Friday, June 24, 2011

Film Preservation Fridays #5: Interview with Kyle Westphal, Chief Projectionist of the Dryden Theatre

The Dryden from the Balcony
The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House has been screening classic and contemporary films to audiences since 1951.  It is the first - but not the only - line of access to the Motion Picture Department’s many completed preservations, restorations and other film holdings. In addition to fulfilling this function, Dryden programming efforts are consistent with classic, repertory cinema mode in which many hard to see prints are secured from outside parties for individual screenings and for incorporation into various curated themes and retrospectives.

As an archival facility, the Dryden adheres to a complex battery of film handling and projection practices designed to prolong the lifespan of prints and to ensure that films are seen in the most authentic conditions possible. Presentation, including matters of aspect ratio, musical accompaniment and projection speed, is approached with scrupulous attention to detail.  The Dryden is also distinguished by its ability to handle nitrate screenings: the projection booth is one of just a handful of cinemas in the world equipped to show this inflammable material. 

These issues and many others will be addressed below in an interview with the Dryden Theatre’s Chief Projectionist (and 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Preservation Fellow) Kyle Westphal.

1. Could you please begin by describing some of your cinematic interests and summarizing how you came to be professionally engaged in film preservation?

"Sure. I watched a lot of films in high school, but it wasn't until college that I began to understand how there was this whole infrastructure that dictated what I could and couldn't see. I did a number of jobs at my college film society,
Doc Films at the University of Chicago, most importantly programming and projection. This was where I learned about finding 35mm prints, getting them to the theater, negotiating terms with distributors, working with archives, that kind of stuff. I wanted it all on screen. And ultimately, that meant going to the Selznick School, to get a sense of what was happening on the other side, to learn how preservation, collections management, lab practices, copyright, etc. impact what we sometimes blandly call 'access.'

I like all kinds of things. At one point, as a pro forma statement, I described my interests as 'avant-garde cinema, early talkies, and the history of non-theatrical distribution and exhibition.' Which is true enough, but it's not meant as a slight to silents or westerns or Japanese cinema or Frank Borzage. I love all those, too. I try to keep up with new releases--I was very impressed with Meek's Cutoff and The Strange Case of Angelica.

2. What are your responsibilities as Chief Projectionist of the Dryden Theatre?

My primary responsibility is assuring that we have something on screen six nights a week. This means making sure that 35mm prints are shipped to the theater on time when we're borrowing prints from outside sources (studios, indie distributors, collectors, other archives) or that they're pulled from the vault with plenty of time to acclimate to room temperature when it's a film from our collection. Once the print is in hand, I inspect every reel, making notes that help the projectionist to get a general sense of the condition and what to expect from the print. I repair perforation damage, remake bad splices, check the change-over cues--stuff like that. When it's a print from our own collection, I also record things like color fading, print generation, etc. when it can enrich our cataloging. I project most of the screenings myself on our Kinoton FP 38 E dual 35mm/16mm machines. That's the fun part. But I also have the invaluable assistance of three part-time projectionists--Steve Hryvniak, Darryl G. Jones, and Charlie Rance.

I also help our programmer Lori Donnelly in plugging holes on the calendar now and then. This summer we're doing a series about silent pioneer Maurice Tourneur and his son Jacques, cheekily called 'Deux Tourneurs' in the copy. We're showing five of Maurice's silents, including Trilby, a remarkably controlled 1915 effort that Eastman House has restored from a 28mm copy.

3. Many blog readers are knowledgeable around the fact that camera speed was not standardized in silent filmmaking.  In the absence of documentation around a given silent film, how do you determine the appropriate projector speed for exhibition?  

Aspect Ratios of Dryden Screenings
Documentation does exist, in some cases, in the form of cue sheets for musical accompaniment, which serves as the basis for much of the information in Kevin Brownlow's now-classic article on silent projection speeds. Even so, the confounding and exciting thing about silent cinema generally is that published figures rarely tell the whole story. As Brownlow explains, projection speed would often vary from one theater to another, even from one show to another at the same theater. To claim that any silent film has an official speed is a weary simulacrum of an order that we wish to impose on the past. Today projection speed--and projection generally--is standardized in a manner that silent era exhibition practice was not. A late show might have been run faster than advisable so that the theater staff could get home at a reasonable hour. Then as now, though, exhibitors wanted to find ways to hold as many shows as possible in a given workday, and pushing the projectionist to crank the show faster was certainly a very effective way of doing that. This was a recognized factor in the era--Griffith even remarked that the projectionist was effectively responsible for 're-directing' his photoplay, a mantel of responsibility and respect unimaginable today when most projection is done by poorly trained and poorly compensated box office staff.

