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Things go wrong in
The Looniverse!


Follow the Leader



We have all felt like that at times,
but take pity... have mercy...

conditions
It's not an easy job, projecting movies in a cinema theater. The guy sits up there in a projection booth that in many cases has been designed to comply with rules and regulations made up way back when—often, long before 1940, when instead of "safety film" nitro-cellulose was in use; as inflammable and even explosive as the name suggests. More often than not (you may have heard this one before) these safety requirements have never been adapted to the new facts of life. Hence:
1 — The guy has his very own outside staircase to reach his workplace. This is not a luxury—he cannot reach the interior of the cinema from there. Neither can the girl ushers reach him. In case of fire, you know.
2 — Even in a 70mm theater with 6-track sound, he only hears it on one crummy 6" speaker through the racket of a 35mm, or larger, projector.
3 — The double window panes through which he projects and has to check the results are not to shut out that racket from the audience. No, they are even further equipped with a steel guillotine-like shutter that, kept open by an electro magnet, falls down closed immediately upon any electricity failure. In case of fire, see?
4 — Mostly, the screen is so small from where he's standing that a good projectionist uses a pair of binoculars to adjust the focus.
5 — In many booths, there actually still has to be present a red-painted bucket filled with sand. To dose fires with, right! But they did come in handy as a receptacle for cigarette-butts. Not that the operator was allowed to smoke!



the job
Movie film comes on rolls, "reels". Production companies have a habit of listing how many reels a film has; this still is important for several reasons, even if you now never hear of a "two-reeler comedy" or "one-reeler cartoon" like back when Charlie Chaplin was working for Mack Sennett's Keystone studios. These days, these reels are often spliced together on one giant reel, and taken apart again for shipment to the next theater. The projectionist has two projectors at his disposal and changes from one to the other to start a new reel to present the entire movie as one continuing show. This procedure has caused much grief, sadness and gnashing of teeth.
Change over, darling
It is why you have change-over marks at the end of every reel, and also why there is an "Academy leader" in the beginning of it. In the old days, when this was inadvertently projected the audience knew it by heart and counted along at the top of its collective voice: "Nine!... Eight!... Seven!..." all the way down to "ZERO!", at which point invariably a spontaneous and cordial applause burst out as, right on cue this time, the next scene magically appeared on the Silver Screen. No one ever realized this served as perfect training for the future Cape Kennedy launchings.
The Academy leader served this purpose (and several other, also pretty handy, ones): those projectors were pretty heavy and every individual machine took its own time to start up to the correct speed. Now, the operator supposedly knew the idiosyncrasies of his babies, so, when loading the film, he knew what number on that leader had to be in the frame to ensure a smooth change-over. That's why the numbers are projected upside-down; the operator had them right-way up (just like in a slide projector).
Now, at the end of every reel, you have "change-over marks" in the top right-hand corner of the screen. In its crudest form, just a hole punched in the film, but they can get pretty elaborate. These are spaced a couple of seconds apart. When the first mark flashed by, the projectionist tensed... crouching over his controls, he bided his time... getting ready for Lo! the second one! At which point he started projector 2. If he had done a good job, projector 1 changed to black film at the point where projector 2 started showing an image. Actually, he had some five seconds leeway, reason why "2" and "1" do not appear on the leader—it's black there. Some operators were there on the frame each and every time... others just never seemed to be able to get it right.
A good director knew about this and planned his reels accordingly (if he could help it). Don't change-over in the midst of a scene. Don't do it right in the middle of a music bar. Etcetera.
As a movie print in it's general expected life-time of some five years made its course from the first-run houses down to the reprise theaters, it gradually deteriorated. At the end and start of the reels, "rain" scratches caused by dust started appearing. Older projectors often needed more time to start up than the Academy leader allowed for, so their operators scratched in their own marks, or marked them with felt-tipped pens, finally resulting in a jumble of weird etchings all over the screen. This has actually grown worse with the one-reel projectors, as these prints have to be taken apart again to be shipped on. The copy loses one frame (at least) on every side of the splice; over time, this is repeated again and again which blows the whole principle.

Wind and rewind, but unwind?
The projectionist now has to rewind the reel top get it in shape for the next performance. Sometimes, maybe because an usherette managed to enter the booth regardless, he forgets and the following screening will show it reversed and wrong way up. Or he'll put it in the wrong can and in the midst of Carmen Jones the newsreel comes up. (They did this to me.) No matter what, unavoidably he will suck in a lot of dust between the layers of wound film, causing rain-scratches, and the film will tend to break just there, adding to change-over timing problems.
Meanwhile, the guy has to check, re-check and keep re-checking:
— if the movie is in focus, has no frame-line projected, is properly lit
— if the sound is not-too-loud or too low, if there is no frame-line interference on the optical sound track (resulting in an annoying rattle), and if the exciter-lamp is well-adjusted
— if there's no dust and hair in the frame
— and if the film does not simply gets broken

more things that happen...

In multiplex cinemas, there's often one operator. Normally, no problem; especially with one-reel projectors and Xenon light. There even were a couple of theaters in den Haag, Holland where in the 1970s one operator went from one to the other on a bicycle. But if anything goes wrong... I once waited when the film had broken to see what would happen. The audience took no action, and just kept watching the white screen like dumb sheep. I timed it to a quarter of an hour before I gave up and started looking for the operator. (He was watching television in the lobby.)

This was a great difference between conditions in movie theaters in Curaçao, where I spent my formative (well, okay, you get what I mean) years, and Holland. In Curaçao, people loudly announced their dissatisfaction if anything went wrong, with whistles, hisses and cat-calls; in Holland, they politely preferred to suffer in silence.

A famous Dutch anecdote is that of a distributor's screening in another den Haag theater, where cinema directors from all over Holland come to watch films available for release. This particular operator was well-known for being pretty inept at his profession, and during the screening all these guys sat there laughing out loud and making remarks like: "Yeah... That's what he did to me" — "Right! That's why I fired him!"

Most operators I have met, though, take pride in their profession and will do their uttermost
to present a perfect screening




talk about schlock
Would you believe that, after the trouble Chaplin took to preserve the original image of The Gold Rush when he added sound
they later sold VHS copies of it that are bugged by frame-line interference on the sound-track?
"But the truth of it is, nobody cares."—Ray Davies


more on
movies





The Smallest Show On Earth Amazon.usa Amazon.uk Amazon.ca
Charming British comedy about a couple who inherit a decrepit movie theatre mere yards away from the train tracks. Contains practically all mistakes an operator can make. Margaret Rutherford is the aged ticket seller, Peter Sellers a drunken projectionist. With Virginia McKenna, Bill Travers. 1958, 80 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); Soundtrack: English Dolby Digital mono; biography.


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