The best job I ever had was as a projectionist at a movie theater. The first theater I worked at was at the old MetroLux 12 in Loveland - a combination of the California based Metropolitan Theater company and the Santa Fe based TransLux chain. Both companies were smaller chains but they managed to put the money together to build a massive new 12 plex and they were hiring.
The theater was run by a guy named Dan. Dan had worked for Metropolitan for about 15 years as a projectionist and theater manager as as their most experienced employee he was tasked with getting this new operation off the ground.
Now Dan, though he wasn’t old, was old-school. He had learned every trick about film projection from some of the old masters in California - projectionists that famous directors such as Robert Altman would require for their film screenings to studio execs.
You see, the thing about being a projectionist is not just threading the film into the projector, flipping the on switch and watching the movie from the projection booth. Projecting a film correctly involves quite a bit of work and technical knowledge. You have to understand what format the film was shot in and how to get that image on the screen correctly. Is the film widescreen? You need to use an anomorphic lens on the projector. You also need to adjust the gate (a thin piece of sturdy metal with a rectangular hole cut in it that is the shape of the film frame). Sometimes you need to file the gate down to remove rough edges that appear over time since they get very, very hot (those projector bulbs are Xenon bulbs and are hot, bright and explode like bombs).
A projectionist has many other duties as well. They care for the projector by maintaining its parts (most projectors have grease fittings), cleaning the lenses, adjusting the audio, adjusting the luminosity of the bulb for the best possible image, focus, sound … the list goes on.
Another thing they have to do is physically “build up” each print and building up a print is a true art. This is one of the things Dan taught me.
When a movie arrives at the theater, it comes in (usually) two film canisters containing 3 reels each. Each reel is about 20 min of the film and all 6 reels (for a standard 2 hour film) need to be spliced together and splicing a reel to another reel is what separates the good projectionists from the rest.
The trick is that you first need to find the first frame of the film on the reel. There is always several feel of header on each reel and this header is just clear film that protects the real film and it needs to be trimmed off. If you’ve ever seen the old 5-4-3-2-1 countdowns in old films - that’s the header. Anyway, it needs to be cut off. Once you’ve found the first frame, you start counting your sprocket holes - those are the square holes on either side of a piece of 35mm film (exactly like in an old family film camera) - and make a cut after the first frame. Some frames are easier to find than others and often there is a clear separation between frames, but not always - especially on widescreen (anamorphic) prints.
Once you’ve made your cut on the first reel you then make another cut on the reel you are going to attach it to. Once that’s done you then tape the reels together (on both sides of the print) using clear tape. A good projectionist will always keep his splicer (that’s the tool used to hold the film in place and tape it together) in good working order and the knife edge on the cutter should always be sharp and straight. However, it’s not always a perfect cut and sometimes a very small gap appears between the two frames.
Now film moves through a projector at 24 frames per second so a 1/32 inch gap may not seem like a big deal - BUT IT IS HUGE!
First of all that gap means the sprocket holes are now just slightly out of synch and when they go through the projector the gears that grab those holes will slightly miss the holes. This will cause the image on the screen to slightly bounce or vibrate and is quite noticeable (and embarrassing).
Another problem with this gap is what it does to the audio.
If you look at a print of a film you will see just between the left sprocket holes and the image itself a series of 2 wavy lines. These wavy lines are the stereo audio track (there are other audio formats on the print too such as DTS - a CD-ROM based sound system - that keeps its information between each sprocket hole and SDDS - a 7 channel audio format - that appears as a blue stripe on both sides of the absolute outside edge of the print and some prints - usually 70mm - have magnetic sound - like an audio cassette - embedded right on the print too.
Anyway, if there is a gap between the frames, when the audio track passes in front of an optical reader, it converts the wavy lines into sound - much like a record player does with its needle and groove. When there is hardly any light passes through those lines there is no sound but when there is a gap the optical reader registers that as “audio full on” or a loud “POPPING” sound.
This is also bad and even more embarrassing.
