It's much more than flipping a switch. For Tom Letness, projectionist and owner of the Heights Theater on Central Avenue in Columbia Heights, film projection is a craft.
Every film Letness receives, he manually inspects "on the bench" -- the work table in the booth -- to make sure the film doesn't contain bad splices or damaged sprockets, and to ensure it has cue marks, those black dots that appear in the upper-right corner of a film frame to help projectionists start a new reel during reel-to-reel changeovers.
Projectionist Tom Letness inspects a film "on the bench."
Letness then previews at least two reels of the film to make sure the aperture, focus and sound levels are properly set. "Time you spend checking the film saves a lot of grief during the presentation," he explains. "I believe that if people are going to come back on a regular basis, you have to have good presentation."
Inside the projection booth at the Heights are two Philips Norelco model AAII 35/70mm mechanical film projectors, both dating from the 1960s. "It's the greatest projector that was ever made, hands down," Letness says. "They are still running and they show a great image and I'm able to do so much with them."
Letness uses his Norelcos for many purposes: to screen new 35mm releases -- on this night, a print of Clint Eastwood's biopic J. Edgar is prepped and recumbent on an adjacent platter; to screen classic silent films and 1930s Hollywood fare; to project the Fifties' widescreen Cinemascope and Vista Vision films; and to show 70mm prints that became popular in the '60s and '70s and ended with 1997's megahit Titanic.
The Philips Norleco AAII projector can play either 35mm or 70mm film. Letness added several different audio readers to enable multiple soundtrack formats.
Having two projectors allows Letness to do reel-to-reel changes, a necessity for screenings of archival films, which are often from such sources as the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and New York's Museum of Modern Art. Those archives enforce strict rules that prohibit projectionists from automating -- essentially, taping together -- film reels. "A lot of these classic films, it's the only print they have left," Letness explains.
Alongside the Norelco projectors, the cooling fans whirr on a DLP Cinema projector, which just completed a screening of The Nutcracker ballet. A hulking black block aimed out a porthole, the DLP slightly resembles a 19th-century naval cannon; as a digital projector, however, the DLP is strictly 21st-century technology. Next year, Letness plans to upgrade the eight-year-old DLP to Digital Cinema.
"Avatar was the big game-changer because it was making so much money," Letness says. "We want to be able to show any 3D if it comes out. In order to do that, we have to be digital because that's where the technology is going. ... For the average cinema, the average multiplex, their film days are, if not done, almost done."
At the AMC Southdale 16 in Edina this week, Jason Reitman's Young Adult -- partially shot on location in Minnesota -- is being shown on film. But according to Ryan Noonan, director of public relations at AMC Theatres, film presentations are becoming less common for the cinema chain. "Approximately two-thirds of our auditoriums at AMC Theatres are digital as the conversion process is ongoing," Noonan explained via e-mail. "With a few exceptions, it's AMC's goal to be fully digital during the next few years."
In his recent book, The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex, BBC film critic Mark Kermode cautions about the rapid proliferation of digital cinema and what that means for projectionists. "The great profession of projection (in the traditional sense of the craft) is in the process of becoming obsolete," Kermode writes.
Letness, however, believes digital and film can peacefully coexist.
"Digital is not the enemy," Letness insists. "I think for a new release, if your digital system is set up right, if you have a bright lamp house, if everything is the way it should be, I think it looks really great."
Letness says digital will enable him to start a showing at the Heights from vacation in Florida using his smartphone; he also says digital provides many more opportunities for contemporary alternative programming, such as operas, ballets, concerts and stage plays.
"I think for actual mainstream theaters, film will be gone forever," Letness says. "But for theaters like mine and other theaters that already specialize in film and archive screenings, film will continue."
The Heights Theater
One pervasive attraction remains, no matter the format: "I think the biggest thing is the community event," Letness says. "It really is the communal event of watching the film together, even though I don't know if people necessarily realize that."
What do you think about digital cinema versus film? Share your thoughts and experiences below.
Posted at 8:20 AM on December 29, 2011
by Molly Bloom
Filed under: Art Hounds
We loved Northern Spark, a dusk to dawn art happening in June in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. The events going on were mostly focused around the Mississippi River. In Minneapolis there was everything from a community kazoo band to projections on the mill buildings and throngs of people enjoying art together. In St. Paul, there were light installations on the river banks and art on a riverboat, among many other happenings. We heard people say that it felt like Barcelon - and it did. People are still talking about it six months afterward. It was the city we deserve.
-Debra deNoyelles, The Soap Factory and Molly Balcom Raleigh, Forecast Public Art
Formation of the Rural American Contemporary Art group
The group started as a facebook page that Brian Frink, artist and art professor at Minnesota State University - Mankato, and it grew to 400 members nationally within one week. I think it has captured a movement that's going on among contemporary artists that choose to live in rural or small town areas. The boundaries don't exist anymore. You don't have to live in an "art city" to engage in the kinds of intellectual conversations that foster contemporary art.
-Stephanie Wilbur Ash, writer and performer
Amiri Baraka's "Wise, Why's, Y's" produced by Tru Ruts' Freestyle Theatre
The performance visualized critical elements of the African American experience from the 1800s to 2011 through dance, spoken word, music and intricate paintings. Historical references were placed in a context any audience member could grasp. The audience response to the work was incredibly visceral and clearly indicated a desire to experience the performance again and again.
-Janis Lane-Ewart, cultural actvist and executive director of KFAI Fresh Air Radio
Twin Cities jazz fans have been left reeling by the news of the unexpected death of singer Christine Rosholt earlier this week. She was just 46.
No cause of death has been released so far.
In an obituary on the Jazz Police blog contributing editor Andrea Canter writes about Rosholt's way of talking and joking with her audience, making a performance almost seem like a cocktail party.
"She grew substantially as a musician," Canter continues, "In recent years charming as much with her melodies, her phrasing, her interpretations, her song choices as with her banter and perky smile. She brought her own character, comedy and drama into her music, not just her show. She could pull your heart out with an achingly slow "Smile" or make you smirk at her interpretation of Dave Frishberg's "I'm Hip." But still, no matter what or how she sang, no matter how "hip" her band, we always expected to have a good time with Christine, the person, the actress, the comedienne, the friend... and oh yes, the singer. And we will miss all of her."
The Dakota Jazz Club's Lowell Pickett described Rosholt as "Effervescent and always so positive. Positive in a quirky, sparkling way."
"People liked her because she was fresh," he said, "A very rare quality."
A regular presence on Twin Cities stages Rosholt was recognized as a hard worker.
Pickett says that work ethic was allied with great professionalism, and attention to detail, before and during a show. By the time she took the stage, everything was in place, and he says that's another reason she was a great performer.
Rosholt just released a new CD called "Pazz," a collaboration with British songwriter and musician Kevin Hall.
A memorial event is in the works for January 10th at the Dakota. Pickett says he is talking with Rosholt's family to work out the details now.
Christine Rosholt appeared recently on Classical MPR's "Music Mith Minnesotans" program hosted by Alison Young which you can find here. She also talked with Jazz Connection host Marianne Sullivan in December 2008 which you can find here.(3 Comments)