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The Projection Project

The Projection Project

The shift from analogue to digital projection

Cinema remains one of our favourite cultural pastimes, though our experience of it has changed dramatically over the last century. The Projection Project investigated the shift from analogue to digital cinema projection, arguably the biggest 'digital transformation' undertaken within the film business. The research team revealed an unseen history of the industry, creating innovative exhibitions that allowed the audience to engage with this history.

The challenge

Cinema is a cultural industry that has experienced huge transformations across its 125 year lifespan. Yet, little attention has been paid to the changing roles and working conditions of cinema projectionists during this time. The recent process of mass redundancy and deskilling that they have endured went largely unnoticed and unremarked upon. Our project team’s research and work needed to keep the stories of projectionists alive in our cultural memory.

Our approach

The research team collaborated with creative partners, developing resources and hosting public events and exhibitions. Their research outputs included:

  • A set of oral history interviews with both working and retired projectionists from around the country

  • Research in trade union archives and film industry trade papers to show how projectionists' pay, working conditions, union organisation and job requirements have changed

  • A PhD project into how fiction films have represented film projection itself

  • An investigation of the new uses and practices of digital projection outside of the cinema, such as 'projection-mapping' and the rise of the ‘VJ’ (Video-Jockey), mixing video live in nightclubs

  • A sensory ethnographic comparison between the sounds of the analogue and digital projection box

  • An online archive, ‘The Cinema Projectionist’, for use by schools

This research project was funded by the AHRC.

Our impact

The project has had a wide impact, drawing attention to the importance of projectionists and the history of the role. New audiences have discovered how the film industry has changed, both on screen and behind the scenes. The exhibitions have united digital natives with the digitally dispossessed – the workers made redundant by digital transformations. These have included sold out public events, combining experts and students of film with interested amateurs and members of the public.

On a local level, the Flatpack Festival in Birmingham drew in four figure audience numbers, many of whom were first time visitors. Use has also been made of the online archive, particularly its ‘virtual projection box’ feature, within schools. Creative outputs have included a major photography exhibition documenting projectionists in their working environments, and a commercially available LP record of the sounds of film projection, all of which aim to bring the long lost atmosphere of the projection box to life.

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