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Projection Perfection

Tuesday 18 March 2014, 11:10

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

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There was a letter sent out recently about how to correctly show Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is not the first time a director has recognised the importance of the projectionist...

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Grand Budapest Hotel review

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    Comment number 1.

    Yeah this is all rather fascinating Mark, but a feedback video regarding users comments would be nice sometime soon. I understand you are a busy chap, but surely in amongst all these topics a feedback one could exist sometime soon?

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    Comment number 2.

    It's kind of sad we're talking of automating so many of these jobs; part of me wonders if we haven't realised the terrible cost of the convenience/speed of digital projection. One or more people not needed and out of work, trained to do a job that arguably does seem to be dying out thanks to the miracle of digital technology. Whilst convenience is a big part of it, I also wonder how much more these big plexes and distributors are making now they're having to pay less wages?

    I've often thought about the projectionists though; I wondered if they ever got sick of Jurassic Park, I wonder how depressed they got with the success of Titanic and there has even been a moment I felt genuine pity for them - the one film I ever walked out of was Alone In The Dark, and it took a few days before I thought, "... and the projectionist has to see that pile of (censored) EVERY SINGLE NIGHT!"

    I wonder though how many "projectionists" will see this letter; given the choice, I think most modern 'cinemas' have already gone digital, haven't they? It's a nice thought - this is the sort of movie that calls for a projectionists eye for detail. But how many are simply going to put in a disc and press play?

    I dunno. I just think it's sort of sad, really.

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    Comment number 3.

    If this film has different scenes in different aspect ratios, what will they do if it makes it to TV?

    Because some people have 16:9 TVs and other people have 4:3 TVs.

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    Comment number 4.

    kjhskj75: Same as they did with 'The Dark Knight': expect the audience to have suitable equipment and to know how to operate it!
    People who watch films STILL own 4:3 televisions? Really? Nah, not when 16:9 sets are less than £200.

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    Comment number 5.

    Interestingly, the whole projection/aspect ratio did rear its ugly head when I went to view The Grand Budapest Hotel today, but not in the way I was expecting.

    Knowing full well that the film would be presented in a number of different aspect ratios, I was initially distressed by the fact that all of the advertisements and trailers before the film were clearly cropped, thinking I would have to make a mad dash to the 'projectionist' (if the cinema even had one) so they could sort the error before the film.

    But when the film started there seemed to be no issue at all (although I am trying remember whether that initial Fox title card did 'fill' the screen)

    I wonder if whether the film and its variety of aspect ratios caused such confusion and contradiction that the only way to get around the technology was to sacrifice the trailers and advertisements beforehand (clearly the better choice). Was this anyone else's experience in Vue?

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    Comment number 6.

    Unfortunately, last time I went to see a film at the Prince Charles it was another Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Soon after the film started I noticed that the film was being projected about six inches off the left and right edges of the screen. Hating to be 'that guy' I went and told an usher who was out in the foyer, and after walkie-talkie contact with the projectionist he reported that the projectionist noted the problem but decided not to change it because adjusting the projection would be 'more distracting' than having the wrong size on the screen. In other words he was reluctant to make an idiot of himself by effectively admitting to those who hadn't noticed that he'd messed up projecting the film. It's a shame because generally I love the Prince Charles - but if only all their projectionists approached their work with the same seriousness and attention to detail that your story in this blog suggests!...

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    Comment number 7.

    When I saw Grand Budapest Hotel, I anticipated that it might be problematic for projectionists.

    I am a projectionist for a mobile cinema service. I appreciate that this isn't the same as a proper cinema projectionist (for better or worse, I missed out on two opportunities earlier in my life to join their ranks); it's more like being a roadie for an invisible band. We haul speakers, amp, cables, blu-ray players, digital projectors and a variety of screens around to our venues in village halls and community centres.

    Framing the picture is one of the most important parts of our set up, and my thought whilst watching Grand Budapest Hotel was that I'd better warn my colleagues about the shifting aspect ratio. Our practice is usually to find a very light frame near the beginning of the film (it's easier to see the edges of the frame) and frame and focus the picture on that. I noted that the main story in Grand Budapest Hotel is good ol' Academy 4:3, the earlier scenes whilst in the wider ratios 1.85:1 and I'm guessing 2.35:1, the latter used for the main secondary timeline with Jude Law and F Murray Abraham and, as encoded within 1.85:1 frame is letterboxed and does not fill the screen vertically. The 4:3 bulk of the film is pillarboxed and does fill the screen vertically. On some screens framing on the Law/Abraham thread, would leave a substantial amount of the rest of the film spilling off the edges.

