Paul Rayton

Los Angeles, USA

A Reely Rosey Career

The first memory I have of professional film projection is how, at a relatively early age—around 1952, at about age 10—I somehow became aware of the existence of the ‘changeover cue’—the small mark that enables projectionists to transition seamlessly from one machine to another. When I went to our local cinema and saw the cues on screen, I would turn my head around to watch the light beams ‘magically’ switch from one projection port to the other, as the projectionist worked his craft. C-o-o-o-o-l!

While at university in Durham, New Hampshire, I introduced myself to the owner of the local cinema there, allowing as to how I’d had a bit of projection experience and would be available if he needed help. It seemed like I was in the right place at the right time, and I began projecting at the local Franklin Theater, under the tutelage of one Stanley H. Hersey, an interesting character if ever I met one. Keep in mind this was 1960, and ol’ Stanley had been in the trenches (literally) during World War Two. Some of his infantryman’s colourful habits were still pretty much running his life. Salty language. Poor dietary habits. Smoking. Drinking. Yes, he was a character, unlike anyone else I’d met to that time. I recall occasionally seeing him getting ‘the shakes’ and needing a cigarette. If he didn’t have a match handy, he would strike the carbon arc lamp, get the carbons hot, shut off the power, and then light his cig on the hot carbon! That light-up probably cost a dollar in electricity and equipment—but he got his smoking fix!

Later, as soon as I got enrolled at the University of Southern California and acquainted with some of the staff people at USC Cinema, I made known my projection experience, and very shortly was projecting movies for classes, most particularly for the mega-popular class with renowned film critic Arthur Knight, author of the book The Liveliest Art. That class was an early ‘show the movie and have a Q&A with some filmmakers’, and featured a contemporary film most every week. I also worked occasionally with composer David Raksin, assisting his ‘Music for the Cinema’ classes.

I also worked in the USC Cinema lab which, at the time, was a complete b+w film processing laboratory. In this way, I developed (no pun intended) an understanding of the lab procedures necessary to produce film prints and had hands-on experience with equipment far more sophisticated than the little ‘Hollywood Jr.’ 16mm film printer I’d played with occasionally back in New Hampshire.

I graduated in 1966, but was still attracted to the magic of theatrical film projection. Somehow, I never broke the habit—or perhaps I should say, never could get over the emotional thrill—of running shows for audiences. After graduating I continued to work in projection in the Los Angeles area until the present day, working as a full-time union member. During those days when I had very low seniority, I would grasp at whatever straws would come my way, and so was sent off to venues alternately grand and dismal, covering shifts for people who were on vacation, sick, or (in one or two cases) too drunk to stay on the job. Part of the dark side of projection—the isolation that sometimes overwhelms people. When they compensate for it by drinking while working, it’s not a happy combination!

In 1974, my background and expertise (and enthusiasm) had been sought out by Filmex (the first real Los Angeles Film Festival), and it was there that I became exposed to the whirlwind of events that is a film festival and all that goes with it!

In 1998 Filmex—now the American Cinematheque—acquired and renovated the classic 1922 Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, re-opening it as their showcase venue. I was selected as the chief of projection there. In that location, I had a pair of Norelco (Philips) DP70s for 35mm and 70mm projection and a very top-of-the-line Kinoton FP38ES, which could handle both 35mm and 16mm prints.

My biggest show ever was in October 2000, when the Walt Disney Co. called on me to be the no. 1 projectionist for a massive premiere of Remember the Titans – for 50,000 people in the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena. An entire four-screen theatre was set up in the stadium. And there was little ol’ me with my finger on the button to launch the whole show into gear. It’s not every day you get to show a movie for 50,000 of your closest friends!

The Rose Bowl premiere was about as big as they come. The entire infield area was taken over for the presentation, with four giant screens, each approximately 50 feet wide, erected there in such a way as to allow people in all the side sections to see a fairly decent image. Then, in typical Disney fashion (they don't like to leave much to chance when a vast public crowd is present!) four complete separate projection rooms were set up at about Row 25. Each projection room contained not one but TWO (!) complete projectors, and TWO complete, separate 35mm prints. There were thus a total of eight complete prints in use, all running simultaneously in 100% frame-accurate electronic interlock. (The two prints in each booth were to ensure that, should one print or projector somehow start having any difficulty, the booth could immediately switch over to the other print, and not miss a moment on the screen!) So, there we were: eight full sets of equipment and eight full prints, all running the same movie on the four screens. The audio was played by Dolby Digital (SR.D), taken from ‘my’ projector, and sent to a vast mixing board that sent the audio to myriad speakers around the stadium. But there was much more than just the film! In addition to the movie, there were numerous other elements, including a flyover by fighter jets, the immense USC marching band, celebrity guests and even a parachute performance team, ‘dropping in’ onto the midfield. After all this, it was time for the show. I took the lead of the projection team, gave the word ‘go’ to start all these systems running, pushed the button and took a deep breath – would it work? I am happy to say it all ran perfectly. Certainly a big event in the career of one little projection guy!

