Whatever happened to good movie projection?

Ladies and gentleman of the world, I want to take you back to a more decent time in our history, a time when you could go to a movie and the damn thing would be in focus, and there would be none of the other hideous projection errors that seem to be so prevalent today.

I can’t tell you how fed-up I am of going to cinemas, paying good money and then witnessing sloppy standards in movie projection.

Apart from the flagship London cinemas of Leicester Square and IMAX screens, it’s a fair bet that what you see will not be sharply focused, or will have varying focus across the screen. Depending on the size of the picture to be projected (widescreen at a length to height ratio of 1.85:1, or Cinemascope at 2.35:1), the projectionist must choose the correct ‘matte’ to frame the print as it passes through the projector. This is metal strip that is inserted in front of the film to give tidy, crisp black edges to the image on screen. Often there is a badly sized matte that gives fuzzy edges, or even worse, visible edges of sprocket holes on screen! Don’t get me started on poor film registration that means the film weaves all over the screen, or dirt and scratches on the print.

Only the other day the show started, but the film was laced through the projector back-to-front, diagonally across the screen, I mean guys come on! Another time, the standard ‘spherical’ lens was not changed to the Cinemascope ‘anamorphic lens’ after the trailers (it does a similar thing to the button on your tv to stretch the picture horizontally), with the result that the feature started to play with everyone having squashed heads. That’s the actors on screen, not the audience in agonised confusion like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ painting.

I used to work as a trainee on camera crew on movies, and we have people called focus pullers (well, 1st Assistant Cameramen now) whose entire reputation and career rests on them being able to accurately and consistently predict the distance of a moving subject, and change the focus accordingly, all without looking through the camera viewfinder! Granted we spend time measuring distances and putting marks on the floor out of shot, but it’s still a dark art. I dare you to try it yourself with your SLR stills camera, looking through the viewfinder. It’s bloody nigh impossible, and a skill that takes years to attain. So you can imagine how galling it must be for them to go see a movie they worked on, and see all their hard work undone.

I don’t want to pin this on multiplexes, as I’ve seen as many errors in boutique indie cinemas as in larger ones. I just want to know what happened to the old skills?

When I was but a youngster in my late teens (nostalgic brass band music plays), I used to hang around at my local fleapit cinema learning the ropes from the projectionist. It was a old place with peeling paint, a musty smell and nearly everything held together with twine (the ancestor of Duct tape) such was the limited budget to run the place. One thing you could count on though, was that the slightly eccentric projectionist would have that movie on screen, pin-sharp, in registration and with a nice bit of pre-show dimming of lights and music, without being deafened by an overloud sound system.

The projector was mounted on a wooden box whose fittings weren’t the best. The best thing I ever saw was when he thought that the focus across the screen wasn’t entirely consistent. He picked up a broom, stood parallel to the projector looking through the viewing window at the screen, and positioned himself and broom as if he was lining up a putt on a golf green. He swung the broom back over his head, and then swung it with a drive into the wooden base, shifting it ever so slightly back into position, and in my impressionable mind, restoring pristine focus. Now that’s what I call ingenuity.

Having been trained in the 60s, he was part-electrician, part-engineer, able to make the adjustments needed to fix the minor glitches that frequently used equipment throw up now and again. He told me once of a training instruction he had received from his chief projectionist: “Harry [his guv’nor] said, ‘Son, I don’t care if the sky and the walls fall down. You get that film on screen, on time and in focus!'”.

Now I know that SkillSet, the industry training body, still trains projectionists to industry specifications, so what on earth is going wrong? Are cinemas just so pressed for staff that people are multi-tasking too much and cannot spend the time they need in the projection box?

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe no-one else cares. Whatever the reason, you can be sure to find me silently stewing in a cinema somewhere in London town, pondering if I can bothered to get up yet again and ask for someone to fix the image. It’s not too much to ask, right?

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