When we run a silent film today, we're obviously recreating an experience that can never be fully recreated. We try to make things look natural and comprehensible to us--which may well mean projecting things slower than audiences at the time were accustomed to, but we can only get so far in pretending that we understand the immediate impulses and instincts of filmgoers a century ago. Before a show, I'll run a reel and try to find a speed that looks right to me. If
Philip Carli is accompanying the film, I'll also get his input, which is invaluable. He and I both have certain baseline expectations about projection speed based on the country, the studio, the year of the film's release--they're imperfect parameters, but we start with those and then fine tune the speed as screen action directs us. As a musician, Phillip has a different sense of tempo than I do and he usually prefers slightly on the fast side. Many silents can look reasonably correct give or take a frame-per-second in either direction--a good accompanist can find an internal rhythm in the film and translate it musically in a way that makes the motion look natural.

I should also note that we're in a very privileged place, compared to few decades ago. Fifty years ago, it was nearly impossible to find a modern 35mm projector with variable speed capability. Archivists of that generation were faced with a choice: preserve films as they found them, knowing full well that this would result in some absurdly violent motion when projected at 24 fps, or utilize an optical printing trick called step-printing, where an odd frame would be printed twice. It did manage to slow the action to a reasonable speed, but in a herky-jerky way. It was a real bind--you wanted to present old films to a skeptical public that already harbored a considerable prejudice against them but the only two ways to do it were different sides of the same lie: silent films were either ridiculously fast and goofy, or they had this unnatural, unclean line of motion. Today it's standard for a cinematheque to have 35mm equipment that can handle assorted speeds. The only problem is that some safety preservations from now-vanished nitrate materials incorporate step printing and it's built into the negative--so we're left with prints with loud traces of a mediocre, if historically understandable, work-around that today's equipment renders unnecessary. On the Kinotons, I can run them down to 11 fps or so and all the way up to 32 fps, but we get few requests for that!
4. What sort of work and precautions go into a nitrate screening?

Threaded Century Projector with Magazine Open
Nitrate screenings are a funny thing. When nitrate was the standard exhibition medium, there were all sorts of regulations around it, right down to toilets in the booth so that no projectionist would ever have an excuse for leaving the machines unattended. There aren't a lot of venues lining up to show nitrate today, so there's no strict regulatory regime. Who's going to step up standards when they'd apply to five or six venues around the country? When we say that Dryden is a nitrate-capable venue, that means that we've made our best attempt to screen this material in a responsible and safe manner, based upon components of contemporary regulations. We run our films in 1000 foot reels, from Century C projectors that have enclosed magazines and heavy-duty fire rollers. We pump distilled water and coolant in from a barrel in the booth, which gives us water-cooled gates. In the event of a fire, all the port windows would automatically be covered with sheets of metal suspended from the ceiling of the booth, to protect the audience.

Obviously, when I'm inspecting a nitrate print, I'm extra cautious, checking every splice with more care and trepidation than I might usually apply. If the film breaks during a nitrate screening, it's really consequential, after all. (Even a small nitrate fire, one that's relatively isolated--say, a foot or two of film quickly snipped away from the roll--could still be enormously significant if it sets off the booth's sprinkler system and douses all of the projection equipment!) Generally, though, a nitrate print has to be in very good shape for us to even consider putting it on screen. Most of our nitrate collection is actually pre-print (i.e., negatives, fine grains, soundtrack elements), so it wouldn't be projection material anyway unless you had a funny idea about what you wanted to see on screen. If it is a projection print, we have to have preserved it already (or know that another institution has preserved it) to even consider projecting it--the danger of loss is just too great. So we've narrowed the pie a bit more.

