A Night at the PFA: Booth tour and Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors

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.

35mm 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.

Control Panel

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.

3 thoughts on “A Night at the PFA: Booth tour and Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors

  1. Absolutely fascinating, Lincoln. Gibbs is a great guy. Glad you got to see behind the curtain; I’m a bit jealous. But you did a better job at this than I could’ve. Between pictures and text, your report is very thoughtful and informative.

    I must take issue with your paragraph about 16mm however. You say it’s rarely used, but about one-fifth of all the screenings I attend at the new venue involve 16mm. Once in a while it’s nothing more than a short before a feature, but more often it’s a program of entirely-16mm shorts, or half & half 16mm with digital. I’ve also seen feature-length 16mm films there; there were a couple of natively-16mm features in the “Hippie Modernism: Cinema and Counterculture” series earlier this year, including a new 16mm restoration of the locally-made Luminous Procuress. The current “Women Crime Writers” series has also shown a few 16mm reduction prints of features when high-quality 35mm or digital release prints cannot be found.

    This brings me to your comment, “Of course, it’s 16mm, so it doesn’t look all that great.” While I’d love to have been able to see a new restoration of The Blue Gardenia last month, for example, the 16mm print shown was in excellent condition, free of the murky soundtrack or dupey visual quality that plague so many reduction prints of films from the Classic Hollywood era. it wasn’t perfect. I’ve seen better prints of Lang films, but I’ve also seen much worse.

    But it’s hard for me to imagine natively-16mm works like Luminous Procuress or the Jordan Belson shorts shown in March looking or sounding better than they did via the BAMPFA 16mm equipment. Then again, I know you and I don’t always see eye to eye on the comparative quality of various formats. I probably would have chalked it up to that, and refrained from making this impassioned comment, had I not clicked on the link you provided to your last 16mm viewing at the (old) BAMPFA screening site, in which you viewed a new restoration of my favorite Les Blank film, the 16mm-native Always For Pleasure. You called it “a thing of beauty,” so obviously you can recognize a superior 16mm print when you see it, even if you don’t see them very often yourself.

    I hope you can see some more. I have high hopes for some of the 16mm programming announced for the BAMPFA’s September/October slate. I’m excited to see Mike Kuchar’s Barbarella inspiring Sins of the Fleshapoids September 20th on its native 16mm along with a 16mm blow-up of his Night of the Bomb, made with his brother George during their 8mm production beginnings. I hope to see see Tony Conrad’s 16mm flicker film Straight and Narrow when it plays with a digital documentary on the late musician/filmmaker October 4th. I’m excited to see every program in the Canyon Cinema 50 set; each includes a great deal of 16mm work along with in-person appearances by their makers. And, moving away from the experimental realm to that of international 16mm production, I’m more excited to see Chantal Akerman’s made-for-television comedy Man With a Suitcase on October 22nd than anything else in the upcoming BAMPFA Akerman series. Perhaps I’ll see you at one or more of these.

  2. Perhaps I was a little harsh on 16mm. Being the baby boomer that I am, I saw a lot of 16mm from kindergarten through college. I not only saw it, but I made two short films in 16mm and projected it–even doing changeover

    I first saw quite a few of the films on my A+ list on 16mm. These include The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bicycle Thief, The General, The Grapes of Wrath, The Kid Brother, Notorious, and Singin’ in the Rain. Most of these I saw in college classes.

  3. I didn’t know you made 16mm films. Would love to hear more about that sometime (perhaps next time we meet in person somewhere). As a Gen-X’er I saw 16mm from kindergarten through college too, although video began to take over my classroom and library viewings starting around middle school. Did I ever mention that I’m part of a small group of people trying to revive the SF Public Library’s 16mm collection by organizing screenings at various branches? Here’s a couple of our upcoming events.

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