2001: A Space Odyssey on 70mm. An Interview With A Magician.

Below is the full unedited interview I made with my dear colleague, master projectionist Paul Perkins, when we were both working at Picturehouse Central, without a doubt London’s most beautiful cinema. The interview was made for Picturehouse Spotlight, now Picturehouse Blog, leading to the screening of the unrestored 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick‘s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), unveiled at Cannes May 2018, for its 50th anniversary.

The published text sadly is not available online, anymore. Being a film historian, I kept the full version on my files for posterity. So here it is, from the archives, dusted off, and polished. Hope you enjoy.

There is no one closer to the true enchantment of film than the film projectionist – a craft that is slowly disappearing, as celluloid itself, and should be cherished as cinema treasure. Film, in its essence, is its medium. And the projectionist, therefore, its magician in residence. So consider this an interview with a master.

Intro from published edited version, Be In Awe. 2001: A Space Odyssey showing from 70mm print. Picturehouse Spotlight, May 2018, London

Central marketing manager Milana Vujkov talked to Central technical manager Paul Perkins after the morning of rehearsal of the highly anticipated unrestored 70mm print of Stanley Kubrick’s revolutionary 2001: A Space Odyssey, unveiled at Cannes this May for its 50th anniversary, and championed by Christopher Nolan.

The timeless masterpiece of film art can now be experienced as seen for the first time on its original release in 70mm Cinerama roadshow format, 3 April 1968. This 70mm print was struck from new printing elements made from the original camera negative – a true photochemical film recreation, with no digital tricks, remastered effects, or revisionist edits, showing exclusively at Picturehouse cinemas.

A perfect opportunity to discuss intricacies of celluloid projection, superiority of film’s original medium, the importance of film heritage and film culture, key role of the projectionist, and the place of cinema in our lives.

2001: A Space Odyssey showing from 70mm opens today at Picturehouse Central.

[Full unedited interview from Milana’s files]

What was your first encounter with 70mm?

That would have been at Odeon Convent Garden, in 2003, we had a season of 70mm films over there, and for it I made up and ran ET (1982), which was the one just before Christmas, just after my birthday. I made up but didn’t run The Deer Hunter (1978). And we showed Laurence Of Arabia (1962) and Where Eagles Dare. (1968). And yes, Star Trek 2.

How was it different than just your regular 35mm? Because I guess at that time celluloid was the way things were shown, no digital.

Yes, there was no digital back then. Basically, it’s twice the size, and back then it ran off Mag Film, instead of DTS, the way it’s run off now. So you had to have a separate sound head that you used. It’s a lot bigger to handle, it’s a lot heavier to handle. Films come in cases, where you can put all the film in one case, 70mm comes in two reels per case. It’s very heavy, very labour-intensive getting it here to the projection room.

And how is it different in putting it together?

It’s pretty much the same, but it’s a lot longer to do, because you have to check the joints a lot more, they can come apart a lot easier.

You mentioned when we talked about it before, that it needed to be a certain length?

Oh yes, if you’re running it onto a platter, which we have upstairs, and we use here, it cannot be any longer than three hours, ideally, and that’s why films of that length have an intermission. Usually you go to 2h 50min, which is why Interstellar (2014) was 2h 49min, to get it all onto one platter, so you wouldn’t have to run it with an intermission.

How long is 2001?

The version we are showing… the actual film is 2h 19min, but there is ten minutes of overture music, so it’s 2h 28min. It’s a lot shorter than people think it is. And our presentation of it will run 2h 28min, with a 15 min intermission, so about 2h50 min in all.

And the roadshow is the classic way that films of this kind were shown?

Yes, with intermissions. Back in the day, Laurence Of Arabia would have had a roadshow, Spartacus would have had a roadshow. With the interval music. When they came out on 35mm, you could have just run it straight through. The roadshow was the 70mm, the premiere way of seeing it. So they would put these roadshows all around the country, that was before it went out, and then it went on general release.

So the roadshow would be a 70mm format?

Nine times out of ten, not all the time.

And I guess for more epic films?

Yes, it was usually the Biblical epic films it started with [that] in the 1950s, then it went onto things like Dr Zhivago (1965) and Laurence Of Arabia, Spartacus.

You came to work at Central when it opened?

I was here about two weeks before it opened.

What was the start of 70mm presentation at Central?