I can still be a bit sentimental about the passing of film from use, as I’ve enjoyed it greatly when it’s been done right. I’ve lived through several transitions now: carbon arc to xenon, primarily b+w to virtually 100% colour movies, mono to stereo sound, single-screen to multi-screen megaplexes, and now film to digital. I think back to the FUN I had, when, in 1995, showing Robin Williams’ The Birdcage in a commercial cinema, I would run downstairs at the funniest parts and stand at the back of the auditorium and listen while the audience roared with laughter. Yes, it was Robin Williams who was really making the audience rock with hilarity, but, like any other person involved with a production, in any capacity, I was contributing my own little portion to making that particular show happen. I took pride in that contribution and was secretly thrilled to be playing a bit of the ‘entertainer’ myself. Would that be any less of a thrill now if it were to be from a DCP? I doubt it. If I was working in a commercial venue now, I'd still be pleased to hear, see, sense and feel the ‘electricity’ of audiences enjoying themselves, no matter what the source. Even if the source was just shadowgraphs! Come to think of it, that's what almost all projection is: shadows and lights on a screen. I loved doing it, and still do, no matter the source.

April 2013
© copyright caboose 2013

Paul Rayton worked as a projectionist before his college studies in New Hampshire for a film society and local theatres. In 1963 he moved to Los Angeles to study cinema at the University of Southern California. Around that time he signed on with the IATSE Local 150 projectionists union and got his first big job when he was sent to the Palace Theatre (originally the 1911 Orpheum, with two balconies and three 35mm projectors) for a vacation gig over the Christmas holidays. After graduating in 1966 and continuing through the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s he worked in just about every major theatre in the Los Angeles area, including Grauman’s Chinese theatre and the Cinerama Dome. In the early 1970s he assisted in the early start-up years of the first ‘real’ Los Angeles film festival, ‘Filmex’, which later came to be known as the American Cinematheque. In 1998, after that group acquired and renovated a historic theatre in the centre of Hollywood, the Cinematheque selected him to be the Chief Projectionist. He continues to work in projection in the Los Angeles area.

Paul Rayton hand-rewinding a test reel of film, just outside the no. 1 projection room (to his immediate left) for a screening at the Rose Bowl stadium in Pasadena for 50,000 people in 2000. The black area in the seating of the opposite side of the stadium was one of the other three projection rooms. Between the screens is a Jumbotron-type large screen video display, to magnify the live performers who would be on the stage, centre.
With a carbon arc lamp. I occasionally head south to San Diego as the projectionist for the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. Their concert hall is in a building that was originally built as a Fox Theatre in 1929. Its projection equipment dates from the 1960s when it was an operating movie theatre. In the last several years, the orchestra has had two or three shows per year, silent movies presented either with the full orchestra, or with their newly-refurbished Robert Morton pipe organ. There seemed to be nobody in the San Diego area anymore who was both qualified and approved to handle archival prints who also had considerable experience with carbon arcs, which is what they have installed, leftover from the days of yore. So, occasionally I (and another fellow) still get to hear the ‘sizzle’ of the ignition of a carbon arc.
At the summertime-only Lake Theatre, Lake George, NY. A Polaroid photograph probably taken in the summer of 1963. I’m holding a 5,000 foot reel with a feature movie. The reels were left over from 3D shows in the early 1950s. I mounted several 2,000-foot reels to make the work day easier. Photo by Paul Rayton.
In the Egyptian Theatre projection room, March 2011. Photo by Denise Koyama.
An in-depth photograph in anaglyph 3D (if viewed with a red/green viewing device). Taken at the time of the World 3D Expo II in October 2006 at the Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood, California. Photo by Greg Kintz.

Nearly forty years separates these two photos, both taken in exactly the same spot, the courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre. In both I’m holding reels of the method magnifique of film projection, 70mm, known for its wide picture, incredible sharpness and clarity and fabulous sound. In 1974, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, I happened to be assigned to the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood for several weeks, running 2001 on the theatre’s deep-curve D-150 screen with the projection room on the main floor. Thirty-nine years later, I am back at the same place as the chief projectionist, still occasionally projecting 70mm prints.

There was never any special advertising slogan developed for 70mm (‘super gigantiscope’, anyone?), but newspaper ads and theatre marquees would just say ‘in 70mm’ and audiences would flock there by the thousands, knowing that those were the best places to see the movie. 70mm was ‘king’ of the exhibition scene during the 1970s and 80s. By the early 90s, digital sound was beginning to come along and suddenly 70mm prints began to fall out of favour. The issue was that by then most 70mm films were merely blowups from 35mm negatives, and the sound quality of the 35mm digital audio was such an improvement over conventional (analogue) sound. Many production and distribution and exhibition executives began to feel that 70mm was too expensive for the value gained. Gradually at first, and then precipitously, 70mm distribution came to a halt. The final major film distributed in 70mm was Titanic (1997) and the rumour was that those 70mm prints were demanded by the film's director, James Cameron. It must have been a good decision, because Titanic remained the box-office champ, in terms of worldwide gross income, until the 3D digital magic of Avatar (2009)—from the same James Cameron!