In the Blood
Projection is in my blood you could say, as my late father was a projectionist and my mother was a cinema usherette. I also have a twin brother Derek who works with me at our screening rooms here at the British Film Institute headquarters in London.
I still remember my first ever visit to my father’s cinema, the Rialto Cinema in Coventry Street (just off of Piccadilly). The film showing was The Punch and Judy Man starring Tony Hancock (a famous British comedian). Dad showed me the projection box and let me rewind a reel of film. In my father’s day there were around four projection staff on duty most days, the Chief, the Senior First, the Senior Second and the Junior. The Chief, Senior First and Senior Second carried out all the projection on screen. The Junior rewound some film reels but mostly swept the floors, cleaned the projection equipment and made the tea. You did make your way up, this was on projection skills or when staff left and a position became vacant.
When Dad was at home he used to tell us all the new films he was going to show, and all the famous people he saw. Or the cinema manager told him who came in to see the films, like the Beatles. We always went in to work with Dad on a Sunday due to him starting his work shift around 1:00 p.m. till around 7:00 p.m. I first heard stereophonic sound in 1972 when we saw a film called The Concert for Bangladesh.
When I had just left school, Dad told me there was trainee projectionist vacancy in a cinema in Shaftesbury Avenue (in London) called the Columbia Theatre, so I applied for the position. I was so happy when I was offered the job.
For the first few days I was shown how to lace the film up on the projector (a Phillips DP70), rewind reels of film and do lots of cleaning and polishing. The Chief Projectionist used to be in the Navy so everything had to shine!
In the second week, the film Buster and Billie was coming off the schedule and a new film was starting called Papillon. It was being screened in 70mm and stereophonic sound. This was all very exciting to me. I did find the 70mm film reels very heavy at first, and was very nervous changing one of the projectors from 35mm for the adverts and trailers to 70mm for the feature.
Also, with the cinema near my Dad’s place (a ten-minute walk) I could go and see him on my breaks. I worked at the cinema for five years and did show some great films like The Wind and the Lion, Funny Lady and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which all were shown in 70mm and stereophonic sound.
I did also visit other London cinema projection rooms as I got very interested in the quality of picture and sound. On a visit to the ABC Cinemas 1 & 2 in Shaftesbury Avenue, I was told they had a projectionist vacancy. I applied for the position the very next day as this would be a step up. I attended an interview the next week and got the job.
I also worked at these cinemas for five years. Just after I started both screens were equipped with 70mm Dolby audio processing. Some of the films shown were The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now (each ran for six months), Blade Runner, The Jazz Singer (the 1980 version!), A Star is Born (the 1976 version!) and many others. Gone with the Wind in 70mm was also was shown for two weeks. It was 13 reels of film! I really enjoyed screening this; it was fully packed out for its limited run. My favourite format is 70mm. Apocalypse Now prints in 1980 cost around £10,000 each.
In the time I was there, I screened many premieres, including for the royal family. What was always amusing to me was that before any royal premiere, the police would have their dogs check every part of the cinema, including both projection boxes, in case of anything suspicious.
The reason I moved to the BFI was that I getting married and wanted to work less unsociable hours. I really enjoy working here. Every day you can screen something different, unlike a cinema where you can screen the same film for months. We do get famous people come in for production and research screenings, like Robert De Niro and Woody Allen.
In the last few years digital projection has taken over film. We have had a digital projector installed here, but we still screen many 35mm and 16mm film prints. I do think digital picture quality does look excellent, but it can’t look as great as a 70mm print! We screen many restorations here and some can look even better than the film prints I have shown.
I very much doubt I would be in a London west end cinema projecting films today, as I hear just a cinema manager is in charge of operating all the digital projectors. It’s a shame because it will never be like the old days again.
© copyright caboose 2012
Roger Young has been employed as a projectionist since 1973 and is currently working for the British Film Institute at their two screening rooms in London as the BFI’s chief technician. He previously was employed for five years each at two Premiere Cinemas in London’s West End. His traditional film format projection experience includes 8mm, 16mm, 35mm (including nitrate) and 70mm; his video projection experience includes CRT and DCP projection; and his tape format experience includes VHS, DVD, U-Matic, Beta-SP, DigiBeta, DVCAM and HDCAM. Other members of his family have also been, and still are, in the cinema business.