But what do you do when your splice leaves a 1/32 inch gap between frames? Well you can do a few things. You can remove your splice (if you’re smart, you’ve only taped one side of the print thus far and can tell if you’re going to have an issue) and try to force the film closer together. Since the splicer has little teeth in it that match the sprocket holes (so you can punch through your tape) you can sometimes enlarge the sprocket holes of your film to give yourself some “wiggle room” to move the frames closer together. Personally, I kept an old splicer around that had dull teeth on it for this very purpose.
Another trick is just to use a black Sharpie to color in the thin line of space between your frames. This is what we normally did.
Now, assuming you got the tape to lay perfectly flat across both sides of the film, when it passes through the projector it will not “bounce” and the audio will not “pop”.
Dan, my old boss, used to check our work when we built up our prints. If you’ve ever seen the movie Fight Club, there is a scene where Brad Pitt (Tyler Durden) is working in a theater and he points out the “cigar burns” (watch the movie if you have no idea what I’m talking about). These round “cigar burns” have been in use since the early days of film when projectionists would have to manually switch reels during a showing. Now this method went out of favor years ago as all prints are built up as one giant reel (like a cassette tape) but those burns are still on every print and anyone who has ever worked as a projectionist can spot them EVERY SINGLE TIME IN EVERY SINGLE MOVIE EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF ALL HUMAN EXISTENCE :)
The trick to passing Dan’s test was that when he saw the cigar burns, we knew the splice was about to come up and he’d wait to see if the splice went through the projector with any fuss or not.
Needless to say we all took great pride in Dan nodding his head in approval if all went well.
So, why am I telling you all this? (and believe me, I could go on about a WHOLE lot more). Well because being a projectionist is now a thing of the past. It’s a lost art form. Theaters have gone digital now and they have no use for a projectionist anymore. There is nobody in the booth (and in some cases there isn’t even a booth) to make sure your film is being shown correctly. Nobody to check the audio or the brightness of the screen or the quality of the experience.
But why should you care? Progress marches on and old technology can’t last forever, right?
Film is an art. Somebody at one point had to hold a camera (and lights and booms) and actually film a movie. Even with digital cameras, there is still a hands on necessity to making a movie. People made the movie and people need to show the movie.
When a digital projector is used there is no way to adjust the experience to the auditorium the film is being shown in. All auditoriums are unique - they have unique acoustics (which can change by the hour depending on humidity, heat and the number of people in the auditorium). The auditorium may also have less than ideal lighting conditions that require a real human being to adjust the luminosity of the projector so that you can see those really dark scenes. In short, there is no human involved in presenting the work of another person. It’s become mechanical and is the reason why so many people complain about the quality of theater presentations lately.
Then again, I’m old-school and I love film so I am biased. I have nothing against digital technology - I think it’s great - but I am sad that the art of theater projection is nearly gone. Film is such an important part of our culture - especially here in America - that to lose pieces of that heritage, is to lose a part of the experience. Instead of a film (a piece of art) we now have a product. Instead of humans presenting art in the best possible way for other humans to enjoy - we now have a computer.
But that’s not why we have art. Film is, even the worst of it, art. Art is what makes us human. When Michelangelo put paint to plaster, he created some of the greatest examples of human creativity in celebration of man’s place in the order of the universe (or, at least the Catholic church and the Medici family, but I digress). His art was meant to be seen in person in buildings that were either designed to take advantage of his creative genius or were suited to best exploit the architecture. The human factor was always the central element. Beethoven understood this, same with Tolstoy and same with Kubrick, Kurosawa, Malick, Spielberg and even Michael Bay.
Now I’m not saying we need to go back to 1990’s technology and keep 35mm prints and projectors. But what I am trying to say is that when you remove talented individuals from the creative process, when you automate certain professions, you lose the very spark - the light - that gives the art life.
I’ll close by saying that the novelty of working in a movie theater never wore off. I loved (and still do love) Friday nights when a new movie would open and all the families, film-buffs and teenagers would line up en-masse to see the latest film. I love that excitement, the anticipation and the spectacle of the theater. The way I felt as a 4 year old lined up outside the theater with a thousand other people to see Star Wars is still the same way I feel when I go see a mid-day matinee of whatever is new this week.
Being a projectionist allowed me to share that love and care with an audience in hope that they would appreciate the art of film the way I do. After all, seeing a movie is supposed to be fun but a computer can’t help you with that. Only a human can.
Long live film.