Thursday, 13 January 2011

How to Become a Projectionist: Episode III: Part 1

(following the current trend for splitting blockbuster finales in half, episode 3 will be presented in two parts.)

So I meet the projection team.

They both have the same name.

We meet in a restaurant across the street from the cinema, the general manager makes the introductions, and we set off to another site for my first day of training.

The projection manager (PM) is driving, and I vaguely remember listening to maybe Queen or The Beatles, and a Mitch Hedburg live show on different days.

The PM is a big, slightly nervous lad with glasses and amusing facial hair on his childish face. He doesn't strike me as the managerial type.

The other projectionist is a little angry ginger man with an evil sense of humour. He will eventually take over as my manager when the PM moves on from our cinema.

It would be fair to say I like them both pretty much straight away.

So we get to this other cinema (remember, the site we will eventually work at is still a work in progress at this point) and get taken into a staff area. I think someone is sitting in there, watching "Family Guy" on a tv/dvd player. I think "this is the life". "Family Guy" has not gone shit yet.

Walking through the bowels of a cinema is like being backstage at a theatre. The first time is a moment of wonder; a peek behind the curtain. We are led down long, high corridors, decorated with faces and titles from movies of the recent past, heading toward a single door.

We pass through the door and I take my first steps into a projection booth.

It is noisy and gloomy. The constant yammer of the machines is overpowering.

The booth seems wide and vast, with many different levels and platforms. I think there are eight projectors puking light out of the room through little windows, but the rest of the space is dim and unlit save for a desk near to the door.

Here sits a computer with a program running the projectors on its screen. It says how long each show has left to run, when the next show starts, which projectors are active, which are off, everything you could need to know.

I think this is going to be easy.

We get to the job at hand. Lacing films.

Deep breath...

Films sit on a big platter, and must be fed from the centre of the print through a contraption which we refer to as a "Brain Unit" which slots into the middle of the platter like a nucleus. The print is then threaded around and through various rollers and bobbins until being passed through the gate at the front of the projector. The length of film at the start of the print is called the "leader" and is often made up of scrap or "gash" film. When lacing, ensure the frame is aligned with the aperture immediately before the turn of the intermittent sprocket. The film goes through the gate upside-down, as the lenses reverse the image, and then feeds back to the platter via the rewind arm which is timed to take up any slack. The soundtrack, visible as a turquoise bar on one edge of the print, must be on the side nearest you as it goes through the projector, and must be on top of the print as it rewinds onto the platter. As it passes through the projector itself, the print must have a loop above the gate before the intermittent sprocket turns, and after the intermittent. The loops must be about large enough to fit two fingers in. Before lacing, the gate must be removed and cleaned, and the runners which hold the film in place must also be cleaned. Air hoses can be used to remove dust. You must check the film is positioned properly on all rollers to avoid scratching the print. When the film starts, sound must be checked through the monitors, and focus and rack must be checked on screen.

Everybody getting this so far?

It's not as complicated as it sounds.

So we spend a couple of days lacing the shows at this site. It's mostly fine, but there are more than a few late starts while I try to make sure I don't destroy every film in the place.

I should point out that I am the only inexperienced projectionist on the squad, so I think I benefit most from these Jedi training sessions.

One of the things that sticks in my head is that each of the prints is labelled with the title of the film on masking tape. A member of the projection team has lovingly decorated each and every label in the manner of the film it related to. I remember "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" being particularly calligraphic and colourful.

I'm not sure if it registers, but there is no surer sign that these people have a lot of free time on their hands.

This becomes more apparent as, after each run of films is laced and started, we all just sit around the little desk and talk bullshit for an hour or so until the whole routine begins again.

After a few days of this, it is time for us to venture to the site we will come to call home. Well... work. We are given luminous jackets and told to wear steel-toed boots. There may be hard hats.

The site is nestled in amongst several other buildings, twisted in on top of itself like some squatting stone monster.

It's a building site. I'm sure we're supposed to open in about a week, but from the looks of things it will take months. Will I be able to hone my projection skills in time? Will the building even be finished? Find out soon...



  1. That made me all nostalgic.....I'm having a little sad moment as I post this. It's all truly over now isn't it.

  2. Over the summer when I worked at a museum I went in to a projection booth for the first time. Oh my goodgodjesus, it was terrifying. The giant spinny wheels of death, the noise, the pointy looking thingys that if you so much as brush against, and boom! No more Inception.

    I feel as though I have gone on an epic journey with you. But can you stop Voldemort in the finale?

  3. Sugar: I remember you writing about your projection experience at the time, I think. I am pretty sure my epic tale will have a tragic ending.