Projectionists have been on my mind lately, perhaps because I toured the Valencia Theatre in Queens a couple of weeks ago, a palace converted to a church, where the projection booth serves as a “prayer tower.” Or is it because last week in Buffalo I heard the tale of a projectionist named Norm who worked the North Park Theatre from 1966 to 2013, taking on, eventually, the duties of both projectionist and manager? He kept that theater open and functioning during lean times, fixing broken equipment nobody else had a handle on. It’s the dedicated projectionists I like to think about, for whom the job is a craft.
Speaking of dedicated, it was Robert Endres, head projectionist at Radio City Music Hall, who strode into our lobby one day in ’76 and volunteered to take the occasional shift, announcing, “I admire old theaters — collect them in my head...” He never handled film with his bare hands, the way Abe did, even if the prints we got were already pretty badly scratched. For forty years we lost track of Bob, but, thanks to a mutual dentist, are now happily reconnected. These days, he volunteers periodically as a specialized tech advisor for this blog, on the subject of all things projection. (Check out his comments in “Afterthought 1.”)
Eight years ago, in Slate, Grady Hendrix predicted the gig was up for projectionists. He chatted up a veteran NYC projectionist named Joe Rivierzo,and the result was a lucid description of how projection evolved — and is devolving — over the course of the last century. And I quote:
...nowhere is technology eliminating the need for human labor faster than in motion-picture projection. From the birth of cinema until the 1960s, the system was the same: Every projection booth had two reel-to-reel projectors with carbon arc light sources.The movie would start playing on one machine, and the projectionist’s job was to watch for the changeover cues: usually a small circle or an X in the upper right-hand corner of the screen.
...Getting a lamp that was bright enough to throw a projected image onto a screen hundreds of feet away was a huge problem, and the first solution was the carbon arc. Two carbon electrodes are brought together, they touch and are then pulled apart, creating a brightly burning arc. The strong, steady light would bounce off a reflector and toward the lens.
But starting in the 1970’s, the light source — always tricky while it depended on an arc between two carbons — was gradually replaced by the xenon bulb, expensive, but steady and reliable. With the arrival of that bulb, the projectionist’s job was greatly simplified, no longer requiring trimming or changing of carbons. The bulb was a steady source of light; you could keep an extra couple of them around and dispense with rod maintenance, which had taken some finesse. Maintenance of the rods, come to think of it, was probably the only thing keeping Abe awake in our antiquated booth; changeovers certainly weren’t doing it. Speaking of reel changeovers, according to Rivierzo, when the platter system came along in the late seventies, the job of projectionist became idiot simple. There was absolutely nothing for a projectionist to do after the reels of film had been delivered and loaded on stacked platters; and as the challenges of projection became minimal, managers saw opportunity.
Rivierzo tracks the de-fanging of Local 306, the once-powerful NYC projectionists’ union, to efforts in the Giuliani era to dumb down projectionist licensing tests. Local 306 used to have roughly 3,000 members in the 1950’s but, by 2010, was down to just 400. After xenon and platters, and simplified testing (which no longer required a projectionist to know much about electricity or master complex skills), almost anybody could staff a booth.
The Slate blog post I’m quoting from was written long before the recent digital revolution was complete. At the time, Rivierzo predicted that, “Digital will eliminate us completely. All you have to do is load it and play it, and a lot of this stuff can be done off-site. We have theaters now running with 35 percent of the house digital. Once they go over 51 percent running digital, and they run it that way for 90 consecutive days, they can eliminate the presence of a projectionist. Our only saving grace is they can’t manufacture these digital machines fast enough.”
True? Well, this just in, from 2015, two years after the digital revolution was mostly complete. According to What It’s Like to Be a ‘Hateful Eight’ 70mm Projectionist (With Quentin Tarantino Watching), by Adam Witner, it was easy for him to get work projecting The Hateful Eight for its well-known director, a champion of non-digital tech. The catch was, Witner had no opportunities to practice in advance before he joined the roadshow; and practice would have been a good thing. You see, he had somehow never operated a platter system before. He’d worked at UNC School of the Arts in Winston Salem, N.C., as an archivist and projectionist, a situation involving not platters, but two-projector reel-to-reel systems. Something did go terribly wrong for Witner, but Tarantino, in the audience the first night, never knew it, at least while the film was rolling, because this guy Witner is a true professional. If you haven’t by now read the link, don’t miss it; it contains a real nail-biter of a situation, deftly handled. It also proves that projection is not only not dead, but still an art, especially given the fact that, in the age of digital projection, the equipment that directors like Nolan and Tarantino ship all over the country for their roadshows has a lot in common with the old Chevys still on the road down in Cuba.
An article in Vanity Fair in March of this year, seems to indicate that well-trained projectionists who are still alive, kicking and able to handle a reel of film, may still be quite valuable. I’ve noticed this effect in other fields. For example, my sister finally did retire at 78, from her job, traveling around the world teaching main frame, a supposedly outmoded tech that is no longer taught in schools that feature computer technology — but which governments and the military seem unable to do without. Technology moves too fast, eating up the landscape as it goes; but there are things in the landscape that we need to hold on to. One of them just may be film.
I started with Abe, who wasn’t very good (anymore?) or very careful, at a time when projection was complicated enough, that incompetents could hide behind a strong union. From the seventies to 2010, unions weakened or died and digital projection, like compact disc technology (or e-books), seemed to be the whole future. In this period, Eastman Kodak filed for Chapter 11. Then Tarantino and Nolan and friends stepped in, in hopes that film would still be available to shoot on and project light through.
Proving? It’s not over until the projectionist — of any size and shape — sings.
Afterthought 1: And this just in from Bob Endres, my favorite projectionist...
I know Joe Riverzo and his comments pretty much summed it up eight years ago. The projectionist who wrote about Hateful 8 was wrong about one thing. Platters were designed to run 70mm but the problem was lack of maintenance over the years. One of our engineers had a problem on the first screening of Hateful down at the Village 8 on opening night with Tarantino in the audience. In that case they had to stop while he pulled a gear out of a spare projector and actually rebuilt the projector head in a relatively short time while Tarantino entertained the audience with stories about the film.
What isinteresting is that we have a number of theaters in Manhattan and Brooklyn that are installing two projector 35mm systems in at least one of their screens. The Metrograph and the Quad are two, and the Metrograph runs reel to reel 35mm on an almost daily basis (suppliers of 35mm prints don’t want them chopped up with leaders and tail pieces cut off when the reels are spliced together for use on a platter). Our engineer that does the tech for Dolby film screenings says he’s seen more film this last year than in a decade, and a lot of it has been 70mm.
Afterthought 2: Check out this treatment of the recent restoration of 2001, a Space Odyssey, which features another young projectionist who learned his now-obscure craft at a college campus. and is working for Alamo. Christopher Nolan is responsible for the film restoration.
Afterthought 3: For a 2016 treatment of the emulsion vs. digitalization tug-of-war, check out an earlier post.