As time moves forward - a projectionist looks back

The Transition

© 2001 by Eric Hvisc

          I'm a projectionist for a film series, at a local community college where I work. It's a low-key affair, we show mostly recent foreign films to a group of middle age and senior couples. For a small fee, much less then a ticket at a multiplex, they get a movie, a cup of decaf coffee, and some really good cookies. For me it's a couple of bucks for doing something I enjoy doing.

          The theatre we work in was originally designed for live theatrical and musical performances. It has a very steep rake and when first built had no facilities for movie projection. When the decision was made to have this film series back in the early eighties, our first order of business was to build a working projection booth. Because of the design of the theater and the lobby we had to build a narrow space, mounting the projectors high near the ceiling, making the possibility of 35mm film projection almost impossible.

          When I say we built the booth, I mean we actually built it from scratch. My supervisor at the time and myself took aluminum studs and wallboards and put together a temporary booth that still stands today.  Even in those early days I mentioned to the director of the program, a very traditional Poly Sci. Professor who loved the movies, that someday we might have to go electronic (video projectors were just coming of age at that point). I remember him saying to me and my buddy at the time that it would be decades before that happened and we would all be retired by then. Well it's been almost two decades, and he and my old supervisor have both retired from the program, and the day final came.

          Before the start of the last fall season I got the call from the present director of the program. The last film we were to show in that series was not going to be released on 16mm, only 35 and DVD. Now I have done a lot of video in that space over the years, but this was different. Most of the other events were teleconferences and power point presentations, these were meant to enhance a speaker's message, not to be the message. We were also dealing with an audience that was coming out of their homes to see a cellulite experience, people who were trying to get away from the TV. But we had no choice in the matter; it was time to bite the bullet.

          First we arranged to get a hold of the best projector on campus, ironically it was a data projector designed more for showing computer output then theatrical film. Positioning it was a bit challenging: the rear screen wasn't practical and the lens didn't have the focal length to work out of the booth. Luckily the builders of the theatre had installed a sound drop and an electrical outlet in the sixth row that was eye level with the screen. So we set up an old, very art deco, projection stand, positioned the projector, and connected it to a basic consumer DVD player. Because I also run the lights and sound I couldn't sit with the equipment, so I positioned the player to face the booth and controlled it with it's wireless remote.

          As the audience filed in that night, you could sense the anticipation. The contraption was getting a lot of stares. Normally we start the evening with the director of the program introducing the film and welcoming the people to another fine evening of entertainment. After his remarks the crowd applauded, I started to dim the lights slowly, hit the button to start the pre-roll for my projectors. (A nice pair of Elmo's) and I completed the fade-out, just as the dowser lifts and the film pours out. Now I've got the timing for these babies down pat.

          For those of you unfamiliar with film projection let's just start by saying it's a very hands-on technology. The film has to be manually threaded into the projector, with just the right slack on the open reels before the gate is clamped down. After a while, you learn the path that the film takes through the projector better then your drive home. Many times I have spent sticking a screwdriver in that slot making fine adjustments, sometimes even while the film was running. I spent what felt like three hours one night, holding the film in place against the sound drum with my fingernail because I couldn't get it right any other way.  

          But tonight was different, I practiced a couple of times that afternoon pressing the play button as I was fading the lights, but it just never seem to come on at the right moment. Then after I hit the play button, I kind of felt lost. Tonight I just had to press play, sit back and watch the movie. It was the longest night I ever spent in that booth. Normally I have to pay close attention to the machinery to make sure a tape edit or bad section of film doesn't throw off the focus or jam the projector, waiting patiently every 40 minutes or so, looking at the upper right hand corner of the frame for the signal to change reels - sometimes not getting any sign at all, and giving it my best shot. Did I mention I really got the timing on these babies down?

          But not tonight.

          Tonight it was just me, and the two remotes, one for the player, one for the projector. Yeah right, like I was going to need to adjust the tint in the middle of the movie.  That would have been swift, calling up the on screen menu during a chase scene. Yep, all I had to do was sit back and watch the movie.

                                                                         * * *

          That night I suddenly felt strangely connected to all the people who ever lost their job, or had to make a career change, because of a new technology. Mind you, this is not my full time job; I will still make the rent money without this gig.  I'm also not an anti tech person either, I love technology, and I'd be lost without my cell phone and my palm pilot, but I couldn't help thinking about the people I've known in my life who had to make the transition.

          I grew up in blue-collar neighborhood, and over the years I've watched my friends fathers and even some of my friends find themselves caught in the transition from the industrial age to the communication age. There was my buddy Pete who worked in a film-processing lab, he lost his job to the 60-minute photo machines at super markets.  Another friend of mine was a typesetter for a local newspaper; he's still cursing the Macintosh.  Now I know this is an old story, I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice the dehumanizing effects of technological change. And for me it's only a part-time gig not my full time job.  But I still have to say it, because it's still kind of sad. All of a sudden I went from being a skilled technician to the guy with the remote control.

          Do I want to go back to the days of hand cranked movie projectors? Not on your life. Did we compromise the quality of the event that night? A few people said the picture wasn't as clear, but the improvement in the sound quality and more importantly the subtitles more then justified using the new medium.

          So as the credits began to roll, and I slowly brought up the lights, I found myself at a loss as to what do next. The packing away of the film, uh I mean the disk, had to wait until the audience filed out so I could get to the projector. It must have been apparent to the audience members gathering in the lobby, putting on their coats for the ride home. People normally come up to me at that point and wish me a good night. More then usual seemed to stop by this evening; most of them had very positive things to say about the experience. I never realized how many of them actually read the subtitles.

          As the director and I did a quick post mortem on the event, we both agreed that it was a success, and we had entered the electronic age with grace. So I packed up the equipment into its cases, carried them back to lobby and stored it away in the projection booth.

          As I turned away for the night I took a second look at the booth I had helped to build almost two decades ago. It was then that it suddenly struck me, that my old workspace was now nothing more then a closet. As I stepped out the front door of the building I turned up my collar to the cold November night. For some strange reason it seemed very cold that night.


Eric Hvisc has been working in and out of the media field for about 25 years. His experience has run the gamut from setting up interactive satellite hookups, to installing cable TV in people's homes. One of his many endeavors has been the Friday Night Film Series, at Westchester Community College. A popular venue that normally draws 300 to 400 people during its bi-yearly run.  Although Eric loves working with the latest and greatest media equipment he still considers himself a people person.  He is happily married and employed full-time at WCC. He also runs his own web site, yet another media endeavor at