    Over time our task has been complicated by the fact that we use screens of different sizes and shapes (currently I use a 14x8 screen which is nearly 16:9 for practical purposes, but I've also used 14x10, 12x9, a variety of screens owned by the halls and in one instance, as the venue insists a larger but duller than our screens, blank wall). Also, when I started, our central distributor insisted on providing us with trailers and shorts encoded, mostly letterboxed in 4:3 format (in some instances jumping format between shorts on the same disc), whilst our main features are encoded within 16:9 (even 4:3 The Artist was pillarboxed in 16:9). In some instances this meant either moving the projector (and player and amp and all carefully secured cables) between the shorts and trailers and the feature, or sacrificing the shorts/trailers to a smaller size, and it nearly always required manual adjustments to the projectors native aspect ratio settings and to zoom and focus.

    Once I nearly showed The Woman in Black in the wrong ratio, the shorts were in 4:3, and I framed the film as 16:9, but the projector was still in 4:3 mode, I initially didn't catch it as I was using a shot of Ciaran Hinds for the framing/focus and his face looks stretched in any projection configuration.

    Whilst I'm sure I have a different set of problems than our current cinema projectionists, I do directly receive kudos (and occasionally infamy) from our audience, as I am usually positioned within their midst. Sometimes I am thanked so effusively by audience members, it's as if I made the picture myself. Mine is, literally, a reflected glory.

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    Comment number 8.

    Having no foreknowledge of GBH's changing aspect ratios, I was delighted to be treated to such a charming film that represented the film periods so well while being such a rollicking fun film all over. The closest thing to it I'd guess might be the Aviator with it's changing use of different Technicolor styles. As for projectionists, I worked in a cinema when I was much younger and got to know a number of them. Their skill at keeping the film going if there was a break and the audience not realizing it fascinated me. When there was a projectionist's strike [in Canada, 1996] the crowds just streamed by them not caring and just wanting to go see a picture. but I knew it was a bad sign that nobody cared nor had the discerning eye to spot flaws in the presentation, and that their days were numbered. I am always that person who gets up to gripe about the poor projection quality, I feel it is necessary to let the cinema management know that people are fully aware of what level of quality they should be seeing, and all too frequently leave and get a refund if they don't correct it. the cinema-going experience has de-volved so terribly that going at all is a horrible experience, with people making calls, texting, on facebook- at times I feel I am the only one there who paid to see a film, and again I leave when it's that bad. It has of course become so bad at cinemas that I rarely go at all now unless it is something special [like GBH].I used to go to the cinema 5 or 6 times a week, going to see everything regardless of what it was just to experience as much film as I could but it simply isn't enjoyable anymore. the multi-plexes, digital projection and the end of the usher [who has yet to be mentioned] also created this dead zone of cinema where film lovers can no longer enjoy the night out. it's not your living room afterall, and people seem to have lost sight of how selfish and ill-mannered they have become in an age of social media -fueled narcissism. fortunately there are a few gems that still exist and if you go at the right time you might just be able to enjoy a film at the cinema like you could ages ago.

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    Comment number 9.

    Last Chief Projectionist standing at Curzon Mayfair. There really shouldn't be any confusion projecting GBH. It should be presented using DCI 1.85:1. Any discrepancy that people are finding is more likely to be that the ratios on the projector need some attention. The problem is, it's only when you get an exacting film like GBH that errors like ratios being off show themselves. The Fox logo should fill the screen then the first opening scene/piece to camera is cropped on all sides. So there's actually 4 ratios/picture sizes in the film. Was a bit disappointed as I never got 'the projectionist letter' with the DCP though. I liked a good laugh. It's sweet that film makers still think that there are qualified projectionists out there to read the letter. Not many of us left at this point and who knows how long we've got left. Will keep doing what we do until the hammer eventually falls.

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    Comment number 10.

    The letter made bugger all difference when I first saw The Grand Budapest Hotel at the Middlesbrough Cineworld. The picture was zoomed in so, in all cases, the top and bottom of the picture was missing and the subtitles and captions could not be seen properly. I didn't want to miss any of the film by going to find someone and inform them of the problem, so I contacted Cineworld on their website and, when I saw it again a few days later, the projector put the whole picture on the screen. (They sent me two e-tickets by way of apology but, as I have an Unlimited card, they were no good to me so I sent them to my parents.)

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    Comment number 11.

    We always laughed about those letters in the projection booth. Listen Mr Director, you do your job, and I'll do mine, OK? We pinned up the Michael Bay letter on your dartboard.

