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FILM VS. DIGITAL PROJECTION

by IAFT staffer Pete Wassell

While living in Boston for a year from 2010 to ’11, I worked a truckload of jobs.  From taking photos of tourists getting on Duck Boat rides, to seasonal help at Borders bookstore (the worst job I’ve ever had…ever!).  But the majority of my time was spent toiling at the AMC Boston Commons 18.

It was a giant movie theatre right next to the Commons, so when it was busy, It Was Busy.  I’m talking 10,000 people in a night on Valentine’s Day.  It was crazy.  Concession and box office shifts were the worst, especially during hectic days since you may never stop greeting people.  Literally 8 hours a night, saying hello to guests and printing their tickets/dipping their popcorn.  It was mind-numbing work.  It wasn’t until I was bumped up to booth that I realized I loved my job.

Ah yes, booth—the greatest word you’ll ever hear while working at a movie theatre.  Though I fear working a booth shift will be a thing of the past in the not too distant future.

The booth is where the projectors are kept—it’s where the magic happens.

In the old days projectionists had their own union, and being a projectionist was a full-time career move.  The old guys would have multiple reels spanning multiple projectors, and they would have to be right on the dot when switching reels or the movie would cut to white.  It was a thankless job, yet one that required a lot of physical repetition and attention to detail.

When I got to booth they were still projecting film, but now they had what was called a platter system.  Each projector was an old beast—blocks of metal that smelled like editing rooms and were about as quiet as a chainsaw.   The night booth workers would splice together the prints and install them on the 3-tiered platters which looked like giant CDs where a complete print of a film would lay spooling and unspooling all day.  You fed the film through a little mechanical device called the brain that was equipped with a laser eye and a slack lever.  It controlled the speed at which the platter spun.  Then you would feed the film through a tower, stretch it across the room and into the projector where you carefully, yet quickly fed the film through sprocket holes and gates.

This was a fun job.

A good projectionist could spool up a film in 5 minutes, run to the next one, spool it up, and so on, getting the whole theatre ready to project the first movies of the day in 30 minutes.  When the first show was ready to start, an alarm would go off on the projector, you’d hit the button, and the projector would rumble to life.  You check the focus, the framing, and the sound.  If all looked good you moved on to the next start, scratching off each start time on your schedule until magically 8 hours had gone by.

Fact is, this was a great job, and a great time to be doing it.  That is, until the theater decided to go all digital…

Digital is not fun.

In the eyes of a projectionist, truer words have never been spoken.

We got our first big 3D digital projector in April of 2011, and it was a monstrosity.  A giant, blue and grey plastic behemoth that ran quiet, smelled new, and was a total mystery.  Which gets me to the crux of this article.

It took 3 weeks to train me properly on the film projectors.  I could fix any problem that came up.  It was all mechanical!  If the film slipped a gate, I could fix that.  If the tension wasn’t correct, I could re-spool and fix that.  If the brain malfunctioned, I could quickly cut, splice, and re-spool while resetting the brain, all while keeping the audience happy by getting their movie back on the screen quickly.  And the truth is problems rarely occurred!  They were good old machines that had one purpose and were engineered brilliantly.

The same could not be said for the digital behemoth.  You had to have a special degree to fix any problems with the projector, so if it went down in the middle of the show because of some esoteric issue, that was it.  The audience was issued refunds, and we had to call in the specialist who cost a million dollars an hour.

That’s the difference.

Film is physical.  It’s right in front of you.  It smells a certain way and it acts a certain way, and if you know how to maintain the machinery and fix the occasional problems, you’re set, and like I said before, it only takes a good 3 weeks to train on a film projector—the rest you learn as you go.  The nuances of the film projector were many, but it was nothing a guy with a film degree couldn’t handle.

The digital projector with its endless 1’s and 0’s was not something I could fix, it wasn’t something I could identify with, and it was not fun.  It takes the joy and the rigor out of the job, and I like to think it just doesn’t look as good either.

Digital is the future, and I’m on the bandwagon, but I will miss film projection, and I shed a tear every time I think about a new generation of movie geeks who will never have the opportunity to work in a movie theatre projecting film through a giant hunk of smelly steel.

I’d like to raise a toast to film, and the projectionists of yore.  We had fun, didn’t we!?