Final Frame: Film-Based Projectionists in the Digital Landscape

Main Street is quiet and deserted. It is a landscape of soothing, buttery weekend calm after yet another noisy cycle of the summer work week has come to a frenzied close. Rounds of friendly banter buzz around the silent equipment as I remove my shoes and stand on tiptoe, lifting the projector hood to its farthest reach to expose the lamp house. It’s cool to the touch now, smooth and squeaky like some aquatic animal.

Inside is a metallic nest of mirrors and bolts grouped around the brightest star in movie magic: the lamp. When turned on, 4,500 watts of white-hot light blaze through a zillion tiny, baby pictures – long slippery ropes of film that loop and twist in all manner of labyrinth in a loud, shimmering dance. There are still two hours until showtime, two hours until my hands guide entertainment to your eyes. I’ll pull the strings just for you and it will all be seamless. For 45 minutes, Main Street fades away and your perfect movie illusion is my job. For now.

I could write a lengthy love note to my profession if given the chance. Sitting here clicking keys could very well be my best and last opportunity. I am a projectionist. I have lived 11 of my 25 years in the shadow of the silver screen. I have hearing loss and callused palms and an affinity for dark, small spaces. This is my “Cinema Paradiso.” But in the year 2012, film-based projection is more novelty than necessity, as digital systems eclipse traditional equipment in most movie houses. My role as projectionist will drastically change in the coming years. My classic film-handling skills will no longer be needed. But why care? I am a mere projectionist; I’m splicing film in the dark, not curing cancer. And you, my entertainment patron, come to my theater for escapism, to lose yourself in a two-dimensional world of dancing light. Why does it matter if an hour of your life is illuminated by hand rather than digital command? I think now is the moment to make a reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano.”

“We are a dying breed,” said Maleah Martin, a projectionist for the Louisville Science Center IMAX theater. “We’re like dinosaurs watching the meteor hurtle out of the sky.”

Martin has spent three years of her four-year career at the Science Center similarly locked away in the darkened world of the projection booth. I should know; I trained her. While film-based projection is an unusual skill for any era, it is becoming more and more so. Working as a professional projectionist in today’s world makes Martin one part of a dwindling family of individuals continuing the process in the 21st century.

The occupation of projectionist only began its legacy in the late 1800s and early 1900s – a short historical lifespan compared to most trades. But the film projectionist has been an indispensible and unsung entertainment champion for decades of blithely unaware movie-goers. The projectionist was the final and essential set of hands needed to fully realize the vision of the filmmaker, serving as both an engineer of mechanics and a gatekeeper to art. But to manually splice, switch, and thread tangible film prints now bears a sense of humble quaintness as more and more theaters swap reels for wires in this modern sideshow of technology. Why employ hands when hard drives are more efficient?

“It’s an art form,” said Martin. “The digital age has put a barrier between art and people. And working with actual film is just one more sense you get to utilize when it comes to an experience. Because film is an experience, you see it, you hear it, and, since this is IMAX, you can feel it.”

The Louisville Science Center’s IMAX theater first opened its own piece of the projection puzzle in August of 1988, running the traditional featurette length documentaries associated with the giant screen brand. (“Everest” anyone?) And while keys have changed hands and some newfangled auxiliary equipment has been swapped in, this booth – my booth – is a fairly unadulterated snapshot of old-school projection practices. Prints are built by hand, spliced together one long reel at a time. Muscle – not mechanization – moves platters. And projectionists monitor each show, a relationship that might include 300, 500, or even 700 screenings.

“While it is a strange set of skills, it’s fun and it’s different,” said Martin. “It’s the difference between cooking a meal and getting fast food. It’s therapeutic; you have to get involved.”

In fact, projectionists get more involved than most movie-goers might imagine. The skill set list doesn’t stop at showtime. And a career projectionist will gain all manner of oddly specific aptitudes. Everything from disassembling lenses to replacing a broken shaft encoder (the mechanism responsible for synchronization of picture and sound) to changing the aforementioned (and highly explosive) projector lamp falls under our jurisdiction. Veterans will spend much of their time learning the idiosyncrasies of their machines, attuned to the sounds, smells, and touch of the equipment with a nuance that’s almost absurd.

“Being up here broadens who you can be,” said Martin. “I’ve learned to multitask to the extreme. I can watch a film, read a book, press a button, have a conversation, and still focus on the film path and be aware of any strange sounds or hazards. I’ve learned to do all of those things without even thinking about it. It’s really cool to learn how many channels your brain can work at once.”

But while we can talk shop until we’re blue in the face, there is very little any of us can actually do to divert the digital deluge. No matter how firmly I plant my feet, no matter how many guests are impressed and amazed and jazzed by the novelty of my work, I cannot deny that my place in a world dominated by dollars and cents needs something more efficient to balance out the financial holes dwindling attendance has burrowed into theaters – both commercial and institutional – nationwide. The onset of home theaters, high-definition entertainment, and a myriad of whirring gadgets have all contributed to declining ticket sales at the cinema, making overhead costs just that much more painful. IMAX film prints are $20,000 a pop and shipping charges go for triple digits. Maintenance fees, replacement parts, and other variables such as human error (i.e., me) all add up to some serious green.

The professional projectionist may find himself or herself undergoing a radical shift as the definition of the job changes with the technology. Film-based systems, and those with the knowledge to run and maintain them, will probably only find long term homes in art-house theaters. Places like the Louisville Film Society’s Dreamland Film Center may very well be the last frontier of film-based public performances – and these from fragile prints sometimes decades old. This is a projection future painted as a labor of love – a unique hobby rather than a financially viable career. And while love of the craft may have found a happy marriage with public delight in many small house theaters, the audience’s desire for old-fashioned charm can only fill the piggy bank for so long. Even a novelty cinema experience is only as strong as its library of film prints. There will come a day when film distributors choose digital as their bread and butter and the production of tangible film for new releases will cease. How can “classic” remain so once the well of hard copy prints finally runs dry?

The final word on film’s legacy and its place as an art form still remains unspoken in most cases. A professional film projectionist needs film in the same way that a painter needs paint. And my palette of prints is undeniably dwindling. I can make myself sick wondering if the craft I love is beautiful and romantic like vinyl or just simply outdated and worthless like VHS. Is sentiment for bygone eras enough to keep our quixotic profession alive? Can the charm that binds the projectionist to film survive this glowing age of touch screens and short attention spans? Is it really possible for a profession bred to work behind the curtain to subsist on public nostalgia?

Martin still has conviction.

“It’s not even just the nostalgia factor,” said Martin. “It’s the fact that it’s something that you made. It’s like building your own house. It’s something to take pride in and people should feel it.”

Feel it. For the time being, in the year 2012, I’ll feel it as the film snakes through the projector, visceral, sinuous, and real, coiling up warm and tight on the other side of your eye. And we’ll be ready for showtime.

-Erin Day

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