The history of motion film began 125 years ago with the invention of celluloid film. Now the era of analogue projection is coming to an end as even repertory cinemas convert to digital technology.
A reel of 35-millimeter film is lifted from the floor and placed on a horizontal disk or the plate reel unit. Oliver Hauschke searches for the beginning of the strip and pulls it diagonally upwards through the projector's deflection pulley. A 2,500-watt bulb floods the individual frames with light, projecting them onto a large canvas. The rattle of the projector is deafening. "
It sounds like an old VW Beetle," said Hauschke. "You can tell whether or not something is wrong from the sound it makes." Then he looks through the small window of the projection room into the movie theater. The sharpness of the projected image needs to be adjusted before the film can begin.
Oliver Hauschke has worked as a film projectionist for 15 years. He projects up to 14 films a day at Cologne's repertory cinema, Cinenova. It is laborious work. "The films are sent to us in cartons containing files where the different sections of the film are kept. We have to pull out the rolls of film and join them together. That alone takes up to an hour."
Lights out, curtains up
In the big multiplex cinemas, digital projection has long been standard. At Cinenova, the new technology has only recently arrived. Films in one of the three theaters in Cinenova are now being projected digitally instead of using 35-millimeter reels. All of the traditional manual procedures have been made superfluous with the arrival of digital technology.
Nevertheless, Hauschke is thankful. Bidding farewell to the old film reels is not especially hard for him.
His colleague Nicole Wegner sees things differently. The film projectionist and budding director loves working with the old machines. "It's great when you turn the projector on," she said. "It begins to rattle, the light comes on. It's wonderful. The digital technology means my job isn't as much fun anymore."
With digital projection techniques, films are now delivered on disk or sent as a file over a server connected to the projector. Hauschke doesn't really need to do much anymore.
"I just need to press play and then I'm done. Everything runs automatically," he explained. "It's a case of curtains up, lights out, lens cover off, the film starts and at the end everything rewinds automatically." The continuous pulling of the film back and forth, the cutting, and taking apart of rolls of film is dirty work, said Hauschke. He's happy that's no longer the case.
Nicole Wegner doesn't agree. She believes film projection is a craft, an artisanal profession, meaning hands should get dirty. But she does concede that there are advantages to the new digital technology. "I couldn't have made my last film using analogue technology. I had 80 hours of raw material. To develop that would have been financially impossible," she said.
The test phase with the new digital technology in Cinenova went without a hitch.
"It was really exciting trying the new technology out for the first time," said Hauschke.
Tonight is the first evening a film will be digitally projected before the public at Cinenova. But Hauschke is relaxed. He is convinced of the superior quality of digital projection.
"The image is sharper than that from a 35-millimeter reel," he said. "And I can project the film as many times as I like without damaging the quality. The old film reels get scratched and become milkier the more they are used."
But Wegner asks herself whether or not such things really bother audiences: "Do we want the perfect image? I like the imperfections of old film, like when the film trips because there is a joint in it."
On May 2, 1887, American Hannibal Goodwin registered the creative patent for celluloid film. It sparked a technical revolution, since until then images could only be captured using glass plates with a light sensitive coating. With the invention of celluloid, film became practically endless as multiple images could be strung together. A minimum of 24 individual images per second make a sequential arrangement appear fluid to the human eye.
But it was the entrepreneur George Eastman who first managed to successfully market celluloid film. The Kodak founder made rolls of film with a celluloid base accessible to the general public. In 1888, he brought the compact and easy-to-use "Kodak No. 1" camera to the market. But celluloid proved to by highly explosive and hasn't been used since the 1950s. So-called "safety film" with a polyester base soon became standard.
The insolvency of Kodak at the beginning of this year has paved the way for the end of film reels. Filming is still carried out using 35-millimeter film strips, but nowadays postproduction is almost always done digitally. Digital recording techniques are only really employed with large scale films such as "Avatar" and "The Hobbit."
Above all, film distributors are benefiting from the digitalization of film. They are being saved the high cost of copying and transportation of the 25-kilogram (55-pound) film reels. In contrast, cinemas are being forced to pay for the cost of converting to digital technology alone. Digital projectors cost between 60,000 and 80,000 euros ($79,000 - $106,000) a piece.
But the small repertory cinemas have no alternative. The much-loved traditional film rolls will soon be obsolete. Hauschke will only need to work 20 hours per week in the cinema and would like to start working in another profession. Wegner wants to continue making films and work as a projectionist, preferably using analogue film.
Author: Rayna Breuer / hw
Editor: Kate Bowen