We were supposed to have a projector from the start, but it took a long time to get here, they are quite hard to find now, sadly. On our first birthday was the first one we’ve shown, it was Aliens (1986) for our birthday, that was the opening one. Since then we’ve shown Alien (1979), Dunkirk (2017), but unfortunately we didn’t show that one to the public, we just had press show for Warner Brothers. And then we’ve shown Interstellar, and..

Phantom Thread (2017)?

Yes, but we did one more, we’ve shown Edward Scissorhands (1990) for Christmas.

Oh yes, we did!

Which was quite nice, that was a rare one, not many places would have shown Edward Scissorhands on 70mm.

And it was part of Keepin’ It Reel strand, which is a celluloid strand, it’s not specifically a 70mm one.

We did one of them. We did 2001 previously on 70mm as part of Keepin’ It Reel in October, actually.

It wasn’t 35mm?

No, no it was a 70mm, on old print, that’s where we had issues with sound. Because the Mag was stripped away on the sides of the film, which caused a thudding in the screen. It looked OK, but didn’t sound really good.

How is this print different?

It’s taken from the original negative, so it’s pretty much how it would have looked in 1968, it’s kind of ‘un-remastered’, they’ve taken away all the digital clean-ups they’ve done with it. It’s exactly how it would have been presented back in 1968, that’s why we are doing a full roadshow of it here. Overture music, full 15 min intermission, they did 15 min back in 1968, so we’re doing it [too]. Then interact music, which is the walk-in music for the second part. After the closing credits, which we play with the lights down, as per instructions from MGM and Warners, we then play 4.5 min of exit music, which is very rarely done nowadays.

Is this how Christopher Nolan wanted it?

Christopher Nolan, yes, and how Stanley Kubrick did it in 1968, so that’s how Nolan wants to recreate it. Most versions now skip the intermission […] as it’s not a long film.

Where does the intermission start in 2001, do you know what scene it is?

It starts 88 min in, they are talking about HAL […] you see their lips moving. It’s really cool, because the sound of the ship is the only thing you hear. You see their lips moving, then it cuts. It’s very top heavy though, you come back and it’s 59 min.

So that’s where Kubrick cut?

Yes, that’s where the intermission always is, even if you got it on Blu Ray.

What is your opinion of what you get visually from a celluloid print, and what you get from digital? And then, the difference the between 35mm and 70mm?

Personally, I don’t think there is any comparison. I think film, whether it’s 35mm or 70mm is a lot better. The easiest way to put it is the highest digital you can get at the moment is 4K, that’s like the gold standard. Whereas the 35mm equivalent is 6K, so already that’s miles better. The 70mm equivalent is 12-14K, and if you’re talking about IMAX film that’s usually around 16K. So film is just unquestioningly better. You get better blacks. You forget what black looks like, until you see a film again, and then go ‘yeah, that’s black’. Digital I’m sure will get there, eventually, but it’s not there yet.

The way I feel about celluloid is that there is almost a mystical quality to it, because of the fact that light goes through it. So I assume that the way we receive the image is also different, because it has to do with how we see.

And also, it’s a trick, the way film is set. The images aren’t actually moving on screen, it’s a complete trick of the eye, they are all still images that are being shuttered. The image goes through the projector, 24 images every 1s, that image has a shutter drive that goes across it twice, that forms an optical illusion that tricks your brain into thinking they are moving, so all you’re watching is a series of still images.

It’s a moving image, yet still life.

When you look at a bit of celluloid, looks like the same image over and over again, because they go through so fast.

And what would be the difference between 35mm and 70mm?

It’s double size, so you don’t have to magnify the image so much. So, the film will travel from projector head to the screen, the same amount of distance, but because it’s so much bigger, you don’t have to magnify the image so much, there is not as much distortion on the image. It so much clearer, if you haven’t seen a film projected on 70mm, I can’t recommend it highly enough. That’s the way to see a film.

Would you be able to say how often we play from celluloid at Central?

It goes in peaks and troughs. Sometimes we have loads. Sometimes we had three different films in a week […] it’s gone a bit quieter now. Not enough as far as I’m concerned.

In terms of job satisfaction, I guess celluloid is [superior]?

It makes me feel like a projectionist, which is what I’ve been for the last twenty years. It’s really good to do, I really enjoy doing these runs. But it can be quite nerve-racking. This morning was quite nerve-racking because it was the first time the print had been shown, and because I made the print I had to make sure it all looked and sounded alright. It was all the first time with the intermission, and the way the film starts, it starts with four minutes of music, which is printed on the film, so there is four minutes of black […] Opening the dowser, getting everything right, opening the curtains, it’s quite a challenge. And doing it for the first time.

