By Patrick M. O’Connell, Chicago Tribune (TNS)
CHICAGO — To show Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, The Hateful Eight, theaters have needed to do more than simply dim the lights and make sure the popcorn doesn’t burn.
The movie was released exclusively on 70 millimeter film, a premium format more at home in the 1960s than contemporary suburban multiplexes, where nearly every picture is distributed in digital form. The movie’s release — think reels of printed film and the red-carpet premieres of Hollywood yesteryear — requires special projectors, equipment and human operators.
With film projectors largely a relic of the past, especially at suburban multiplexes, showcasing the film in front of holiday crowds took nearly a year of work behind the scenes to ensure there were enough projectors and staff to show the The Hateful Eight in its original form.
Experienced projectionists, including those on staff at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, fanned out to theaters across the country to make sure the film launched with as few complications as possible. In venues usually the exclusive home of digital cinema, the projectionists helped set up the film, monitor the projector, maintain the equipment and troubleshoot any problems.
“You want everything to go right,” said Justin Dean, 27, a staff projectionist at the Music Box who was dispatched to a multiplex in the Milwaukee suburbs to run and supervise the showing of the 70 mm film there.
The 70 mm project has been managed by Boston Light & Sound, which was hired by The Weinstein Co., which is distributing the movie, to ensure that theaters would be able to show The Hateful Eight in Tarantino’s preferred Ultra Panavision form.
Chapin Cutler, co-founder of Boston Light & Sound and the supervising project manager for The Hateful Eight 70 mm equipment and projectionist rollout, said his company has worked since last January to find and refurbish old 70 mm projectors, help find professional projectionists and make sure each theater has a supply of backup parts for the equipment in case anything goes wrong.
The difference between showing a movie using a digital projector and a 70 mm film production is stark, Cutler said.
“It’s like saying I’ve got two vehicles: one’s a car and one’s a boat. They both provide transportation. But it’s not the same at all,” Cutler said.
The 70 mm version of The Hateful Eight, clocking in at three hours with an overture and intermission, was released on Christmas on about 100 screens nationwide. (A digital version comes out this week.) Most of those screens are tucked inside giant multiplexes, where film projectors and the people who ran them were pushed aside by cheaper, less work-intensive digital projection more than a decade ago. Only a few venues, such as the Music Box, which also is showing the film, still have the technical ability and knowledgeable staff needed to show a 70 mm film.
“Projecting film, any film format in any professional environment, requires a projectionist with specialized skills,” said Justin Dennis, the principal engineer at Kinora, a Chicago-based company that works on movie theater installations and helped theaters, including the Music Box, prepare for The Hateful Eight 70 mm production. The Music Box has installed a new 40-foot screen and updated its sound system for the release.
The newest digital projectors, which revolutionized the way movies are distributed and shown, rely only on digital files that can play movies essentially at the touch of a button. But Tarantino’s newest film, a violent Western featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is just that — an actual film — that requires old-school movie projectors with print reels and a person to supervise the equipment to make sure everything plays properly.
To play the 70 mm film, engineers and projectionists set up the projectors at theaters, and in most cases the reels of film arrived preassembled so the movie can play uninterrupted from a film “platter,” a system that feeds the film into the projector without the need for changeovers or rewinding. At the Music Box, The Hateful Eight is running reel to reel, so operators change the film between projectors every 40 minutes.
What’s all the fuss and extra effort about? Film buffs and projectionists say seeing a movie on film, especially in the 70 mm format, is a more enriching experience than watching a digital movie. Colors pop, contrasts are highlighted, details come to life.
Panavision camera lenses, in particular, capture images on 70 mm in an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, meaning there is 2.76 feet of width for every foot of height. Most of today’s movies are shot in ratios of either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1, meaning the 70 mm The Hateful Eight is a wider, more panoramic film.
Though that wider format will be preserved in the digital release, those involved say the film version is an overall richer viewing experience.
“It’s quite honestly a big deal,” said Dean, who was hired by Boston Light & Sound to help with the 70 mm showing at the Marcus Majestic multiplex in Waukesha, Wis. “The image quality is substantially better, not just better compared to a high-resolution digital image, but you can see more details, it looks less pixelated. When you see something in 70 mm, it is quite different-looking in a really stunning way.”
Julian Antos, 23, technical director at the Music Box, said even casual moviegoers can notice a difference between a digital movie and a 70 mm version, and it’s worth it see it on film.
“It’s incredibly beautiful when it’s done well,” Antos said. “To use the ‘Spinal Tap’ reference, it’s film turned up to 11. It’s a lot sharper, it’s brighter. It has this incredible texture.”
But movies released or shown on film are rare these days, and the number of people with knowledge about the art form and the gadgetry to run it has dwindled since the time when every movie theater needed a staff projectionist.
“It’s definitely a strange time to do this as a career,” said Music Box projectionist Rebecca Lyon, 32, who has worked at the theater since 2007. “It’s just a really small community.”
Chicago has a strong scene of projectionists, Lyon said, but finding people willing to operate a mixture of audio-visual and technical equipment for $12 an hour can be a challenge.
“You’re left with the people who really care about it,” she said.
Lyon hopes there still are movie lovers who enjoy the true film experience, the noticeable differences in image quality and the visual pleasure that comes from watching a film.
“Tarantino has been a real advocate of shooting on film and exhibiting on film,” Lyon said. “He really cares about that. That’s the kind of film experience he was trying to bring back with these shows. If it’s done well, it can show people how beautiful it can be, and what an experience going to the movies together with a bunch of people, seeing something on celluloid, how incredible it can be.”
(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Projectionist Reece Thornbery, 38, rewinds a 70mm reel of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “The Hateful Eight,” while working in the projection room at the Music Box Theatre Saturday Dec. 26 2015, in Chicago. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)