Monday, 14 February 2011

How to Become a Projectionist: Episode III: Part 2

In what will be the foyer, cables and wires hang from the roof with electricians swinging from them. People are milling everywhere. There is a distinct feeling of hurry. Chaos.

There are no doors. Or they are all propped open. There are no landmarks as the decor is unfinished. There are no windows, as the building is blocked on all sides but one by other buildings. It's like "Labyrinth" without David Bowie's tight pants.

We wander the corridors, dressed in our luminous jackets, trying to orient ourselves amongst the debris.

There are two projection booths, one on the top floor of the building and one two floors below. The two largest screens are on the ground floor, where the tills will be, then the other four are up a few flights of stairs. There is a lift, but I'm pretty sure it isn't working at this point.

When we find our way to the booths, they are in much the same state as the rest of the building. Electricians and workmen come and go, portholes are not yet in place, leaving little openings into the screens where the projectors shine through. The projectors and platter towers are present and correct, so I am tasked with continual lacing practice.

We have been sent a copy of "The Dukes of Hazzard", which we may do with as we please so, instead of burning it, we cut a ten/fifteen minute segment of the first reel and I lace it and run it. Over and over. And over again. The men working in the screens keep asking if we have any other films to run, as they are sick of seeing Johnny Knoxville getting chased out of some woman's house every ten minutes.


It must be around this time that I learn how to build a film. Films are delivered in boxes, divided into reels of about fifteen/twenty minutes of film each, and we have to build them into one huge reel which sits on a big metal platter.

Get this:

The reels are either "Head Out" or "Foot Out". Sometimes "Foot" is replaced by "Tail". The film begins at the head of reel one and ends at the tail of the last reel. The head of reel two connects to the tail of reel one and so on. We build the film on a workbench with an electric motor which spools the films automatically. The reels are spliced together seamlessly with what is basically sellotape. The reel splices are marked with a white pencil crayon. The film needs to be run onto the platter "Head Out" so the start of the show goes first, so the film may need reversing once built. Small tags of metallic tape are placed on the print at various intervals to initiate different stages of the show. The Leader, which is laced through the projector first in order to avoid damaging the actual print, has a countdown (usually from eleven to three, followed by some black spacing) marked at its end. A tag must be applied to the frame marked number ten. The projector motor will start at a pre-programmed time, but the bulb will not strike until this tag passes through a reader below the gate and lenses. This is the Start Cue. Cues must also be placed at the end of the advert reel to lower the lights, just before the start of the feature if there is a change from flat (widescreen) to scope (cinemascope), on the certificate of the film, at the start of the credits and at the end of the credits. If the cue is designating a scope change, we place it on the edge of the print with the soundtrack on it. All other cues go on the opposite side.

Simple, right?

The first film I remember building is "Crank". I build it on a manually operated workbench whilst listening to "The Queen" playing in one of the screens. Another early film I have to deal with is "Right at your Door", which I'm pretty sure fades to black for every single reel-change, presenting something of a challenge to a rookie splicer. See, every reel-change needs to be spliced "in rack", meaning a whole frame is cut from the end. If you've ever been watching a film at the cinema and suddenly the image was half off the screen, that's a racking error. Each frame is four sprocket-holes wide and if you splice in the wrong place, say two or three sprocket holes into the frame, the film from that point on will be out of rack. Blackness at the end of a reel is a ballache, because it makes it hard to see the racking lines between the frames, so you spend ages peering at film under lights and running it through footage counters, looking for a racking line.

One of my most memorable training days is when a projectionist from another site comes to show me some stuff whilst my associates are busy with other things. It's memorable because she is an oriental lady with a voice like a David Walliams character from "Little Britain" (not a specific one, she could just be played by Walliams in the movie of her life) and she spends the majority of the day pointing out things in the projection booth that could kill me.

What's not memorable is what the things that could kill me are. They were mostly inside the platter tower housing or the projectors though, so I make a solemn promise to myself to avoid removing the covers from these machines as much as possible. "The machine needs maintenance? I'm sorry, but I need to LIVE!"

