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Is Film Dead? With Splice Here, Rob Murphy Says No

Photo: courtesy Picture Start via Rob Murphy.

Is film dead? With the advent of digital content, high-end display systems, and content from across the world streaming into living rooms, it’s not an unreasonable question. For Rob Murphy, an Australian filmmaker whose first paying job was as a projectionist, that question has informed the better part of the last decade, if not his entire career. In his documentary, Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey, he and his team explore the changes in cinema projection over the decades, beginning with the advent of Cinerama in 1952 and continuing through the digital revolution.

Splice Here is simultaneously a childhood reflection, an investigative inquiry, and a passionate defense of a threatened art form. As a child, Rob was transfixed by the power of the medium. Charming reenactments show him as a young child in Australia, marveling at the classical film content—from Citizen Kane to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly—that beamed through the airwaves to his family’s small- and square-screened black-and-white television. Even at a young age, he marveled at their visual language, even if he didn’t realize then just how finely detailed, expressively colored, and widescreen an experience Sergeo Leone’s film and others were in their original aspect ratio.

A young boy watches a film on television.
An actor portraying young Rob Murphy watches film on television. Photo: courtesy Picture Start via Rob Murphy.

That knowledge didn’t come to him until his adolescence, when he first worked as a projectionist in a cinema in his hometown and saw films from across the world in their widescreen, colorful glory. Cinerama, in particular, intrigued him: he was born a little too late to witness firsthand its heyday, but its complex technology—three synchronized projectors simultaneously aimed like a cinematic firing squad at a massive curved screen—intrigued him the most. It was the system that defined theatrical exhibition for decades, distinguishing itself from its new-kid-on-the-block competitor for consumers’ attention, television, and making itself nearly synonymous with the decades of widescreen epics to follow.

Rob Murphy watches This Is Cinerama.
Rob Murphy in the projection booth. Photo: courtesy Picture Start via Rob Murphy.

Years later, Murphy, an accomplished filmmaker known for his feature films and documentaries, continues his appreciation of film projection as senior projectionist at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville,  where he and his team gained international recognition for their work locating, restoring, and installing the 70mm projector used for the Ultra Panavision roadshow release of Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 revisionist western The Hateful Eight.

Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey is Murphy’s retelling of that project as well as a love letter to film, beginning in his home country but expanding to three continents and through the decades. A participatory documentary organized around the conceit of Murphy’s quest to understand and celebrate the unsung heroes of film projection. Splice Here takes viewers into the projection room, the auditorium, and elsewhere to tell its story, making the case for the challenges of film preservation along the way.

Among the interviewees: effects maestro Douglas Trumbull, historian Leonard Maltin, and curator Dennis Bartok, not to mention dozens of lesser-known figures who’ve dedicated their careers to a now-largely-lost art of projection. The digital revolution has changed not just the way we see movies, but also the way they are archived: as the film points out, film stock may be notoriously fragile, prone to spontaneous combustion, but digital hard drives are hardly better as an archival medium. An entire history of a medium is at risk.

Rob Murphy watches This Is Cinerama.
Rob Murphy watches This Is Cinerama. Photo: courtesy Picture Start via Rob Murphy.

Is film dead? No, not to hear Murphy tell it. He’s an engaging, passionate host, one committed to and forever enthralled by his own subject. His interviewees comprise a community dedicated to film preservation and projection. Splice Here is his documentary of an era that may be reaching its end—as well as a means of spreading the word, rallying the troops, and engaging the cause. Culminating in his and his team’s celebrated work projecting The Hateful Eight in its 70mm glory, Splice Here is Murphy’s love letter to an art and craft that is slowly disappearing.

Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey is screening at various theaters and festivals internationally. For upcoming screenings, visit the Splice Here website.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and owner of Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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