Most people never think about what lies behind the small window twinkling with bright light above them at the cinema. Even fewer have had the opportunity to see the projection booth where are all the magic happens. Now that almost all major chain Cinemas have converted fully to digital, most people will never get that chance. K. William McMillan's video gives a glimpse into that world through the eyes of Projectionist Michael Roussete.
When I was in high school, my first real (not under the table) job was working in the local theater. For a teenager, this was a dream job — free movies and all the popcorn you could eat. I still remember the first time I got to go upstairs to the booth. The projectionist needed Q-tips, and I was sent out to pick them up. When I got back, I brought them up and was amazed and overwhelmed by this long, narrow room filled with so many things foreign to me. I was only allowed up for a few minutes that first time because it was a union house, but I still managed to ask a dozen questions in that first visit. Eventually, by the time I was in college, I'd worked my way up to managing the theater and got my projectionist's license. Of all the jobs I've worked before I became a photographer, being a projectionist is easily my favorite. Getting to see that mysterious world and learn about the backroom history of movie theaters seemed like such a privilege.
Now in this age of digital projection, the few indie houses that go out of their way to show 35/70mm films are offering a unique experience that soon the average child will have grown up without. Although some might see this as a good thing, these children will never experience that rare event of melting film on the big screen as it's caught and held tight in front of the hot Xenon projection bulbs. They will never know the random skip of a scene because a section of film was damaged and had to be removed. The few projectionists like Roussete keeping this craft alive are an elite group of people sharing their passion and enthusiasm with us from behind closed doors.
In the video above, Roussete shows the process of receiving "cans" and splicing them together to make a working reel, as well as going through the film, looking for bad splices or rough edges. I have many, many fond memories of sitting in dark booths running reels, putting films together and taking them apart to ship back out. I can still hear the whirling and clicks of film rolling through rollers as I laced up a projector or the whip and flutter as the tail of a film goes through the last gear in a projector, releasing its tension and signifying the end of the show. There was also the stress of dropping a film during a theater move, seeing it unravel or static build up, causing the film to fly off a platter onto the floor. In the video, you even get to see the graveyard, a booth tradition of displaying the worst or most memorable bad splices and tears. We used to show every new trainee this graveyard as a warning of what not to do. Many film accidents have led to burns, tears, and bad splices hanging on booth walls across the US.
As a bonus, here is another amazing video, "Portrait of a Projectionist," shot by Philip Bloom as part of his portrait series.