Hans Burgschmidt

Toronto, Canada

Transparent Projection

My first memory of a motion picture projector is from the days of regular 8 when I was six years old. One day my father brought home a manual-thread 8mm Bell and Howell movie projector. He was having a bit of trouble with it, so I went over to the projector and said to him, ‘This is how you do it’. I then threaded it and proceeded to run an evening of family movies, leaving my father very perplexed as he ran to get his camera to take a picture of me beside the projector.

Later on, I was a senior projectionist and instructor in the Saskatoon Projectionist Club. I was a small thirteen-year-old and was teaching all these older people how to assemble and disassemble movie projectors. I remember how proud I was when I received my certificate at the time. I was the youngest member.

When I moved to Edmonton, I asked for a job with the union there and ended up working with the IATSE local from 1979 until 1981. I must have run a dozen theatres in Edmonton over three years, including a nine-theatre Cineplex, and a couple of rep houses. I gained experience in a range of projection applications but got dismayed at the shallowness of commercial cinema. To run a booth requires a connection to what you are doing. It is an art, a trade, and I have always held it in that light.

I have always had a passion for the process of projecting and creating an experience for people. I have a desire to communicate, influence, and generate an experience with people. Film viewing or video watching is an artificial, technological creation, and I wanted to integrate a more natural type of environment into the experience of watching a film. In 1978 I was attending university in the U.S. and we tried to create an outdoor film event. We raided the laundry room at the university and sewed together twenty-four bed sheets and made a huge projection screen. We pulled the high-powered 16mm projectors out of the projection room, hung the screen between trees, and created an event that made a lasting impression on me. It was a hot mid-western summer’s night. The crickets were chirping and there was a lush lawn. We ran the original The Wizard of Oz, and people got up and started dancing and singing with the movie. It inspired me to think in terms of breaking down the barriers that one associates with the passive viewer. It became a participatory thing. People started to jump around with the movie, and I really liked that. I decided to light a fire under their seats from then on.

I could do that through outdoor screenings and street cinema. In 1981 I moved to Toronto. I was here for only a few days when I met Martin Heath, then I met Marc Glassman, and we started to talk about outdoor screenings. Marc had obviously thought about it before, and after I had been in Toronto for a month or two, we did it. I had a small portable Bell and Howell 16mm projector. Marc had connections with the Queen Street Merchants Association. We did some organising with street vendors. The Bamboo was just being built at the time. They provided us with seating, and we just winged it. We painted our screen on a building across from the Black Bull tavern, and put our projector in upper storey window of the tavern. We had regular screenings on Friday nights for eight weeks, borrowing films from the library, the NFB and private collections. Filmmakers came and gave us prints and we called it street cinema. Years later, people would still remember and ask when it would happen again.

To me the best type of show is one that is transparent, which ultimately means that the best presentation is one where there is no awareness of a projectionist. There is a seamless, direct communication from the mind of the film director to the minds of the viewer. In a perfect presentation, the projectionist does not exist. A person becomes aware of a projectionist if the image is out of focus or the sound is too loud. I’ve thought a lot about this, and my ego was not too happy about this realisation: I could develop and refine my skills and my highest level of achievement would be my non-existence. This is true of many of the technical support roles in media production and presentation.

I’d like to say to people who are reading this: demand high-quality presentations wherever you go. Don’t let any venue get away with shabby presentations and always give immediate feedback to theatre management or projectionists. If the show is in any way unprofessional, let the right people know. By giving feedback you’ll be doing yourself, the audience, and future audiences a great service by holding all exhibitors to the highest standards.

Adapted by the author in March 2012 from an interview with Toronto film critic and author Marc Glassman in the Fall 1991 issue of The Independent Eye.

© copyright caboose 2012

Hans Burgschmidt started working as a senior projectionist and instructor in the Saskatoon Projectionist Club in the YMCA, receiving his certificate at the age of thirteen. From 1979 to 1981 he ran various theatres in Edmonton as a union projectionist: repertory houses such as the Citadel Theatre, home of the National Film Theatre in Edmonton; the Princess Theatre; and commercial venues including a nine-theatre Cineplex, Famous and Odeon. In 1981 he moved to Toronto, projecting for the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Film Board of Canada, Cinema Lumiere, the Rivoli and the Euclid. He was actively engaged in organising outdoor screenings: producing Movies in the Park for the Festival of Festivals in 1985 and, starting from 1982, co-organising with Marc Glassman the Queen Street Cinema screenings. Early in his career he also worked as a relief projectionist for the Alberta censor board and as a film revisionist for Forbidden Films, a festival of films forbidden in their country of origin. Since that time, Hans has worked with 15 film festivals in Toronto in the capacity of Technical Director. He was the chief technical design consultant for the construction of six independent theatres. He worked in various capacities for the Toronto International Film Festival for 27 years, including 10 years as Technical Director. He was Technical Director of the Miami International Film Festival for four years. In recent years he was the Director of Production for the Dubai International Film Festival and for the last five years has been the Production Director for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Hans projecting family films at age six.
Street cinema, Edmonton, 1982.
Projection booth, Citadel theatre, Edmonton 1981. Century projectors with Ashcraft C70 carbon arc lamphouses.
Projection booth, Sherwood Park drive-in, Edmonton, 1980. Century double shutter projectors with Strong Futura II lamphouses. The lamphouses burned 13.6mm rotating positive carbons, one of the biggest lamphouses available at the time.