Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Projectionists: One Pant Leg at a Time

In New York last week, families expecting to see PG-rated The Last Mimzy starring Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office) instead got the opening for The Hills Have Eyes II which apparently includes a rather graphic opening sequence where a woman gives birth to a deformed baby. The children in the audience were traumatized, especially the 3-year-old whose mother is pregnant. How could this have happened? Easy. The projectionist screwed up. This news story takes me back to my days as a movie theater projectionist. For two years while I was in high school I worked at the Cineplex Odeon at South Towne Mall in Sandy, Utah. You know, the building in the corner of the parking lot that is now an REI. To this day that remains the best job I've ever had, maybe not in terms of pay, but it was the most fun I've ever had at work and the benefits were awesome: free movies and fountain drinks, access to garbage bags filled with popcorn and second dibs on movie posters (first dibs went to the management, but I still managed to get my hands on some pretty cool posters for my collection). I've also got a bunch of movie trailers on 35 mm film. Of course I have no way of watching them. Included among my collection is the music video to Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open" starring Johnny Depp (seen below, 6:32). It's probably worth something now, and will go up in value once theaters are entirely digital.

That brings us back to the mishap in New York. I will explain how film projectors work these days. A film arrives at a movie theater a day or two before it opens in big canisters. Most movies are five or six reels long. The projectionist will then take the reels of film and splice them together into one giant reel that is maybe four feet in diameter and put it on a giant platter. Typically, the projector will have next to it a stand that holds three platters. In the case of the mix up in New York, one platter had Mimzy, another had Hills 2 and the third one was empty. During the early screenings, Mimzy runs from its platter, through the projector and onto the empty platter where it is collected. The film is pulled from the center as the platter turns so the film doesn't get twisted. There is no need for rewinding because the film just runs from platter to empty platter. In the evening, it's Hills 2's turn. You can see how the mix up happened. All projectionists screw up. The question is how badly. Luckily, my worst problems consisted of starting a movie 15 minutes late and mixing up the sprocket count so when the movie transitioned from Reel 2 to Reel 3 it jumped out of frame (each frame has four sprocket holes on either side. You can't splice a full frame to 3/4 of a frame or the film won't stay in frame). In my time working at the Odeon, I was able to witness the far worse projectionist errors of others, like putting reels together out of order or worse, putting a reel on upside down and backwards. Good times. Anyway, the whole experience made movie going less fun for me. It bothers me when conditions in a theater aren't perfect, probably more so than average movie goers, although they bother me too, but that's the topic for another post.

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