A Post-lockdown Trip to the Cinema

This article first appeared on RedShark News last month.

What’s wrong with this picture? Apparently nothing, if you work for the Light.

As I write this, I’ve just got back from my first trip to the cinema in six months. Although they have been allowed to reopen in England since July 4th, the higher operating costs in the pandemic kept many cinemas dark well into August. On Friday the 21st, my local branch of the Light here in Cambridge finally opened its doors, and I went along to experience post-Covid cinema.

Studios have been shifting their release dates throughout the lockdown, with some films giving up on theatrical exhibition altogether, so the Light, like its competitors, has filled its screens with classics for now. I selected Jurassic Park, which I haven’t seen on the big screen since its original release in 1993.

When I arrived, the lobby was dark and almost empty. Like most public spaces, it had sprouted new signage and a one-way system since March, and it took me a couple of attempts to find the right lane. Once inside the main corridor though, little had changed except the odd hand sanitiser dispenser on the wall.

I found my screen and took a seat. As with everything from trains to swimming pools, pre-booking is now strongly recommended, due to the diminished capacity caused by social distancing. When you pick your seat, the website makes you leave two empties between your party and the next. You can even pre-purchase your popcorn and bucket of cola.

I needn’t have booked, however. In a screen of about 100 seats, exactly ten were occupied. It will take the general public a while to cotton on that cinema-going is an option again, even before they decide whether they feel comfortable doing so.

As I sat masked and expectant, my hands sticky from sanitiser that refused to evaporate, I was treated to a rare site: a cinema employee inside the auditorium. He announced that they didn’t have any ads or trailers yet, so they would delay starting the film to give everyone a chance to arrive.

A few minutes later, the man reappeared and asked us all to decamp to the corridor. Apparently they had installed a new sound system, and they needed to test it, which could be very loud. Why they couldn’t have checked the system for eardrum bursting at some point in the last six months is beyond me.

The ten of us duly waited in the corridor. A snatch of the Imperial March from an adjacent screen betokened another classic being wheeled out. A woman with a spray bottle and a cloth, masked like all of her colleagues, worked her way down the corridor, cleaning the door handles. A group next to me (but, I hasten to add, appropriately distant) cracked jokes about the sex appeal of Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcom. Another group, evidently missing the trailers, watched one on a phone. (If that doesn’t sum up the existential crisis facing cinema, I don’t know what does.)

At last we were readmitted. The lights dimmed, the sounds of a jungle faded up on the brand new sound system, and the Universal logo appeared. But the trademark globe looked like a deflated football. The film was being projected in the wrong aspect ratio. And not just slightly. It was almost unwatchably stretched, like the flat 1.85:1 images were being shown through a 2:1 anamorphic lens.

By the time the first scene was dissolving away to Bob Peck’s cries of “Shoot her!” the problem hadn’t been corrected, so I stepped out to find a member of staff. The senior person on duty claimed that the problem lay with the file supplied by the distributor, not with the projection. “There’s nothing I can do,” he insisted, while I goggled over my mask in disbelief.

At this point, had I not had this article to write, I would have gone home and watched the film on Netflix, or even on DVD. (There’s that existential crisis again.) But I persevered, trying not to imagine Dean Cundey weeping tears of frustration into his beard.

Fortunately, Jurassic Park is such a great film that it could be appreciated even in the face of such technical incompetence. A larger audience would have been nice, to enjoy the scares and humour with, though since screaming and laughing project dangerous droplets further, perhaps that’s less than ideal these days.

Overall, I must say that I found the experience of going to the cinema less altered than many other aspects of life. I’ve got used to wearing a mask, so much so that I was halfway home before I remembered to take it off, and I normally avoid peak times so the emptiness didn’t feel too unusual.

But with the rise in streaming subscriptions during lockdown, and the understandable caution that many feel about going out, cinemas will need to work much harder to get bums back on flip-up seats. The kind of technical troubles that the Light suffered tonight will only strengthen the case for staying at home, mask-free and pyjama-clad, where you can control both the virus and the aspect ratio.

A week after writing this, I went to a Showcase to see Tenet. The member of staff who took our tickets unequivocally told us that the printed screen number was wrong, and that we should go to another one. We did so. The ads and trailers finally started, fifteen minutes late. We were just wondering why they were trailing such kid-friendly movies when another member of staff came in and told us that Tenet was showing in the original screen after all, and by the way, you’ve missed the first couple of minutes. 

Hopefully it is now clear why I wrote “10 Reasons Why Cinemas Don’t Deserve to Survive the Pandemic”.

A Post-lockdown Trip to the Cinema

Making a 35mm Zoetrope: The Results

In the early days of lockdown, I blogged about my intentions to build a zoetrope, a Victorian optical device that creates the illusion of a moving image inside a spinning drum. I even provided instructions for building your own, sized like mine to accommodate 18 looping frames of contact-printed 35mm photographs. Well, last week I was finally able to hire my usual darkoom, develop and print the image sequences I had shot over the last five months, and see whether my low-tech motion picture system worked.

