On Christmas day, director Quentin Tarantino rolls out an ambitious experiment in 100 movie theaters across the country, including three in Boston and one in Providence.
His new feature, “The Hateful Eight,” was shot and will be screened in the old school, all-but-dead format of 70 mm film.
A local company, Boston Light & Sound in Brighton, was hired to resurrect the only rare, hulking machines capable of splashing it onto the big screen.
Chapin Cutler, one of the company’s co-founders, began his career as a projectionist in Worcester and remembers 70 mm’s heyday with widescreen, epic movies like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Around the World in 80 Days.”
“In 1959, MGM made a movie called ‘Ben-Hur’ and they wanted something to be even bigger than normal 70 mm, so that became Ultra Panavision 70, which is the format [of] ‘The Hateful Eight,’” said Cutler. It’s the first movie to be made in Ultra Panavision 70 since 1966, he added.
Today’s theatrical movies are rarely shot on film. And when they are, they are almost always projected digitally. For Tarantino to fully realize his vision for “The Hateful Eight,” which includes an extended “road show” run-time with a musical overture and intermission, he needed dozens of vintage, analog 70 mm machines to be installed in theaters around the country.
“The Hateful Eight” producer Shannon McIntosh said she knew Cutler was the right person for the job because his company has been processing film dailies on location and supplying film equipment since 1977. “He has been on a mission and no one better for the task than Chapin [Cutler], he is a true warrior for the 70 mm world,” she said.
The movie is also a preservation of the road show, said McIntosh. “Road shows started in the ‘60s to get people out of their homes and stop watching TV, and we’re having a bit of a moment like that now … going to cinema needs to be an event.”
Because most U.S. theaters scrapped their film projectors when they converted to DCP (digital cinema package) in 2013, Cutler explained, “Part of problem with doing a 70 mm project like this is a lot of 70 mm equipment is gone.”
Over the past year his team has been searching the world for discarded machines. And up until a month ago the Boston Light & Sound warehouse was filled with cobbled-together, yet highly engineered projectors assembled from mismatched parts.
One prototype, he explained, “came out of somebody’s bone yard. The lamp house console came from one place, the projector came from another and we basically put it together to work as a unit.”
While Cutler hunted down old projectors, Boston Light & Sound co-founder Larry Shaw served as the project’s engineer. Shaw had to re-tool and even manufacture obsolete components to make the projectors functional and easier to operate. “There is this Franken-projector kind of thing because so much of this stuff was either thrown out or at best pushed aside,” Shaw said. The company’s staff grew from about 20 to 50 people to get the job done.
Robert Cejka, one of the temporary hires, has worked for the Smithsonian, and projected IMAX among other film formats. He helped Shaw install and test refurbished projectors at Loews Boston Common and the Providence Place Cinema in Providence, where “The Hateful Eight” will screen in 70 mm. “We shipped test film to all the theaters so we could do the alignment and run through to make sure everything is working as it should,” Cejka said.
For Cejka the pay off comes when he threads the opening scene of “The Hateful Eight.” “You finally get the sense of 'Wow, this is why he wants to shoot in that format.’ You can get so close and so focused and detailed … and see so much of the landscape. You would never get to do that with 35 [mm], or possibly digital,” he said.
Shaw said they are asked all the time about the difference between film and digital. “To me it makes a difference when I watch it, it looks different,” he said. For Shaw, the subtle variation of colors and hues on 70 mm creates warmth and tones that digital film doesn’t. And the overall picture is huge.
Tarantino isn’t the only contemporary director to release a film on 70 mm. There was Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” in 2012, but the 70 mm version was only shown in a handful of art house cinemas, including the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline where Nick Lazzaro is head projectionist. Lazzaro said he’s blown away by the number of old projectors being installed to show “The Hateful Eight.”
According to Lazzaro, projecting film “injects a human element into going to the movies again. You have an actual operator in the booth that hopefully is quality controlling everything. There’s always the possibility that equipment can fail, even in digital. An operator can make a mistake. They’re only human.”
The Coolidge Corner Theatre, The Somerville Theatre and Loews Boston Common are the three Boston-area theaters screening “The Hateful Eight” in 70 mm. Projectionists like Lazzaro, or the Somerville’s David Kornfeld, who has worked as one for decades, are a dying breed. Kornfeld expressed concern over how the prints will survive projection. “It’s a tricky, unforgiving format,” he said.
Most big, multiplex chains don’t have projectors anymore, or the staff on hand to operate them. That includes National Amusements where Jon Kidder is director of cinema technology for the company's 30 U.S. theatres. Two will show “The Hateful Eight” on the machines refurbished by Boston Light & Sound.
Kidder explained that the transformation to digital diminished the need for projectionists in the booth. “As a result our projection staff was moved into management or other positions within the company, so we really don’t have a large pool to draw from.”
That’s why the folks at Boston Light & Sound have been scrambling until this week to find capable projectionists for the 90 theaters across the country. They met their quota, but the work isn’t over.
The team will be on call 24/7 to troubleshoot problems with projectionists in the field. In most theaters, the run is limited to two weeks before switching to digital. (The Somerville will run in 70 mm for four weeks.)
What's next for the rehabbed Franken-projectors is uncertain. The Weinstein Company owns them and Cutler says there’s a good chance they could end up back in his warehouse.
“We may become the people that have to look after it and take care of it,” he said. “Keepers of the junk — I mean keepers of the technology. Guardians of the projectors.” Until another director takes up the charge — or at least that’s the hope.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed statements made by Jon Kidder, director of cinema technology employee for National Amusements. The post has been updated. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on December 23, 2015.