Last Saturday (in celebration of the upcoming International Pin-hole Camera Day (April 26), I made a pinhole camera at a workshop at the Alice Austen Museum here in Staten Island. Cameras have been around a lot longer than you might think. Primitive versions of them may well have aided Vermeer and other artists of the seventeenth century to see or paint using a projected image, making those painters, in one sense, early photo-realists. Camera obscura. “Camera” is Italian for “room” — a small dark (“obscura”) box with a hole in it that presents an image. Add light-sensitive material to that box —film, for example — and you’ve got my home-made pinhole camera, and the basis for all the other cameras that existed before the digital age, including an old Canon F-1 I had, and, of course, movie cameras of all varieties. But the age of direct exposure is behind us.
Just as most people take pictures with their cell-phone cameras or more sophisticated digital cameras, movie directors, with some rare exceptions, don’t actually “film” anymore. That word is as obsolete as “dial” in reference to making calls.
At the St. George Theatre in 1976, we dwelt entirely in the pre-digital age. Arriving by special courier each Wednesday afternoon, the movie or movies of the week resided in a set of heavy octagonal steel canisters that had to be toted by usher-power, which is to say by hand, up the six flights to the projection booth. There, one of our regular projectionists — or if we were very lucky, our friend Bob Endres, the then-head of projection at Radio City, who liked to take the occasional relief shift — would open the boxes and extract the platter-like reels of film one at a time, to be loaded into our two carbon arc projectors. Each reel in its turn was then threaded past a gate through which the light from the expensive carbons burning in our Century/Ashcraft projectors — a literal fire — would shine. The film had “perfs” (perforations) or “sprocket holes” running down each edge — another term as obsolete as “dial” or “film” itself. Without these holes, the film would never have passed in orderly fashion, at 24 frames per second, through the projector head’s gate, creating the illusion of movement on our movie screen, nearly a city block away.
So much was done painstakingly, “by hand,” that these days passes effortlessly through space and time. In working cinemas, films are four-ounce hard drives (compared to the old 120 pounds of film and reels), and projectors are large electronic machines, standing in a corridor, capable of working at multiple frame rates while being monitored remotely. It’s all digital: “film speed” is a term about as relevant as “horse power.” When the “film” arrives via mail or FedEx, it hardly requires a couple of strong young men to carry to a little room that need not contain a dedicated projectionist.
The new digital technology is extremely convenient, but there are drawbacks. What if the system crashes? As one exhibitor noted,
"I know how to tear apart a 35-millimeter projector, clean it and put it back together. I have no idea what's going inside of that black monolith. When you have a problem and it goes down, you lose the rest of the night. Before, with an Allen wrench and a rubber band, I could usually get it going for the next show." (Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse chain of theaters)
So much for effortless projection!
The only thing that remains, while it remains, is the theater itself, a “camera obscura” — dark room —which, if you follow the analogy, would make the port through which the movie passes a kind of pinhole. It’s still all about light.