The most important thing is the way that a film is screened for the audience. It is, after all, the very last link in a production chain which will have taken a huge amount of money and involved hundreds of talented people – so if it is not presented in the best possible way then all of that effort has been wasted.
I was asked by Wendy to write this article in about 2009 when digital cinema was actually a bit of a way off, although definately on the horizon, but there still projectionists in the box and the brief was around why they were still important. For various reasons the article was only ever started but never finished, and over the following years things have changed at a great speed, which has seen the majority of projectionists lose their jobs, and the technical roles have been taken over by cinema managers, in most large multiplex environments. However, I wrote an article about the Art of Projection: http://www.indieplex.org/the-art-of-the-projectionist/ and this article came back into mind. So this article looks at some of the history of the projectionist but also why it is important still to put on a good show.
I still call myself a projectionist and am likely to for a good few more years, sometimes I add AV Technician as well, but I am still a projectionist. I have been a projectionist for nearly 16 years, which compared to many in the industry makes me fairly junior, especially when you consider I’m only part time. However one of the things I have always found and been told or had reinforced to me, is that the projectionist is the last link in a massive film making chain which has evolved thousands of people, years of work and millions of pounds/dollars and if you get it wrong it has all been wasted.
In the early years of cinema, projectionists where the showmen who put on shows to audiences, usually in village halls or fairgrounds to show off this latest technology, a sight which many would have been unaccustomed to. Many of these showmen, started to even go on to make their own films, people such as William Haggard.
Early cinema shows, were often known as cinevariety, as it wasn’t just the one film which was shown, but there would be a news reel, followed by an ‘B’ movie, and then the main feature. With all the projectors, stage lightings there could be anything u to five people in the projection room.
The usual way that a projectionist was recruited was as a young boy (or girl), often replying to an slide advert in the cinema. Like most trades and apprenticeships, projectionists would start at the bottom, learning about cleaning – projection rooms where always kept sparkerling clean. Other roles, would be to go on to be a rewind boy.
Projectionists are a weird bunch; they spend the majority of their lives in darkened rooms with their closest friends often a flickering light on the screen. Through history the projectionist has been responsible for the care of the presentation of a film. Written in numerous projectionist manuals is a line to the effect “The Projectionist is the last link in the filming making chain and it is your responsibility to show that film in the best possible way“. And it was this belief and value which was instilled into the projectionist for most of the next century. Right from the very beginning showmanship and presentation was at the heart of the role for the projectionist. Once upon a time the Projectionist would be the person who would have to hand crank the film through the projector, working out the best way in which to make the projector work and to crank the machine at the proper frame rate! Often a projector and film would be bought without any instructions in the early days of cinema, when many ‘bioscopes’ where run and operated by funfair showman. These basic affairs of a tent with a few benches and a screen, got more and more ornate as the showman tried to out-do each other and persuade the audience to visit their film shows rather than a rival’s. There were big fair organs, powered by steam engines, and stage shows. All required a great deal of skill to make it happen. In the USA, it was common for small storefronts to be converted into theaters, charging five cents for a show, thus the ubiquitous name “nickelodeons.”
A projectionist would have to earn their way to being head projectionist by learning the requisite skills, starting as a rewind boy, spending all their time cleaning the projection room, often for many months before being allowed anywhere near any film. And it would be a long time even then before a projectionist would be allowed to even touch a projector. This extract from what is obviously a much longer documentary demonstrates very clearly the care and attention that went into the projectionist’s work: Cinema showmanship Late 40′s style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvQWMSZS-Rs. In fact such was the importance and value given to the projectionist, that there was an ‘Operators Creed’ – this was not written by me, but was found in a 1935 Projectionist Diary, but is just as true today as it was then:
THE OPERATOR’S CREED
Remember yours is one of the most highly skilled jobs in this modern wonder age and technical developments succeed one another with bewildering rapidity.
Concentrated within the spool – box is the consummate artistry of playwrights, actors, producers and camera-men. You are the last and the most important link in a great chain.
