Alexi Manis

Toronto, Canada

Muscle Memory

I often use a particular clichéd and age-old phrase to describe many phenomena related to film. ‘The magic of cinema’ is felt in films that move you. It can be in the juxtaposition of certain music with certain scenes or in the precise technique of a handcrafted animation. Nowhere is it more apparent for me than in the projection booth: nailing change-over cues so that six separate reels seem like one continuous dream; the perfect marriage of the persistence of vision the with intermittent movement and shutter speed of a projector; knowing that a film is out of focus by the way it sounds; the beam of light reflecting off the port glass and rebounding a dozen times off strange surfaces; the final credit fading out just as the curtain closes and the lights rise. This, to me, is the true magic of cinema.

Spending countless hours over almost twenty years working as a projectionist, one develops extra-sensory and bizarre abilities to engage on intimate levels with the media and machines. Black-and-white and full-colour prints reveal variations greater than their hues: black-and-white rattles louder in certain gates and feels more substantial through inspection gloves. The ‘vinegar’ scent of old or improperly-stored prints is often detectable even before taking a reel out of a can. The small snaps and pops, caused by the residue of tape or foil long ago removed, are trusted signs that the tail splice is near. And there is an accurate sense that a change-over cue is impending because of the sound of increasing speed of the feeder reel, the passing of a familiar amount of time or perhaps a mix of both. I believe I can also tell if a film has shifted focus by the way it sounds. I’ve often caught myself prompted to check the screen by some non-visual cue, finding the image a touch soft. It’s an elusive experience; indefinable in the moment it’s happening, but a fully reliable intuition. All senses are heightened in the dark, electric environment. Vision is drawn towards the illuminated screen, hearing is fine tuned to the monitors and machines, and even the dark chocolate that I bring to most shifts tastes especially bittersweet.

This sensory experience is part of what makes film projection so thrilling and immediate. The routine of film projection at a dual-projector theatre is addictive. I first heard the term ‘muscle memory’ in reference to dance: when stretching at the ballet bar or rehearsing choreography, certain movement sequences go beyond the brain and become entrenched in the body. Muscle memory never fails in winding a reel on the bench, swinging it up onto the projector, lacing the rollers, securing the gate, engaging the motor and repeating the procedure over and over again. I was recently threading up the Philips 35mm film projectors in the AGO’s Jackman Hall theatre and became stuck around the rollers after the gate. I hadn’t projected a feature there in almost a year and I couldn’t remember how the film loaded around the sound head and the bookend rollers. I tried it one way, but was unsure if it looked right. When I threaded the second projector, I instinctively relied more on feel than on sight. It came back to me, but only through the muscle memory in my hands and fingers from having threaded these particular machines for years. There are many other fine motions that agile hands become accustomed to, and remember, in projection. I found myself still gently tapping the roller closures twice to make sure the film was sitting properly around it; I used both index fingers to gauge the tension between the two loops around the sound head; I turned the advancing wheel two frames past the appropriate placing of the countdown leader to triple check the film was in-frame. As difficult as it is to describe in writing such specific and obscure processes, they become as effortless as any natural movement, as familiar as any daily routine.

Something that has always fascinated me about this trade is that all projectionists have their own routines, idiosyncrasies and relationships to the machines they work with. They also all have unique and extraordinary tales of machine meltdowns, print fiascos, serendipitous occurrences and proud moments. Entering the trade late in film’s life, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from experts and enthusiasts. I heard stories of the old days, heating up your dinner pre-microwave in the 2000-watt lamp house, lighting a smoke on the carbon arc and the trials that came with platter and automation at the turn of the millennium. With first-run celluloid prints dwindling and festivals screening an exploding number of digital cinema packages, film projection today is in a state of quick decline. A positive spin may be the desire to archive and repair existing prints or screen special programs in galleries and museums. Perhaps one day soon I’ll be sharing strange tales of muscle memory and the sound of focus to a novice digital technician: the magic of cinema as it once was.

April 2012

© copyright caboose 2012

Alexi Manis is a filmmaker, projectionist and teacher from Toronto. She worked as technical director and projectionist for a number of Toronto festivals such as the Worldwide Short Film Festival, Images Festival of Independent Media and the Inside Out Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival. She has projected everything from laserdiscs to 35mm archival prints at venues such as the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall Theatre, Toronto’s Goethe Institute, the National Film Board of Canada’s John Spotton Theatre and the Toronto International Film Festival screening room. Her short, experimental films were made at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto and have screened at events and festivals worldwide. Many have the marvel of projection at their heart: Luminous (2001) is a collection of imagery from booths around Toronto where the projected images of films are captured in their reflections off the booth port glass; The Finite (2004) features super 8 footage projected onto the surfaces of smoke and water; and Shutter (2009) situates the sun as a projector and documents the shadow play of nature and celestial events.

With LIFT’s JK Optical Printer, a mini projector facing a Bolex 16mm camera for duplicating, manipulating and animating original super 8, regular 8 or 16mm film. Photo by Michael Barker of Acme Art and Design in Toronto.
With colleague and friend Andrei Gravelle and a relic projector in the lobby of the Cumberland Cinema, Yorkville, Toronto, 2001.
In a makeshift booth with Dave Mott at the Tranzac Club for the Splice This! Super 8 Film Festival, the Annex, Toronto, 2003.
Adding mylar leader to a platter shipper in the revision department of the Toronto International Film Festival, Manulife Centre, 1998.