Wednesday night, my wife and I attended a Pacific Film Archive screening of Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors. But before the movie, I got a special treat: A tour of the projection booth by projectionist Gibbs Chapman.
The crowded booth contains five different projectors – three film, two digital – as well as a complex control panel, a personal computer, and a film scanner.
The 16mm projector sat closest to the door, so I’ll start with that one. It’s used largely for small and independent films; I think the last time I saw 16mm at the PFA was in 2012. Chapman can thread up an entire feature film on this one projector – something that can’t be done on the 35mm machines. With a frame about a quarter the size of standard 35mm, 16mm doesn’t look or sound as good as any larger format, but it has a beauty all its own. Note: I altered this paragraph after two readers corrected me on the frequency of PFA 16mm projection. Brian’s comment below reflects my earlier version.
From outside the booth; photo taken previously
Next to that is the latest acquisition, the NEC 4K digital projector. When you see a film via DCP at the PFA, it’s coming out of this great big, metal box. The NEC can handle projection speeds up to 60 frames per second (the standard is 24). What it doesn’t support is 3D; that would cost an additional $25,000.
Above the NEC, suspended on the ceiling, is a smaller, less capable digital projector. It’s used for slides before the movie, adding subtitles to prints that lack them, and other odd chores.
And finally, there’s the twin 35mm projectors, built around 1969. But not everything on them is old. For instance, each projector now sports a Dolby Digital sound reader. As we talked, Chapman prepared the evening’s movie on these two projectors.
Why two? It’s the safest way to project archival prints. You can read about it in my Methods of Projection.
The far end of the boot could reasonably be called the Control Panel. An array of touchscreens and digital devices (including what appeared to be two Blu-ray players), it controls everything from the lighting to the masking to the giant screen on the outside of the building. I spent most of my professional life writing about computers, and this impressed me.
Chapman didn’t give me a direct answer about which looked better – film or digital. But he clearly prefers projecting film. Digital, he reminded me, was “designed to eliminate labor.”
And now, onto Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors:
This Ukrainian folktale, made in 1964, is like no other movie I’ve ever seen. The story is simple, with almost no attempt at character development. No one has any real agency; everything seems to happen through fate.
And yet, for most of its 92-minute running time, it’s mesmerizing. It takes us into a lost world (or perhaps one that never existed) – a rural community defined by hard work, holidays, extreme seasons, deeply believed Christianity, and a touch of pagan magic. The dazzling color scheme (with a few scenes in black and white) makes Shadows more than just a pretty picture. The pastel-heavy palette helps balance the story between reality and mythology.
I give the film an A-.
The PFA screened Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors off a 35mm print, in excellent condition, from their own collection.