reminds one of cinema paradiso
Reel change in cinemas
Cinema chains have been moving to digital formats because of cost savings and for a better final product
While the casual cinemagoer is likely to be goggle-eyed at 3-D offerings, a more fundamental change is taking place quietly at the local cineplex.
In the last five years, cinema chains here have been stepping up the transition from film to digital formats. Instead of unspooling from film reels, a digital film would be downloaded from a portable hard-drive obtained from the movie's distributors into a cinema chain's central server.
Cinema chains tell SundayLife! that there are several factors driving the conversion: from considerations of cost and efficiency, to delivering a superior product.
For the moviegoer, the digital wave promises sharper and more brilliant images and in more colours than ever before. Digital projection offers a 35 trillion colour spectrum, more than eight times the amount film can capture.
Ms Vivien Ong, WE Cinemas' sales and marketing director, says that going digital 'provides our customers with the best movie experience in terms of visual and sound effects'.
WE Cinemas, previously known as Eng Wah Cinemas, claim that they were the first cinema in the world to commercially screen a full 2K-enabled digital movie in 2003 - the animated flick Brother Bear.
The 2K format, referring to a horizontal resolution that is 2048 pixels wide, is currently the most common format for digital movies.
Currently, all 11 of their halls are equipped with digital and 35mm projectors. The standard format for film in movies is 35mm.
A Cathay spokesman notes that in 2007, less than 20 per cent of the movies screened in Singapore were showcased in digital format. This figure has now jumped to more than 95 per cent for Cathay Cineplexes.
To date, 85 per cent of its 41 halls have gone digital while the remaining 15 per cent will be converted by the end of the year.
At Shaw Theatres, with 47 halls in total, the mix is currently 10 per cent digital- only halls, 55 per cent dual digital and 35mm halls, and 35 per cent 35mm-only halls.
While they intend to go fully digital, Mr Terence Heng, vice-president of media at Shaw Theatres, says that they will also 'continue to maintain some capability to screen 35mm films for a while to come'.
At Golden Village, more than 95 per cent of its movies are currently screened in digital format.
All 81 GV cinema halls are equipped with digital projectors.
Its spokesman points out that major Hollywood studios, independent studios, Asian and even local distributors are providing their movies in digital format.
He adds that there are cost savings as it is more expensive for distributors to import a 35mm print compared to a DCP (Digital Cinema Package). Also, a DCP can be used to upload the digital content for screening at different halls simultaneously while the 35mm format requires a separate print for each hall.
With film being phased out, two projectionists talk about how their job has changed over the years.
Day audience went crazy
Mr Bilal Sapuan, 55
Background: He joined The Cathay in 1988 as a ticket collector and usher, before being promoted to projectionist a year later. He is now the senior chief projectionist in a team of five at The Cathay and is affectionately known as Uncle Bilal.
He is married with three grown children, aged between 19 and 32.
As a boy of nine or 10, he would watch Clint Eastwood cowboy flicks and war films at the open-air cinema in Kaki Bukit for 50 cents. He wondered how the images were projected onto the screen.
He would later find out for himself, after short detours as an apprentice car mechanic - 'every Saturday, I saw that my fingernails were all black and I got fed up' - and then as a shipyard welder - 'too hot'.
When he was promoted to projectionist at The Cathay, he had to learn how to join reels of 35mm film together. Each reel holds 18 to 20 minutes worth of a movie and weighs 2 to 3kg each.
He says: 'You have to be accurate, 100 per cent perfect.' Otherwise, the film strip will split and the projectionist will be left facing the dreaded blank white screen.
Once, during a stint at Regal cinema in Jalan Bukit Merah, he found out exactly how important that was. The Gods Must Be Crazy 2 (1989) was being screened and when the film strip tore, the audience grew a little crazy.
Mr Bilal recalls: 'People were throwing bottles, tins, everything, and I got scared. Lucky we had a safety plate to cover the projector lens.' Good thing the projectionist's room is much higher now, he adds.
He managed to join the film reels after five minutes and the show went on. After the comedy ended, he remained in the safety of the projectionist's room for a while. He says with a laugh: 'Today's generation is more educated, last time all like gangsters.'
Back then, film reels would be shared among different cinema halls with the help of staggered screening times. Projectionists would wait for runners dashing between them to deliver the all-important reels.
The genial and obliging Mr Bilal also recounts a 'funny and scary' story in which he was waiting impatiently for the second reel to arrive from Kreta Ayer. The first reel had ended and the seconds were ticking away as the white screen of death loomed.
He was shocked when it was finally delivered - by a policeman instead of the runner. He says: 'The runner had gotten into an accident and had asked the policeman to help.'
Given all the offscreen drama that he has seen with 35mm film, perhaps it is not surprising that Mr Bilal is not sentimental about the format.
He embraces the switch to digital and says: 'Digital is easier to manage. You programme everything and then just go through one test screening.'
With 35mm, there was more prep work to do, including physically transferring the reels from hall to hall.
Mr Bilal prefers the sharper images offered by digital projection and he does not regret the passing of 35mm. He concludes: 'Everything must upgrade.'
Free movies every day
Mr Iskandar Abdul Malek, 36
Background: He has worked as a projectionist with WE Cinemas for nine months.
He is married with six children between the ages of six and 21.
To support his family, he was holding down two jobs at one point - security officer by day and parking enforcement officer by night.
The fascination with movies started at a young age and he used to save his pocket money - '$1.50 a movie' - for films such as Jaws 3-D (1983) at Changi cinema. To him, the best part of being a projectionist now is that he gets to watch movies for free every day.
The enthusiastic Mr Iskandar did not undergo any formal training but learnt on the job. As WE Cinemas is equipped with 35mm and digital projectors, he got to know his way around both formats.
He says: 'Digital is easier as it's similar to what we do on computers, uploading and downloading.'
That is not to say that digital has not presented its share of challenges.
In April, The New Paper's FiRST Film Festival was held at the cineplex and one participant was not able to provide his short film in the right format. It took Mr Iskandar 10 hours to convert the eight-minute work into a digital format that could be screened.
He points out with a measure of pride: 'It's the biggest success to me as a projectionist as I believe that someone with just normal projectionist knowledge would not be able to do it.'
WE Cinemas currently employs eight projectionists.
As technology progresses, would there come a day when the entire process of movie projection is automated? Mr Iskandar says that he has read on the Internet about such a possibility. He says though: 'I'm worried but it won't happen. You will still need a human being to do things such as troubleshooting.'
It might mean fewer people will be needed to do the job and he plans on being one of the few. He keeps himself up-to-date on the latest news online.
His dream is to attend courses from digital projector manufacturers such as Barco and GDC Technology in the United States.