The Heretic Projectionist
As someone who spent a decade of my life in the projection booth and in many ways enjoyed it, my feeling today is quite simply, ‘Film is dead’ – in Nietzsche’s sense of the phrase, not the Duc D’Uzès’s. My first encounter with the projection booth was in 1989, in what the British call a South London ‘fleapit’ – a super-cinema from the glory days of the 1930s that had fallen into disrepair and squalor during the exhibition sector’s post-war decline. Originally hired as an usher, I came to the manager’s attention as the result of fixing a blown fuse in the popcorn dispenser. He had originally asked the chief projectionist to do it, an erratic character in his 50s nicknamed Fag Face by the mainly teenage workforce thanks to his penchant for Benson and Hedges cigarettes (in British English ‘fag’ is slang for a cigarette). Fag Face was also a connoisseur of porno mags (images from which he’d cut out and taped to the walls of the cinema’s three projection booths), and had a noted aversion to personal hygiene. His reaction to his boss’s maintenance request was to invite him, as Churchill might have put it, to perform an impractical act upon himself, hence my being asked to fix the machine.
My first ever task as a wage-earning projectionist was to carry a film up the stairs. To the uninitiated there is nothing remarkable about that. However, if I were to add two pertinent details – that the film in question (all thirteen reels of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V) was about the same weight as an average woman, and that there were 192 stairs – then the unique nature of the job starts to come into focus (excuse the pun).
I quickly discovered that our Bennie-puffing chief was actually not that interested in projection at all. He was so uninterested, in fact, that after hurried and rudimentary instruction in lacing up the aged Cinemeccanica projectors and Kinoton platters that clattered and flickered their way four times a day through such profound masterpieces as K-9, Police Academy 6 and The Pope Must Die, he left me to get on with it. The chief, I discovered, had a somewhat more lucrative distraction than the clientele of our suburban picture palace. Unbeknown to the management, he had mounted high-powered CB radio aerials on the roof and was running a minicab business from screen one’s projection box on the side. The long Friday and Saturday evening shifts were ideally suited to his double life, if not to the presentation quality in the auditoria.
This was an evening and weekend job: I was still at school at the time (as I was only sixteen, I even had to have my mother write the manager a letter, authorising me to see 18-certificate films in the course of my work!). On the academic side, my twin enthusiasms for history and technology started to coalesce. I instinctively knew that eventually, I wanted to do some sort of work that involved both understanding the past and playing with gadgets. A decade and a half later, I duly wound up as a film archivist. During that decade and a half, I earned my living in around a dozen projection booths, ranging from world-famous cinematheques to dives that would make The Smallest Show on Earth seem positively professional.
Don’t get me wrong – I have some wonderful memories from that time, working with many lovely people, experiencing the satisfaction of happy and excited full houses of customers and pulling off technically complex shows without a glitch or breakdown. But before we get carried away with the nostalgia, it is necessary to remember that the job exacted a very real cost on those who worked in it. The hours were long and the pressure high. If an usher or duty manager went sick, anyone else could step into the breach with minimal if any training. Selling tickets or dispensing popcorn can be learnt on the job – lacing up a projector and platter simply cannot, if you haven’t done it before and don’t understand the mechanical, optical and electronic principles that underpin the machinery’s operation. If you find yourself working in a small cinema with, say, two full-time and one part-time projectionists (a typical staffing level in my experience), you are only one bug or minor road accident away from being called in to work a fifteen-hour double shift on what would have been your first day off in ten. If you decline the overtime invitation, the theatre closes for the day and loses thousands in revenue. The pay is low: even in the more prestigious houses, I never made much more than the minimum wage.
It is a recurring cliché in job advertisements that ‘teamworking’ or ‘interpersonal’ skills are an essential requirement. Not in the projection booth, they ain’t! On the contrary – the ability to spend fifteen hours without interacting with any other human being in the flesh and stay sane is probably the most important ability projectionists need, made all the more paradoxical by the fact that so much of their working day is spent separated only by a thin partition wall from hundreds of people crammed in close proximity. In cinema’s glory days, the profession was labour-intensive, with a workforce of up to half a dozen projectionists manning a single booth. There was also a rigid hierarchy in the profession, with the ‘chief’ being a respected, senior figure. The nature of the technology in use at the time – nitrate film, carbon arcs, tube amplification and 20-minute changeovers – saw to that. With automation in the 1950s and 60s this all changed. Instead of six projectionists running one booth, the xenon arc lamp, safety film and the platter enabled one projectionist to run six.
