FREE FILM SCHOOL #20: Your Projectionist and You

Professor Witney Seibold explains how a film is actually projected onto the screen, what can go wrong, and what you can do about it.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold


A director is working hard on her film. She is not only working slavishly to achieve the right look, tone and thematic throughline for her drama, but she is also embroiled in a bitter battle with the financiers of her film. The financiers, having provided a substantial amount of the film's financing, are making demands about the film's content. The studio doesn't like a particular scene, and they want it cut from the film. The director will have nothing of this, and feels the scene in question is the crux of the drama. This back-and-forth will continue for months. Eventually, there will be a compromise, and small cuts will be made. Test audiences will dictate further cuts. The final editing of the film is in a state of flux.

Directors are always fighting to have final cut of their films; that is to say, they want the last word on how the film is edited for content and pacing. Certain very influential or successful directors are given final cut, but the vast bulk of films you see will have been dictated by moneymen and producers. Some directors allow their editors great leeway to get final cut, and in those cases the editors themselves dictate the pace of the film. A film is typically passed around a lot before its distributed into theaters.

There is, however, one person in the film industry who always, without exception, has final cut: The projectionist at the movie theater. It is they, after all, who are exhibiting the film on a ground level. It is the theater projectionist who is the final arbiter on how a film looks, how much lighting it has, how well displayed it is. The chef may have made a great meal, but it's the polite waitress that you'll remember.

And, despite word of the proliferation of digital projection, the bulk of films you will see in a theater are still being projected through 35mm film by real projectionist on great old heavy machines that have been showing movies reliably for, in some cases, decades. In this week's lesson in CraveOnline's Free Film School (where we offer a money-back guarantee!), I will take you through the bare mechanics of actual film presentation, and give you a better idea of what needs to be done to bring films to you, and how much the actual handling of the film can effect your consumption of it.

Film, as I have said in previous lessons, runs through a projector at 24 frames per second. It's typically 35mm wide, although there was a craze for 70mm film a few decades back. If you get a chance to see a film projected in 70mm (and there are specialty theaters in the world with operating 70mm projectors), I encourage you to take it. With film being twice as big, the image becomes much clearer. The “crispness” of digital film actually pales in comparison to the weighty, clear-as-a-bell images of 70mm film. The film itself is made of celluloid plastic with an acetate base, although a lot of older films (from the start until 1951) were printed on a nitrocellulose (or nitrate) film stock, which was, as evidenced by numerous studio fires, highly flammable. You could set fire to nitrate film stock, drop it in a bucket of water, and it would still keep burning. This is a dangerous thing to have flapping through a projector really close to an immensely hot light bulb. If a nitrate print was kept in good shape however, you'll find that the colors are far more vibrant that later films. It was replaced by film with an acetate base, which is less prone to bursting into flame. The projector bulb still gets so hot, however, that if a film is held close to it, it will burn and break through. If you've ever seen a film break, it's likely the film got caught in the projector, and the bulb simply burned a hole through it.

Of course, there's a failsafe in place called a dowser. The dowser is just a little door that blocks the bulb from the film. Little door of metal. A film has to be moving at full speed in front of the bulb in order not to burn. What you do is keep the dowser closed until it's at full speed, then open it, and the theater can see it.

This was talked about a little bit in David Fincher's 1999 film Fight Club, but allow me to make it explicit. When films ship from a studio, they're usually packed onto 2000-foot film reels (a 90 minute feature film can be about 10,000 feet long). The industry jargon refers to them as 2Ks. The film must then be built up onto a larger reel. There are two kinds of projectors in common usage today: upright projectors and platter projectors. Upright projectors are the classic ones you see in pictures. They have giant film reels that are held vertically, and spool from the top to the bottom, passing in front of the bulb on the way. Platters are a bit more common, as they are slightly less labor intensive, and many are equipped with automatic starters. Multiplexes like automatic starters, as it makes for fewer projectionists. Either way, the film must be “built” from the various 2Ks onto the appropriate sized reel. Upright projectors can usually handle as much as an 8K (although some heavy duty ones can handle rare 14K reels), which means that at some point an alert projectionist will have to change over from one projector to the next.

How do they time it out? Well, surely you've noticed the little circles that sometimes appear in the top right corner of your movie screen periodically throughout the film. In Fight Club, they were referred to as “cigarette burns.” No one calls them cigarette burns. That term was invented for the movie. They're typically just called cue marks. The cue marks alert the projectionist when a reel-change is coming up. These were especially vital in the days where theaters would show a different double bill every day or so. There would be no time to build the films up onto larger reels, so the projectionist would have to constantly be switching back and forth between the 2Ks. 2ks, by the way, run about 20 minutes. Some older projection booths, if you ever get the chance to visit one, are still equipped with toilets and sinks; There was a time when the projectionist was not allowed to leave the booth. There's a reason that film projectionists have such a strong union.

Once the film runs all the way through, it needs to be rewound on a special rewinder. A projected film can never be rewound through the projector. They're just not built that way. So the next time you're late for a movie, and you “cleverly” quip to the ticket taker if they can rewind the film for you, the answer is always going to be no. Stop making that dumb joke.


If you're using a platter system, the entire film is wound onto a gigantic horizontal reel, and, thanks to a clever system of rollers and re-anglers, runs through, past the bulb, and lands on the bottom reel already rewound. To show the film again, all you need to do is lift the gigantic platter (a two-person job) back into its original place. These projectors are hugely convenient, but they are prone to accidents. Platter projectors sometimes encounter brain wraps; that is, the film will yank off the top of the platter and get tangled in the moving sprockets of the machine. They also, thanks to their huge number of rollers and pulleys, tend to abuse the film stock, making for scratches.