What about silent prints? We're talking, often, about something that's positive-cut--that is, the negative was printed in tinting order and the print itself was re-assembled to continuity after the tinting was complete. Each and every intertitle was spliced into the print. It was a very cumbersome and labor-intensive way of creating release prints, though it made sense given the elements involved. Anyway, the point is that a bonafide silent nitrate print might have dozens, hundreds of splices in it, not because of damage but as a matter of design. That print is shrunken, the splices are buckling, it's a delicate artifact. I could screen that and have a heart attack every time a splice goes through.

Now, for all the above, we should still screen nitrate--from time to time. We have to have some idea of what these things looked like, without the mediation of modern lab work and modern print stocks. That said, how close are we really getting? If we're showing nitrate through a xenon lamphouse, as the Dryden does, we're only getting at half the experience. (All nitrate was exhibited with carbon arc illumination.) Are we using original lenses, with all the particular optical characteristics they possessed, for good and for ill? Everything is an approximation, to different degrees. 

Threaded Century Projector ready to project

5. Please outline some of the fundamental aesthetic and technical differences between archival projection and contemporary platter-style film projection? 
Does the latter activity constitute a threat to the health of film prints, and if so, should this prevent archives from engaging in loans to "platter houses"?

This is an academic question. From the time that feature films dominated the market in mid-teens until the late '60s or so, pretty much all film exhibition in America was done on a change-over system--two projectors, each one running a ten-minute, later twenty-minute, reel of 35mm film. Towards the end of one reel, changeover cues pop up in the top right corner of the screen ('cigarette burns,' as per Fight Club) and that signals the projectionist to start the other projector. If the projectionist is doing a good job, the switch is invisible to the audience. Often it is--people go to the movies their whole lives and never notice the cues until they've been pointed out to them.

This change-over system was very labor intensive--you had to have an operator threading each reel and standing by the projector ready to make the switch. When you're working with ten minute reels--threading them, rewinding them for the next show, waiting for the change-over--the feature goes by quickly. It was a system necessitated by carbon arc illumination, which could not be sustained for the duration of a feature. So, in addition to all of the above, the projectionist would also have to check and see how the carbon rods were burning, whether the rod was burning evenly, whether the rod needed to be replaced before the next reel started. Projection was a pretty complicated and skilled trade! And the exhibitors went along with it and paid projectionists very respectable union wages, because no one had a better system.

Then xenon lamps come along--it's a bulb and you replace it every 900 hours of operation or so. You can easily run a whole feature without worrying about the light source. Something clicks--hey, you could just splice each reel together and run it continuously from a horizontal platter on one projector, no change-over. It runs back onto itself, eliminating the need to rewind. The projectionist threads it up once at the beginning of the show, starts the movie, and then he just can go out and smoke a cigarette (or double as a ticket-taker, soda jerk, usher, etc.). This feat of automation leads directly to the twin houses, the triplex, eventually the multiplex. If the projectionist just threads it up at the start and then leaves, you could be running another film in the theater next door--just be sure to stagger the start times a bit so that the projectionist can start one film and then the next. It's thoroughly scalable--it works just as well with twelve screens as with two, no additional staff required. So let's say I'm being paid (something like minimum wage) to run twelve movies at once, all by myself. Another way you could say that is that I'm being paid to not watch eleven of them. I can't be at every screen at once--I can't monitor focus, sound quality, framing, all this important stuff. So the exhibition standard declines--it's not the projectionist's fault, it's management's.
Which is all background. Essentially, most film archives, including the George Eastman House, have a strict policy that prints on loan must be screened on traditional, two-projector, change-over equipment. There are good reasons for such policies--namely that it forces the projectionist to actually be there during the screening and maintain the integrity of the print by not cutting and re-splicing it at heads and tails of every reel. (Too, there's the fact, stated less often than the above but equally important, that platter systems generally have a much more complicated and circuitous threading pattern than the fairly linear change-over arrangements, which would result in more stress on the film as it twists and turns it way from the platter to the projector and back again.) All that said, in some ways, platter projection extends the life of a print; a film opens at a multiplex and it stays there for weeks. It screens dozens of times, but because it's all built up, there's less handling involved, less wear and tear and random damage in that each reel isn't rewound and threaded over and over every day. It's a perfectly logical way to make the economics of a multiplex work. But that doesn't mean that it's appropriate for an archival film where only three prints exist, rather than three-thousand.