And not only is the job relentlessly solitary, but it also carries a significant element of danger. The nitrate conflagrations in Cinema Paradiso and Inglorious Basterds are the stuff of cliché and folklore, but what is lesser known is that in some ways the technology that replaced them is equally dangerous. The light bulbs used in modern cinema projectors are quite unlike any found in a domestic or office setting. Xenon gas is pumped into them at four times the pressure of the air in a car tyre. There is the constant risk of explosion when handling the things, and even when all the prescribed precautions are taken, the possibility of serious injury is not entirely eliminated. Adjusting the rectifiers that power these lamps in order to maintain the optimal quality of light output involves the small risk of electrocution, however carefully you do it. And of course the projectors themselves and the film handling equipment that goes with them have a multitude of sharp, fast-moving parts, and they have to be operated in a near-dark environment. As has been mentioned above, the sheer weight of 35mm film stock combined with the fact that very few theatres have lifts to the box level sees to it that back injuries are an endemic problem within the projectionist workforce. Insomnia is another projectionists’ disease. Because theatres show films during the day and evening, maintenance and repairs have to be done in the middle of the night or the very early morning, which plays havoc with your body clock.
I have never come across such a high proportion of workers (mainly, but not exclusively, men) in their 40s and 50s who live alone and had never married or raised a family as I encountered in the cinema trade. It has always struck me as supremely ironic that an industry which essentially exists to sell the public stories about love, happiness and successful relationships is disproportionately staffed by a workforce these things have eluded. Perhaps this is why Hollywood itself tends to have portrayed the profession in a somewhat unflattering light, from the comically incompetent Sherlock Junior and his 1970s reimagination as the geeky fantasist in Harry Hurwitz’s double-entendre-titled The Projectionist, to the creepy, tragic and homicidal misfit spurned by Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night.
It strikes me that the impending obsolescence of film is eliciting a similar reaction among its workforce and the wider public to the end of steam locomotives in the 1960s and the end of Britain’s coal industry in the 1980s. The former prompted an outpouring of grief at the passing of an iconic technology, immortalised in all sorts of popular culture from Night Mail to Thomas the Tank Engine. It is very rarely mentioned that cases of asthma in the vicinity of major railway stations dropped by 90% after the steam locos were scrapped, or that they were probably the most environmentally destructive form of transport ever invented, using only 8% of the energy they consumed to pull their trains, and wasting the rest as heat. Likewise, all that seems to be talked about nearly three decades after gas and nuclear power effectively ended Britain’s coal industry is the short-term unemployment it caused. The fact that the jobs lost were probably the most dangerous and unpleasant outside the armed forces, and that people who a generation ago would have broken their backs or blown themselves up down the pits are now in offices and light industry is hardly ever mentioned.
Although the world I left in 2001 is one of which I have many fond memories, it is not one I miss or have any desire to return to. The DCP servers and DLP projectors that are replacing their electromechanical predecessors might lack the mystique of film, but with all other factors being equal they do the job (of presentation – film of course remains the most reliable medium known to humankind for the long-term preservation of moving images and sound) better, cheaper and more reliably. Yes, digital projection takes the human touch out of the process, but let’s face the fact that this touch was not always a positive one. For every presentation that was enhanced by a dedicated professional in the booth, there was at least one, and probably more, that was degraded or even ruined by a projectionist who lacked the skills, motivation or both needed to do the job properly.
Which brings me neatly back to my first boss, the infamous Fag Face, whose chain smoking and minicab business inadvertently started me on my way. About a decade after I last saw him, I opened a newspaper to be greeted with his face on one of the inside pages. He had got there by the rather dramatic expedient of being sentenced to two years in Pentonville Nick. It turned out that his minicab operation was not merely a distraction from the humdrum business of showing movies. Each Friday night, after the last screening had finished, he would spirit the 35mm print of whatever was the blockbuster du jour into the back of one of his taxis, from where it would be taken to a telecine facility operated by South London’s finest gangsters. The pirate VHS copies produced there would flood into market stalls, pubs and car boot sales across the city within days. By the following morning the print was back in its projection booth when I arrived to prepare for the first matinee of the day, with no one any the wiser.
© copyright caboose 2012
Leo Enticknap was born in Wimbledon, south London, in 1973. Immediately after leaving school he worked as a projectionist for a year before going to university. Three degrees and a decade of part-time projecting later, he was the technical manager at City Screen, York, from 1999 to 2001, and then curator of the Northern Region Film and Television Archive in Middlesbrough from 2001-06. Since then he has been a lecturer in cinema at the University of Leeds, where his teaching and research focuses on archival film preservation and restoration.