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Digital format displacing celluloid

Donovan Aikman is a big fan of digital projection, but that doesn't mean he has given up on outdated technology. Take those VHS videocassettes that filmmakers used for years to screen their short films.
Victoria Film Festival programmer Donovan Aikman holds a hard drive and a classic film reel in front of a digital projector. Aikman says digital technology has progressed to the point that it is now virtually indistinguishable from film.

Donovan Aikman is a big fan of digital projection, but that doesn't mean he has given up on outdated technology.

Take those VHS videocassettes that filmmakers used for years to screen their short films.

"It makes a great doorstop," laughs the Victoria Film Festival programmer, recalling one VHS tape that holds the door open at the festival's Blanshard Street headquarters when filmgoers line up to buy tickets.

"Everyone who walks in, it seems, picks it up and tries to give it to us," he said. "It makes it seem really obsolete, but on the other hand, the fact people actually stop to pick up the tape shows it's part of their consciousness - that this is something that's still valuable to them."

It's been at least three years since Aikman received a short film submission on VHS. Feature films that once routinely arrived in bulky 35-millimetre film canisters have all but been replaced by digital copies and encrypted codes.

At this year's Victoria Film Festival, only four out of nearly 150 films are being screened on 35mm film rather than digitally.

Edwin Boyd, Wetlands (Marecages), Tyrannosaur and Guy Maddin's Keyhole are the sole offerings on film this year.

"Guy hasn't left the 1930s, so Keyhole isn't surprising given he's such an old technology kind of guy," said Aikman, referring to the celebrated Winnipegborn filmmaker who embraces retro techniques and is an advocate of blackand-white filmmaking.

In Keyhole, a gangster (Jason Patric) journeys through his childhood home to reunite with his wife (Isabella Rossellini).

This time last year, Aikman notes, 90 per cent of screens in Greater Victoria used film. This year, 95 per cent are digital, now that most theatres have complied with Digital Cinema Initiatives, a joint venture of major Hollywood studios aimed at ensuring uniformity and technical quality control.

Cineplex Entertainment got the ball rolling last year when it introduced Vancouver Island's first all-digital multiplex with the opening of its Cineplex Odeon Westshore Cinemas. It also converted existing multiplexes SilverCity and the Odeon. Empire Theatres converted its Capitol 6, the festival's flagship theatre and Sidney's Star Cinema added a digital projector.

With most of the antiquated heavyweight film projectors that dominated local projection rooms now sold for scrap metal, the Vic, Caprice, Cinecenta, National Geographic Theatre and Roxy are now the only cinemas using film locally.

Aikman argues the advantages of digital transcend improved contrast and brightness.

"It's cheaper and lighter and since it's either virtual or small, it makes transporting things easier."

Shorts can now be sent directly to the festival's FTP site, while features can be stored on digital drives with encrypted codes.

Distributors favour digital, says Aikman, because it's less expensive. And filmmakers don't need to worry about scratched prints.

"Before, that was an assumed risk, that prints don't last forever," says Aikman, who has had his share of print problems.

"Digital is more ephemeral, so when things go wrong, there's no actual 'thing' you can hang onto or fix," he adds, noting the good news is technological advances have vastly improved the quality of digital since its infancy.

"The proof is in the pudding now that they've got to the point where for most people, the difference between analog and digital is almost indistinguishable."

While Aikman won't miss lugging heavy film cases up flights of stairs, 35mm film hasn't outlived its usefulness. He says there are companies that do colour conversions and archive digital products back onto film for storage.

Mechanical film systems have definite advantages because of the uniformity of their design, he adds.

"The nice thing is you could take a film anywhere in the world that had a 35mm projector, lace it up and run the show," he said. "The difference between Victoria and Botswana was negligible, with a switch on the left maybe instead of the right."

Whatever your preference, Aikman says one thing is certain.

"It's a good time to be watching movies."