A lifelong cinephile, professional film projectionist (35mm and 70mm), and independent filmmaker, Rob Murphy is an optimistic anomaly within the industry. He, and his docu-quest through big and widescreen formats, Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey, are a far cry from the crusty old stereotypes of old school film projection. His journey begins in the 1950s with the lost art and enduring legacy of Cinerama and charts its course all the way up unto the technological precipice on which we currently stand. Refreshingly, Murphy approaches the thorny issues around both the removal and the preservation of 35mm and 70mm film projection with the same optimism with which he sees the future possibilities of digital technologies; there’s no format didacticism to be found here. 

Instead, the film is peppered with talking heads interviews where archivists, projectionists, collectors and curators speak candidly and constructively about their personal and professional experiences of projection. Though each and every voice in the film is informed by personal cinephilia, the focus of the film is unique in that it remains centred on projection rather than spectatorship. As such, Splice Here is distinct from its docu-peer format documentaries such as Side by Side (Chris Kenneally, 2012) and Out of Print (Julia Marchese, 2014). Less of a nostalgia-fest than it is an appreciation of a craft rarely acknowledged, Splice Here is an ode to the innovation of our most plastic art. 

Murphy contemplates his role as a supporter of cinema culture from a young age and how that interest in projected formats has shaped his subsequent drive to educate Melbourne cinema audiences at The Sun cinema where he works. Not only that, he does so with such aplomb that he even managed to convince Quentin Tarantino – via a newsreel he shot, documenting his endeavours to reinstate 70mm projection equipment in time for The Hateful Eight (2015) – to come to Yarraville to introduce a screening before Murphy himself projected it on Village Roadshow’s freshly struck print. Having had the pleasure of working briefly with Murphy when I was employed by former proprietor, filmmaker and projectionist George Florence at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre, I was far from surprised when, Zooming across time and space, I found him sat, smiling, by the projectors at The Sun. 

– TJ 

I’m at the Sun.

Of course you are.

And I’m sitting in a hallway [laughs] where I’m working on a projector for a Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) screening tomorrow. 

At 9am! I didn’t think projectionists got up before about midday…?

Well, whenever you have to fix something, it’s always before shows. I’d much rather come in early in the morning than try and do it after midnight. 

Fair enough! And you’ve made a film, with such a wealth of stuff that you’ve documented. Have you just been documenting things forever not knowing what it would be for or have you been thinking about making this film for an extremely long time? 

Yeah, it has been thinking about this film for an extremely long time. I suppose it didn’t start out that way. There was a two-year period maybe at the beginning where I was just documenting what was happening [cinemas removing 35mm], because it was happening so quickly. I knew it would be something; probably back then I thought it was a short film, but I really didn’t know. It was really just: chase what was happening for those two years. Just run from one thing to another, because it was all happening so quickly. And then the idea started to evolve. 

I think probably it was a couple of years in when myself and my cinematographer said: well, the only way we’re going to be able to link all these disjointed images of the lost film / end of film story is with a storyteller. And I was clearly the only candidate. So, from that point on, it started to evolve in my head as, okay, how can we do all this? 

I was still just grabbing things as I thought of them. It just got bigger. It’s like: oh, I really want to do something about the collectors, and I really want to do something about lost film. The pieces to the entire puzzle just kept getting added. It wasn’t until probably 2016, when the whole The Hateful Eight thing happened that I realised: okay, this has to be the end of the film. This is clearly the finale. And from that point onwards, everything else was pretty much, okay, I now know that I want to shoot a link to join these two things together or I want to shoot a little contrived scene to illustrate something. It was certainly more directively shot from about 2015 onwards. 

But all of those things, like the stuff where I go into the museum, those were rattling around – and me as a kid at high school – all of that was rattling around in my head for a good five years. It wasn’t until the edit when the film really came together. It was really a film that evolved during the editing. 

When did you make that decision: now’s the point to edit, I’ve got everything I need, the pieces are all there. And how long did you spend in the edit? 

One of the last things we shot, the major thing was 2019, we did the U.S. tour. That was three weeks, and that was a couple of months before Covid. So, very, very lucky we got all that. And those interviews turned out to be invaluable. 2020, Covid hit, and that’s when we got Screen Australia money, and that’s when I started editing. So, I had a whole year to just sit in my office and cut. You never ever get that uninterrupted. So, it was brilliant. The timing was perfect. 

Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey

Obviously, a lot of collectors are very secretive and don’t like people to know who they are or what they have, and there are lots of shots in the film of film cans with labels of films that you gasp at. How was it talking to and filming collectors and their collections? Did many want to talk to you anonymously? What were the ethics of trying to include some of that in your film? I think it’s a hugely important point that you make about how many films do exist in private collections, but it’s a really tricky thing because if the studios found out they’d just take them back or destroy or seize them. 

