Light and Magic

Behind the scenes in ACMI Cinemas

Projection Booth

A glimpse into the booth reveals the source of the projector’s beam

Have you ever turned around in your cinema seat and wondered about the beam of light magically transporting your movie to the screen? At its source, in a rather cold, rather dark room, full of some rather mysterious looking equipment, you will find ACMI’s dedicated team of projectionists. From first choc-top to last frame they are there to ensure the show runs to plan.

ACMI cinemas are equipped to screen films in a range of formats including the latest digital releases, this particular visit focused on the screening of a 35mm print.

The print is examined on the rewind bench

Projectionist Phillip examines a 35mm print on the rewind bench

Projectionist Alena splices together a feature

Projectionist Alena splices together a feature

The projection booth, or Bio Box* holds an almost mythical status in cinema culture. Maybe it’s the mystery of the unknown equipment and procedures, or the intrigue of the medium’s flammable past – as depicted in films such as Inglorious Bastards (2009) and Cinema Paradiso (1988). Whatever the attraction, a couple of hours (the exact length of Hitchcock’s 1959 classic North by Northwest in this case) spent with ACMI’s Bio staff, enthusiastically explaining how it all works, is a fascinating experience.

The 35mm print arrives

The 35mm print arrives

The fact that a feature length film can now be delivered to a cinema on a hard drive is pretty amazing, and undeniably practical.  There is however something special about seeing a classic 35mm print arrive in a beaten up aluminium case covered in layers of stickers from all the destinations of its life, and the processes it then goes through to make its way to the screen. (Ask any film buff and they will have no trouble expounding the beauty of viewing a good print, but that’s another story.)

Even though we know the screening of a 35mm film is an analogue process, in a digital world it’s still somehow surprising how much of a physical procedure the strip of celluloid must go through before it reaches the screen.

A 35mm print on the light box

A 35mm print on the light box

Arriving in (extremely heavy) multiple reels, the prints must be examined over a light box before being ‘made up’ or spliced together onto larger reels, transferred to larger platters (if necessary) and eventually laced through the projector.

Projectionist Alena operates a projector

Projectionist Alena operates a projector

It’s mesmerising watching thousands of frames wind off the reel headed for their turn in the light. And there is something nice about the fact that despite all the advances in technology, this final stage in the screening of a film has remained essentially unchanged since the invention of cinema; a sequence of frames printed on transparent film moving past a bright light at a certain speed are projected via a lens to the screen, creating the magical illusion of a moving picture.

Film running through the projector

Projector spill onto floor behind

As the projector runs, a distorted version of the film spills out and is projected on the floor behind. Like the flicker of a tiny scratch on a print for a few frames, this imperfect idiosyncrasy of the technology is a reminder of the character of the medium. It’s nice to know that although no longer the dominant format for screening a film, the 35mm print has a future at places like ACMI.

Words and Images courtesy of Field Carr, Creative Media Designer, ACMI

View more pictures from Field’s trip to the ACMI Bio Box in our Flikr gallery: Lights and Magic: Behind the Scenes in ACMI Cinemas.

*Derived from booths built to house the Biograph projector, built by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company – a motion picture company founded in 1895 and active until 1928 that was devoted entirely to film production and exhibition.

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