National

Return of 70mm film sends cinema bosses scrambling for old projectors

Fifty-year-old temperamental clattering contraption flickers in the dark again as filmmakers seek "vivid and vital" screenings.

When it was announced last year that Quentin Tarantino's new film, The Hateful Eight, would screen exclusively for the first week on 70mm film, digital-based cinemas around the world scrambled to find working 70mm projectors. Most failed.

At Yarraville's Sun Theatre, owner Michael Smith succeeded because he asked veteran Melbourne projectionist Brian Davis where he might procure one. "I have two in my garage," Davis replied.

Retired projectionist Brian Davis had a 70mm projector gathering dust in his garage. He let the Sun Theatre use it so ...
Retired projectionist Brian Davis had a 70mm projector gathering dust in his garage. He let the Sun Theatre use it so the theatre could show the new Tarantino film in all its glory. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

If Tarantino wants to return cinema-going to the grand presentations of the 1950s and 1960s, not only projecting The Hateful Eight in 70mm but adding a musical overture, intermission and extra footage, then Davis is one of the few people who can indulge the Hollywood filmmaker's passion. Davis began as a projectionist in the 1950s, when it was a licensed profession, and stopped only in 2014.

"There are no projectionists like me in cinemas these days," notes Davis, a wry, sprightly figure who like the screen sirens of yesteryear prefers not to discuss his age, or for that matter what else he might have put away in his garage. But he's proud that the Sun Theatre, where he first worked in the 1960s and still consults for, is one of just three Melbourne cinemas, along with the Astor Theatre and Rivoli Cinemas, unspooling Tarantino's bloody western on 70mm film stock from this Thursday.

"Brian loves cinema, it's his life," says Smith, the Sun's owner, who was advised by Davis to buy the derelict art deco cinema in 1995, and eventually reopened it in 2003, initially using 35mm projectors also provided by Davis.

Since then cinemas have uniformly turned to digital projection. Davis brought the Cinemeccanica Vic 8 projector – now restored and installed in one of the Sun's projection booths – several years ago, when the equipment at the former Hoyts Midcity cinema on Bourke Street was pulled out of a decade's storage and sold. "Most cinemas just sent their projectors to the tip," he adds.

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Speaking at San Diego's ComicCon  last July, Tarantino called the 70mm format "vivid and vital". He's a devotee, believing it allows for a lusher, deeper colour palette, greater detail, and an ultra-wide screen ratio of 2.76:1. It's literally as big as Ben Hur, the 1959 William Wyler epic whose chariot race sequence is a benchmark for wide-screen 70mm film production.

Defiantly analog and remarkably durable, the Sun's about 50-year-old Italian-made projector has its own water-based cooling system to offset the heat generated by a concentrated 4000 watt light. After decades spent mastering its intricacies, Davis treats it with affection.

"70mm is unforgiving: when things go bad, they go bad quickly," notes Bert Murphy, the Sun's senior projectionist, who has worked with Davis on various technical fixes for the project. The huge single reel of a 70mm can break or jam the projector, with the worst-case scenario being that it bubbles and burns in the projector's gate. Whatever happens, there's no reset button.

A dedicated projectionist will monitor every frame – 24 a second – of each The Hateful Eight screenings at the Sun, adding to the ticket cost but hopefully allowing a new generation to discover the unique cinematic experience. 

Michael Smith believes that 70mm film projection – which is favoured by not only Tarantino but Christopher Nolan (Inception, The Dark Knight) and other leading Hollywood directors – is set for a resurgence akin to that of vinyl records have in the music world. 

For his considerable part, Brian Davis isn't getting carried away with the return of 70mm. "Digital is good, but film is also very good. I can watch both," he says. "But it's nice to have a choice."