For eight years of my life I worked at my local multiplex cinema as a 35mm projectionist. Unfortunately I have no tales of Tyler Duerden style splicing different movies together. The logistical nightmare of pulling apart miles of film to insert a couple of stray frames and my lack of desire to search on eBay for “35mm adult film stills” meant that it was something that the people of North Lincolnshire were safe from for many years.
The role was a little more complicated than just merely “sitting by a projector watching the same film five times a day.” Our little team of anti social hermits were responsible for everything in the booth, and the cinema as a whole, from maintenance of projectors to film exhibition to fixing all the cinema floor things that the ushers would inevitably break. Basically if it didn’t involve speaking to members of the public then we were probably responsible for it. Usually there was just the one projectionist responsible for running the entire booth for 8 hours at a time. Our booth was relatively small when it comes to multiplexes with only 7 screens and projectors for us to run, a cakewalk after a few months experience. Part of me felt relieved that I didn’t have to single man a 20odd screen multiplex. With my sausage roll and cigarette loving ways I’d have no doubt been a dribbling, out of breath mess after an hour on shift.
Exhibiting a 35mm film was a tad more than just taking it out of the box and pressing play. The film usually came in a box and was separated into between 5-8 (dependent on the running time of the film) different sections, or reels. It was our job to splice the reels together, making sure they were in the correct order before putting the film onto a giant platter, which was shaped a lot like a giant cake stand, before it could be anywhere near ready to be exhibited. After the film had been plated on to the platter, it then needed to be laced through a massive obstacle course of rollers and pulleys before being threaded through the projector itself. Then over a few more rollers and pulleys so it could head back to the platter ready for a later performance. The most terrifying and daunting thing in the world the first time you laced a projector. After you’ve done it 30 odd times a day for 8 years it becomes as natural as breathing.
Every new 35mm film needed rehearsing before it was played to the paying public. Which meant one projectionist (or all of us if it was a major release. Just because we loved films, not because more eyes are better) sitting in an empty theatre watching the movie in full checking for any damage to the print or if any of the audio was out of sync or crackly. All this while GETTING PAID!! The Departed on the big screen on my own on a Friday morning: the best cinema experience I’ve ever had. Sex And The City 2: not so much. It was the best perk in the world if it was a good film.
And after this process was complete you could then exhibit the film to the public. Threading up every show, checking presentation on screen such as focus, racking and sound levels and making sure that the film was presented as it was intended . After that? Well deserved coffee and cigarette time.
All of this ended nigh on two years ago now with the meteoric rise of digital and 3D projection. Unfortunately for me, stacks and stacks of servers are far more efficient time keepers and need less emotional coddling than an arrogant, chain smoking, coffee drinking, sarcastic projectionist. Sad but that’s the way of the world now.
I’ll go into more detail of my years in booth in the future if there’s demand for it. A few paragraphs on a blog can’t do the role justice. I had some of the happiest years of my life in the projection booth, made some of the greatest friends I’ll ever know, got paid to do what was basically a hobby and even now, 2 years on, I still constantly yearn for the past where I had the best and most enjoyable job I could ever possibly dream of having.
When you’re a cinema employee you become desensitized to a lot of the magic of the cinema. Every time I return now I feel the smell of popcorn wafting through my nostrils again, feel the shared excitement for a major release and feel like at I’m at a big event again. However there’s always that sad part of me that looks back towards the little light porthole at the rear of screen and knows that there’s no longer a chain smoking, coffee drinking social hermit like myself ensuring that the show goes on.
Viva 35mm, I’ll never forget thee.