Mr Butterfield is one of Sydney’s last independent projectionists, in an era when most commercial cinemas run their shows by computer.

Bushfire smoke isn’t the only change he’s seen in his 40 years in the business. When he started out, everything was on 16mm or 35mm celluloid film.

“[The reels were] huge heavy things, with lots of little holes that liked to get torn.” A single reel could include over 4 kilometres of celluloid. It had to be ground down, before being spun through the projector.

Lots could go wrong. The film could jam. The lens could lose focus. The light levels could be wrong. So the projectionist had to be on standby to prevent disaster.

That’s all gone the way of the dinosaurs. Mr Butterfield now works with digital files and a hard drive. Essentially, the movie plays the same way it would on a home computer.

At first, digital cinema was clumsy, Mr Butterfield says. But in 2010, Hollywood studios issued a set of rules, requiring their filmmakers to shoot in a standard digital format.

Cinemas updated their equipment, eager to snag the latest digital blockbuster. “Celluloid film died a very quick death after that.”

Without celluloid, the business of projection is a whole lot simpler. In fact, most multiplex cinemas don’t even use a projectionist.

“Everything is standardised input,” Mr Butterfield says. “To a large extent, it’s loaded at the beginning of the week and the clock plays it out.”

Celluloid versus digital: projectionist Alan Butterfield with a multi-movie hard-drive and a 20-minute film reel.

Celluloid versus digital: projectionist Alan Butterfield with a multi-movie hard-drive and a 20-minute film reel. Credit:Isabella Porras

But Mr Butterfield keeps the craft alive. With digital, his job is to check that the files are compatible with his equipment. He also has to adjust light and sound levels, and make sure the image size is correct.

Digital has brought its advantages, the big one being cost.

“People don’t need to go to the expense of having film prints made to have their film shown by a big audience.”

The image quality is also far higher: film would get scratched, it would bend and flutter in the machine. But digital is “sort of perfect”, as Mr Butterfield puts it.

And therein lies the rub. Because that perfection is, in a way, one of digital’s biggest drawbacks.

“It’s just that little bit characterless. Film appears to be more alive,” he said. “[It has] more levels of light. It has more subtlety in its light.”

Mr Butterfield likens it to vinyl records.

“Many have found the love of vinyl sound. It’s got scratches on the record for Christ’s sake! But it’s warmer, it’s realer, it’s this and that.

“Well, film is vinyl.”

Every once in a while, Mr Butterfield still projects film for special events. But it’s hard to source old film reels and many need expensive restoration before they can be played.


“There’s not a lot of energy for finding the film. And paying for me!”

Nowadays, everyone has a cinema in their pockets, and the number of moviegoers has dropped. But Mr Butterfield is certain some form of the medium will continue.

“But I think there’s a future for people gathering together to do the same cultural thing.”

Whether projectionists will have a role is less clear.

“At the moment, there’s a need for me. But not much of one. And I’m not going to survive for ever… You might call us last generation people.”

Flickerfest’s closing ceremony is at 7.15pm, January 19, in the Bondi Pavilion.  

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