Corn Monkeys in the Mist

And so do we return to a long-forgotten topic: my days as a projectionist. Because I thought I’d take some time and cover an aspect of the movie that most people love but few think about: the trailers. The coming attractions. The twenty minutes of stuff that happens before the actual movie starts.

As a reminder, my experiences come from the before times, from the long-ago, when movies were printed onto physical film which was run through a projector. These days most theatres, certainly most first-run theatres, are digital, so I speak to you now of forgotten arts and witchcraft. The current arts and witchcraft are largely unknown to me.

The Work

One of the chief tasks mid-week for a projectionist was actually building up the prints of the movies about to open. Movies would come in two to three cans of reels, each reel being about twenty minutes’ worth of film. Because in the old days, I’m talking like the 20s here, your light source would last twenty minutes, so that’s how much movie you could show before you switch projectors.

For more on that just watch Fight Club already.

So a movie would be anywhere from five (any cartoon or kid-targeted movie) to nine (Lord of the Rings) reels, with some as short as four and others as long as ten. These reels had to be spliced together and spun onto the projection platters so they were ready to go for Friday.

Like so.

Like so.

It’s a fair amount of work. But it’s not the whole process, because in addition to all of that, we had to build the trailer package.

An average film in my first run days had five coming attractions (one or two of which came from the same studio, were attached to the first reel, and had to be cut off), as many as nine corporate ads, and of course the bits of film saying “Coming soon” and “Feature presentation,” and in some cases “Dolby Digital.” Yes, sure, they’re all shorter than a twenty-minute reel, but the thing of it is, the actual time spinning the film onto the larger reel (from which it would be spun onto the platter) is the least amount of work in the whole process. There’s still the splicing, and if it’s a fresh, unused trailer, you had to frame and cut both ends. And if it came from Alliance (like any Lord of the Rings, for instance), you could bet that there was a bad splice (joining of film) between the studio logo and the actual trailer that if left in peace was going to throw the whole movie out of frame.

In short, prepping the trailer package could take as much time as the rest of the movie. Well, no, I’m not sure that’s true. But it took a while, is my point. Especially when a fresh batch of corporate trailers came in.

The urge to be lazy

So what I’m saying is that I get it. I get the urge to be lazy that would hit my various brethren in the projectionist union. You’ve got four movies opening this week, you need to build trailer packages for all of them, the studio just shipped out a fresh trailer for the new Star Wars movie, but they’re all uncut, so of course you’re going to have an urge to just grab the old, already cut teaser off the shelf and throw that on instead.

I understand. But it doesn’t mean I, in any way, ever approved.

See, there can be real problems just grabbing the old trailer. Most notably, the case of the Rollerball remake of 2002. Rollerball, for those who forgot that it ever existed (and who, honestly, could blame you) was supposed to come out in summer of 2001, but at some point after the release of the trailer, it was pushed back (for largely the same reasons that you’ve forgotten it existed), over and over, until finally getting released in February of 2002.

The problem is… when they’d settled on a release date, they sent out a new trailer, but… some of you have probably guessed where this is going… lazy projectionists decided to just grab the old one and throw it on instead. The old one with the Summer 2001 release date. Given that it was already fall of 2001, that just looks bad.

But that’s a rare, isolated case. Most movies only release trailers when they’re sure of when they’re coming out. The real problem is that you’re still short-changing the viewers.

Back then I was at my most sympathetic to the plight of a projectionist. I know very well how much work is involved in making these three prints of Minority Report, plus whatever else you had to deal with, and how little time you were being given. But I paid money to see this movie, and I care about trailers. I know there’s a new, proper trailer for Ang Lee’s Hulk out, so I don’t want to be stuck with the old teaser that’s just 45 seconds of Eric Bana staring in a mirror.

…Wow. To think there was a time in my life when seeing any amount of Ang Lee’s Hulk seemed a good idea. Such an innocent time.

Still, when someone’s desire to save themselves five or ten minutes means I don’t get to see the proper trailer on a proper screen, it was annoying. A let down.

And what really baffles me, right, is that it’s still happening. On digital films. With, I have to assume, digital trailers. Which would imply that it isn’t more work to have the more recent trailer on the movie, as it’s all just electronic files. Could even be pre-loaded by the studio, for all I know. So why, exactly, did Age of Ultron still have the five month old teaser for Star Wars instead of the… well… newer teaser?