6. Is digital projection a threat or an opportunity … or is it both of the above, depending upon the given institutional culture and values?
View of Kinoton threaded with 35mm film, looking out Port Window

Well, right now digital projection doesn't have very much to offer repertory cinemas or festivals like this one. There's a sense in which the implementation of DCI-compliant equipment is a very positive development--hitherto, digital projection in a theatrical setting meant using consumer products (i.e., DVDs and Blu-rays) or tape formats that were developed with production needs in mind (Digibeta, HDCam, etc.). We weren't using formats expressly designed for cinema exhibition. Now the idea is that theaters will receive hard drives with DCP (Digital Cinema Package) files that can only be played back through approved, calibrated digital projection equipment. It's not 35mm, in a number of nontrivial ways, but it's a step in the right direction. But DCP is, at present, used almost exclusively for new releases. The studios--as well as the archives--simply aren't distributing their libraries through DCP in any significant way. (Sony has been the most prominent, but we're still talking about a handful of titles.) It would mean not only digitizing all these old films (which there's some incentive to do anyway), but also encoding them as DCP files and integrating them into a digital distribution infrastructure. And right now repertory houses just haven't adopted DCP in a major way and it's not worth it for anyone to do that work--yet. Anyone who programs a robust and wide-ranging venue still needs 35mm--there are still so many obscure films available on 35mm that no one is rushing to make available digitally. And that's to say nothing of the aesthetic and material value of 35mm film.

At the same time, though, the equilibrium is temporary. If digital projection totally replaces film projection in first-run theaters, then a major problem arises. Would any company see enough profit in making raw print stock to please a handful of stubborn archives? (Jonas Mekas, by the way, advocates that each country set up its own film laboratory, to assure the continued production and processing of film as a matter of cultural heritage.) Once the economy of scale disappears, though, everything could change. How much is a print worth when a replacement literally cannot be made? How much do you insure that for? Who would you trust to project or ship it? It's a question that no one can answer quite yet.

One final thought on digital projection: not discussed so much, but a major component of this is the elimination of the projectionist altogether, which is already a reality in many of the newest venues. The digital machines can literally be run remotely, whether from the floor manager's office or elsewhere. In giving up film, we're giving up our autonomy and a sense that our labor is worth anything. If I want to thread up a film and run it at 3:30 in the morning, I can do that. With digital, that isn't so clear--the content provider can dictate when the program is run, how many times, under what circumstances. It brings cinema under the heel of proprietary, heavily-managed technology that is, in a serious sense, no longer ours. It's the last stop on the line that started with the incredible latitude and variance that characterized the silent era, through to the standardization wrought by sound, down to the devaluation embodied by platters. It's something we should be very conscious of.

7. What role do you see exhibition playing around the practice of film preservation?

Easy one: there's absolutely no reason to do preservation if it's not being exhibited. None. It would be an enormous waste of resources--human, monetary, cultural.

The challenge, though, is finding an appropriate way to disseminate preserved films. You could just dump them on the Internet and hope that people find their way to them. But films should also be seen with an audience, on film. I'm not sure that the two arenas--preservation and exhibition--talk to each other enough. You look at the preservation work that the
National Film Preservation Foundation has been supporting--avant-garde films, amateur films, industrial films, the profusion of films by itinerant cameraman H. Lee Waters--and it doesn't quite fit in a standard cinematheque line-up. We're used to director retrospectives, national cinema surveys, series devoted to a particular star or genre. We still have a long way to go in making the full breadth and character of American cinema fit our standard models--if it doesn't explode them first." 

I'd like to thank Kyle for his willingness to participate in this interview and  Zuzana Zabkova for taking pictures of the Century projectors.  Thank you everybody for reading. 

Next week we will explore other means of access to archival holdings.


  1. Judy Wyler SheldonJune 28, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    Very interesting and illuminating interview with Kyle Westphal for those of us who love silent films but need help understanding the technical mysteries of film preservation and exhibition. THANK YOU! I hope to see you at the SFSFF in July.

  2. I've enjoyed many films at DOC over the years. Thanks for being a part of that.

  3. Yes, let us continue to raise our voices and fight for film preservation. And no, let's not be stuck with the physical artifacts. Film preservation can be digital as much as analogue, so there needn't be a fight, especially if the welfare of art is what is at stake.