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An interview with Dartington Barn Cinema Manager, Jim Whittle

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The Barn Cinema, Dartington

The Barn Cinema, Dartington

Film fans will no doubt have been made aware of the recent, distressing news that Martin Scorsese has announced his permanent move from film to digital. Is it a harbinger of unpleasant things within the industry? Is cinema as a whole becoming more mechanised, and do we risk losing any sense of its heritage?

In order to celebrate the work of the projectionist, The Dartington Barn Cinema recently held their Projectionist Season, a run of three films celebrating the oft-overlooked showmen who keep the images running. These are the people whose jobs are apparently at risk from the pervasive influence of digital. One of the films screened was The Last Projectionist, and you can read the review.

But is it all doom and gloom? I interviewed Jim Whittle, former projectionist and current manager of the cinema, to get his thoughts.

Sean Wilson: So Jim, you’ve spent most of your working life as a projectionist. Where else have you worked?

Jim Whittle: I started at the Paignton Picture House, now closed, back in the 80s, and I was trained there all throughout my teens. I used to go in on weekends and evenings. From there, I worked at Dartington for a couple of years in the early 90s then I went off to Real Time Cinemas in Kent, I was in Herne Bay, Westgate-on-Sea. From there I went off to Harrow in London where I worked for Warner Village in the multiplex and from there to Leicester Square, again that was Warner Village.

Then, missing Devon, I moved back and took a job as chief at the Apollo in Paignton when it opened. So I showed the first ever film at the Apollo.

SW: Which was?

JW:Mickey Blue Eyes! And The Thomas Crown Affair remake in Screen 2. Those were the first two films and I remember them vividly! We only had two screens open on the first night, they progressively opened the rest throughout the week.

After that, I worked as an engineer for a couple of years, having got fed up of multiplexes to be honest. They’re like the McDonalds of cinema. A lot of the presentation is gone due to computer-controlled equipment. So I got out of the business for a couple of years and then I came back here to Dartington seven-and-a-half years ago as a chief projectionist. And up till three months ago, I was chief projectionist no longer!

SW: What persuaded you to be a projectionist in the first place? Where did that stem from?

JW: Well, actually my Granddad knew the manager and the projectionist at the Paignton Picture House, John Mann. He introduced me to John in the Steam Railway and one day when I was about 10 years old, John asked me if I’d like to see the projection room. At that point, I’d only ever been to the cinema twice in my life and John showed me round the projection room.

I can remember as he opened the door, I saw the reels turning on the projector and was completely hooked. I said that I’d love to work here. John then said that I could come along on Saturdays and he’d teach me how it all worked. True to his word, he did, he tolerated me through my childhood and taught me the business. I was so obsessed with the projection room, it was all I wanted to do.

SW: Digital projection has been, let’s say, supplanting, traditional projectionists for some time now. Do you see that as a step forward or as a step backwards?

JW: As much as I love the projection room, I’d have to say for the industry and the audience, it’s a step forward. The quality of digital images are great. Film can become damaged very easily and we did start to see a lot of film becoming damaged just five or six years ago before digital starting becoming popular. So from the audience’s point of view, digital offers a clean, crisp image but you’ll always have the CD versus vinyl argument. A good print on 35MM looks just as good, if not better, than digital. I’d have to say it’s a step forward.

SW: It’s mirrored in a lot of things isn’t it, for example, the move from supermarket cashiers to automated systems and your example, CD to vinyl. It’s almost inevitable isn’t it?

JW: It is. The price of producing film prints is astronomical. It’s still £1,500 to £2,000 a print for every film around whereas a digital print in the cinema costs just £80. Not only that, digital is lighter and easier to transport around, plus it can be deleted but not damaged.

SW: However, at The Barn, you have a 35MM projector existing alongside your digital projector. Do you think both technologies can co-exist?

JW: I think they can. At The Barn, we installed new 35MM projectors about three years ago so that we could always show films from the archive and our very own archive. And we kind of felt that ten years from now,  you won’t be able to buy a 35MM projector so it would benefit us to have two very good ones. We also have a third 35MM projector that we use outdoors.

SW: So it’s not simply for posterity, you actually put them to good use?

JW: That’s right, yes.

SW: If someone has a 35MM projector, do you think they should put the technology to good use?

JW: I think what you might see happening in the future are special screenings at cinemas in which the selling point of each particular screening is 35MM. So there’s definitely a historical element to it, and it would be nice if the technology didn’t die altogether. As far as using it instead of [digital], I’d say the option will probably disappear. The British Film Institute predict that 99% of UK cinemas will be digital only by Easter 2013. After that point, as we’ve seen in America, film labs will close, so there won’t be anywhere even printing 35MM film.

SW: That’s such a short amount of time isn’t it? Really staggering that in such a short amount of time, that much change will come about.

JW: It’s unprecedented in the industry. The last comparable change in the industry was when sound was introduced back in the 20s.

SW: And of course, a lot of people initially saw that shift negatively, as dramatised by The Artist earlier this year.

JW: I think what’s interesting at The Barn is that when a customer begins a conversation about projection, they’ll normally assume they’ve been watching a DVD when it turns out it was projected on 35MM. In fact, we don’t use DVD’s in the cinema at all, digital is not comparable.

SW: I’ve spoken to a few people and they’ve said there’s a flamboyance to the projectionist’s role, an artistry and theatricality. Would you agree with that?

JW: Well our digital projector here isn’t automated. Our projectionists at Dartington operate all the functions manually, including the lights and curtains in the cinema, so we talk about ‘presenting’ a film, not ‘showing’ it. It’s about that theatrical presentation.

SW: Well, one of the things I love about this cinema is the curtain that comes up.

JW: Everyone loves that and it’s really nice to see it. It is about presenting the film and it’s a piece of theatre at the beginning, Every projectionist has their own unique style of presenting that film and you get to know who’s working whilst standing in the cinema. And it’s really nice, it’s a great connection with the cinema and the audience.

SW: Prior to your current role as manager, did you have any idiosyncrasies?

JW: Yes, I liked the picture to hit the screen when the curtain was three-quarters of the way up. I’d time it perfectly so the stars on our opening logo hit the screen just as the curtain hit that point! And Will, one of our other projectionists, he likes to fade the lights very, very slowly over the space of a minute.

SW: I read an interview lately where Martin Scorsese said he’s making a permanent move from film to digital. What do you feel about the fact that such a celebrated director is having to leave the past and move on?

JW: It’s about accepting change. As you said, change in the industry is inevitable. I can’t help but feel a pang of sadness when I hear stories like that! I recall a few years ago, Woody Allen refused to make a film on digital and every print was on 35MM. He said, I will absolutely always make films on that format and then within 12 months, all of his releases were on digital because there were so few cinemas left that could show 35MM. It’s that change thing again.

But no-one notices a projectionist if they’re doing their job right. No-one even thinks about them. When something goes wrong that’s another story!

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