where’s the color?” “He didn’t see that, for the first time, pictures on a screen were moving,” Murch pointed out, although he noted that Gorky predicted that the new invention would lead to pornography and “violent horror films.”

122_00_2[1] An invention needs the right culture to flourish. As an example of an invention that didn’t flourish, Murch used the Aztec wheel. The Aztecs built children’s toys with wheels, but never (as far as we know) thought to make practical carts with them. Somehow their culture just didn’t allow for that connection.

He spend much of his talk on what he described as the Three Fathers of Cinema, and only one of them was obvious: Edison. The other two, Beethoven and Flaubert, seem odd choices until he explained them. The three stand, in Murch’s view, for trends in which they played important, but not solitary roles. Beethoven invented musical dynamics, moving quickly from the quiet to the loud. Flaubert brought realism to the novel, infusing every-day reality with poetic prose. And Edison, of course, stands for the electrical, mechanical, and chemical nature of cinema.

Just for the record, I’d like to point out that it was George Eastman who created film in the chemical sense, as he invented flexible, transparent, photographic film. And it was an Edison employee, William Dickson, more than any other individual, who figured out how to use this film to make motion pictures. Murch, who restored one of Dickson’s most important tests—a job that he discussed in detail in his talk–acknowledged Dickson as the true inventor of cinema.

Beethoven[1]Before Beethoven, Murch argued, music was seen as architecture—man-made, carefully constructed, and not intended to comfort, not shock. But Beethoven as fascinated by  nature, in all its organic unpredictability. He broke rules and mixed things up (“He puts doves and crocodiles in the same cage,” complained one critic). By the end of the 19th century (more than 60 years after his death) such dynamism was the accepted norm.

In novels like Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert described ordinary life in ways that Murch finds “miraculous.” One slide contained a quote from that celebrated and–in its time–controversial novel. I don’t remember the quote exactly (my note-taking abilities aren’t that good), but I searched online and think I found it:

Flies on the table crawled up the glasses that had not been cleared away and buzzed as they fell drowning in the dregs of the cider. The daylight which shone down the chimney imparted a velvety look to the soot in the fireplace and gave a bluish tinge to the cold ashes. Between the window and the hearth sat Emma at her needlework. She had no scarf about her neck, and tiny drops of perspiration were visible on her shoulders.

These two artists, and others breathing the same air or following their leads, prepared 19th century culture for the new art form that Edison would help invent. Right from the beginning, filmmaking was about realism, recording and exhibiting the natural world in all its detail (minus sound and color, of course). And with what Murch described as the “Unexpected invention of editing,” dynamism came to this new, natural, visual art. “It would not have happened without dynamism and realism.”

After the talk, Murch opened up the floor for Q&A. Two of his choice comments:

  • When asked who was the father of editing, he admitted that no one knew. “We let that art form come into existence without realizing it.”
  • One person asked if he’d ever worked with the great, recently-deceased editor Dede Allen, and what he thought about women editors in general. He never collaborated with Allen, but they worked on the same lot at times, and socialized. “I immensely admired her work.” Pointing out that women have been editing films from the start, he observed that “All editors use their feminine side. We’re all cooking what the guys bring home from the hunt.”

SFIFF: The High Line

B The High Line

The advantage of short subjects is that the bad movies are over quickly. Unfortunately, so are the good ones. Such was the case with this collection of animated shorts I caught last night. I’ll tell you about the ones I liked, plus one that’s of technical interest even if I didn’t care about it.

A big, hilarious parody of action movies and, even more so, of product placement. A police force of Michelin Tire Men hunt down the evil Ronald McDonald, who at one point holds Bob’s Big Boy hostage. You have to see it to believe it. Made in crude CGA, with crude language to match.

Incident at Tower 37
A fable about a man, water, and intelligent frog-fish creatures. Visually stunning CGA that could have come out of Pixar.

Voice on the Line
A collage of still images, many colorized, with moving patterns in the background, tells a story (entirely through narration) of the government spying on American citizens through telephone operators in the days before direct dialing. I have no idea if there’s any truth to the story, but it has a surprising, and arguably positive, outcome.

In these six minutes of CGA, a cute little girl finds herself in…well, I don’t want to give it away, but it could be out of the Twilight Zone. Filmmaker Rodrigo Blass was there in person, and discussed the frightening childhood experience that inspired the movie.

And now, the technical story:

When we entered the theater, we were handed cheap, cardboard 3D glasses. They weren’t anaglyph (red-and-blue), but they weren’t polarized, either. They’re something called ChromaDepth 3D, which separates colors into an illusion of depth. For instance, red objects appear closer; blue ones farther away.

The movie that used the format, Afterimage, was really just a study of motion. It started out interesting, but at 13 minutes, went on way too long.

The High Line screens one more time, Thursday, May 6, 5:00, at the Kabuki.

SFIFF: Constantin and Elena

B Constantin and Elena

This quiet documentary from Romania plants a stationary camera in front of two people very much in love. Constantin and Elena have been in love for a very long time. In fact, the filmmaker, Andrei Dascalescu, is their grandson. They were married in 1953; you can do the math.

They’re lives are simple, and seem very fulfilling. They farm, care for their animals, cook, and fix things around the house. Elena also weaves beautiful rugs. And they talk, remember the past, and joke with each other. They go to church. They’re visited by their grandchildren. (That is, grandchildren other than the one behind the camera, who they do an admirable job pretending isn’t there.)

They talk occasionally about politics (they support the Social Democrats), but aside from one reference to a famine and Constantin’s time in the army, they never bring up the recent, tumulus history of their country. Communism and fascism don’t come up.

What they know and do not know about the wider world gets confusing. There’s a scene where they’ve been given a can of Pepsi, and they apparently no neither the brand name, the concept of soft drinks, nor how to open a pull-top can. That seems odd for people who own a television and haven’t lived under Communism for 20 years.

Grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and death frequently come up in their conversations. This is a story of two lives well-lived, with the end in sight. It’s touching, poignant, and occasionally funny.

Unfortunately, it’s also too long. At 102 minutes, it simply spends too much time watching them stare into space and doing chores. If it were half an hour shorter, it would have been even better.

4/26–I’ve added the following:

Before the screening started, a festival staffer told us that filmmaker Andrei Dascalescu’s plane was scheduled to land at SFO in a few minutes, and that hopefully he’d be there by the end of the film. He wasn’t.

But he will be present for the two other screenings. These are on Tuesday, April 27, 6:45, at the Kabuki, and Saturday, May 1, 2:00, at the Pacific Film Archive.

He was also at the hospitality lounge last night, where I had a chance to ask him a couple of questions. He told me he had no trouble getting his grandparents to ignore him as he was filming them, and that he used only one camera (there were moments when I was sure he was using two).