Digital projectors, of course, don't use film, but a compressed and injected computer file. Or sometimes a disc. These projectors only need their bulbs looked at to work, and usually run through a whole film without much supervision. They are easy to use. No, studios cannot yet broadcast their films to theaters. Being the fuddy-duddy classicist that I am, I prefer the heft and timbre of a good old-fashioned print. Digital projection has improved over the last eight or so years, and you can't necessarily tell the difference right away, but it still looks different than actual film. The next film you see in a theater, see if you can guess. Compare and see which you prefer.

In a previous Free Film School lesson, I talked about aspect ratio, and how films are shot using different screen shapes. Old films were square (using a 1.33:1 aspect ratio). Later they became slightly rectangular (1.85:1), and then, in 1953, became hugely rectangular (2.35:1). Well, the film stock wasn't getting increasingly wider. The film remained the same 35mm width, but the image was printed onto the celluloid strip in a distorted way. The projector would them be equipped by a certain lens that would stretch the image to its appropriate width. If you've ever seen a film start up, and everyone look vertically stretched and compressed, it was because the projectionist started the film with the wrong lens installed. The lens for the common 1.85:1 aspect ratio is called a flat lens. The longer, larger lens used for the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is called the scope lens. To also accommodate the right screen shape, projectors have a tiny little scrap of metal in place that defines the edge of the screen right next to the bulb. It's a little aperture that ensures the edges of the screen are sharp. It's called, fittingly enough, the aperture plate. If the image looks okay, but you see a big white stripe on the ceiling, or along one of the walls, it's because the projectionist put in the wrong aperture plate. Use the phrase “aperture plate” in front of your peers, and they will marvel at your film knowhow.

Also, never yell “Focus!” while sitting in the theater. The projection booth is way up above the audience, and is usually sealed off, with no direct access to the theater. The projectionist is standing next to a hot, noisy machine. They cannot hear you. If there is a projection problem, leave the theater to talk to someone immediately. Yes, you actually have to be that a**hole. It's worth it, though, to keep the film going, isn't it?

Why is there a countdown clock on films that stop at the number 2? You've likely all seen one. That's also for projectionists. When a projectionist threads a film through a projector, they have to give it a few seconds of lead time so the machine can start up before the light is turned on. Having the countdown clock allows the projectionist to more scientifically mete out how long they'll need. The last second of black is when the dowser is opened, the light starts to shine, and the film is playing. Nifty!

What was that thing at the end of the 2007 film Grindhouse where they showed a montage of friendly-looking '70s women over the credits? Curious thing, that. Those women you saw often served the same way color bars do on your TV. They were a few seconds of innocuous imagery that print labs would include with the film in order the allow projectionists to adjust light and sound. They're used to calibrate the projector's image properly. A projector bulb can be adjusted for brightness. Some theaters have turned their bulbs down low under the misapprehension that it will make the incredibly expensive bulbs last longer. Roger Ebert, for one, has complained endlessly about dim movies, and I feel his pain. I think this practice, however, has been largely abandoned, and more theaters are getting better about showing films that are bright enough. As for volume levels, well, there is a recommended system, but every theater will have a slightly retooled sound system (every theater is, after all, a different size), so most have to play volume levels by ear, and the speakers are going to be custom re-calibrated using sound readings taken in the theater. If a film is too loud or too quiet, you can ask that it be changed.

The myth of the “sweet spot.” I know some movie fanatics who are obsessed with sitting in a very specific spot in the theater, usually around the dead center, where there is supposedly a “sweet spot” where all the theater surround sound speakers are directly pointed. I am here to tell you that there is no such thing as the “sweet spot.” When a theater's speakers are calibrated, sound readings are often taken from several points in the theater, sometimes as many as 50, to make sure the sound is even throughout the theater. That makes for 50 “sweet spots.” Don't rush to the middle. The film will, I assure you, sound just as good from several rows away. I like to sit near the rear of a theater, myself. Back row if possible. Where do you sit? Why do you like to sit there?

Have you ever noticed during the course of a film, those little flecks of color that appear periodically throughout. They're like the cue marks mentioned above, but they're smaller, there are several of them, and they appear in the middle of the screen? It took me a while to notice these, but they still show up. If you know what I'm talking about, the term you're looking for is Cap Code. Cap Code is an obnoxiously noticeable way that studios “watermark” their prints to avoid piracy. This is kind of a churlish practice on their parts, as projectionists aren't the ones doing the piracy; they don't have film reproduction labs up in the booth with them. They usually just have a few projectors, the rewind bench, and a film splicer for taping the film ends together. This anti-piracy device is just a distraction, and once you start seeing it, it's hard not to notice it. Some people have taken to calling to Crap Code.

Full disclosure: I have been a projectionist in a movie theater for several years, and I have handled a lot of films. I don't claim to be an expert; I still make dumb mistakes from time to time. I sometimes miss a changeover, and lose a second or two of film. Or I do it a mite too early, and there will be a slight moment of black in between reels. But I take great comfort in the notion that a projectionist doesn't really make bad mistakes in this regard. They're simply exercising their right to final cut. The director may not have intended it, but the projectionists' organic handling of the exhibition is what their real final cut looks like. Tee hee, I say.


HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEKOf course, see a movie in a theater. Is it a new movie, or an older movie with an older print? How does it look and sound? Are there a lot of scratches on the print? Look for cue marks. How many did you see? Occasionally look behind you at the booth. Can you see the projectionist in there? They don't happen often, but have you ever been in a theater when the film broke? Or when there was a lens mess-up? What did it look like? If you can, try to get your hands on an actual filmstrip. Well, not actually ON it, as fingerprints aren't good for film. But examine the actual celluloid. Where is the sound strip? The sprocket holes? Is the image distorted? Hold it in your hand and consider the lavish and long history this simple technology has had.