When I did get people to agree, they were surprisingly open. I couldn’t shut them up. Once they’d made that tipping point of, okay, I’m going to do this, and we started talking, then they started bragging. 

Did you have to convince anyone to go past that tipping point? 

Not really. A lot of people were not just collectors, but projectionists or cinema professionals and so they knew how to talk about those sorts of things in a guarded way, but also telling us about them. And the one shot of the collector with the backyard shed, who has that huge pile of stuff, I just asked somebody else, “Do you know a collector that has a collection like that?” because I wanted it visually. We didn’t actually talk to him. I don’t reveal where he lives. I don’t reveal anything about him. But the film that we put prominently in the foreground is one of his pride and joy pieces which is Music Land (Wilfred Jackson, 1935) and he thinks that’s the only existing print. 

I think I know who that collector is. I think I’ve seen a film in his shed! [both laugh] That was such an opening to me, when I learnt that people have these private things in their collections. Do you think anyone is still showing nitrate prints?

Not any public cinemas. But I think collectors still do. I know one that still does, but he does it outside, outdoor screenings. It depends on the age of the collector. If they’ve been a projectionist then they have a lot more respect and a lot more understanding. If they’re just a collector, then I think they’re a lot more afraid of what they’ve heard about… But I’ve also spoken to a lot of people – a lot of collectors or projectionists – who’ve said: I know it’s supposed to be able to just spontaneously combust, and yes, it’s incredibly flammable, but nobody actually knows of it going up without an ignition point. It doesn’t need much, but they all seem to think it won’t spontaneously combust, without an ignition point. But then, you talk to anybody at the archives and the lengths that the archivists have gone to at the Library of Congress to have all their prints separated in little shelves so that if they do go up, they won’t take another print out. So, you know, they take it very seriously. So, I don’t know. 

Was there a view to educating audiences about formats and what they’re watching, for the regular viewer? And how much was driven by it being a passion project? Do you take the line that if people knew what was happening to film prints and if people knew the politics of where they’re kept, who gatekeeps them, all of that – or was it more of a personal memoir piece more than anything else? 

I definitely wanted to give people an appreciation or a desire to want to see film to make the comparison. I wanted to keep the film very positive, so I wanted it to feel good and I want people to feel excited and inspired to seek out film, so that they can tell the difference. There was a lot of negativity that I had shot, a lot of horror stories about destroyed libraries and prints that still get trashed. So, I could have gone down that route; I could have balanced it half and half, so that people are kind of shocked into an appreciation, if you know what I mean. So, they sort of hear a bad story and think: oh my gosh I had no idea, I should go out and see these films while they’re still there! Because that’s the position we’re in now, not because they’re going to fall apart – well, some of them are in the process of doing that, but film is still going to last for hundreds of years – but because the prints are getting rarer and rarer. The rights holders are not willing to let them out anymore, because they’re irreplaceable. 

I still get people, when we were on The Hateful Eight, I still get people coming up to me and saying afterwards, “I had no idea film could look like that, or that a projected image of any kind could look like that.” And so that’s what we need to preserve, is people’s ability to make a judgemental difference. Because if film goes away, very quickly people will just say that 4K digital looks wonderful. Film could never look like this, film’s rubbish, you know? But if you can still go somewhere and see both, then you’re informed. And it is different. 

Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey

Has it made a difference to audiences at The Sun? How have people been responding to your film? And are you showing it on film? 

Unfortunately, there’s no way. Ten years of shooting, the assembly was eight hours long; not even Scorsese would have the luxury of shooting that amount of footage verité on film. So, digital is not the bad guy, and I didn’t want my film to come across that way. But I did want to make the distinction that it’s not better or worse, but they are different. Every format lends its own technical attributes to every film that’s recorded on it, and it’s that thing of treating cinema like an artform. And if you’re seeing it in a different format, then you’re not seeing it in the way that the artist wanted you to see it. And that’s what it comes down to, I think. 

It’s expensive to strike a print, for the few cinemas that can show 35mm. 

If enough interest was generated then I would, and I’ve already looked into it, and I have somebody who can do it relatively cheaply, in the country. And we’ve even done a test. We did a scan and struck a print of the trailer and it looks good, but I think that the film would have to be re-graded. There’s a lot less tolerance for getting a shot looking the right way from digital to film than the other way around. So, a lot of things didn’t look quite – that’s borderline, and you’d have to regrade that – so it would be a lot of work. But if the New Bev said, “We want to run your film,” I’d get a print struck. 

Surely, they’ll show it. If Quentin was at The Sun, surely you can say to him, “Hey buddy, can you put this on, please?” 

It’s such a lovely moment in the film, to see that after that work of building up to putting the kit back in, and it does really raise questions as a viewer about how mad the industry is; this idea of pulling all this equipment out of all these cinemas, making scarcity a thing so it’s practically obsolete and then being like, now there’s this filmmaker who’s decided, and the distributors are fine to spend the money for this particular person, so then we’ll put it all back in to all of these places. 

