Fort William: Remote Digital Enlightenment

By Norrie Maclaren


A seasonal diary from the Highlands & Islands - Croft Digital Cinema

2.45pm - Thursday 29 November, 2007

The weather today is one of those classic West Coast deluges, less frequent now the Highland mist – an effect of Global Warming? I’m trying to get to grips with the M&E requirements; the current picture width (1.85 ratio) of 3,655mm if increased will have an impact on the sightlines and reduce the bottom picture line, increase extract rates for the digital projectors, and more; all is needed to create a new and vibrant digital cinema in Fort William; it will be the first in Scotland. I’m reminded of the time I worked for Stanley Kubrick, when we had to check the luminance levels on all the screens before he would let a print of Barry Lyndon into a cinema – Fort William will have the same technical rigour applied to all the facilities it offers.

The Highlands & Islands of Scotland are currently served by two mobile Screen Machines, with a third fully digital mobile screen promised once the Scottish Government’s new policies are realised. These are funded by Scottish Screen, Hi-Arts (Arts Council), Western Isle and Ayrshire Councils (the latter covering the Isles of Arran and Bute) and all in all covering the whole Highland Region. Also scattered about the region is the odd, old neglected cinema. This is a huge area with a highly dispersed population crying out for what those in the Central belt of Glasgow and Edinburgh take for granted; the chance to see art house and mainstream films anywhere other than at home on their own television.

10.13am - Sunday 2 December

The storm has abated a little and it is possible to enjoy the landscape. I take the dog up Glen Gour, one of the most beautiful glens on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. I wonder what Bergman or Eisenstein would see in this spectacular mountain area with its rapidly changing moods, this powerful environment that has influenced countless generations of artists long before the digital age.

This Northern population is starting to respond to the new possibilities and looking hard at their heritage and the area they inhabit. Croft Digital will answer their call for connectivity and a hunger for the moving image. Apart from the opportunity to see any films they want, it will also encourage the production of films offering Avid Adrenaline editing facilities, a smaller screening room connected to the Scottish Archive; easy access to archives of both past and present images – endorsing the current enthusiasm amongst the inhabitants of Lochaber to record their own lives. This is the beginning of what will become the greatest record of folk living in the Highlands & Islands, from artists to fishermen, film makers to cleaners, storytellers to witches. All will come under the watchful eye of Croft Digital Media Centre.

11.12am - Monday 3 December

It is important to understand where the name Croft Digital came from and its relevance to a most important aspect of Highland life, crofting, still the most evocative lifestyle in the Highlands & Islands. It’s all about a strong sharing community, a group of individuals that are working and pulling together. We will ultimately roll this initiative throughout the north, connecting remote rural communities with the rest of the world. This new digital technology makes it possible to create small, flexible, local cinemas whose scheduling will offer a wide range of content, from foreign cinema and art house work through documentaries and mainstream releases to local content, all presented from a distinctive and extremely comfortable venue.

Everyone in the Lochaber area will be a member and offered the grade of SHEEP, with access to the online booking service and selection of their favourite movies. Should you require greater involvement, with use of the editing and personal screening facilities you can apply as COLLIE. – two of the most important animals that make crofting work.

4pm - Tuesday 4 December

Technical specs are being worked out, architectural plans discussed, the graphic style -heavily influenced by the works of Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists - is being finalised – it’s radical, it’s individualistic and it’s in Fort William. This project started with the desire to work with a view of Ben Nevis from my window, and to be able to toast the mountain, the highest in Britain, after completing a day’s filming. It has turned out to be a challenging but intriguing journey. Every day there is a growing collaboration amongst the community which is making the vision come alive.

It’s stopped raining now, leaving the wind, which has reached force 9 and caused the ferry to close. Croft Digital is still at the stage of becoming. Oh well, back to the BAFTA screeners and life in my own individualised digital centre. Soon though, there will be somewhere to connect to, a shared audiovisual space, the chance to encourage a greater understanding of film, for film to play a greater part in the Highlanders’ lives and to link them to the lives of others all over the world.

Norrie Maclaren has spent a lifetime working in film (with Stanley Kubrick and others), photography (his fashion work toured the world courtesy of the British Council) and television (Channel Four and others). He is currently the chair of AimHi (Association of Integrated Media in the Highlands & Islands –; Big Box Network (pan-Highland production company developing feature films / first with Scottish Screen) and Croft Digital Media Centre.