Yes, because it’s all very managed.

We have this sheet, and Stanley Kubrick [requested] the only thing you’re meant to see on screen is either the curtain, or what he called ‘active picture’ which is the film, so we’re not allowed to open on blank screen, that’s a no-no for this film. […] Back in the day, when there were curtains, it was an ultimate sin to see a blank screen. which is why we have our holding slides on when you go in, we try not to show a blank screen, it’s a projection no-no.

That would be because…?

It’s just bad form. You’ve come to watch a film, so you either watch something on the screen, or there is a nice curtain in front of the screen. That’s something that died when the little carousel projectors came in with slides on them, people liked to put ads on it, because you can advertise before the film. Before the adverts came.

When you started it was twenty years ago?

At Warner Dagenham in 1997, I became a projectionist in 1998. First film I showed was The Big Lebowski (1998) which is a pretty cool one, you can’t always choose your first film, I was very lucky there. The first film I made up was called The General, which slipped into obscurity, unfortunately. It was a John Boorman film, black and white, quite good. I was there for a year, then I moved to Warner Finchley Road, because I wanted to move up.

And when digital came in, how did that affect not only your job, but the job of the projectionist?

Not as bad as a lot of people. I know that some people had it really bad. A lot of people literally went in one day and [were told] ‘well you haven’t got a job anymore’. I was quite lucky because I worked at that time for Apollo, which was quite a small cinema.

When was that?

It started about 2007, then it started really taking effect around 2008, 2009, we didn’t get digital projectors until 2011, so we were quite late. And it was [in] about a year they made projectionists there redundant. I was quite lucky I stumbled across Genesis Cinema in Mile End, where they were all film, up until very late 2012. They were quite similar to Central, a big event cinema, so I stayed on doing events mostly.

I started at The Gate in 2013, and we still had celluloid.

Oh really?

Yes, yes, Jose [GM at the time] was trained at projection.

It might have been easier there, because they showed independent films, didn’t they? Whereas Sony were quite aggressive, because they had their own projectors, and were not making prints anymore. Genesis went to order them six months in advance, but they didn’t tell us that until the deadline for Skyfall (2012) had gone, so hand was forced into going digital for Skyfall. I was there while the digital switchover was happening, I made them keep all of their 35mm, because there is too much history in film for it to just disappear entirely.

That’s what I wanted to ask you – what do you think the future will be? Because there are some people now really championing it, and they are very influential. But it could be just a boutique thing, more like a fetish.

Yes, yes I know. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, but I’d like to think that it’s not going to disappear forever, I do think the two formats can live side by side, why not? Like when we do our Vintage Sundays, I don’t know why we don’t do some of them on 35mm.  Vertigo (1958) the Bergman season, I’m sure there was plenty of 35mm out there that we could have shown. I understand it’s cheaper and easier not to, but there are plenty of projectionists still around that would love to just [do the work]. Even if they come in for the one show, they would do it. Yes, I think they can both live side by side, and filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Tarantino, Scorsese still shoot on film, they do help, especially when Christopher Nolan makes such a big deal of showing his film on film. Quentin Tarantino, and he’s Hateful Eight, not the greatest film ever made, but it was nice that he went all out on 70mm. I think people know what the word ‘roadshow’ is because of that. So when we say we are doing a ‘roadshow version’, they know what to expect.

Yes, yes, because of Tarantino.

Yes, they wouldn’t just be [saying] ‘why is the music playing with no image?’. They know what to expect, there’s going to be all this [other thing] going on.

I think filmmakers are one thing, because they know what celluloid means, and film people, like yourself and me – but audiences [are different]. When the eye stops being trained to see something in a certain way, do you think that’s going to affect [the way things are perceived]?

It absolutely has. I actually have a story – Richard Hundle who worked for Warners was telling me that at the premiere of Dunkirk one of the girls who was working there, she was like twenty, came up to him and said that the screen was flickering, and that the film is unwatchable, [asking him] what’s going on. And that’s literally how film was projected, you forget that it has a slight flicker, that your eye will get used to after about 5-10 minutes. Unfortunately, there is a whole generation of people that has hardly seen anything on film anymore, which is really sad. Like my niece, for example, I think she has seen only a couple of films on film, but she wouldn’t remember them, because she was a baby. If you think [about it], digital has been the norm for about twelve years.