Annoying is what it is.

Meanwhile, at the Moviedome

At the Moviedome it was a little faster. Three trailers, three corporate ads at most (including the ever-present anti-piracy spot, the third of which ran until I left because nobody ever told us we could stop running it), and the trailers we had were almost always pre-used. We weren’t even given a list of what to put on the movie, like a first-run theatre would get. The only rule was that the trailers had to be for movies of the same rating or lower than the movie they were on.

A simple rule. Prevents us from putting Texas Chainsaw Massacre trailers on Finding Nemo. But, then, it also prevents us from putting Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Jeepers Creepers or any other horror movie with minimal gore and no nudity.

There aren’t a lot of movies rated 18A. Horror movies, sometimes. American Pie sequels. We’d get one 18A every few months. So if we got an 18A movie in (say, Empire, which you also don’t remember), I made sure to throw every 18A trailer I could on it, and not, say, Treasure Planet, like one of my coworkers wanted to.

This… did result in one leettle hiccup, though. Such was my determination to use whatever 18A trailers I could whenever an 18A feature came a-calling that I gave no thought to the film’s target audience.

We were weeks away from opening Kill Bill vol. 2, The Punisher, and Man on Fire, all 18A-rated revenge movies. Obviously, I’d be able to advertise the other two on whichever opened first. But until then, I only had one 18A feature to run them on…

The Passion of the Christ.

Because, really, why wouldn’t a horde of Christians who’ve come to pretend it was anything other than religious-themed torture porn want to open the feature with a trilogy of ads for violent revenge movies? You’d be crazy to assume they wouldn’t.

So, yeah, kind of regret that one a little.

Anyhoo… see you Friday to talk about the penultimate episode of Writers Circle’s first season.

Should really get around to filming more of those.

Right, my projectionist days. That’s a thing I was doing. Where was I?

Now, settling into my new job as a projectionist wasn’t simple. I’d studied the theory, knew how to thread and what to clean between shows, and could build a print in the recommended hour and a half. But there were still a few things that posed problems, and would until I got used to them. Let’s take a look.

Goop

I was unprepared for the amount of goop this job would require coming into contact with.

Let me explain. I have long had issues with what I suspect to be a mild case of OCD. Yes, I’m aware people say that to seem trendily quirky, no that’s not what I’m doing, yes I’m aware that’s what somebody who was just trying to seem quirky would say. When I was afraid I might have a kidney stone in Vegas (after years of worrying about said stones), I was right. When I thought I might have sleep apnea, I was right. I don’t think you can be called a hypochondriac when you’re right so damned often. Let’s move on.

This, I feel, is why I was a savagely picky eater for my first two decades, incredibly distrustful of sauce, unwilling to let two food items touch and cross-contaminate. It’s why I have to complete every single side-quest video games throw at me or, to quote Dan O’Brien, I get terrible headaches that no doctor can explain. And it’s why, back in 2001, I absolutely hated getting anything oily on my hands.

And just try to avoid that while working with large machinery. There is no way.

Booths I worked had anywhere from nine to sixteen projectors, each needing oil and grease to function, and it was basically a guarantee that at least one of them had a chronic leak. At least one of these projectors, somewhere in this building, was going to drip oil on me when I went to clean it. Early on, in what I called my “vagabond days” of going from theatre to theatre as a relief guy, my least favourite theatre to fill in at swiftly became Crowfoot Crossing. It wasn’t the largest I worked, with two less screens than Sunridge and four less than the Silver City. Maybe it was the fact that I was still relatively inexperienced, and their tight schedule (a movie started every five minutes, while Westhills had me more accustomed to ten) kept me running until the movies were all up and running. But what certainly didn’t help is that it had more leaks than average, and I was constantly getting oil on my hands, then freaking out about it and desperately trying to get it off before running to thread and start the next movie. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This was an issue I had to leave behind, because the goop got worse before it got better. Once I settled into the Moviedome, regular maintenance became part of my life, and it was time to move past simply topping up oil now and again and into greasing the gears. Once per month, I had to wipe off a layer of old grease, then apply a layer of new grease in its place. And this was clearly a necessary process, because the grease went on orange and came out black. The grease was think and gooey, and there was no simple way to get it all over the gears other than rub it in by hand. I went through a lot of paper towels getting that chore done, between wiping the old grease off and trying to keep my hands relatively un-gunked.