As we near the grand opening of the cinema, things begin to take shape. The place starts getting tidier, less of the workmen reappear day after day, everything in the projection booths begins to work, and the floor staff I shared a single training shift with begin to appear, brought in for orientation and training and what have you.

The opening day comes and goes. I don't remember it, so it must've gone without a hitch.

There are problems later, however. I remember lacing a film with the soundtrack on the wrong side of the projector, so instead of the Pearl and Dean theme, the audience were treated to the BRBRBRBRBRBR noise that occurs when the sensor is just reading sprocket holes. I remember "Open Season" wouldn't play because I'd packed the trailer reel in too tight.

When I lace the film wrong, I go to apologise to the managers for holding the show up. The site manager says not to worry, these things happen. He tells me he's never seen a projectionist go from scratch to running shifts on their own in such a short space of time. I feel smug.

This is the golden age. All the security doors have the same code, so the floor staff can wander into projection at will, and often do. Some of the young popcorn-jockeying ladies even concoct a game called "Poke the Projectionist", which is not quite as intrusive as it sounds. I frequently head downstairs to hang out with the staff or the security guards, talking bollocks and being generally sociable.

None of this lasts.

The staff turnover is typically high for what is essentially a retail job, so the numbers of people who were there on induction day eventually dwindles to the point where there are just a couple of the old guard left. Initially, I make an attempt to introduce myself to the replacement staff, but I see new faces so frequently that I begin to make less and less effort. The projection manager leaves, as does the site manager. My angry fellow ginger becomes projection manager. An auditor decrees that the projection booths must have different codes to the staff doors, and the staff are not to enter projection areas unless given specific permission, isolating us even further. I venture downstairs less and less, hiding away in the booth for as long as I can. People come and go, the job remains the same.

Until we get the word that the end is nigh. After about one hundred years, the profession of Projectionism is going to become an archaeological curio. Digital projectors are coming, and there's nothing we can do to stop them. Projection booths will be quiet, empty places. No constant clatter of machinery, no equipment for the handling and construction of 35mm film, no grumpy projectionist with his feet up.

So if you're thinking of becoming a projectionist, here is the most important lesson you need to learn: Becoming a projectionist at this period in history would be akin to seeking gainful employment on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. You might enjoy it for a bit, but pretty soon you're gonna have to jump ship.

You wanna know how to become a projectionist?



  1. That's just fucking depressing.

  2. Hey, just wanted to let ya know I got added to LAMB and gave you shoutout as my reference.

  3. Simon: Isn't it?

    Xay: Cheers! Have fun with the LAMB.

    Thanks for commenting!

  4. Once again thanks for sharing your stories. It almost brought a tear to my eye. And funny enough Sound Associates were at my site today doing a full survey for the install.

  5. Oh man...I was a projectionist from 2004-2009, and this brings back a lot of memories. One of the first movies I ever had to build myself was Saw...the FIRST one! So that'll give you an idea of how long ago it was.

    I spent so long investing time and effort into being the best projectionist I could be, and even achieved the nickname "Tyler Durden" from some of my peers. It was the best job I've ever had, and something I truly loved. Alas, I can no longer find any employment as a projectionist due to what you outlined in the end of this article.

    All the projection jobs are taken by people who have been doing it for decades, and when there finally IS an opening (ie a projectionist dies or retires), they hire you as part floorstaff and part projectionist.

    I got a job at AMC after my theatre closed, and after two months of just running the booth, they started giving me box office and concession shifts. Sure, I was getting paid more than floorstaff for doing the same job...but I'm not a goddamn popcorn slinger. I'm a projectionist.
    PLUS, they would schedule me for Friday/Saturday as floorstaff (The busiest days of the week), and give me the booth during weekdays. Part of the allure of being a projectionist is looking down on the massive lines going out the door on the busiest night of the week, and kicking your feet up knowing it's not your problem. You're smart enough to run dangerous machines and put together extremely expensive movies, you don't have to sling popcorn or deal with kids sneaking into R rated movies or lines ten miles long. Needless to say, after I talked to the manager and he refused to allow me to be solely a projectionist (or at least only schedule me on floorstaff during weekdays), I quit and never looked back.

    Just wanted to say I hope you still have your booth job, and if you do, I am extremely jealous.