Mario Alves

Vienna, Austria

The Sound of Film

In the beginning I didn’t intend to work as a projectionist. It was a total coincidence. In 1998, when I was 16 and living in Germany, my school required me to do an internship somewhere and I had no clue whatsoever what to do! A good friend of mine told me about the cinema in town. It was a very old little cinema where I had my very first contact with film material and the work of a projectionist.

During this internship they gave me the chance to project my very first film. After the internship ended I accepted a job as an usher and about a year later I started my traineeship as a projectionist. I stayed in this cinema, which is called Traumstern (which means Dreamstar) for about ten years and learned nearly everything I know about projection. Now this little cinema is one of the best rated cinemas in Germany. In 2009, after my studies in Germany, I moved to Vienna and became the main projectionist at the Austrian Filmmuseum.

What I personally really like about my work as a projectionist isn’t just the movies on the screen, it’s more the material they are made of. I love to have it between my fingers, to smell it and also to hear it as it moves through the projector. Each film print is individual and has its own touch, smell and sound. And of course its own rhythm when you project with change-overs the way we do. Sometimes when I go to the movies I just can’t get used to the missing sound of the projectors and the sound of the film in it.

Over the years the material form of a film print changes. It gets more scratches or more cuts so that the picture looks more vivid and the sound gets more clicking noises. Or sometimes when the material gets older the colours change, so that the movie has a total different appearance. It’s like watching or showing a different movie and mostly the movie just gets better and better. I love these changes in the material—it’s like working with a living thing.

But there is also a sad side of these changes, such as when you have to work with a movie print which you know is going to die. If the print has advanced ‘vinegar syndrome’ you know there is no hope for it and that could be the last time it will be shown to an audience. I hate these moments but at the same time it’s an honour to give these movies their last show.

Because of all that I just don’t like this new digital era! It takes away everything I personally like about films and film material. A digital movie doesn’t make any sound; you can’t touch, feel or smell it. There is no sign of the age of the film. It’s as if the movie isn’t even there! You get the feeling that it does not even really exist. And that is a creepy thought. For digital projection there is no need of a projectionist. Everybody can do this job. You just have to press some buttons.

The first thing you notice when you take a reel out of its can is a characteristic smell. Each time it is a little bit different—the intensity of this ‘first smell’ has to do with the material of the can and the film material. Most films are transported in metal, plastic or paperboard cans and each material has its own influence on the print. For example, if a reel is archived in a plastic can, the smell is always very intense. That is because there is no air circulation, so the smell of the print is caught in the box and mixes with the smell of its plastic cover. But the ‘second smell’ is different. When you finally take the reel out of the can and work with the material in your hands, you always have this smell in your nose. There is no distraction, no other influences; it’s about the pure material of the film itself.

The continuous, loud noise of the film and the projector is the first thing you notice when you enter the booth. It is one of the most important things for me while projecting a film. There is a sound whose rhythm tells me that everything is going well. So I always pay attention to this ‘music of the material and the machine’. In situations when the sound doesn’t seem right, I have to step in and correct the problem, otherwise the material could be damaged or the screening interrupted.

Every film has its own specific sound and rhythm. There are a lot of different factors which gives the material its sound. The foundation of this orchestra is the type of film material: polyester, acetate and nitrocellulose. But the format and frame rate may be more important factors. If the print is a smaller format, such as 8mm, it is automatically gentler than a 35mm print. So you can say the bigger, the louder. The frame rate and the thickness give the print its final nuance. I would like to hear a 70mm print, which we don’t project here.

Another aspect of being a projectionist is to be invisible for the audience and that’s a thing I really like. If you are at any time present for the audience then something has really gone wrong! Also there won’t be anyone who tells you what a great job you did and there won’t be any applause from the audience either. But you won’t find any projectionist who expects cheering for his work. What is far more important is respect for our work.

After a really long day in the booth, with all these different impressions, you get home late and at first you can’t sleep. But when you finally fall asleep you always have strange dreams about your work, and I really appreciate and love them!

May 2012
© copyright caboose 2012

Mario Alves’ parents emigrated from Portugal to Germany nearly 40 years ago and he was born and raised in Germany in a little town called Lich. From 1999 until 2010 he worked at the Traumstern cinema in Germany and is presently the main projectionist at the Austrian Filmmuseum in Vienna. While at the Traumstern he did a lot of different things besides projecting films, including working in an African restaurant and as a juggling coach in the Butzbach prison. He continued offering juggling workshops mostly for immigrants at an institution in Friedberg for German language instruction called FAB (Women, Work, Education). During this period he also worked for a professional clown, in charge of a mobile circus for children and designing balloons. He also completed a program in Comparative Studies in Cultures and Religion with a focus on Cultural Anthropology at the University of Marburg, in Germany. In 2009 he moved to Vienna but, unable to find work as a projectionist he took work as a Fiaker (a carriage driver). After half a year the Austrian Film Museum offered him a job as its main projectionist.

Mario Alves seated beside one of the two Kinoton FP 30 E projectors for 35mm prints at the Austrian Film Museum. There is also a Kinoton FP 18 for 16mm prints and portable projectors for 8mm and 9.5mm prints.
Cinema Traumstern from the outside.
The old Bauer projector on which the author learned his trade. A lot of old parts were replaced by new ones during repairs.
View from the hall to the projection booth at the Austrian Film Museum. © Austrian Film Museum/Photo: Bruno Klomfar.