Relatively. It’s not like there was a point in washing them off before I was done, so gunk was still all over me. And one of my favourite shirts just seemed to attract oil like a magnet. That’s less related to the greasing process precisely, but there was no more natural place to slip that in. But seriously, every time. Took like two washings to get it out.

Bulb changes

When I was learning the trade, the single most intimidating part of the process was the lamp house. Every fact I learned about the lamp house made it sound more dangerous.

The bulb of a projector is filled with xenon gas to help it glow bright enough to project a small square of film onto a barn-sized screen dozens of metres away. The gas is crammed into it pretty tight: eight atmospheres of pressure when it’s cool, 30 atmospheres when it’s hot. And it gets hot.

When lit, the bulb is too bright to look at unshielded. Far too hot to touch, but that’s okay, because you can’t even touch a bulb when it’s cool, not with your bare hands. If you do, the oil from your skin will burn into the crystal when the bulb lights up, compromising the integrity and leading to an explosion.

And not a small explosion.

One night at Sunridge, a bulb exploded a few minutes into a screening of Harry Potter. I was down the hall in a separate room, and it sounded like someone had dropped a safe next to my head. When a hot crystal bulb explodes, it turns into thousands of razor-sharp flechettes that shred anything nearby; in this case, the lamp house. I was still just a permittee at that point, I had no idea what to do, and management wasn’t exactly quick to offer aid or tools or whatnot. Eventually, the reflector in the lamp house had to be replaced, since the surface had been shredded, but I was less involved in that.

Changing bulbs involved a welder’s apron, mask, and giant gloves to protect yourself from potential explosions. For the first year or so of my career, anything to do with the lamp house was like defusing a bomb, and typically involved a lot of panic-sweat (not aided by the super-warm mask/glove/apron combo). Only one thing helped relieve my fear of being maimed by an exploding bulb: an afternoon spent trying to deliberately explode several bulbs, and having to put some effort into it.

Each bulb has a shelf life: after a certain number of hours, the electrodes begin to erode and the light begins to flicker. You can extend their life by rotating the bulb, but eventually they come out. Most theatres will recommend a specific hour count to remove the bulb. If it was still in decent shape, you hang onto it as an emergency spare. But when the spare build up, you can afford to toss a few out.

But you can’t exactly throw a bulb under eight atmospheres of pressure into the trash, now can you? That’s a little too close to “unexploded munitions” for the average garbagemen. So before you throw them out, you need to blow up each bulb.

The first time I had to do this chore, my old friend Jason Garred was visiting my booth, so we had us a bulb-exploding party. This involved putting the bulb in its box, wrapping the box in something, and then throwing the box, allowing the impact to explode the bulb with no shrapnel escaping. And what was telling is that it wasn’t always enough. Sometimes I’d toss the box, kick the box, and would ultimately have to hit the box with a metal rod to get the bulb to explode so that I could toss it.

And nothing removes the fear that something is going to explode like spending five minutes trying to make it explode.

Next time: the weird clique structure of the Moviedome.

I started training to be a projectionist in the year 2000. Unofficially, though. I hadn’t applied to the union or anything. That would come later. I just happened to know one of the projectionists at Westhills cinema, conveniently one of my favourite theatres, and he said we were free to come visit him in the booth any time he was working. He’d even get us free movies and drinks when we did.

The first time I entered a booth it was like stepping into Narnia. The projectors hummed all around me, the lamps flickered in the dim light of the booth, vintage movie posters hung everywhere, and for someone who loves movies like I do it was a magical place.

These were the glory days. Free movies, chilling in the booth, or just going from projector to projector and watching trailers through the window. “Trailer hopping,” I called it. I felt I could hang out there forever.

So when my friend offered to train me, I jumped at the chance. Also I hadn’t had a job in like two years, since quitting the Winter Club (hates it, hates it forever) with a vow to never work banquet service again. Seriously, banquet service is awful and I hate it. Just so we’re clear.

