News Column

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser Outtakes column

July 28, 2013


July 28--In the media of sound and images, it isn't enough to simply collect old films for preservation. If you don't have a projector, you might as well have nothing at all.

So it's easy to imagine Chris Lee's delight when he discovered a pair of 35 mm film projectors that were about to be discarded by the Hawaii Theatre. As one of the founders of 'Ulu'ulu, the digital archive of Hawaii's film and television history, Lee understood their value better than most.

"Our mission is to pretty much save everything we can," said Lee, a veteran movie producer who helped found the University of Hawaii's film school -- the Academy for Creative Media -- on the Manoa campus. "Part of the problem is you won't be able to play things back anymore. You can collect it but you can't show it."

Most of the 35 mm film projectors used in isle theater chains have been replaced with a digital version, part of a trend that began nationwide about a decade ago. The Hawaii Theatre donated its projectors to 'Ulu'ulu.

"They were going to throw everything out," Lee said. "But that is what everybody has done. Nobody wants these. They are expensive to move and save. It's nothing malicious. It's just a reality."

The 'Ulu'ulu archive, in the library at the UH-West Oahu campus, has more than 20,000 hours of film and TV history along with a growing collection of analog playback machines that Lee called "completely obsolete." The archivists are even collecting broken machines so they can have spare parts. They've turned to Craigslist and eBay to find them.

"It's a race against time because of the nature of this equipment and who can make it operational," Lee said. "The people who know how to fix them are all retiring and passing on."

The folks at 'Ulu'ulu viewed the Hawaii Theatre projectors as a last opportunity to acquire a vanishing technology.

As 'Ulu'ulu planned for the move in June, organizers knew their window of opportunity was small. The theater's show schedule, combined with its own plans to convert to a digital projection system, meant 'Ulu'ulu had to move the old film projectors out by July 1. But they had no idea how to take them apart.

"They are gargantuan size," Lee said.

The movers weren't sure, either. And management at the historic theater reminded them the 600-pound projectors had to be moved without hand trucks or dollies to prevent any damage to chairs, carpets, stairwells and walls, Lee said. A crew from Island Movers had to be extra careful.

They got help from Alan Sakaida, manager of projection and sounds for Consolidated Theaters. Sakaida has worked for Consolidated for 26 years and jumped at the chance to help.

When 'Ulu'ulu asked what he would charge, Sakaida said he would do the job for free.

"I believe in what they are doing and I love the preservation of film," he said.

The theater chain recently finished an analog-to-digital conversion that scrapped the 35 mm film projectors used on its 96 screens, Sakaida said. Each theater retained one, though, on the off-chance an old film is not available in digital format, he said.

But taking apart a projector is nearly as hard as moving it.

"We had to take some care in dismantling," Sakaida said. "You can't just start cutting wires if the whole idea is to put it back together."

The plan now is to reassemble the projectors for display purposes at 'Ulu'ulu with the hope that ultimately they will be used again.

Of course, 'Ulu'ulu could use one more thing in the acquisition equation: a theater.

That could ultimately happen at the West Oahu campus, which has an auditorium in its long-range plans, Lee said.

"We are going to hang on to these things and hope that one day someone can build an appropriate facility," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of 35 mm film out there and we hope to someday have a venue that is as great as the Hawaii Theatre was and worthy of these projectors."

AND that's a wrap ...

Mike Gordon is the Star-Advertiser's film and television writer. Read his Outtakes Online blog at Reach him at 529-4803 or email


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