the other side of the little window

I realize that this may sound shocking for a 36-year-old film geek, but I had never seen a modern movie theater projection room until this morning.
I don’t know what I expected; some part of me had retained an image of an old-fashioned projection booth, a small and musty cube containing a big projector with reels of film on it. I knew about the platters used instead of reels nowadays, I’ve seen photos of platters, but I guess I didn’t put it all together. My brain was still stuck in Cinema Paradiso or Sherlock Jr.
I signed up for some volunteer shifts for aGLIFF to monitor the digital projection setup; most of the festival’s movies will be digitally projected this year. A bunch of us met in the theater this morning to learn what we would be doing. We walked upstairs and I found myself in a much larger room than I expected. It looked like the engineering room in a television station where I used to work.

We walked over to the projectors for one of the theaters the festival would use. It took me a minute to understand what everything was. That big gray metal box in front of me, that looked like an air-conditioning unit? That was the 35mm projector. Wow. I did recognize the huge platters of film, but I didn’t realize right away that the film spooled off the platter over to the projector, a good five feet away, and that I would have to be careful not to do something dumb like trip on the long strip of film about a foot or so off the floor.
Nothing divided the projectors and other equipment for one screen from the rest of them … they were in a row, one after another. The room was L-shaped to accommodate eight screens in a big box of a theater.
The guy in charge of training us started to set up the laptop and other equipment we would need for the festival screenings. He showed us another big box on the wall, this one black … the digital projector. The smaller box underneath it was a computer or hard drive that contained the pre-movie ads the chain theater shows before every film (whether we like it or not). Fortunately, the festival has its own charming pre-movie show loaded on a different hard drive and we won’t have to suffer through the chain’s twenty minutes of commercial crap. We all made grumbly noises about that box and its contents.
The laptop, an external hard drive, another couple of bits of hardware, and a lot of cords comprised the festival setup. It was odd to see a plain old iBook (or whatever the Mac laptop was … I confess I am not up-to-date on my Mac jargon) open on a small cart, surrounded by the big projectors and components and other equipment. We would control the big screen in the adjacent theater through this cute little laptop.
It was a wonderful morning for me because I have never had the opportunity to see a projection room and find out exactly how things work up there these days. My boyfriend and I tried to see a movie about a month ago at another theater; it was the first movie scheduled that day in the theater. The management ended up canceling the screening and refunding our money because the projectionist didn’t show up and they couldn’t find their backup projectionist for that shift. I wondered how difficult it was to work a projector these days, and how exactly one trained for such a job, and if it was something I ever wanted to do myself. It would be a more interesting job than retail sales or fast-food if I was ever in dire straits and needed work outside my field of expertise.
On the other hand, the one noticeably missing piece of equipment in that big projection room was … a chair. I looked around and finally saw a dusty folding chair in a corner, but I got the impression that sitting down was definitely discouraged. For my volunteer shifts, I will probably end up sitting on the floor a bit if necessary, because my back is going to hurt like hell if I stand up the entire time. (Stupid sciatica.) And I suppose if you are a full-time projectionist in that theater, you might be so busy running from projector to projector to ensure everything is okay that you don’t have much time to sit. I suspect I am too much of a wimp to be a modern-day projectionist in a multi-screen theater.
But I am enough of a techie geek and film geek to have enjoyed the visit very much. Now how can I persuade other theaters to let me peek in their projection rooms? I’m dying to see every one in town.

One thought on “the other side of the little window”

  1. Hubby works in the theater business installing and repairing the projection systems and until I met him, I had no idea what went on behind that little window!
    The first time our son and I went up into a booth with him I was in awe! It is soooooooo cool. I’d hear him talk about the systems and the different parts but finally seeing one set up with my own eyes was so much fun. It is all so technical and seeing how the computers run everything was just so interesting! I never really understood all that he did until we visited a booth with him. Our son had a blast going from one “little window” to the next watching the films from the booth (after I checked to make sure which film was playing!) He thinks his daddy has the coolest job in the world!

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