Johnny O'Neil

Montreal, Canada

The Evolving Projectionist

From carbon arcs, tube amps and Frankenstein switches to automation and platters, and now DCP projection, I’m still here, projecting life at 24 frames per second.

Watching the recent Oscars, it struck me, why is there not an Oscar for best projectionist? Aren’t we an important link in the process of showing a film to an audience?

I’ve often wondered what a roll of film has seen through its journeys in many world film festivals and various types of projection booths, some clean and some badly maintained. Sometimes the copy we get is barely weeks old and, in just one screening, was not threaded correctly, and now I have to show it with a scratch down the middle of the whole film. It’s not a perfect medium, but 35mm film is a living thing with many other stories associated with it.

Yes, projectionists handle film, we stroke and caress it and even damage it, but we always try to let it tell its story to a waiting audience. We may not like its images, context or moral issues, but when we see a film that takes us away, we count ourselves lucky that we can watch it over and over again for free.

During the Oscars, there was a nostalgic theme about peoples’ earliest memories of seeing films. Mine, like many, started at an early age. One day, while hanging out at our local repertory cinema, I spotted an older gentleman in the booth, projecting the Sunday morning cartoons. He looked fairly stressed because all of the 10-minute reels of 35mm film were breaking and he had a lot of repair splices to do. He could see that I had a keen interest, and began showing me how to splice the cartoons. In those days we used a glue splicer. I became fascinated with the magic of cutting the frame lines, scratching away some of the image, and then gluing it together to make a long-lasting bond.

After that day, I would always come and help him. As time went on, this 15-year-old kid started training with the senior projectionist. He taught me how to do projector change-overs every 20 minutes and then rewind the reels by hand. In those days, projection was a skill and a profession that was learned by working with a licensed operator for 500 hours and then taking a test. By 16, I was working regularly at the Piccadilly cinema in Montreal, on my way to becoming a projectionist.

Through high school and after, I worked in many cinemas and with some of the first automation systems and big hour-long reels. One projectionist could operate two rooms with xenon lamps and auto change-overs. Many feared it was the end of the single-screen operator. It was the era of four-channel sound, and 2000-seat theatres turned into two-, three- and five-screen multiplexes. Instead of threading a single reel every 20 minutes, we were now threading five huge reels at the top of every hour.

Then there was Betamax and VHS video, which were supposed to kill cinema, but along came Dolby stereo. Now the big screen had moving sound that could jump off and surround an audience. As a projectionist, I would go sit in the cinema every time I heard the roar of sound through my booth walls. A new dimension in sound was born.

I always worked in repertory and independent cinemas and had an interest in how these amazing 35mm machines worked. I could take them apart to fix them, and other times call a technician in and watch them upgrade. For me, there was no school of projection, I just jumped into every opportunity. This lead to mobile projection gigs. Some were fun, like when I would load my little Ford Festiva with a 10x14 screen, 35mm projector and sound system and drive out to the suburbs, plug into a street lamppost and show some family entertainment from the back of my car on a summer’s night.

The most hilarious outdoor event was a summer festival showing of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in a Montreal parking lot, watching audience members panic and raise their umbrellas every time rain-making sprinklers were turned on them by the festival organiser, Claude Chamberlan! That same festival, Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma, had me show 2001: A Space Odyssey underwater in a public swimming pool. The hardest and most fun part of that gig was having to dive in frequently to check the focus and sound EQ. Not to be outdone, another festival wanted to see if we could project on Niagara Falls. After testing various colour and black-and-white films to wandering tourists after midnight, we realised that keeping focus on the ever-changing water and mist was going to drive me to an eye doctor. Like Jaws needing a bigger boat, we were going to need a bigger projector.

Some shows could be scary, like when I showed Polytechnique to a room full of politicians at the House of Commons. Or when 10,000 eyes were staring at me while showing Pink Floyd’s The Wall outside in the middle of a field. With 5,000 people surrounding me, the sound system started having a static pop, with its own rhythm. During the loud music parts, you couldn’t hear it, but in the quiet moments, the audience started clapping louder and louder in sync with it. Most times, projectionists only see the backs of their audience, except when something goes wrong.

Some of my best experiences were when I toured the world with a modern dance troupe and needed the help of a local projectionist in every city. There were many tours and many similar stories in projection booths – projectionists like to play ‘show me yours and I’ll show you mine’. One thing that always struck me is how 35mm film is so universal. You can show film prints on projectors with metric or imperial parts anywhere you go, unlike video, with its NTSC, PAL, and ever-changing HD formats.

In my 35 years of projecting movies, I have often felt like a doctor, psychoanalyst and babysitter. Some think the projectionist is becoming extinct; I think we are just evolving. We have to adapt, just as many have done before. In the end, somebody’s got to be the last link and project the film, DCP or hologram to a waiting audience!

April 2012

© copyright caboose 2012

Johnny O'Neil has been working in film projection in Montreal for 35 years, from the now-defunct Piccadilly cinema at the age of 16 to his present position as Technical Supervisor for Concordia University's cinemas. He continues to moonlight for the repertory cinema Cinéma du Parc and has worked for numerous festivals, repertory cinemas and special events, including the Festival du nouveau cinéma and Fantasia, and toured internationally with the dance troupe La La La Human Steps.

Johnny O'Neil showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Rialto Cinema in Montreal. I’ve shown Rocky Horror thousands of times in over ten cinemas and even outside to thousands of people during a street festival on St. Lawrence Blvd. Photo by Claude Chamberlan.
Turning on the Frankenstein switches we used to use for the huge power needed to burn the carbon rods in bygone carbon-arc projection. Photo by Claude Chamberlan.

A glue film splicer from the days before tape splicing. Photo by Claude Chamberlan.

Niagara Falls. We projected on the section indicated by the arrow. Imagine trying to focus with all that mist moving in!