In my quest to add skills essential to the 21st century, I decided it was necessary to figure out how to project 35mm film. Since most movie houses only project digital nowadays, this is obviously a skill that will lead to a lucrative career.
Several components are involved in projecting film, only a few of which are covered in the “kill Hitler plot” section of Inglorious Basterds. I know all the skills involved, except those required to show nitrate film, which include running out of the booth screaming, “There’s a fire! Get the hell out!” But since few places are licensed to show nitrate film (there were more, but they burned down), I feel there’s little I have to worry about on that front.
Mastering these skills, however, takes time, and every chance to show film is a chance to screw-up anew. The biggest screw-up is if the film doesn’t advance properly through the projector. It won’t catch on fire if that happens, but the unlucky frame that happens to be in front of the bulb at the time will do an excellent impersonation of the Wicked Witch of the West. Other screw-ups involve not switching between reels in time, switching between them too early, forgetting to switch over the sound (if you have a separate switch for each), and accidentally throwing a reel through the screen because it won’t do what you goddamn want it to do.
Every machine and theater is a little different when it comes to the steps involved in projecting film. Most of this is due to the fact that each projector is different. Some of this is due to the fact that most theaters don’t employ projectionists anymore, and their managers aren’t even competent enough to turn on the 3D switch for Hugo. But I digress.
Where I project film, the first thing I do is turn on the circuit breakers and hope they don’t catch fire. They never have, so this is probably an irrational fear. Next, I turn on the fans. Then, and only then, do I turn on the bulbs. If I turned on the bulbs first, they’d explode and probably kill me with flying shrapnel.
Then, I make sure each projector has the correct lens and aperture mask attached. Otherwise, the film might look like a pan-and-scan VHS tape instead of Lawrence of Arabia — which was shot on 70mm (kind of like 35mm, except bigger and heavier).
Then, I clean the machine. Some parts of the machine I clean while the motor’s running (sprockets); others while it’s off (everything else). I remove the gate and clean it with rubbing alcohol and Q-tips. I wipe the pressure rollers with a cloth. I spray the sound head with canned air. I throw liquid nitrogen on the bulb for shits and giggles. Just kidding. Don’t do that. In fact, keep that bulb hidden behind the dowser, you pyro.
Now it’s time to test the film, right? Wrong! I have to make sure that the screen is properly masked for each projector. I do that by running a loop on each side, which is literally a loop of film with a test screen on it and no sound. Once that’s done (or if I decide not to do it because I’m lazy), I load film onto the projectors, though it doesn’t hurt to look at the film report and see what condition the film is in before doing so, in case there’s something important on it like, “Accidentally sent nitrate film. Play the Blu-ray instead.”
But wait! Another danger lurks here, because the spindles that I must slide the film reels over can break at the joint where they lock into place (this keeps the reel from flying off the projector and forcing a search for a new projectionist or, even worse, a new machine). So I must gently guide them on and make sure they’re all the way on, or the mechanism won’t lock. The reels with film go on the top spindle, empty reels (known as “take-up reels”) go on the bottom.
Let’s talk a bit about threading and framing, shall we? Threading is when you, well, “thread” the film through the projector: over sprockets, through gates, in between rollers, and out the other side, where they wind themselves around the take-up reel. If the film is too taut, or too loose, or incorrect in any way, you’ll damage the film, and that is bad. Too loose and it’ll scrape, too tight and it’ll snap, too wrong and it’ll do something you’d rather it not do, like melt into a perfect likeness of Jimmy Hoffa. And then there’s framing. If that’s off, sure, you have a framing wheel to correct it, but the audience will notice that the picture is wrong during the initial changeover. The best projectionist is the one that shows the film so seamlessly, the audience doesn’t know they’re there. And if they aren’t there, the audience is watching digital.
Did I mention this needs to be done multiple times? Reels tend to be about 15-20 minutes long, so even a short, 90-minute film can stretch to 5 or 6 reels. And you only have two projectors. So, the longer the film is, the more chance you have of screwing something up.
In this next paragraph, we get into Inglorious Basterds territory. Once the film gets near the end of its reel, it flashes a cigarette burn on the screen (a white or black circle in the top right corner). It does this twice. The first time I see it, I turn on the projector that I’m switching to and open the dowser, which is what’s preventing the bulb from shining on the film and, conversely, the screen. The second time I see it, I switch over from the projector that’s currently running the film to the one that I just started up. Then I check to see that it’s framed properly. After that, I hop over to the other projector, where I see the projectionist who’s shadowed me has already closed the dowser, stopped the machine, and taken both reels off and brought them over the rewind station.
At the rewind station, it’s even more important to make sure the film is securely on the spindles, since the reels run faster when being rewound than they do when showing the film. Also, unlike their flimsy counterparts, the spindles here don’t lock into place. Once they’re rewound, the reels go back on the shelf where I grabbed them from, hopefully in the same order as before.
Once the entire film is over, I turn on the lights, turn off the bulbs, clean the machine again, wait until the bulbs are cool, turn off the fans, wait for the entire second film to finish playing, turn off the circuit breakers, crack open a beer, accidentally spill it on the circuit breakers, start a fire, and realize I’m now certified to run nitrate.