I’ve worked as a projectionist. Not on a reel-to-reel system, or with digital projectors, but I’ve put films together to sit on a platter, threaded them, projected them, broken down the reels, all that jazz. As someone who’s worked with these system, it bothers me every time I see people complaining on Twitter or in articles about what are clearly unavoidable projector accidents. The latest incident to cause a stir was at a press screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 15/70mm IMAX.
Let me be clear. People, particularly critics and media, need to understand that film projection is a complex process, whether it’s on film or digital, and unless it’s a clear mistake like the picture being out of frame, improperly masked, or out of focus, problems can happen and things can go wrong. Now, these problems are often human error, sometimes they’re mechanical, or electrical, or electronic. I’d imagine that on digital systems there are also potential software glitches. When there are so many potential points of error, errors are going to happen, and frankly it’s a miracle of modern fool-proofing that they don’t happen more often. People should be looking at these failures and cutting some slack, and they definitely shouldn’t be holding such incidents up as examples for why a particular projection system isn’t good enough.
Let’s take the recent failure of The Dark Knight Rises IMAX screening. The first I’d heard about it was from this tweet from Joseph Kahn, director of Detention, which had been retweeted by Dave Chen, host of the /Filmcast:
First off, anybody who says 15/70mm IMAX is the future of cinema is nuts. The system is so expensive and so cumbersome and can be shown in so few venues that it’s really only a specialty option for big blockbusters with very large budgets. It’s not the future, but it’s definitely an amazing experience, as anybody who saw The Dark Knight or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in real IMAX can rightly tell you.
Furthermore, holding up the failure of a film print as an example of why the format could never be the future is appallingly stupid. One, anecdotal incident of something that could happen on any system and any format cannot be a reason to dismiss the format in question. Plus, if you click on the link in Kahn’s tweet, which leads to an article about the incident at Deadline, you’ll find that the failure was actually to do with a computer system failing, not the film print itself, which is still in fine condition.
Check out what the IMAX rep quoted in the article had to say:
The movie started promptly at 7 PM. But at about 8:15 PM, as a new reel began, the dialogue between Christian Bale and Michael Caine was clearly out of sync - with a full 5- to 10-second lip-flap after lines were spoken. After a few minutes the crowd shouted for a projectionist. The movie was stopped and the lights went up. A 40-year employee of IMAX said that this has never ever happened to him before. After 20 minutes the man came out again and said the sync computer had failed and could not be rebooted. A computer is now being taken out of IMAX headquarters in West Los Angeles and installed in the AMC Universal location overnight.
So, what actually happened was the computer system that syncs the digital audio with the analog film print broken down—which can happen to even the best computer systems, just ask Amazon’s cloud team—and though the problem couldn’t be rectified on the stop, things have been taken care of. To me, that’s the important part. Thing are taken care of. Problems occur and problems get solved. Sometimes a movie stops midway through, sometimes it can’t be played anymore for the rest of the day.
And Joseph Kahn wasn’t the only one spreading bullshit about this Dark Knight Rises incident. Edward Davis, who was at the failed screening, wrote about it for IndieWire. Why? Why is this news? Is it just because he was at the screening and thus felt like it was some big event he needed to inform people about? It’s silly to make an example of these sorts of situations.
When I first started as a projectionist, my very first shift working alone, big problems went down. Amazingly, none of them were my fault. It was the opening night for Spider-Man 3, I had threaded it up, everything looked ready to go for the 8pm show, I pressed the button to start the projector. Nothing. Pressed it again. Nothing. It wouldn’t start. I checked everything again, it all looked to be running. Pressed the button once more, and still nothing. Judging by lights on the projector, I determined that the projector itself was still working properly, but platter system that held the film was not. The system had a failsafe built-in such that when the platters couldn’t take-in film from the projector it simply wouldn’t start. Only now I had to figure out what was wrong with the platter.
Of course, while that was going on another problem cropped up. The film, Lucky You, had been playing for roughly 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the platter system on that projector was a bit older and so it didn’t maintain speed consistently. This had caused the film to jump one of the rollers and begin wrapping around the inner payout console. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is referred to as a brainwrap. So, right around the time I was trying to deal with the non-starting show of Spider-Man 3, I heard a beeping telling me that Lucky You had stopped playing. From what I understood later, the crowd of angry patrons downstairs was nearly impossible to handle.
Anyway, we called in one of the other projectionists to come fix the brainwrap, which was quite a chore. In the meantime I got on the phone with the head projectionist, who lead me through a series of checks on the platter. We narrowed down that the fuse in the platter system had blown. I put in a new one, and that blew instantly. Eventually we figured out that the fuses we were using hadn’t been marked properly and so they weren’t strong enough for the system. We went next door to the Radio Shack, got new fuses. Everything was fixed and both movies were running… an hour late. The later shows were canceled.
These are the kinds of problems that can occur with systems so complex. Digital projection sometimes creates the added problem of requiring new keycodes when things go awry, but that’s more to do with poorly implemented digital rights management than the projection itself. The fact is, things break down. They break down a lot. Amazingly, even though they break down a lot, that’s still a tiny fraction of all the projectors running at a given time. As the IMAX rep said, he’s never had that particular problem happen to him in all his 40 years of employment at the company. That’s a startling track record. When you consider the tens of thousands of prints being shown every day, multiple times a day, the record of projection going off without a hitch is pretty stellar.
So please, audiences, critics, mediafolk, if you go to a movie and the projector or the system breaks down and the film has to stop, know that something pretty serious and out of the ordinary probably happened. If the show has to be canceled, that sucks, but it can’t be helped. Just be glad that these things don’t happen every time you go to a movie. Cut the various formats some slack. None are perfect. Cut the projectionists slack, they’re only human. Heck, cut the management some slack. Do you really think they’re happy to have a system break and a screening shut down? It just looks bad on them. These problems don’t mean a particular format is doomed. They don’t even necessarily mean a theatre is poorly run or ill-equipped. Sometimes, even in movie projection, shit just happens.