Meet Dave Thomas, MIFF's Technical Manager | Part 1
Posted by Michelle Carey, MIFF Artistic Director
I’ve always had a fascination with and deep appreciation for film technicians and projectionists. The better they are at their job, the more the audience doesn’t realise they’re there. But it’s a huge responsibility.
David Thomas is MIFF’s Technical Manager and Freight Handler. I’ve been working with Dave for a long time and admire his ability to get literally hundreds of films into the country and up on the screen in such a concentrated time. Dave celebrates 30 years at the Melbourne Film Festival this year, so we thought it was time you got to know him a bit; so I interviewed him. If you see him around MIFF this year, do high five him. This man knows his stuff!
Michelle: You started in film very young, when you were doing your HSC. Why film? Was there a defining moment?
Dave: One of the good family friends was a keen photographer, he had his own dark room, that sort of stuff. So I started taking photos from a very early age. I think I got my first little box brownie equivalent of camera. I graduated to an SLR around 12 or 13 and started doing my own processing as well. And that graduated to an 8mm Bolex. There was no cinema in Broadford [where David grew up]; the nearest was Seymour. Just prior to television, I remember being taken to the cinema, to the Saturday morning matinee, by the big boy across the road. But I can’t remember the films all that much.
Michelle: So it was more for a technical interest from the very beginning?
Dave: Probably. I can remember a film about a talking horse and I thought that was pretty good. A horse that can talk! That caught me out, the magic of it all. I think I worked it out years later that it was probably Francis the talking Mule because it was about the same era.
Michelle: And you got your first job at the Greater Union when you were doing your HSC? Were you able to sneak off and watch some films there?
Dave: I would offer my services to every cinema in town, and never got a reply from anybody. During exams, Tony Rochford – who was the head Technician [later Victorian Manager] at Greater Union – rang the school and we arranged an interview appointment for straight after my exams. So I came down to Melbourne by train, met Tony, and he sent me up to the Bercy Cinema where they had a vacancy.
Michelle: Do you remember the first film you ever projected for an audience?
Dave: It was Funny Girl, which ran 51 weeks at the Bercy (which Greater Union used to use as a preview house, to screen films to staff for selection purposes, programming or whatever, or for media previews). Which was actually good because Funny Girl was so long; it was a three-hour + film. The regular screening pattern was 11am, 2pm, 5pm and 8pm sessions, so it never quite fit into that, meaning we only used to run three sessions a day – and because it was coming up to Christmas, that meant most of the afternoons were free!
Michelle: To skip forward to the present day… You’ve obviously been involved in projection for a long time: what’s some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed?
Dave: Technological changes, really. The change from single reel projection to platters [a large steel 'plate' that rotates horizontally, loaded with the film – the individual reels spliced together to create a single reel holding the full film – and running on a continuous feed, thus doing away with the need for a projectionist to change the reels over mid-feature] was a big difference. That meant that there was no changeover and it removed an enormous element of risk involved.
That, combined with Dolby sound. Not necessarily digital but certainly stereo soundtracks. That was the single biggest change, and the next one probably was faster speed lenses, Schneider lenses, which gave us a much brighter, sharper, bigger image.
Michelle: What era are you talking when these changes came in?
Dave: The ‘90s. The job now is so much harder. It's the complete reverse. The difference then was that come five o’clock in the afternoon all the films were in the cinemas, so everything was set to go. There was nothing more to be done for the rest of the day. And I could go off and see a film or two.
Michelle: So you would spend the daytime preparing the reels?
Dave: Preparing the films, getting them moved to various cinemas, getting them back from the cinemas, shuffling them around, dispatching them, doing Sydney and Melbourne simultaneously. So there was always films coming in and going out every day. We were also doing New Zealand. Film prints, films going to and from NZ, films coming in from other festivals. Because it was all analogue it had to be there in the cinema; if it wasn’t there it couldn’t be screened.
Because it was all analogue it had to be there in the cinema; if it wasn’t there it couldn’t be screened.
Michelle: You could see it with your own eyes whether it was there or not, unlike digital. How has digital projection affected your job?
D: Just the sheer amount of monitoring that has to be done. Yes, they’re all small drives and yes the technical quality and onscreen results are marvellous, but when you get the drive, you don’t know whether it’s going to load into a server or not – so that’s the first hiccup to overcome. Then, yes, it loads, and then you’ve got to get the KDM [Key Digital Message – basically, the key that opens the encrypted file] to enable you to actually play it.
