Q&A: Projection, Kurosawa, and Technicolor with Craig Valenza

Peter Cavagnaro

As part of our massive Akira Kurosawa retrospective, BAM/PFA will host a screening of a new print of Dodes’ka-den, the filmmaker’s first experiment with color film. Dodes’ka-den also happens to be the first film ever screened at the Pacific Film Archive. On that evening in January 1971 Craig Valenza was the projectionist. Nearly forty years later, on August 11, BAM/PFA’s senior projectionist will again be at the helm for Dodes’ka-den. Thanks to Valenza’s technical expertise, which is often called upon by other Bay Area film exhibitors, PFA Theater still uses its original 35mm and 16mm projectors. One of his particular areas of interest is the history of Technicolor and collecting rare film prints.

At that very first screening of Dodes’ka-den, you were not yet officially on the PFA staff, correct? How did you find yourself behind the booth that day?

I was actually working with PFA founder Sheldon Renan on screenings he was doing on campus in Dwinelle Hall. These screenings were a precursor to the Pacific Film Archive. I also helped install the projection and A/V equipment at the original PFA Theater inside the museum. PFA did not have a projectionist yet, so Sheldon asked me to help with the screening. About six months to a year later I was offered a full-time position when PFA received a large selection of archival nitrate prints from UCLA to be screened at the theater.

What was the reaction to Dodes’ka-den in 1971?

It was so long ago and particularly hard to assess from my vantage point in the booth, but I recall it being one of Kurosawa’s stranger ones. Though after my long education in film at BAM/PFA, I may see it differently now.

Do you know what the rationale was for Dodes’ka-den being the first film screened at the Theater?

That was Sheldon’s doing. He was a huge champion of Kurosawa’s works in the U.S., and of Japanese film more generally. He is the main reason that we have the largest collection of Japanese films in the U.S.

You’ve met your fair share of filmmakers over the years at PFA Theater over the years, I am sure. Who are some of the highlights?

Nicholas Ray was a weird guy, but fun. Kenneth Anger was a particularly memorable character. He stayed in the booth with me during a screening of one of his films, and was hand painting the film on the spot!

Is there a different process working with 16mm versus 35mm projectors? And are there still companies that manufacture those types of projectors?

No. The process for operating 16mm and 35mm projectors is the same. There are still companies that manufacture them, although there are fewer of them. Some of the traditional names like Strong and Simplex remain, but the actual manufacturers for those brands have changed many times over. Still, the technology for these machines hasn’t really changed since the early 1950s, although there are different and superior lenses today, Xenon arc lamps, Dolby Stereo sound, etc.

I know you’re a Technicolor aficionado. On August 8, you’ll be projecting a PFA Collection print of Jean Renoir’s The River in Technicolor. What is it about Technicolor that captivates you?

I love the science of Technicolor. Technicolor cameras recorded on three strips of black and white film simultaneously. Those strips were then made into three matrix printing strips, run through appropriate dye color, and, finally, pressed on to a blank strips… much in the same manner as printing a color page in a magazine. This process produced prints that could be used on standard theater projection equipment. And Technicolor tends not to fade away. The fact that technology is so old, so unique, and worked as well as it did… I still find that fascinating. Hollywood used this process for about 22 years. The print of The River is actually an archival original print shot and printed much in the same manner.