Eric Grayson

Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

Historian Projectionist

I came to film projection in a different way than most people did. I never aspired to be a projectionist. I wasn’t in love with the equipment. I aspired to see rare films and unusual material, and I discovered that to do that I was going to have to find film prints and learn to project them.

I know people who are born projectionists. They bleed Simplex oil. They know the gears and intermittents and things like that. I’m not one of those guys. I know different things. Most projectionists, especially younger ones, don’t know about aspect ratios. They’ll know about 1.85, which they call flat, and anamorphic Panavision (which they’ll call Scope). Few know about flat 1.37:1 (Academy) and many don’t know that it makes a difference to run the proper aperture. I once sat through a 35mm screening of The Quiet Man (1952) at 1.85:1. The projectionist didn’t know any better.

I run older films, films that come from archives. I know the silent aspect ratio (1.33:1), the Academy (1.37), European widescreen (1.66), American widescreen (1.85). Want a challenge? Ask someone about Movietone aspect ratio, and prepare for a blank look. Movietone aspect ratio (which is about 1.2:1) was the very first sound aspect ratio. Silent films had used a very thin frame line that was continued in Movietone, but there was some film area taken up with the soundtrack. Film screens the world over were still 1.33:1, which didn’t fit! By 1931, the standard was changed to thicken the frame lines to match the film area taken by the soundtrack, leading to ‘Academy’ standard 1.37. Movietone was used only from about 1928–30, and yet I’ve run shows at film festivals where I had to switch over from Academy to silent ratio, back to Movietone, and back to silent, all within the space of 1,000-foot (ten-minute) reels.

It becomes a challenge to identify the aspect ratio properly: silent films have no soundtrack and thin frame lines. Movietone has a soundtrack and thin frame lines. Academy (1.37) has thick frame lines and a soundtrack. Panavision has thin frame lines, a soundtrack, but an anamorphic squeeze. I always look at prints beforehand because I’ve had them mislabelled.

Projectionists today are steeped in the lore of the modern multiplex: platters, two aspect ratios and no changeover cues. I’m steeped in the lore of ancient cinema: no platters; changeovers at 1,000 or 2,000 feet, generally done manually and weird sound formats like single sweep and variable density. RKO used single-sweep sound in the 1930s. Modern optical tracks have a couple of stripes down the centre of the soundtrack. Single sweep goes uses the entire width of the soundtrack, no stripes at all. This will not play on a modern stereo head! Variable density uses various shades of gray, rather than a solid stripe, to record sound. The British were especially fond of it. The African Queen (1951), which is a British picture with American stars, uses variable density sound.

Film archives complain about the use of film platters because an idiot can run them. Platters don’t make the projectionist an idiot, but they enable idiocy. With old-fashioned changeovers, the projectionist has to be in the room with the projectors, tending it every few minutes, never far from an irreplaceable print. With platters, one projectionist can run a 12-screen multiplex.

As film becomes more ‘outdated’, I’m actually getting in more demand. People come to me because I have 16mm and 35mm projectors. Want to run 35mm archival prints in a cramped 200-seat library? I have portables that can be set up in the back row. How about an outdoor show for a fundraiser? I can do that. This unusual ‘born in a trunk’ film historian life has caused numerous odd incidents. I was running 35mm on a rickety wooden platform near a riverside. We’d been doing a James Bond series, one per week, and we were on the last week. The projector lamps leak bright light, which means that your eyes are never quite adapted. It’s either the glaring light of the projector or the pitch black surroundings, which keeps me staggering, never quite able to see. The platform wasn’t level, and I was constantly tripping and falling over the edge, bumping something and making the picture bob up and down. I noticed that, on the last day, a couple was sitting up next to the projectors. I told them that the projectors were hot and noisy, and perhaps they’d like to move. ‘Oh, we know’, said the woman. ‘But it’s so much fun listening to you trip over the platform and swear that we enjoy it more than the movie’.

A couple of years ago I was running an archival show for the Slapsticon in Washington D.C., and the motor on my 1940s 35mm projector started to fail. We were running 16mm in the interim as I worked on the projector, so the booth was dark. The organizer ran out and bought us some circuit cleaner, which I used to soak the motor in hopes that 60-year-old gunk would be loosened. What I didn’t know is that this was new flammable circuit cleaner. I turned the motor on, a flame shot 8 inches above the motor and I lost most of an eyebrow and some hair. It was pretty cool. Believe it or not, the motor still ran after that.

Halloween is always busy for me. Sometimes I do two or three shows in a week. On one particular day we’d licensed The Invisible Man (1933) for a theatrical show in 16mm. I got to the theatre and discovered that I had picked up the first reel of Invisible Man and the second reel of Nosferatu (1922), which I was running later that week. Oh, dear. A quick calculation told me that I had enough time to make the trip back home, grab the second reel, speed back, and return in time for the changeover. I gave my girlfriend the info for the short and the feature, reminded her how to start everything, and dashed off. I made it back and did a seamless changeover. No one in the audience realised that we’d averted disaster by five minutes.

My favourite story is one that involved me as a projection helper. A big contractor managed to rent a 35mm print of Star Wars, and a friend of mine had a projector to throw in the back of a truck. But he didn’t have a truck, so he rented one. I hadn’t heard anything from him at the appointed time, so I called him. I always will remember the answer: ‘Eric! Don’t talk to me now! I’m in hell! I’m in hell!’ It turns out that he’d rented a 12-foot truck and had unthinkingly driven it through a 10-foot underpass, shearing off the top two feet. Embarrassed, he drove back to the rental agency and returned the truck, only to hear that the insurance did not cover the roof! That’s when I called him. He got another truck and we did the show. There was a freak windstorm and it took seven people to hold the screen down.

I don’t think digital projection will kill film. Diesel train engines didn’t kill steam engines. They’re still out there, maybe fewer and farther between, but championed by those devotees of the way things used to be. I’ll still be out there, tripping over someone’s rickety platform, showing audiences that film is cool.

September 2012

© copyright caboose 2012

Eric Grayson has a degree in Electrical Engineering, but since 2004 he's been a full-time film historian. He travels around the world and does shows, introduces films, and does research on lost and rare films. His personal collection includes over 50 features in 35mm, over 300 in 16mm, countless trailers and shorts. A passionate film lover, he still does extensive digital work, including the restoration of the color sequence in Buster Keaton's Seven Chances (1925). He wrote and shot his own TV pilot about classic films, called Dr. Film ( Information on his film shows can be found at
The author with fellow projectionist Bruce Lawton. These are the author’s two Holmes 35mm portable projectors set up in the back row of a library in New Hampshire. He drove over 1000 miles to set this up and ran films for 2 days. These projectors are small enough that they can be run in most venues. Photo by Jeff Rapsis.