Corn Monkeys in the Mist: challenges of the trade

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.


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.

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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