CHAMPAIGN — The Virginia Theatre was built in 1921 as a vaudeville house. It has lots of nooks and crannies, narrow passages and stairways.
Which is why it took a mechanical crane to lift a small digital projector to the top of the theater on Monday afternoon.
"There are too many hard angles to get it through, even with a lot of people wrestling it," said Steven Bentz, the theater's director.
Full Aperture Systems, owned by projectionist James Bond of Chicago, installed the new state-of-the-art digital equipment in the Virginia's enlarged, renovated projection booth.
Before now, the theater would show high-definition video movies by using a DVD and its own digital system.
"This new system is a universe removed from what we have had there," Bentz said. "This is the highest-quality image you can get on a screen right now. It's the most digital information that can be put on a 52-by-26-foot screen like ours."
The quality of the projection, in fact, will match the quality of the digital-projection system Bond has brought in recent years to Roger Ebert's Film Festival.
"In years past, when James used a device similar to this, it really wowed people," Bentz said. "We had directors at Ebertfest say it was the best projection they'd seen."
The first use of the new digital system will be — where else? — at the 16th annual Ebertfest on April 23-27. It will likely debut for the festival's opener — the Steve James documentary "Life Itself," about Ebert, who died last April.
The industry is moving to all-digital movies, but the Virginia will keep its two 35mm projectors to show classic films in the 35mm reel-to-reel format, Bentz said. The Virginia also has the capacity to show 70mm movies.
The digital system will also let the theater project video presentations at speaking events; video that's part of other events; simulcasts or broadcasts of live events such as Metropolitan Opera shows; and simulcasts of important broadcasts or other special features available via satellite.