Projectionists nostalgic for 35mm film in digital era

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 12:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 1:35pm

To many film industry professionals, the change from 35mm film to digital technology has been a positive thing – not least because making and screening digital films is cheaper. But those who work in projection rooms say that the change has led to a less colourful work life, and fewer funny anecdotes to share with their peers and children.

Broadway Circuit senior projection manager Steven Chan has worked in film projection for over two decades, and still vividly remembers many of the discussions he had with colleagues about their screening experiences. “In the past, screening quality varied from projectionist to projectionist, but now everywhere is pretty much the same,” he notes.

Technical problems seemed to have occurred with greater frequency in the days before digital technology. Chan remains amazed to this day that a riot didn’t break out when a technical error caused a midnight screening of the 1996 female gangster film Sexy and Dangerous in Mongkok to be cancelled, with a very different work – Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise – being shown in its place.

Another Broadway Circuit veteran, cinema manager Lee Chi-wai, remembers the 35mm era as a time when the reels of each film were shared by a few cinemas. After the first reel of a film had finished screening in one cinema, a delivery man would immediately transport the reel to a nearby cinema for another screening.

This practice sometimes resulted in an unexpected viewing experience. “We were showing a film by Wong Kar-wai, and the delivery man got lost and failed to deliver the final roll,” Lee recalls.

“But the audience were used to Wong’s fractured narrative style, and thought that the film finished like that. So they happily left the cinema without seeing the last reel!”

Broadway Circuit cinema manager Kwok Yee-kwan says that 35mm projection involved a craftsmanship that is no longer needed in the digital era.

The process, which included checking and repairing the film to maintain the quality of the reels, required a detailed approach and a high level of concentration, he remembers. “Now it is like pressing play and showing a DVD,” he says.

The industry is always advancing to provide a better viewing experience for the audience
Jacky Chui Kee-fat

But Chan sees things differently. He believes that the digital era has brought a better viewing experience to audiences. “Our work was more labour-intensive in the past. Now there is a higher level of technical knowledge involved. We must keep up with technical developments,” he says.

Vinyl records have become cool again for audiophiles in recent years, but it’s unlikely that 35mm films will enjoy a similar comeback. Environmental concerns are one reason, says Jacky Chui Kee-fat, projection supervisor at UA Cinema Circuit.

“The chemical waste that results from the processing has long been attacked by environmentalists,” says Chui. “The public has become more aware of green issues in recent years, so I don’t think there will be much support for a revival of 35mm film.”

There’s also the cost of transporting film reels by air, and the carbon footprint this produces. But the key issue is more down-to earth: few companies are making 35mm film anymore. Kodak and Fuji, two major manufacturers, have already announced that they’ve stopped making it.

For 63-year-old Chui, who has worked in cinemas since he was 12, it’s human nature to look forward. “I have strong feelings about the fact that film era is fading, as I have spent most of my life working with these film reels,” he says.

“But as the saying goes, to live is to learn. The industry is always advancing to provide a better viewing experience for the audience.”