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Digital all but killed film. Projectionist Robert Miniaci is fighting to preserve it

Digital all but killed film. Projectionist Robert Miniaci is fighting to preserve it

Radio documentary and reporting on Robert Miniaci by Craig Desson of CBC Radio’s Doc Unit

Robert Miniaci is a master of a nearly lost art. He’s in his 60s, and says he is one of the few people capable of maintaining and repairing projection equipment in the world.

“I’m really the only one,” the Montreal-based projectionist told CBC Radio’s Craig Desson.

Miniaci builds, repairs and preserves all sorts of projectors. He makes sure they work properly, through periodic adjustment and cleaning.

He’s set up projectors at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Tate Museum in England, and done installations for big names such as the late actor and filmmaker Dennis Hopper.

“Almost every gallery on the planet has a projector and a loop that I built,” said Miniaci.

It can take time, and knowledge. But Miniaci has both. While he says there are some people who do what he does, most are retired, and few have the level of experience he has or the parts necessary for fixes. 

And he’s hoping he can pass his knowledge on. 

Miniaci says there’s something about a film projection that is more captivating than the digital movies people watch now. (Craig Desson/CBC)

Miniaci works out of his garage, but he used to have his own warehouse in the basement of a strip mall that was full of projectors and parts of all shapes, sizes and models. 

It had tools that have been used since the 1950s, he said, and projectors he considers to be part of history. It even had a projector he built by hand when he was just a kid. 

Miniaci was born in Italy and remembers his first time in a movie theatre. He was struck by the image being projected on screen, he said. 

He was so fascinated that he wanted his own toy slide projector that would play cartoons, but knowing his parents were unlikely to oblige, he set out to make his own. After some work and a bit of trial and error, he was able to build it.

“I had a beautiful little projector working … and then my parents looked and said we should have [bought you one] but I said, ‘I’m glad you didn’t. I had a lot of fun making this.'”

A bunch of tools sit on a cart with film reel cases behind the card.
Miniaci says the tools he needs to fix projectors haven’t really changed much over time. (Craig Desson/CBC)

From motion to mundane

Miniaci is, unsurprisingly, a staunch defender of the experience that comes with film. Movies were first known as motion pictures, thanks to the frame by frame motion that was projected onto screen. 

But, Miniaci said, the digital version doesn’t have that same beauty of movement. 

“You’re getting something static, which is synthetically put together through zeros and ones.” 

He remembers when his children were little, and he had a room set up downstairs with a projector. The children and their friends would be captivated by the latest Disney film. 

And he said that same experience translates to cinemas.

A projector sits in the foreground with a man in the background going through boxes of equipment.
Miniaci has a catalog of projectors and tools to fix them. (Craig Desson/CBC)

“In the cinema, when you’re looking at it and you’re looking at film, you have that sense of believability that you’re actually transported into something that you’re not,” said Miniaci. 

“The digital … it has a medical, technical quality to it, a very metallic look.”

He uses the example of the opening scene of The Godfather, which was shot in low light, showing mostly shadows as the mob boss listens to someone asking for a shady favour.

“Nobody can see anything.… But that was the whole point, that you saw shadows almost of the individual. The most important thing was what the words, and film allows you to do that in such a perfect way,” said Miniaci. 

“When it’s digital … it can over-define things in a certain way and you lose that ability to create the artistic impact that you want to create.”

The push to digital began in the late 1990s, and it really started taking over in the 2000s. In 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the first film in North America to be played through digital projection. Now digital movies are ubiquitous in commercial theatres across the continent. 

An audience watches a movie in a darkened theatre.
The North American box office brought in $7.5 billion US in 2022, which is up about 65 per cent from 2021 but still far below pre-pandemic levels. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Martin Lefebvre, chair of the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University, said it was done as a cost-cutting measure.

It was expensive to film, edit and then ship large film reels to theatres across the globe. A digital file could be sent on a simple CD or transmitted through a satellite. 

“Film is an art form, but it’s a business as well,” said Lefebvre.

But Lefebvre doesn’t believe there is a major difference in quality between having a projected film or a digital feature. 

He acknowledges some of his colleagues prefer to watch a projected picture, but for him, it’s hard to pick out a difference. It can just come down to preference. 

“Sometimes you make your wish come true. You think this is going to be better and it looks better and you feel better about it. So there’s a lot of mythology around the relationship between legacy media and new tools,” said Lefebvre.

“I can’t say it was definitely better on film. And I think that talented directors of photography can pull off digital filmmaking, and digital projection will live up to the work that they’ve done in making a film.”

Lefebvre said there is still value in keeping the skills Miniaci has alive, as there are some films that can only be viewed through a projector. At Concordia, Lefebvre said students learn how to use projectors and film.

But he doesn’t foresee a return to film on a mass scale. 

The future of film

Miniaci still has hope for his art form. He’s sold systems to places in Los Angeles that have opened strictly analog theatres.

He said the push is coming from young people, and from organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which promotes watching films and the preservation of analog. The Cinémathèque québécoise, a film conservatory in Montreal, does the same.

“I think they definitely want to have a distinction between their iPhone and a theatre experience,” said Miniaci.

Business has been good for Miniaci. Almost too good, as he struggles to keep up. Many of his former colleagues are in their 80s, and no longer working. 

A man with grey hair and glasses holds a reel of film.
Miniaci loves reel-to-reel film, and he hopes to pass that knowledge on to the next generation. (Craig Desson/CBC)

“I am not stopping. You know, it’s as simple as that. I said, ‘I’ll stop when everything stops,'” said Miniaci. 

But he knows he won’t be around forever, and he wants to make sure his knowledge lives on. Film schools have approached him to work on passing along those skills.

“I do have a plan in place that I want to hopefully get this knowledge transferred to younger people. And it’s possible. It’s not impossible. They’re not stupid,” said Miniaci.

“You just have to have the time. And right