I remember when we were showing 2001 here, people were commenting that there was a flicker. And I was [saying] yes, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

That’s what it is, that’s what film looks like, and it’s [because] people don’t know what film looks like anymore, which is a real shame. And I just think it looks better, it looks more real, more tactile to look at.

Yes, it’s layered, it has depth to it that digital projection just doesn’t have.

No, it doesn’t. There is a certain artifice to digital projection.

For me, it’s the closest that art can come to a dream.

Yes, yes.

Wanted to ask you a little bit about your thoughts on Kubrick as a filmmaker, and your experience when you first saw 2001, if you remember it, as I know we are both fans.

I wasn’t a big fan of it when I first saw it, I was quite young, 14-15, it was a Saturday afternoon, and I watched it on Sky.  And I think when you first go into it, you really don’t know. You sort of think you’re watching a space film, and then [you see] the way the film opens, apes running around, killing each other, and then you’ve got all that music, there’s no dialogue like the first 35 minutes of the film. It was quite hypnotic, and I fell asleep [laughs]. Took me 3-4 runs, I think a lot of Kubrick films do, there is so much going on, to fully appreciate them you have to see all of them at least two or three times. I just think that it’s one of the greatest films ever made now, it has so much to say, it’s still very relevant, it still looks incredible, the special effects in the film hardly have been touched.

50-year-old special effects, and they still rock.

Yes, it predated Star Wars for nine years. And when I was rehearsing this morning, the effects still stand up now, there still certain parts of the film that you’re thinking – how did he do that? In 1968. It’s like ten years older than Superman (1978), as much as I love that film, it doesn’t hold up nearly as good.

It really dates. Most films that were in any way showing any kind of technology in that timeline, they’ve dated, but that one didn’t.

No, and it’s clever in the way he does the ‘no sound in space’, no one has ever done that before or since, no one has the guts to do that. Kubrick is the only person I know who would have the audacity to do that. Even Nolan put music over his space scenes. That scene where he has [the actor] breathing for two minutes solid, it’s just stunning.

Absolutely fantastic. Just like the shape of the spacecrafts [in the film], he said – there is no air in space – so they don’t need to be aerodynamic. He was just a very clever man.

And he researched it for years, he did that with all of his films.

I saw it on television first, not the cinema, and it was the same feeling for me like when I saw Fassbinder’s Marriage Of Maria Brown, which is my first experience of seeing something different than I was used to seeing – Oh! What is this? I couldn’t really grasp what it was, but I knew I was seeing something extraordinary.

The same with me. I knew I was seeing something important, but I didn’t know what. It was really strange too, when I first saw it in the cinema. In 1995, the centenary of cinema, the Empire across the road was showing it, that was when for the first time I genuinely realised the insane difference between seeing something on TV and seeing it in the cinema. It was at that point that I absolutely fell in love with it. I saw all of them, they did Seven Samurai (1954), Blade Runner (1982), Pulp Fiction… But 2001 was the first one I saw, and I was blown away, I remember thinking – this is really something else.

I remember the first time I saw it in the cinema too, very much so, it was an outdoor cinema. It’s my favourite film, along with Tarkovsky’s Stalker, I cannot think of anything that comes close to it, either.

Thank you so much for this, would you like to close with anything?

On a personal note, I really do hope people come and see this, because it would be amazing for people to come and see it as it was meant to be seen, in frankly a wonderful place to watch a film. Screen 1 is a really nice place to watch a film, and if people come and see it, hopefully we can do more.

Yes, that’s very important for people to be aware of that. It’s not only that we are inviting them to have an experience the way that experience was meant to be had, it’s also when you do that you are a patron of the art, like when you visit galleries and museums, and you make sure that more of it can come.

It’s because you literally say ‘let’s go and watch a film’ – you don’t say ‘let’s go watch a digital file’…

And you have no distractions in the cinema, you only look at one thing. Even if you don’t come to watch a film, to come into a space, and just be focused on one thing, it’s a rarity.

Yes. And the thing is… Watching [2001], and listening to it a little bit today, you never seen it like this before, unless you were there when it came out. The sound has been cleaned up to how it was back in the day. It’s just wonderful. It’s really, really special.

Thank you, I think so too. And I cannot wait to see it myself again. And again.

Yes, I want to get a couple [of viewings] in too, thank you.

Interview & unedited text: Milana Vujkov

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