Anyhoo.

After a few months working with him, I applied for a job with the union. Took a little while to get it, but once the person they hired instead of me washed out (I’ve gotten my share of jobs because their first choice was terrible but then I turned out to be awesome… ladies) I started training officially, now with Doug, the union’s business agent. I practiced running the booth at Canyon Meadows, a discount theatre that was once the flagship theatre for Cineplex Odeon in Calgary (how times do change) while learning theory with Doug. And some days I’d still go and do some time at Westhills, learning all I could so that I could start actually getting paid faster.

The Vagabond Permittee

In the spring of 2001, I finally knew enough that Doug was comfortable scheduling me for work. Solo. And hours weren’t hard to come by. As soon as I was an official permittee, that is, not a member of the union but someone the union allows to work, I worked 11 days straight, again bouncing between Canyon Meadows and Westhills. It was during my Canyon Meadows shifts that I learned I truly never get tired of Ocean’s 11: for three days straight I ended my afternoon shift by rewatching it through the window, and cleaning projectors when Julia Roberts showed up.

I do not like Julia Roberts. Not positive why.

Over the months that followed, I’d work nearly everywhere. I spent a month working at what was once called the Colosseum, a theatre so far south I had an anxiety attack the first time I drove there (“There’s still city down here? Who lives this far south? How? And WHY?”), where I learned that customer complaints are not always right.

“AI is out of focus,” the staff would tell me. I’d reply that it was a soft focus scene, and their issue was with Steven Spielberg, not me. “Jurassic Park 3 is dark,” they’d say. I’d reply that it was a night scene. This was great practice for the Moviedome, where I’d learn that 95% of the time, if a customer was complaining that their movie hadn’t started yet, they were in the wrong theatre.

I had the best time of my career working at Westhills that September. In the off season, they didn’t even run movies on Monday, Wednesday, or Thursday afternoons, so working Monday and Wednesday was a pretty easy gig. I’d show up at noon, clean a little, do trailer work if necessary, go to Chapters and read Star Trek novels for two hours, come back and thread all the projectors for the evening, get dinner, and be back in time for everything to start running. The best of times for me, if somewhat proving the corporation’s point about not wanting to pay us for 80 hours a week anymore.

Not every job went so well. One night at Canyon Meadows, I decided to leave before everything was done (having been told that was an option), only to have Count of Monte Cristo grind to a halt due to problems with the platter motors.

The movie goes from the top platter, through the projector, and then winds back up on the second platter. Unless one of them stops turning, in which case all is ashes and ruin.

The manager had to hand out a lot of refunds. I didn’t work a lot of shifts there after that. On the other hand, the regular guys got more paid hours as a result, so…

Anyway. That year I lived as a vagabond, going from theatre to theatre, wherever someone needed hours covered. I never bothered to get to know the staff anywhere, in case I was whisked away somewhere else. Also because spending the whole shift alone in my booth was A) second nature, being a bit of a shut-in at the best of times, and B) encouraged by management. If something went wrong with a projector, they preferred I be right nearby.

Point is, at the big theatres I never really got to know the various staff. Not even at the Sunridge Spectrum, which in the fall of 2001 became my home for twenty hours a week. A few supervisors, sure, but not the ushers or concession staff. Not the girl with the multi-coloured hair who smiled at me whenever we passed and called me “Vagabond” in a flirtatious tone. And she’d have been my exact jam if I’d been single, younger, and possessed of even the base elements of self-confidence regarding talking to pretty girls. (erm… ladies…)

I was alienated enough from the staff that it was only years later that Ian, of Dan and Ian Wander Europe, realized we’d worked at that theatre at the same time for months, and never crossed paths.

Finding a home

As months passed, I began to settle down. My friend at Westhills eventually left the theatre, and shortly thereafter the union, and the glory days of being able to hang out in the Westhills booth came to an end. I started splitting my time between the Spectrum and the Silver City, one of the city’s two largest theatres. And then my 20-hour per week shift at the Spectrum got jacked by someone with more seniority, and I ended up working full time at the Silver City.

And then the Spiderman incident happened. And it was time to go. And that’s how I ended up in Calgary’s other discount movie theatre, the Moviedome.

