Neither Cores nor Cans
During my combined eight-year career as a projectionist I’ve encountered some rare formats. At the Northern Lights Planetarium in Tromsø, Norway, where I started out as a projectionist and worked for around three years, the screen was a semi-spherical dome placed directly above the audience. The dome had a diameter of 12 metres (approx. 39 ft.). In the middle of the theatre, there was a custom-built Christie 35mm projector (I believe a P35GPS) with wide angle (almost fish eye) lens pointing straight upwards and filling the dome. The special format used for this kind of projecting was called Cinema 360, and the films projected are shot with a camera using a similar lens, also pointing upwards. The whole frame area was used, like on scope, but only a circular area in the middle was actually exposed and projected.
Needless to say, the screen was rather large (226 sq. m. or 2433 sq. ft.). This combined with the fact that we could only use 2000w lamps (the Christie was built into an enclosure, so temperatures would get too high if we used higher powered lamps) made the projection rather blurry, but it was considered the top planetarium technology at the time. The theatre still exists, but is now fully digitalized.
After working on the other side of film, so to speak (as a video editor and field soundman, mostly), in 2009 I got back to projecting at Verdensteatret Kino in Tromsø, a 216-seat, one-booth cinema. The mixture of movies we screen is out of the ordinary—old classics and new box office hits. The building was constructed in 1915 and the official inaugural screening took place on 4 June 1916. The cinema has been running nonstop since then, not counting periods of technical installations/service and the occasional vacation, making it the oldest continuously running cinema in Northern Europe. It was built for silent movies with an orchestra pit in front of the screen. The pit is now closed up, but we hope to reopen it for our 100th anniversary. The walls of the theatre are decorated by the local artist Sverre Mack with murals showing scenes from old Norwegian folk tales.
Back in 1916, all the movies came on nitrate base film, and the fire escape route for the projectionist is still there, or at least a “fire proof” door leading out to a roof where the projectionists were instructed to go and wait for the arrival of the rescue party in case of a fire. It must have been very scary to work in a projection booth back in those days. We still use 2 Bauer B14s and our 35mm shows are done reel to reel, old school style with cue marks and everything. We also have a Bauer Selection II 16mm projector and a modern Sony SRX–R210 for digital shows.
During my time here at our wonderful theatre, I have seen some strange things. I’ve seen movies of eight reels delivered with neither cores nor cans and with the leaders delivered loose and mixed up in a separate plastic bag, no less. I’ve had to make equipment for spooling American standard reels over to European ones and then, after the show, spooling them back using a method involving a battery driven drill and a broken metal file. I’ve screened acetate prints so old and fragile that they snap as the projector starts rolling. I’ve been puzzled by Russian films with optical soundtracks exposed at both sides of the film and in different colours (!). I had to tape up the projection windows to mask the track on the right side of the screen and build out the lenses so the picture was centred (somewhat) on the screen. Twice, I’ve stumbled across silent movies with horizontally flipped frames on only one of the reels, both of the copies were Russian, so the titles and texts were written in the Cyrillic alphabet making it hard for a poor Norwegian to spot. Of course, there were Russians in the audience who had no such problem. Awkward is a word that springs to mind. Speaking of Russian prints, they don’t always use standard countdowns in Russia. More often than not, only an arrow marks the recommended start frame. Oddly enough, their tail leaders look exactly the same. Upside down projections have occurred, I must admit. I have never encountered anything like this from any other country or region, it must be some artefact left over from the Soviet days.
One of my favourite screenings of my career is definitely one we did during the Tromsø International Film Festival in 2013. In one of the regular programs called “retro perspective” we showed a movie by the Finnish director Peter von Bagh. The only copy available was a 16mm print with magnetic sound. Until then, I didn’t even know such a thing existed. On top of this, there were no subtitles, something the festival producers insisted there had to be. We were able to get hold of a transcript of the original subs in English, type the whole thing into a power point presentation and project it through the Sony SRX on top of the 16mm projection, manually controlled by a Finnish-speaking person sitting in the theatre with a laptop. To sum it up: 16mm film with magnetic sound and manually controlled, digitally projected subtitles. Now that has to be some sort of “first time ever in cinema history”. Correct me if I’m wrong.
These days we see more and more digital prints. On the one hand it makes the projections easier to do, and on the other hand, for us here at such an old theatre it’s sad to see the good old 35mm being phased out. Personally, I still think 35mm mops the floor with DCP for several reasons, one of which is that when something does go wrong during a DCP screening it’s often impossible to find the source of the error in time to save the show, in contrast to 35mm screenings where the source is obvious almost instantly. And then there is colour depth. Even 10 bit logarithmic colours just can’t compete with the crisp colours of a healthy 35mm print in my opinion. The fact that each layer of colour on a 35mm print is focused slightly different from the next adds to the feeling of depth in a way that digital projections just can’t recreate. 35mm rules!
Still, I find my work very interesting and satisfying, even though DCP is the new bread-and-butter format. I am aware that it is not a job for everyone. The solitude and sometimes stressful work of the projection booth comes as a surprise to many a romantic who has seen Cinema Paradiso over and over and suffers from the notion that you get to watch as many movies as you want in a peaceful environment. Boy, are they wrong! On the other hand, if you like solving the technical problems involved combined with mastering the showmanship and the feeling of spreading joy and new experiences to the audience, there’s no better job on the planet in my opinion. I’m proud of my theatre and my booth and I’m proud to call myself a projectionist.
Our thanks to Håvard Stangnes, Ingun A. Mæhlum, Ben Model and the Tromsø Internasjonale Filmfestival for their assistance.
© copyright caboose 2014