By Martin J. Kidston
Its called a Xenolite Mercury Illuminator, shipped in the dark ages of film by Christie Electric Corporation out of California, which was an appropriate place of origin, really, for a film projector. Now, the hulking mass with its delicate lenses, levers and bulbs, stands as a tower with a single lens glaring out over the expanse of Havre Cinemas like a one-eyed owl, silent and waiting.
There, with a flick of the switch, the Illuminator can send a single beam of light streaming through space, illuminating the silver screen to animate a million still-life frames. When that magical moment occurs where sound and color collide in a brilliant flash of film, a full house gives in to a world of fantasy and falls silent under the weight of the cinematic delights.
But theres more to the show than what meets the eye, and five hours before showtime with the theater ghostly silent, projectionist Tami Solomon of Havre Cinemas offered to give us a crash course on how, exactly, the show goes on.
The film for our lesson, the Wild Wild West, stars Will Smith and Kevin Kline. In their immortalized state, the actors are nothing more than characters reduced to plastic images and indefinite silence. The film, the cage that holds them captive, sits neatly coiled several feet from the projector, which is the key to their release.
But getting the mass of film into its coiled position is no easy task, and no matter how good the directors led or the actors played, a mess-up at this stage would make all the difference in the world, perhaps ruining Will Smiths fictional performance.
From the time the film arrives from Warner Brothers via overnight delivery to its actual debut, Solomon explained the many procedures that must come together for a successful show.
Warning against possible catastrophes, she explained how the film arrives in metal canisters and depending on its running length, it sits spooled on several plastic reels. In so many words, the movie must be put together, and instructions arent enclosed.
Picking the previews
Everybody loves a preview its part of the show, it sets the mood and lets moviegoers know whats hot and whats not in the world of film. But because most films come without their own previews, Solomon said the theater must decide what to show that is, before the show.
They send us a box of previews and we pick which ones well use, Solomon said. We look at the rating of the actual movie and what sort of movie it is when we decide. We dont want to show an R-rated preview for a Disney movie.
Like somebodys home video collection, these films within a film the previews sit numerously upon a shelf, wound on small spools bearing labels like American Pie, Eyes Wide Shut and The Faculty.
You wont see clips for 8mm before Tarzan, or Saving Private Ryan before Muppets from Space, thanks to the projectionist, who must now move toward presenting the show.
Snipping and clipping
Five roles of 35 mm film direct from Warner Brothers, a pile of previews on the shelf and a mess of equipment can only mean one thing: Somebody has to put it together.
Sitting beside the projector is a device Solomon fondly called the platter a hefty thing that looks a cross between a stack of oversized platinum records and an armada of UFOs, all anchored in the center by a series of clips and wheels.
We put the reel of film on a table and wind it onto the platter, but you have to set the two close together, Solomon warned, pointing to the puzzling device. You wind the reels onto the platter, and when the role of film gets close to the end, you splice it.
Splicing takes a keen eye, that is, if you want to prevent Will Smith from inexplicably turning into Kevin Kline without rhyme or reason a disaster capable of throwing the film out of sync and sinking the directors hard work.
To avoid such miscues, Solomon looks for matching frames to reiterate her point. Finding a single frame at the end of the first reel, she matches it to a frame near the start of the second reel and demonstrates the splice. With an accurate snip and clip, the previews are attached and the reels of film are joined, placing the movie in sequence for showing.
When splicing really dark movies, its hard to match frames, Solomon said. In lighter movies, however, its easier to tell were the frames are and make accurate matches.
Is there room for error?
Well, if you did it wrong, she begins, looking at the film, you would get whats called a frame-out, where the picture moves to the side of the screen when its viewed.
Nobody likes a frame-out, not when the thrill of the show is closing in with cerebral force and the tension is high. But with the frames matched, previews and film spliced and the complete movie loaded on the platter, Solomon instructs; Its time to load the projector.
Loading the projector
As if spinning a tangled web, Solomon begins the process by pulling the films lead from the outside of the platter. With the film in its complete form, owning a cumbersome span of nearly five feet, the platter turns heavy and slow as the film is drawn like thread off a spool.
You feed the film through here, she says, guiding the films lead through an overhead wheel before drawing it toward the projector.
Simple enough hardly.
From the point Solomon drew the films lead from the platter, looped it through the overhead wheel and fed the projector, nearly 10 feet of film had been spun just to cover the distance.
This red light here, it reads the sound, Solomon points, popping a cap in the face of the projector to reveal the small, pen-sized light. The film has a sound bar at the bottom, the light reads the sound.
As she pulls the film past the sound light, loops it around this wheel and that clasp, and finally, over the lens, her concentration is evident. Done, she smiles and closes the projector door before answering the inevitable what are those for?
Pointing to a triangle of lenses on the front of the camera, she explains you have to set those according to the movie.
The use of the flat lens versus the scope lens, she says, depends on the films dynamics. And whichever lens is used, the screen at the far end of the theater must be adjusted accordingly. With the push of a button, Solomon moves the screen close, then back, close, then back. Point taken back to the actual movie.
Once you get done with all that, you bring the film back over and load it on the bottom platter, she instructs. You flip this switch to pay out on platter one, and take up on platter two, and youre almost set.
With the film stretching this way and that, hanging from wheels and resting on platters, its easy to see where trouble can occur, and with five years under her belt as a projectionist, Solomon has seen her share of cinematic disasters.
Nothing can go wrong
According to Murphys Law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong given a matter of time and enough working parts. Its the law of unplanned consequences, and with hot bulbs, thousands of feet of film twined in a maze of wheels and spools, and an impatient crowd, the possible consequences soon become limitless.
Once, when we were loading the film onto the platter, the motor broke, she said. We had to pick up the film and set it on another platter, but we dropped it in the process.
When we dropped the film, the movie came apart into a pile and we had to unwind it, Solomon smiled, reenacting the scene by backing across the balcony until she ran out of space. Then we had to rewind it by hand.
On other occasions, Solomon said that splices have come apart or the film has snapped during the show.
Why does it happen? she smiles, shrugging her shoulders. Well, sometimes the film gets wound too tight, or it gets brain-wrapped on the platter and wont play. When that happens, we have to cut the frames and re-splice the film so we can finish the movie.
Let the show begin
Its showtime in Havre. The crowds a-buzz with anticipation, chewing popcorn and slurping sodas, seeking temporary relief from the raw madness of the real world. The house-lights dim, jeers abound before the hush sets in and the chatter of the projector starts overhead. Everythings working and for the next two hours, given the avoidance of a mishap, the projectionist can tend to other tasks.
But for now, a mere four hours before showtime, Solomon took the time to examine the changing world of projecting movies a world on the cusp of a different time which promises better pictures, crisper sound and reduced costs in film. Its the advent of everything digital, and it threatens to render film archaic.
Like the nostalgia of records and their classic crackle and pop, film may be missed in the same way, as digital replaces what is quickly becoming an old-fashioned medium.
As for Solomon, who will soon make the transformation from projectionist to college student, she could only say I think it will make things easier.