But we’ll save that for a future installment.

So before I get into random tales from my projectionist days, let me run you through what a projectionist actually did in the pre-digital days.

Now most of the day was spent running the projectors: theaters I worked had anywhere from nine to sixteen screens, each of which ran on average four shows per day (five for kids’ movies short enough for three matinees, three for longer mofos like Lord of the Rings). For each of those shows I had to clean emulsion (the tri-coloured goo that is used to make the images) off the projectors, thread the film through the various cogs and gears, then typically be at the projector at the appointed start time in order to hit the start button. At some theaters, the projectors would start themselves on schedule, but I would still try to be there to make sure the movie was in frame, in focus, and that I hadn’t accidentally threaded Freddie Got Fingered instead of Pokemon. That… that didn’t feel like a mistake you got to make twice. Fortunately I’m ridiculously paranoid and would compulsively triple-check that sort of thing.

Makin’ my crazy brain work for my benefit for a change. Living the dream.

On Monday and Tuesday, that might be all I had to do. Thread all the movies, start all the movies, take a breather until the movies start ending, repeat. At a smaller theater, like Westhills (ten screens) or the Moviedome (nine screens), the break between waves would last long enough to watch some trailers, or part of a movie, or get some writing done. Wrote a lot of scripts in projection booths. But at the Silver City, with its 16 screens… well, the pause was shorter. It still typically existed, but not for so long that I minded not having a proper desk.

Now. As to the movies themselves.

The illusion of movement in film in caused by showing you a series of images so quickly that it appears to be one moving image. Specifically, you’re seeing 24 frames per second. Well, unless you’re watching the extra-high def version of the Hobbit, where they double that.

Because you want this to be just as clear as humanly possible.

Twenty four frames is a foot and a half of film. So your average two-hour movie is 10,800 feet, or about 3.3 kilometers long. Now, it doesn’t come like that. That would be insane. Films arrive in 20-minutes reels, a length determined way, way back in the dawn of cinema, when the lights they used to project the image only lasted 20 minutes, so you had to keep switching from one projector to the other while whittling new carbon filaments. In my day, you only needed one projector, and the bulb would last for months.

So. Depending on length, you’ve got anywhere from four to ten reels of film that need to become one print. New movies showed up on Wednesday or Thursday, and opened Friday, giving a potentially narrow window to get the prints assembled. And the end of Thursday night, all of the prints need to move to their new homes, as less recent releases are moved further into the back.

You did not want to drop one of those prints. Think of a tangled garden hose, or set of Christmas lights. Imagine how frustrating it is to untangle it. Now imagine the hose is three kilometers long and razor-thin. Fun times.

Starting Friday, everything that’s closed needs to be broken back down into individual reels. We typically had until Sunday to do this, as the film canisters would be picked up Monday morning. Unless a specific print was going straight to a different theater. In which case some poor schlub is staying late to break down the print so that it can be picked up early Friday and driven across the city to some other poor schlub who’s starting early so that he can get the movie made up for its first showing.

Got all that? Monday/Tuesday’s quiet, Wednesday/Thursday build up the new releases, Thursday night shuffle all the prints around to their new theaters, Friday-Sunday break down the movies that closed. And through all that, keep the projectors going.

And then sometimes it all hits you at once.

The Spiderman Incident

I had just taken over the 40 hour/week bid at the Silver City, a 16-plex. I’d been working there 20 hours a week for a while, so stepping up to 40 didn’t seem so bad. Even though when I met the guy I would one day replace in this gig, the spark of humanity in his eyes was long dead, replaced with a burning glow of madness. However, this being a union job, once I took the 40 hour shift, it was mine forever. Stability! That’s good, right?

Also a more senior projectionist grabbed the 20 hour bid at Sunridge I wanted, so this was basically the only game in town.

And it seemed mostly managable. As long as I didn’t think too hard about when I’d find time to do any maintenance on the projectors. When your shift starts thirty minutes before your first movie, you have time to thread projectors or vacuum the cooling vents, but not both.

Then Spiderman happened.