Did it still feel meaningful? Obviously having Quentin Tarantino come, that makes it really meaningful, but sometimes you don’t get those moments with the work that you do, it’s rare for projectionists to get that level of acclaim for the work that you do behind the scenes, normally nobody really notices. Even with The Hateful Eight, not everybody knew or really cared about how they saw it, some people just saw it because the 70mm was like a gimmick. Do you think it would still have had such a payoff, not the same payoff, but would you still have been pleased to pull off the 70mm feat if he hadn’t have turned up at the end? 

Absolutely. When I heard about it, it was immediate excitement of, as a projectionist, wouldn’t this just be such a cool project? And Mike was equally excited about it just as quickly, but he was in his tiny plane on the other side of the world. But in the back of my mind was the thing of: oh my god, won’t this be fantastic for film? So, you know, I shot the shit out of it, not knowing that he would come. We made the news reel, and we have a great relationship with Roadshow, and they got it to him, and that’s when we thought: shit, he could actually come. That was really in my head. And we’re really lucky that we got that footage. 

Joanne was very quick – there were minders everywhere, and so we had the door to the bio box open and she spun the camera around and, as you saw, straight through the space, and I had a lapel mic on, he projects quite loudly, so we got it all, but that was only about between five and 10 minutes of the conversation was on camera and then the minder moved her away. But she kept recording the sound. So, I have the whole conversation in audio, but only that five-minute block of vision. 

So, does he not know that you filmed it? 

He knows that I filmed it. We asked him whether we could just run a camera, to do another news reel, but he doesn’t know that I’ve used it in the documentary, and that’s why I’ve been still trying to get hold of him.

If only it was John Waters! You can just write to that bookshop in Baltimore and he still picks up fan mail and replies to everybody. Some people you can get a hold of, but not Tarantino. 

Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey

So, what ultimately, are your aims for this, for the film now, other than you’ve mentioned that you want to take it to the U.S., maybe have screenings elsewhere, but does it lead to something bigger for you? 

I was so struck by the Cinerama stuff. I’ve heard of Cinerama but I didn’t grow up knowing anywhere you could see it, or know much about it, I never really found out much more, there are sections of the film that, in addition to all that other stuff, are really just purely educational, and really fascinating from a point of view of generations (mine and younger) who will never have seen or even heard of this stuff, so what are your future hopes for that? 

I absolutely hope that I’m going to help a new education, a new generation, make them aware of Cinerama, and where the widescreen revolution began, and where our modern filmgoing experience began. It began in 1952. Before that, it was 4×3 and mostly black and white, so that’s where multi-channel sound and everything became colour and everything became a widescreen format of some description. Within 12 months of Cinerama being introduced, every studio switched to their own widescreen process. It was just phenomenal. 

And there are still words in our modern lexicon that have ‘rama’ on the end of them, and no-one questions them. It pops up all over the place, like, there’s a shop down the street that’s like, bike-a-rama and it’s still everywhere, and that’s where it comes from and no one understands that. It was such a phenomenon, worldwide. It was a household word. So, I do love the idea of people becoming actually aware of it again. As I’ve said, I’ve shot so much footage, I would like to actually turn this into a three-part streaming special, and just expand the areas a bit more so I can go into a bit more detail. And I think that would really work, and probably without having to shoot a lot more, because most of it’s there. It’d just be editing. So, I hope that will happen. 

That seems like a great fit, even just as a viewer. There are definite chapters that you could expand. 

I sort of see it as a chocolate box: like, you get a taste of every little piece, but you don’t go deeply into it. So, I would like the time to be able to go a little bit deeper into some of those areas. 

That makes sense and would be a brilliant fit for it. There were things where I thought, I’d like to know more, particularly the new technology that you describe, which I don’t even understand.

Yeah, there is so much there to unpack, and there’s so much happening on the digital end now. While we were in the UK, to premiere the film at Bradford, we also went to ABBA Voyage and from a projectionist’s point of view, that was just astounding to me. It’s like, this is what digital can do. Film could never do this. It was just breathtakingly amazing. And having seen Doug Trumbull’s MAGI process, and then seeing where screen projection can go as well, it’s just incredible. There’s so much coming. But film is film and digital is digital and they both have a place. 

I wanted this film to be a big cross-section of the projected film experience and for it to be a good time for people who are not cinephiles, which, hopefully, I think I’ve achieved, and just from the fun that they get out of watching my film that they will be inspired to go and seek out seeing real film projected again, and it will grow. It will find a new place in our storytelling world.

About The Author

Tara Judah is an editor at Senses of Cinema and a postgraduate researcher at the University of the West of England, researching the role of independent cinema in the age of on-demand culture.

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