According to your diligence and craftsmanship, so has this artistry, this anxious care, this enormous expense, been wasted or justified.
Yours is the task of taking thousands of your fellow men and women away from the cares of an often drab and colorless existence, transporting them on your magic carpet to a land of make-believe and sending them away refreshed to tackle the world of reality with renewed zest and high courage.
To achieve this you have to master a formidable list of highly technical subjects, you have to be resourceful in emergency, calm in danger, and unremitting in sacrificing your time and, if need be, your person in the interests of the public you serve.
A noble and inspiring calling that is surely, if slowly, receiving the recognition it deserves.
However, slowly over time cinema chains have decided that it is no longer necessary to have curtains or lighting adjustments in the auditoriums, or even the masking. Audiences now walk in to a cinema with a big white blank screen, and some of the awe that had once filled them was inexorably and finally lost. with the advent of Digital Projectors it is possible for the entire presentation for a cinema circuit to be controlled by one person in a room anywhere in the world. For the majority of cinemas a single uniform presentation style began to be implemented. Only a very few independent venues still required to have a projectionist because of their desire to continue to do some theatrical presentation.
But cinema has become more complicated with all the different formats, aspect ratios, sound systems and other requirements from content makers. This film which shows the number of different aspect ratios which have appeared over the years helps demonstrates some of this: https://vimeo.com/68830569. While the everyday films are can be run by left to low-pay non-skilled workers. These people have no sense of whether the film is being shown in the best possible way, whether all the speakers are working properly, if the lighting source lamp is aligned correctly, if the 3D filter is in its proper place – and many other questions that most of these amateur “projectionists” don’t even know to ask. This word is often delegated to concession workers, assistant managers, or anyone who just happens to be available when something needs to be done in the booth, or if heaven forbid, something goes wrong during a screening.
The new digital technology has convinced cinema owners that the projectionist can go the way of the lighthouse keeper or the steam train stoker. Where once there may have been five or more projectionists in the box, now there will be nothing but blinking lights and whirring fans as servers and other digital equipment replace the showman of yesteryear. Like all technology is is great when it works but it is when it is misbehaving or when the is something unusual to work with.
Even in modern cinema with all the latest technology there is still the requirement for a projectionist, or a technical person in the box. While the everyday requirements of making up and running a film may have been reduced in their overall complexity; a projectionist is still a useful person to have around. Digital projectors still need maintenance and they can still go wrong and need someone to reboot them when something goes wrong. But that is the easy part. Cinema’s are looking to making use of this new technology through hiring the venue for alternative content and this is where a technical person is of most value – there are now more formats and aspect ratios and ways of connecting equipment than ever before; and someone who knows how to get the best from the equipment and wants to put on a good show.
It doesn’t matter what your role is or where it is the important thing is that the way that a film is really important. It is after all the very last link in a production chain which may have taken millions of pounds to produce and involved thousands of people probably over several years, so if it is not presented in the best possible way then all of that effort has been wasted. And it should not matter whether it is a big blockbuster of a low budget or short, as somebody may have spent a lot of their own time and money to make that dream come true to make the film and again it is vital that the film is shown in the best way.
About the author:
Peter J. Knight, otherwise known has The Mad Cornish Projectionist, has been involved in the cinema exhibition industry since 1997, when he was started as an assistant projectionist at Flix – Loughborough Student Cinema. Later becoming head projectionist and actively involved with the overall running of the organization. After graduation Peter moved to London where he has freelanced as a Projectionist/AV Technican since in a variety of different venues from arts centers to preview theaters and even at the Glastonbury Music Festival. Peter is chairman of the Projected Picture Trust, an organization interested in the preservation of cinema technology equipment, and is also the vice-chairman of the BKSTS Cinema Technology Committee, an organization which is interested in education in the current day cinema technical worker and cinema technology development. Peter also writes extensively about all areas of the cinema industry and the technical elements of projection. He has also recently just launched We Can Still Show Film a free international website which is aimed at recording all the people, venues and companies still able to handle film.