The week Spiderman opened was a perfect storm of build ups and breakdowns. The prints arrived at 6:00 on Thursday, giving me one night to build up four prints of Spiderman (and one of a mostly forgotten gang movie called Deuces Wild), each with a mostly fresh set of trailers and corporate ads, each set of which took nearly as long as a full movie. And if that wasn’t enough (it was) I was also supposed to break down two prints of the Scorpion King. Thing of it was, my shift ended at 11:00, and my predecessor had indicated that the Silver City was stingy on overtime. So I did the one thing that seemed logical. All prints assembled on time, I went home at 11:00.

This caused some kerfuffle the next morning when the delivery guy arrived to pick up the Scorpion King prints, which were in no way ready.

Thus did the Silver City complain to the union, and for the fourth time in my, at that point, year-long career, the union officials had to question me regarding a complaint. But as the end result, the theater stopped trying to short-change us on Thursday nights. So, yay?

Shortly thereafter I left the Silver City, and the union, for the calmer fields of the Moviedome. But we’ll talk about that next time.

“What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college, and plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.
I can’t pay the bills yet, ’cause I have no skills yet.
The world is a big scary place…”
-Princeton, Avenue Q

There was a time, a while before I accidentally became the voice of Canadian letter carriers for a week or so, when I was a useful member of corporate society. With a desk and health benefits and everything. Perhaps I will be again someday. That is certainly the hope–well, it’s amongst the hopes. But before that? I was an English major with his own fledgling theatre company and a passion for storytelling, three things that in no way aided my pressing need to pay the rent and eat. And so came the time when, as one friend said, I began collecting marketable skills as I searched for a job that could pay for my theatre habit. And my comic books. And if there was anything left over, food and shelter.

I got certified as a bartender, and from there got a job bartending at a private club, only to be bait-and-switched into banquet service after three shifts. I speak of that employer with nothing but scorn, over a decade later.

I trained as a blackjack dealer. Didn’t work out. The casino had a new games manager who flunked the entire class, which left our tough-as-nails instructor so upset she was actually crying.

But then, in 2001, I hit what felt like the subsistence-level-employment jackpot… I became a projectionist.

Bunker life

I spent the next five years working in a series of dark bunkers, often 12 hours at a time. I had my first glimpse at a union struggling to stay alive against corporate cuts. I learned the toll running 16 screens at a time can have on a person. I learned how old you can feel when nearly all of your co-workers are teenagers. I saw chunks of every movie released between spring of 2001 and early to mid-summer of 2006. And I learned facts about Bollywood movies I will never un-know.

It wasn’t a bad job. Or it didn’t seem like a bad job while I was working it. Sure, later I would look back and wonder “How did I work back-to-back 12 hour shifts and not go insane? How did I not notice how poor I was? Why did I keep watching chunks of Goldmember?” and so on and so forth, but at the time it seemed okay. I was surrounded by movies, and as you may have gleaned I’m really quite fond of movies. I had plenty of time to write: several scripts were hammered out in projection booths. Once I settled at a regular theatre, I even made friends among the staff. So all in all, not terrible.

Well, it was spending 12 hours in a dimly-lit bunker for way too little money, but not terrible.

A lost art

This was, of course, entirely in the days before digital. In the twilight years of the projectionists’ union, when running movies required threading the film through the projector. Now it’s just downloading the movie from the server and pressing play, or so I’m led to believe. I don’t imagine there’s much left of the old-school projectionists. Even back in my day, big chain theatres were trying to push running the booth away from union technicians and onto their much cheaper floor staff. “Booth ushers” they call them, in order to duck around skilled labour laws. As digital projection spreads, and all you need to run the booth are some simple IT skills, the traditional projectionist is vanishing into history.

And yet I still have dreams of being back in the booth. Specifically, the booth of the Moviedome, the theatre I ran from 2002-2006, about 80% of my projection career. Despite the fact that I’ve been away from there longer than I was there, despite the fact that the Moviedome shut its doors for good earlier this year, I still dream I’m back in that booth, running projectors. And there’s usually something improbable going wrong. It’s never just nostalgic.

So, in this ongoing feature, I’m going to share my old war stories from the projection days. Squabbles with management, film fun facts, and my time among the ushers, box office girls, and concession staff… or as the man who trained me called them, the Corn Monkeys.

So sit back, bookmark this page, and enjoy these tales of my time with the Corn Monkeys in the Mist.