Udonthani province, Thailand
From Fish Sauce to Funerals
I was born in 1966, and bonded with movies at an early age. My aunt owned an itinerant movie projection unit in my hometown in Lampang province [northern Thailand]. I trained as a mechanic in school and started working in a garage after I left school. As it happened one day my aunt’s truck broke down so she asked me to drive to a job for her. I loved movies anyway, and so I left the garage to become a driver for my aunt’s projection unit.
I was about 17 or 18 at the time. Driving for the unit meant I could get around, have fun, live as a teenager. I drove an old pick-up truck carrying the equipment and the troupe. In those days, during the mid-1980s, we’d go from village to village around Lampang and Chiang Rai province. We’d do a show per village. Each show was usually a double bill. Sometimes we’d have a versionist travelling with us to live narrate Chinese or Western movies. Mostly we’d show movies as part of an amusement fair where you’d have open-air movie projection, a boxing show and ram wong dancing—the usual three ingredients of a fair.
I started to learn to fix projectors around this time too. In those days Shinkyo projectors were the ones most commonly used. This is a Japanese brand of portable 35mm carbon arc projectors. When the projectors broke down we’d have to fix them ourselves. There were a few projectionists working for my aunt who knew how to fix projectors so I would just watch them and try to memorise everything they did.
I also started learning to project during that time driving for my aunt’s unit. Who taught me? I wasn’t taught as such. I’d watch and memorise what the projectionists did. Sometimes they’d let me have a go on the machines, but they didn’t instruct me as such.
Around 1987 I moved to Udonthani province [northeast Thailand] to work for a brand of fish sauce. I was with the mobile promotion unit, doubling up as the driver and the projectionist. We’d travel all around Isaan [the local name for the north-eastern region] showing movies and promoting fish sauce.
The fish sauce promotion unit had a different way of working from those mobile projection units that used to go round showing movies in order to sell medicine. You could store packets of pills on the projection truck but not heavy bottles of fish sauce. They needed to go in a separate truck, so our itinerant unit was a two-vehicle convoy. The company would tell us where to go. For instance if they were trying to break into the market in a particular area we’d go and do a show there to raise the brand’s profile. The company would buy junk prints of all sorts of movies for us to show.
A typical show would start with trailers to give people time to turn up. During the trailers we’d test the projector and the lens, and we’d check if the screen was set up properly. Then we’d put on a short promotional film for the brand, showing people how fish sauce is produced. We’d run that in episodes, each a few minutes long. For instance we might play an episode before the start of the film, then insert another in the middle. Most films are about five reels long, right? So before the start of the third reel we’d insert a promotional short. It’s the same idea as having ad breaks when you watch TV soaps.
For itinerant movie shows then the 35mm projector would be stationed on the truck. You’d just bring down the speakers, the metal frames and the screen. This is quite different from the days when I used to drive for my aunt’s unit. Back then you’d first put up the screen, then gauge the projection distance. Then you’d bring down the projector. Those portable ones were much smaller compared to projectors used these days.
The older projectors had only one feed reel so you needed to be fast during the reel change. When a reel was nearly coming to an end you’d pull and pull and pull until there was a pile of celluloid on the floor. Then you’d fit the next reel, thread it through, and quickly splice the new reel to the end strip going through the take up reel. That’s how you’d do it, reel after reel. A good projectionist would leave a metre or so of celluloid on the floor. A not so good one would leave a basket load! Later on we shifted to machines with two feed reels, which made things much easier. You’d have the next reel ready and waiting. As the current reel is about to finish you’d pull out a bit of celluloid and then just splice the end of that one with the beginning of the next reel.
When we were using carbon arc projectors, technically speaking the most difficult thing to do was controlling the rods. When the two rods were burning you’d have to keep turning the mechanism that kept the gap between them stable. Stabilising the size of the gap between the two rods kept the screen a consistent brightness. Otherwise the screen would go dim. That was the only real technique a projectionist needed to master. Changing the reel was easy in comparison.
Mostly we were operating carbon arc projectors whose motor no longer properly functioned. A new projector, fresh out of the factory, would have a running motor that pushed each rod forward as it was burning down. Your job was only to change the rod. But the older machines that we were projecting on inevitably had missing or malfunctioning parts. The cogs may have become loose over time, for example. We almost always had to manually turn the mechanism for pushing each rod forward.
Around 1999–2000 the fish sauce company went out of business. I decided to buy the projection equipment from them and open up my own itinerant service. I’ve been running my own projection unit, the Thanawat film projection service, for over a decade now, fixing and upgrading my machines little by little. I don’t travel far. Usually my unit only accepts jobs around Udonthani province, or Nong Khai and Nong Bua Lamphu, two nearby provinces.
Mostly we’re paid to project movies as part of Buddhist festivities. Our busiest period is right after Buddhist lent, during the kathin celebrations. We also get quite a lot of customers who want movies shown during funeral ceremonies. [Traditional Buddhist funerals are long, drawn-out affairs involving such performances as dancing or movie shows intended to send off the dead in good spirit.] Other than that we’d get jobs during annual merit making festivities, or another type of ceremony known in Isaan as jaek khao, or rice giving, which is a ceremony to channel merit to the dead. Generally our best months for business are February to April. Things tend to wind down after that.
For shows that are part of Buddhist ceremonies we’d project movies all night long. We’re a small unit so we rent reels from local sub-distributors. The host of the festivity decides which movies they want as part of their event. There’s a sliding rental scale, between 300 baht to 5000 baht. A new film that’s just completed its theatrical release would cost 5000 baht to rent.
Today (28 December 2012) I’m about to drive to a job in Nong Bua Lamphu. I’m taking three people with me. Two assistants will set up the equipment, and I’m also taking my son to help out. I’ll do the driving. The projectionist is waiting for us in the province, that’s his hometown. My unit is tiny so I don’t dare employ regular staff. When there’s a job I’ll round up a team and pay them a better rate. I oversee things and help monitor the sound quality. The movie show will last all night. In the morning we’ll pack our things and drive back, and the crew will sleep all the way in the truck.
I started branching out into repairing projectors around 4 or 5 years ago. I’ve always known the basics, and I’ve been fixing my own machines for many years in any case. I haven’t formally set up a projection repair business. Initially I started doing repairs for people I know, but now I’m getting more and more jobs through word of mouth. Some people contact me having learnt about my service from an open-air movies community web board. I fix projectors for itinerant services, but not for cinema theatres as they have their own repair team. There are also collectors who contact me for repairs. I fix 16mm projectors too. You can still find the parts for them. For parts that are now difficult to find sometimes you’d have to get them out from another projector that no longer works. You’d keep hold of a broken projector in case any of the parts turn out to be useful in the future.
Interviewed on 28 December 2012 by Chanchana Homsap and May Adadol Ingawanij. Translation by May Adadol Ingawanij.
© copyright caboose 2013
Kasem Khamnak is the owner of an itinerant projection service in the Udonthani province, northeast Thailand. In around 1987 he started work as a driver and projectionist for the mobile promotion unit of a fish sauce company. He did itinerant projection shows throughout northeast Thailand for about 13 years before opening up his own itinerant service, the Thanawat film projection service. To this day he continues to project during ceremonial festivities as well as to repair projector equipment for collectors and other itinerant services.