You have to get two KDMs (one for each cinema), and get them to the cinemas. Then you’ve got to send out a service certificate to the person who supplied the KDM in the first place. You need to request a date range [for the file to play]. All that information has to match. Most of the time it does; more and more of the time nowadays. But in the first couple of years we were getting wrong KDMs for the wrong servers, the wrong films, all sorts of things. Almost anything that could go wrong went wrong. At the end of the day it never affected onscreen presentations, but it just meant an enormous amount of messing about.
Michelle: Well it’s 0s and 1s, it either hits the screen or it doesn’t.
Dave: I think the closest we ran was a KDM for Twenty Feet From Stardom (MIFF 2013). It arrived on door opening [that’s 15 minutes before showtime!], and at that point we didn’t know whether it would open or not. Fortunately it did. We really only got it up there due to the intervention from the distributor, who actually rang London at the time – they were on one phone to London, I was on another phone to London, the same laboratory, to get the KDM!
Michelle: So can you explain what your job encompasses now? Because you do everything from freight to technical management, to on-site engineering installation and overseeing all the projection. It’s a lot of coordination and I rarely see you off your phone during the festival. How do you remember everything? What’s like a typical day during the festival for you?
Dave: A typical day during the festival for me generally starts at about 7.30am or 8am, to answer as many of those emails as possible – and that can be up to 70-odd a day. They’re generally freight related, or KDM related, to the stuff going out, KDMs that are being picked up, that we requested. A lot of that I’ve already done overnight, because you can do it on mobile phones now. But for stuff that’s database related I try to get in here before everybody else does.
I then spend about half an hour, if I can, clearing the desk, working out exactly what has to happen during the day, what has to go where, what the shuttles are, how to brief our print transporter Greg. There’s likely to be FedEx stuff coming in, so that needs to be signed in. And Greg usually comes in at about half past 8 in the morning with stuff that he’s cleared out of cinemas the night before, so we start the shuttle process.
We then go to the festival ops meeting at 9am. I come out of that, 9.30ish, by then [Dave’s assistant] Mark has arrived and then we duck off around the corner for a coffee. I normally run into Phil Comey, who runs the Forum, at the same time – we’ve texted each other to meet at the coffee shop in 10 minutes or something – and then we will debrief from what’s happened the night before (if anything), what’s likely to happen over the next few days, across all the venues. That might be: microphone set ups, special requirements, assistance that might be required. Once we’ve got the day planned, then those guys just go and do it. I will then start trying to work two or three days in advance with dispatches.
Then it generally goes quiet mid afternoon, which is good – sometimes we even get to have lunch! And then, generally, when the cinemas start firing up at around about 4pm and the crew start coming on for the 4pm or 6pm sessions, that’s when the fun starts.
Michelle: But you generally have to be around until the last film goes up?
Dave: I normally hang around in the city. Too scared to go to the cinemas in case my phone rings. You’ve got to take the call. But generally I'm around until about 9.30pm. Until the 9 o‘clocks go up and the phone hasn’t rung and you’re 10 or 15 minutes in, at least it’s playing, everything has happened, everything is fine, then I’ll mooch off home. I’ll monitor the phone, I might get a phone call from Phil or one of the others with the people just saying everything is going fine, there’s no issue. And then it starts all over again. Emails on my phone as they come in.
Michelle: So how do you stay sane and/or healthy during our 17-day festival?
Dave: I don’t know. I guess you just run on adrenaline. And coffee.
Michelle: Have you ever been in a cinema when the projector has caught on fire?
Dave: Oh we did that! We set fire to the projector at–
Michelle: Oh you set fire to it?
Dave: Well I didn’t set fire to, it set fire to itself. At the Capitol one year, a particular coil thing had jammed a mechanism, overheated and burst into flame.
Michelle: Did it catch fire onscreen?
Dave: No, no, it was just a bit on the side of the projector. But it created an enormous amount of smoke which set off the smoke detectors and went into the auditorium. Fortunately the sprinkler system didn’t activate, but the fire alarms activated.
Michelle: Do you remember what that film was?
Dave: No I can’t. It’s funny, isn’t it? Can’t remember the actual film. I remember getting the call and being in there five minutes later and the fire had been extinguished. But meanwhile the cinema had to be evacuated. But half an hour later the sessions went back in action.
Read Part 2 of of Michelle's interview with David Thomas