Jon Rubin, creator of Floating Cinema, confesses to getting a little mystical when talking about the waterfront.
“It’s a wonderful place to experience things,” he said. “Water at night is both magical and scary.”
Floating Cinema is the relatively simple concept of displaying films on the water, using a 30-foot screen and a rear projection system on a barge. It makes the venue part of the event, melding the images of the film with the picturesque setting.
After 10 years of floating movies in New York, St. Paul, Minn., and New Orleans, Rubin is bringing the concept to San Diego, the first time it has been done in California, as part of America’s Finest City Week.
Rubin, the 43-year-old chairman of the film department of the State University of New York at Purchase, has turned Floating Cinema into his own cottage industry. Although, at first glance, it is not the ideal setting to view a movie, he sees it as a different way to appreciate films.
In sharp contrast to the sterile environment of a screening room, Floating Cinema allows the audience to experience more than just a movie. There is also the romance of watching the film under the stars.
“I like seeing the films reflecting on the water,” Rubin said. “You’re dealing with the film and the setting, the shadows on the water.”
The concept of Floating Cinema grew out of Rubin’s frustrations as a filmmaker. Specializing in “somewhat unconventional” short films that focused on images instead of plots, he found it difficult to find places to display his works.
Because his films were categorized as “experimental,” his choice of venues was often limited to museums and galleries, which Rubin thought was unfair.
“I didn’t feel my work was as esoteric as where it found itself,” he said.
He tried different things, including taking a mobile screen through the streets of Boston on a New Year’s Eve, displaying images of summer in the dead of winter.
The first version of Floating Cinema evolved from a class he taught in 1980 at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. The class was in optical printing, a special-effect technique. Rubin didn’t want his students displaying their class projects, which were nothing more than images, in the same format as other students’ feature-style films.
Taking advantage of a nearby pond, two rowboats were used to turn the projects into floating images.
“Half the school jumped into the pond and it got kind of silly,” Rubin said, but a concept was born.
Aided by grants from several organizations, he and his compatriots built a giant screen on a small boat and traveled the waterways of Pennsylvania and Upstate New York. They would arrive at a campground unannounced, displaying their films and images for the startled campers.
The spontaneity of the moment and the setting were as essential to the experience as the films, Rubin said.
“Most events are advertised and hyped and people go because it looks exciting,” Rubin said. “What was exciting about this was that people were encountering it. It wasn’t presented as higher art. They were just encountering it.”
Tired of the rustic experience of spending six weeks traveling on boats, Rubin decided to scale the concept up, to attempt to bring it to a broader audience.
He soon discovered that many cities were looking for ways to improve their waterfronts.
“It was sort of the urban phenomenon of the ‘80s,” he said.
He began attending meetings of Waterfront Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group focusing on the problems of upgrading and developing waterfronts.
“There was nothing going on at night on waterfronts, except for occasional fireworks displays,” Rubin said. “There was no performance that fit.”
A festival in New Orleans was his first major gig, presenting the films on a barge in the Mississippi River. In 1988, Floating Cinema presented nine movies in New York; 22 the following year. This summer, Rubin will screen 27 films at 12 different in New York’s five boroughs.
Rubin was able to overcome several technical problems, primarily devising a system that makes the image bright enough to be seen from the shore. His rear projection system allows more detail in the image than the DiamondVision systems employed by stadiums, he said.
“The image has to be bright and clear,” he said. “It’s an illusory image competing with the real world. Trying to get the image to stand up against (the setting) can be difficult.”
Rubin also must deal with the elements. At first, he was using two small boats, which made it difficult to navigate the currents of the waterways he was using as venues. A sturdier barge solved those problems.
He also developed a screen that could be easily raised and lowered, in case the winds grew stronger during a screening.
“The little boat (used in early versions of Floating Cinema) was on the verge of turning into a sailboat” on at least one occasion, Rubin said.
Although Floating Cinema now takes up much of Rubin’s time, he expects to return to filmmaking later this year. He will probably drop some of his academic duties to make more time.
Although he realizes he has hit on a hot idea with Floating Cinema, it bothers Rubin that it may grow more popular, that it could be used for advertising purposes. But he takes comfort knowing that he may help films replace fireworks and laser shows as standard waterfront entertainment.
“I like the idea that this can carry content, that it’s not just a zapping light show,” he said.