Let us now say goodbye to a friendly beast that’s been a part of Washington since 1976. Let us observe a moment of silence for the National Air and Space Museum’s 70mm Imax film projector.
On Sunday evening, it showed its last movie: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” When the Lockheed Martin Imax Theater reawakens in March, it will sport a brand-new, state-of-the-art laser digital projector. The result, the Smithsonian promises, will be stunning: crisper images, improved “color gamut,” blacker blacks.
And yet . . .
“I will always have a soft spot for film,” said Zarth Bertsch, director of theaters and entertainment at the Smithsonian.
Zarth (his father named him after a character in a short story) has loved light-sensitive crystals affixed to a clear plastic backing (i.e. film) since he studied still photography in college.
Film has a warm quality that aficionados say digital lacks. But Zarth said the latest generation of digital Imax projectors finally offers clear advantages to film. And besides, fewer movies are being released in the Imax 70mm film format. “I think the timing is right to switch,” Zarth said.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t nostalgic. On Friday, Zarth took me to the projection booth in Air and Space, high above the auditorium. It was dark in there, a little warm. Dean Fick, projection manager, was waiting for a 3-D Imax documentary on D-Day to end before spooling up the next feature: the new Star Wars movie.
There were two Imax projectors in there. (You need two to show 3-D movies.) Neither is the original one from 1976 — it was replaced about 10 years ago — but the basic technology is the same: Light shines through a succession of incrementally changing still images. Imax images are huge, which is why they look so good on a five-story screen.
Once France had successfully been invaded by the Allies, the movie ended and Dean leapt into action. Imax films play horizontally, the film spooled on massive platters as big as cafe tables. Dean squared away the D-Day movie, then pulled out the leader from “The Force Awakens” and started threading it through dozens of sprockets, rollers and pulleys that were arranged on either side of the Imax projector.
“It’s muscle memory,” Dean said as he pulled the film around the booth. “I don’t think about it anymore.”
The result was a complicated cat’s cradle, as if someone had hung translucent lasagna noodles on a clothes-drying rack.
Air and Space had one of the world’s first Imax theaters. It was how you got an immersive experience — flying with the Blue Angels, entering the Mariana Trench aboard a bathysphere — before there were virtual-reality headsets to hang off your face. Can you really call yourself a Washingtonian if you haven’t seen “To Fly”? It was the first Imax film to play at Air and Space, and it’s been playing ever since.
“ ‘To Fly’ might be [the] most-seen film in a theater ever at this point,” Zarth said. “What I do know with certainty is it’s the longest exhibited documentary in the world, theatrically speaking.”
Digital Imax movies are stored on hard drives. When they play, the projection booth has a hum like a computer server rather than the clackety-clack of film on the move.
There’s a tactileness to film, a literal heft. It is a thing, rather than an approximation of a thing. And, as far as “The Force Awakens” goes, it’s a big thing. The Imax film version of “The Force Awakens” is nine miles long. It weighs 400 pounds.
The Imax film version of the new Star Wars movie is too big to ship in one piece. When it arrived, it was in 40 pieces. Zarth had to splice them together, in the right order, the right way up. (That’s actually Dean’s job, but he was in bed with a 103-degree fever. Said Zarth: “I hadn’t assembled a movie in eight years.”)
There’s still a film Imax projector at the National Museum of Natural History, in the Samuel C. Johnson Imax Theater. The Airbus Imax Theater at Udvar-Hazy converted to digital last April.
Dean’s been an Imax projectionist for 31 years. He welcomes the conversion. Digital’s better, he said. So clean. Part of his job running the film projector was to monitor the screen for an errant hair or dust mote, which become gargantuan on an Imax screen.
“Hipsters all cheer when they see dust,” he said. “They know it’s film.”
There’s something else we won’t see in Washington: Nibbles. The tame goose that lived at Buzzard Point Marina on the Anacostia River was killed last week, said Steve Gross, who last summer took the orphaned gosling from the Chesapeake Bay. He was apparently attacked by a fox. Raised by humans, the goose may not have known how to behave around a predator.
“[Nibbles] was acclimated as best as he could have been, and other than to have kept him in a cage (not an option), there was no way to prevent this, as we know it happens in nature,” Steve wrote in an email. Steve added that he was “trying to take comfort in the fact that [Nibbles] likely would have been eaten the day we found him, and that we had eight months of watching him love life, and we got to see it up close and have an experience that we’ll never forget.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.