 

Making Mini Movies

Shooting “Sundial”

Before I get to the results, let me say a little about the image sequences themselves and how they were created. Because I was shooting on an SLR, the fastest frame rate I could ever hope to record at was about 1fps, so I was limited to time-lapses or stop motion animation.

Regular readers may recall that the very first sequence I captured was a time-lapse of the cherry tree in my front garden blossoming. I went on to shoot two more time-lapses, shorter-term ones showing sunlight moving across objects during a single day: a circle of rotting apples in a birdbath (which I call Sundial), and a collection of props from my flatmate’s fantasy films (which I call Barrels). I recorded all the time-lapses with the pinhole I made in 2018.

Filming “Social Distance”

The remaining six sequences were all animations, lensed on 28mm, 50mm or 135mm SMC Pentax-Asahi glass. I had no signficant prior experience of this artform, but I certainly had great fun creating some animated responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. My childish raw materials ranged from Blue Peter-esque toilet roll tubes, through Play-Doh to Lego. Orbit features the earth circling a giant Covid-19, and The Sneeze sees a toilet roll person sternutating into their elbow. Happy Birthday shows a pair of rubber glove hands washing themselves, while Avoidance depicts two Lego pedestrians keeping their distance. 360° is a pan of a room in which I am variously sitting, standing and lying as I contemplate lockdown, and finally Social Distance tracks along with a pair of shoes as they walk past coronavirus signage.

The replacement faces for the toilet paper star of “The Sneeze”

By the time I finished shooting all these, I had already learnt a few things about viewing sequences in a zoetrope, by drawing a simple animation of a man walking. Firstly I discovered that the slots in my device – initially 3mm in width – were too large. I therefore retrofitted the drum with 1mm slots, resulting in reduced motion blur but a darker image, much like reducing the shutter angle on a movie camera. I initially made the mistake of putting my eye right up to the drum when viewing the animation, but this destroys the shuttering effect of the slots. Instead the best results seem to be obtained with a viewing distance of about 30cm (1ft).

I could already see where I might have made mistakes with my photographed sequences. The hand-drawn man was bold and simple; it looked best in good light, by a window or outdoors, but it was clear enough to be made out even if the light was a bit poor and there was too much motion blur. Would the same be said of my 35mm sequences?

 

Postproduction

I contact-printed the nine photographic sequences in the usual way, each one producing three rows of six frames on a single sheet of 8×10″ Ilford MG RC paper. In theory, all that was left was to cut out these rows and glue them together.

In practice, I had managed to screw up a few of the sequences by fogging the start of the film, shooting a frame with bad exposure, or some other act of shameful incompetence. In such cases I had to edit much like filmmakers did before the invention of digital NLEs – by cutting the strips of images, excising the rotten frames and taping them back together. I even printed some of the sequences twice so that I could splice in duplicate frames, where my errors had left a sequence lacking the full 18 images. (This was effectively step-printing, the obsolete optical process by which a shot captured at 24fps could be converted to slow motion by printing each frame twice.)

"Blossom"

Once the sequences were edited, I glued them into loops and could at last view them in the zoetrope. The results were mixed.

Barrels fails because the moving sunlight is too subtle to be discerned through the spinning slots. The same is partly true of Sundial, but the transient glare caused by the sun reflecting off the water at its zenith gives a better sense of motion. Blossom shows movement but I don’t think an uninitiated viewer would know what they were looking at, so small and detailed is the image. Orbit suffers from smallness too, with the earth and Covid-19 unrecognisable. (These last two sequences would have benefitted from colour, undoubtedly.)

The planet Covid-19 (as seen by my phone camera) made from Play-Doh and cloves

I’m very pleased with the animation of Social Distance, though I need to reprint it brighter for it to be truly effective. You can just about make out that there are two people passing each other in Avoidance, but I don’t think it’s at all clear that one is stepping into the road to maintain a safe distance from the other. Happy Birthday is a bit hard to make out too. Similarly, you can tell that 360° is a pan of a room, but that’s about it.

Perhaps the most successful sequence is The Sneeze, with its bold, white toilet roll man against a plain black background.

"Happy Birthday"

 

Conclusions

Any future zoetrope movies need to be bold, high in contrast and low in detail. I need to take more care to choose colours that read as very different tones when captured in black and white.

Despite the underwhelming results, I had a great time doing this project. It was nice to be doing something hands-on that didn’t involve sitting at a screen, and it’s always good to get more practice at exposing film correctly. I don’t think I’ll ever make an animator though – 18 frames is about the limit of my patience.

My light meter lies beside my animation chart for the walking feet in “Social Distance”.

 

Making a 35mm Zoetrope: The Results