Ragtag, art house theaters around the nation making digital shift

Monday, October 29, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:33 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 29, 2012
Ragtag Cinema is in the process of switching its projectors from the old analog version to newer digital.

COLUMBIA — Film rollers clanked as Ragtag Cinema technical director Steve Ruffin demonstrated how to project "The Master."

The 60-pound film reel sat on top of a platter before Ruffin fed it into the 35 mm projector. Ruffin took the center ring off the reel and threaded the film through a complex series of rollers.

The complex combination of metal, oil and celluloid is about to be replaced by circuit boards and pixels as Ragtag plans to convert from analog to digital projectors at the start of 2013. It is one of hundreds of art house cinemas undergoing the transition across the country this year as film distributors have announced plans to stop producing film by January.

"The point has been reached in which all cineplexes have gone digital, so the distributors can demand independent theaters convert too, or be left behind," Ragtag director Tracy Lane said.

Although this will save distributors money — a film print costs about $1,500 to make, Ruffin estimated — it is costing the art houses $80,000 for each projector and $20,000 for the accompanying sound system and server.

Ragtag already has one digital projector and was planning to make the shift, Lane said, but it is now racing to finish its digital system.

Ragtag's leadership turned to Kickstarter to reach out globally to filmmakers and other people who have benefited from the programming at Ragtag or True/False Film Fest. By Sunday, the web-based approach had raised $57,825 of the remaining $80,000 needed to convert Ragtag's second theater.

There are thousands of Kickstarter campaigns at any time, so Ragtag attempted to make its campaign more intriguing by building a robot. Throughout the summer, Ragtag used the slogan, "the robots are coming," in reference to the changing technology, to raise interest.

MU sculpture student Greg Orloff, who has created art for True/False in the past, spent the summer building a 7-foot, 300-pound robot named Lumen out of recycled materials, such as typewriters and a chainsaw motor.

Lumen will be on display at Columbia Art League until he's auctioned off on Nov. 10, with bidding starting at $10,000.

Just another constraint

Despite the scramble at Ragtag, the conversion from analog to digital is a natural progression, according to Russ Collins, founder of the Art House Convergence — an annual conference for art house cinemas.

Films have been captured and edited digitally for years, so it's only logical they would be distributed and projected digitally, Collins said.


Collins compared it to the evolution of other film technologies throughout the industry's history.

"Digital isn't as profound a change as going from silent to talking, but it's probably a little more dramatic than adding color," Collins said.

The conversion, however, has been a "real problem" for art house cinemas, Collins said.

Art house cinemas have limitations — from finances to not being able to secure certain films rights — regardless of what projector they have.

"This is just another constraint we have to work with," Collins said.

No manuals

Because of the technology update, the entire layout of Ragtag's projection booth will have to change, Ruffin said. Currently, the splicing machine — which is used to tape pieces of film together — and a tool box line the path to the bolted-down analog projectors in Ragtag's projection booth.

As digital projectors take over, this path will be diverted by the servers and screens necessary to project a digital movie. The projection process is also an adjustment; the projectionist needs to plug in the hard drive, call in the film code to the distributor, get the code to unlock the film and then screen it.

If an analog projector fails, Ruffin reaches for his tool kit.

When a digital projector malfunctions, the only explanation is an error code.

"It doesn't come with a manual," Ruffin said. "There's a lot of smoke and mirrors and mystery in there."

Digital projectors are built to protect the machine, Ruffin said. If the projector overheats, it will automatically shut down, regardless of whether it was necessary or not.

When this happens, Ruffin picks up the phone to call the installer in Chicago for help. Although Ruffin has worked as a projectionist for more than a decade, he has no formal training in how to repair digital projectors. His only instruction was a three-hour training session when the projector was installed.

Ragtag plans to keep its 35mm projectors to show archival prints, Lane said. 

"We feel it is important to our mission to preserve film history as well."

Losing the human element

Ruffin can tell the difference between analog and digital, but as the new technology becomes more prevalent, it will be harder to distinguish between the two, he said.

"Digital is getting better at mimicking film and using it as a reference point," Ruffin said. 

The effects of film, such as its characteristic decay, grain and coloration, can all be found in digital today, too, he said.

Whether a movie is made up of celluloid or pixels has only minimal effects on the projection. Factors such as what format the film was originally shot in, the format of the distribution, the type of projector, the projector lens and the material of the screen all impact the quality of the projection, Ruffin said.

When audience members sit in the theater, they might not be able to determine whether they are watching a film or digital copy.

"When there's actually a tactile, physical thing, there's some human connection to that," Ruffin said.

Even so, he said he's ready for the change.

"Everything here morphs," he said. "This is a huge change, which we'll just have to get used to."

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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