Thirty years ago, when I was in my late teens, I worked as a licensed projectionist at the single-screen movie theater, the Janus Theatre at 57 JFK Street in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The movie theater is long gone. I thought these octagonal boxes used to ship 35mm film reels were gone, too, replaced by sending (via the Internet or optical disc) high definition film files to be digitally projected onto the screen, which is how multiplexes work nowadays.
Not so! I spotted these beat-up old film cans at the Somerville Theater a few nights ago after attending a Superchunk concert in the old opera theater there. It really took me back to the late 80s when I had to deal with these metal cans at the Janus and sometimes the Harvard Square theater. I also worked at the Nickelodeon in Boston (now a Boston University science building) and the Capitol Theater in Arlington, but not as a projectionist.
Each one of these octagonal cans contains three small reels (about 20 minutes of film). For a two-hour film, there will be six reels, so in this photo there are three or four films ready to ship out — either back to the distributor or to the next theater as a second run.
But the small reels are not played by themselves. The projectionist has to do a little prep work before they are ready to be shown:
- Splicing three small reels together into one big reel.
- Trailers are manually added to the beginning, again by splicing (literally cutting the last frames of the first reel with a razor and taping it to the last trailer, then doing the same for additional trailers).
- Mounting the big reels on the projectors.
Two big reels are required for a typical film, so the booths usually have two projectors which have to be switched over in the middle of the film. A black circle placed in the lower right corner on about 50 frames of the 1st reel is the signal to switch over to the second projector, which could be done manually or through automation connecting the two projectors.
If it’s a long film that requires three large reels, the first reel can be taken down and a third reel can be loaded onto the same projector.
All the reels have to come off the projector at the end of each showing anyway, so they can be rewound on the “bench” — a table with two spindles attached to a motor that lets the projectionist spin the film back from the takeup reel back to the original reel, so they can be played again. The bench also has a simple metal tool used for splicing trailers and broken film.
Film projection technology is very old. It was developed in 1880s, and refined over the following decades to accommodate sound, color, higher resolution film stock, and other advances. At the Janus, we had two 60s-era Italian 35mm projectors made by an Italian producer, Cinemeccanica, which is still around today. The old film projectors were intricate machines to run the film at high speed past an extremely hot and bright light bulb.
Part of the licensing process (conducted by a crusty old guy who said he usually worked in Boston’s Combat Zone) involved demonstrating the safety features to shut these machines down if there was a fire. Fortunately, by the 1980s highly flammable celluloid film was long gone, and the projectors were supposed to shut down if there was a jam.
I say “supposed to,” because once the projector jammed on a trailer for a Disney re-release (I believe of Bambi), causing the frame to melt in about two seconds as the different colored inks were superheated in front of the bulb and dissolved in sequence. The audience shrieked at the sight of the cartoon figures freezing, and then bubbling and dissolving in the hot, white light. But there was no fire, as I immediately manually shut it down, and then rushed to resplice the trailer and get it running again.
Anyway, after the run ends, the projectionist will remove the trailers, break down the big reels into three small reels and place them in the octagonal metal cans, and send them back to the distributor (or the next theater for a second run). The cans shown above have clearly seen a lot of use … think of all of the films they’ve carried over the years!
But it was nice to see them again, and be reminded of the time I spent in the projection booth — the warmth from the machinery, the clattering of the projectors, and the flickering beam shooting through the small window out into the darkness of the theater. Amazing that this old media technology that still draws crowds today.