Documentary in the Age of Digital Reproduction (5/7)

5. Projection

Arata Shoichi
Film projectionist

Documentary Box (DB): How has projection equipment changed to reflect the recent changes in media screened? Will projection equipment and theater design change at all?

Arata Shoichi(AS): The greatest change we’ve seen with 35mm in the past five to ten years is the introduction of digital sound. In terms of the medium itself, films printed with a digital soundtrack and control signals in addition to the traditional analog soundtrack are standard distribution now. It’s surprising how almost all prints shown have at least two, if not three, soundtracks. It’s also surprising that this has caught on so quickly. All this means that we need equipment to read all the different signals, a digital-analog converter and then a CD-ROM player for Digital Theater Sound (DTS). And with the popularity of new theaters like cineplexes and with the audience’s increasingly sophisticated tastes, this equipment is also proliferating at quite a rate. However, digital media isn’t often played back in theaters, but rather limited almost entirely to screenings of works done in digital video at film festivals and computer-driven slide shows for presentations, for example at medical conferences.

I can say with some certainty that theater space will be seen as increasingly important. As the industry advances and it becomes increasingly simple to work with high resolution information, theater space, for example the size of the screen, will need to become more specialized.

DB: How do images and sound differ when you’re projecting a work that’s been done in digital video?

AS: The quality of the image differs even between old and new films, and between [film stock] makers, but ultimately, differences in image and sound come more from the filmmaker’s intentions than from the equipment. Or rather, I want to project films so that these differences stand out. When the black field in video looks grayish, the projector’s at fault. Video usually has a contrast ratio of two hundred to one, and even the newest video projector has a contrast ratio of five hundred to one, so it’s impossible to get the same crispness as with film. Right now, this is a pretty definitive difference. So I’m curious to see how the new Sony video projector in the Odaiba entertainment distinct remedies this defect.

At film festivals, I try to make sure that the differences between film and video media don’t stand out. I can keep the same screen size, match the brightness, work to make equipment not stand out and play with the screen. For example, I like to project 8mm film very small, because its grain is so rough, so I can show other formats in the same size. I can also use the brightest projector possible, project everything from the projectionist’s booth, and use a screen that keeps the video projector’s pixels from standing out. But there are limits to all of these.

DB: As a film projectionist, do you feel excitement towards your work?

AS: I’m careful about different things depending on the format, but the greatest differences I’ve noticed recently are video’s versatility and lack of obstacles. You can’t do anything about the image quality, color or contrast of film, but with video you can adjust these even in a theater just as you would on a television at home. The color bar that comes on every work (that provides a standard measure) isn’t always as good as it could be, and when I ask filmmakers for a screen check they can be incredibly picky, so from my experiences I’d say that re-creating a filmmaker’s wishes can be very tricky.

DB: Now, film and video “move” as they’re projected, but do you think we’ll see films projected by satellite in the future?

AS: I heard that George Lucas tried this out with Star Wars: Episode One. For research into surgical methods, live demonstrations that use a satellite to bounce images from an operating room in a foreign country to a video projector in a theater are popular.

DB: Digital media is often referred to as “revolutionary.” How does digital media relate to film?

AS: If you think about it, film images are fundamentally digital too. The image in each frame is analog, but the film only becomes a film when those images are projected in sequence. The human eye lets each image linger, so that the gaps between images are overlooked, and this means that film is already a digital medium. However fine the image produced with digital equipment, it will never reach the perfection of one film frame. I’d say that the real digitalization we’ll be seeing from now on is the transformation of [works] into data for preservation. I have the strong sense that film is being perfected even as it’s born.

DB: From the U-matic and betacam of the past to digital betacam, CVD and DVD, not to mention PAL, NTSC and SECAM which linger on, differences in format are getting increasingly complex. Do you think that digital technology will make a world projection standard possible? Is there already movement in this direction?

AS: It would be difficult to have just one format, and I don’t think it’s necessary. Film, video and computer graphics are just tools for imagistic expression, and the more tools available, the richer and more colorful the range of expression.