San Francisco, USA
A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing
For a short time I worked in the booth. A patient projectionist attempted to train me, telling me war stories, imparting the tricks of the trade, teaching the tools – the much cherished scribe, even gifting me my own changeover template so I wouldn’t have to count frames. I marvelled at his expertise, yet alone I was restless. Trapped in films I did not want to see, I watched bits between rewindings, never allowing myself long-term distraction in fear of missing the change-over marks. Don’t get me wrong: I loved the booth itself and looked forward to his stories, but I preferred my hours in the machine room with the mix projectors and the occasional final, changeover screening – not the sound on film events. I revolted. Zero tolerance for error was not to my liking.
Now I’m in the crowd – the performance itself. I have projected from numerous vantage points in clubs, galleries and theatres. I have learned to adapt – sat on the floor of a makeshift booth the window of which was at approximately knee level, or with projectors precariously balanced from the second-floor balcony railing of a club. Most frequently my projectors are perched on three speaker stands somewhere on the floor. I am self-contained. I bring everything with me – my projectors, my accumulated collection of shims to position them correctly on their stands, an assortment of lenses, RP82 alignment loops, cleaning tools, extension cords, a power strip and gaffer’s tape. I move back and forth between the projectors with my footstool, projector lens as magnifying glass and mini-mag light in hand, changing loops. The loops hang from pushpins hammered into my projector platforms. I often take a quick peek to verify the image, a quick lick to verify the emulsion and thus the direction, load and go. Yes, I lick, well it's more like gum or lip the loop, for I work in the dark. I change loops every couple of minutes as opposed to the once every twenty minutes of a theatrical reel. 16mm is a smaller format and an image is often difficult to discern. Finding edge code numbers is time consuming and black leader has no edge code. Working with double-perf is the trickiest of all. Double perf may be loaded in four directions – three of which are wrong. I learned from my projectionist mentor that the easiest way to tell which side the emulsion is on is to put it in your mouth and the side that sticks is the emulsion. Thus, I can load emulsion-in quickly. Because reversal original must be loaded emulsion-out, an occasional image ends up upside down. Some loops I change, some look better – they’re more abstract that way.
One bit of advice I took to heart from my days behind the wall is I wear my hair up. My boss told me a story of a screening that stopped, and as he turned to the booth he saw his female employee, head pressed against the glass. The only reason her long hair and a chunk of her scalp had not been ripped from her head was that the motor had clogged first, thus stopping the projector. All three of my projectors are pageant bodies and although a 35mm Simplex has more power – more pull, I won’t risk my hair even to 16.
What I have come to realise amidst the crowd is that there I am able to share the beauty of the technology – the dust dancing in the projection light, the movement of the loops themselves as they thread through the gate and around the back of the projector, and the machine sound at various frame rates. Pageants are special, they are not self-threading so the loop guides and sprocketed rollers are visible, and therefore loops are more easily threaded. Older audience members often reminisce about their days in an A-V club, or the first time in fifth grade they threaded a pageant, while the younger spectators document the loop movement with their i-phones, and ask: are those your cameras? Did you make the video too? Are those your cameras . . . As ambassador of projection I am not incensed. I carefully explain that yes, these are my projectors and most of the filmic images I made myself.
I have projected on screens, walls and curtains; I don’t mind a non-traditional surface. Yet, I have had to patiently explain that I will not project on an orange curtain – the colour of the images themselves will be lost and this show is about those colours. Or, “in order to see an image darkness is necessary. Think about a theatre, how dark is it there?” I understand I work in antiquated technology, that the world of 16mm is an even lesser known beast, that projectors are never seen nor heard, and try my best to educate and inform.
Viewing loops is also unfamiliar territory for most, and I do at times explain that I do not use a laptop and that rhythmic accuracy – frame accurate synchronization – could in theory be possible, with multiple projectionists or the proper machine control device. Yet, I am protective of my loops and projectors; I may ask a friend to loop wrangle for me but I am the sole projectionist.
Most frequently I work in collaboration with a local composer/musician, David Molina. He utilizes traditional instruments, objects as instruments and found sound. He combines electronic and acoustic sound to create his music. We perform live, creating layers of sound and picture as he loops one sound over another and I change loops and create visual layers. I am not the wallpaper for his music, nor does he specifically add a “soundtrack” to my picture. We tend to improvise within larger boundaries – which instruments will he use, how will the music progress? On occasion we do rehearse, but for the most part that rehearsal entails me trying out a few new images, with David looking and me listening. We plan the arc of the performance. Then I run home, make more loops and rehearse on my own, but rehearsal is dangerous. It seems the place I am most likely to lose a loop.
Unlike traditional two projector (change-over) screenings, my projector lamps and lenses are not matched. Each projector lamp has a different brightness on purpose so they can be layered more smoothly. An analytic Lafayette projector with a one-inch lens acts as a background, almost as a wash behind my other images. Here I load a reel of abstract, hand painted cameraless work. It can move at variable speeds forward or reverse, or even remain still. This projection acts as a frame. The true pageants stand on either side of my centre projector. Each has a different size lens: I project two squares within a square. Live action, abstract cameraless images, words scratched most frequently on black leader, and the occasional found or appropriated image are all utilised.
At times I employ a fourth projector. I do so in order to allow a frame to get stuck in the gate and burn. The first time I witnessed a frame of one of my films burn unintentionally, or become a “baked potato” as my projectionist mentor referred to it, was at a film festival. I had made a film with a dancing, visible frame line and as the projectionist fought to render it invisible that which all projectionists fear happened. It burned in the gate. Afterwards, the festival director approached me in apology. She said, “I could tell where you were seated by the audible gasp in the crowd”. My friends and I had reacted reflexively. At that point I realized the dichotomy – the beauty and terror imbued in the act itself. I now deploy a Revere projector to recreate that moment. Intentionally burning celluloid may be blasphemy, yet I find it liberating as well.
The loops are both ephemeral and finite. They will break; sprockets get chewed. I do my best at perf-repair, or to reprint, rescratch or reshoot my favourite loops, but in the end it is not always possible.
I once asked myself, why do you this – expend all this time and energy? I could get some VJ software and transfer all the material to my laptop – save my loops from destruction, cut down on the set-up. Then, one day as I packed up a spectator approached me and said: “I could watch that machine and the film winding through it forever. It is so mesmerising. Thank you.” At that moment I realised why I can’t let go.
© copyright caboose 2013
Anna Geyer is an award-winning experimental filmmaker and writer. Her films have screened in many festivals internationally. A fascination with non-traditional methods of both production and presentation is apparent in her work. Cameraless, non-representational work has been the emphasis of much of her recent effort, although she frequently describes her work as “experimental with a narrative bent”. Live three- or four-projector loop sets, often performed in collaboration with local musicians, combine the technology of the past and present and include abstract imagery, with live action work and degraded digital imagery as well. She teaches cinema classes at both City College of San Francisco and Solano Community College.