    Projection is dead, in all but the most arthouse of cinemas. We went from a 5.5 man projection/maintenance team to all those jobs being taken up by a General manager in the office programming the computer once a week and doing all the other cinema maintenance as well as running concessons, programming, media, managing the staff and dealing with the customers.

    I still hope my prediction comes true - 5 to 10 years, all but the most popular multiplexes will be closed.

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    Comment number 12.

    Thank you for the education. I worked as a projectionist for Saatch & Saatchi directly for the brothers at the group in 1988.

    Television is destroyed by the dumbed down nature to receive ratings. We all know this that high ratings does not a measure of quality, in fact, probably the reverse.

    I am no snob. I like my television trashy. However, a film director referred me to this blog. I am thrilled as now I understand we will get the "television" we have been denied. If 300 people watch one program and it is the best thing they have seen and educates then it has succeeded.

    I now write and expect my book to made into a film. I would like top quality film critics to mentor me at the writing stage and suggest directors. Is that delusional?

    A critic like Mark is like goldust.

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    Comment number 13.

    The subject of the importance of the cinema projectionist is one that I agree wholeheartedly with you on Mark. However, the reason why multiplexes get away without using a projectionist is because the vast majority of people don't even notice the difference. What is needed is an education on the topic. It's time to don the leather-patch jumper and make a Culture Show Special.

    ps. As important as cinema projectionists are, I do think that it's quite delusional of Michael Bay to believe that they have the power to make his films look good. An improvement might be achieved however by turning the projector light levels right down.

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    Comment number 14.

    Despite being at an annoyingly ubiquitous sweet shop with a video screen, I found the picture projected perfectly leaving me to enjoy an interesting, if a little over-quirky, film.

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    Comment number 15.

    What I've found over the years during the transition to digital, speaking as projectionist, is that the 'old' skills of presentation at the point of starting a show at least, are pretty much redundant. If the lights and curtains can all be controlled individually by the projector, the presentation skills of old are now transferred into the programming of those cues in the playlists. The work and time involved in presenting a film is now done at the print/DCP rehearsal stage, where the cues are placed and programmed, rather than done manually when the show actually starts.

    Admittedly, presentation in most multiplexes, in terms of curtains closing and opening, to cover scope changes for example, is now irrelevant as most multiplexes don't have curtains or even masking anymore, but for those cinemas that retain those things, the aspects that separate a cinema from a 'generic shoe box' with a video screen at one end, it's still important for someone to be present and put in the work upfront to ensure that the presentation is all that it can be, so that all the cues are correct for when either a manager presses play or for when the scheduler starts a show.

    Presentation is still something that needs to be done ahead of time but the problem is that management misconception is often that 'automation' means the work is done by the projector by magic and that no human input is involved. This is down to a lack of knowledge on the management's part as to what the projectionist does and what the projector can do. It's always been this way but what has changed over the last 5-10 years is that where once the experience and knowledge of the projectionist was valued, it is increasingly looked on as an unecessary liability and a costly business overhead by those counting the beans.

    I think that in certain circles, it is acknowledged that projectionists were cut back too far over past few years, to the bone and into the marrow, so I remain hopeful that mistakes can be learnt from going forward in that regard. Curiously though, and this should come as no surprise at all. the drastic cutting of projectionists has, from what I've seen over the last 10 years, not led to a similar decrease of managers. Roughly speaking the ratio of managers to projectionists used be 5-1. Now it's 5-1. So not entirely sure where the savings are made other than the fact those new manages are now on zero hour contracts (whereas previous managers were guaranteed 40hrs full time) but that's a whole other story.

    I'm just grateful to still be allowed to do a job that I love for however long that may be. The down side to this of course is that day to day and week to week, I have to live with the worry of knowing that any minute, someone will make the decision to bring my 17 years in the job to an end.

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    Comment number 16.

    Edit: Error as I was typing on my phone. Manager-Projectionist raito should read 'was 5-2.5, now 5-1. Would edit my post but doesn;t appear that there's an option to do so.

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    Comment number 17.

    Done it again. My correction is still wrong. Seriously can we not edit our posts? And can my fingers not do what's asked of them? I'll try again using my small fingers.

    Management - Projectionist ratio when we only ran 35mm for 2 screens 12 years ago used to be 3-2.5. The .5 wasn't half a projectionist, just a part timer who did one day a week and more when covering holidays.

    Now, with digital projection, it's 5-1. Of those managers now, 4 also run shows when I'm off.

    I think that's correct this time.


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Outspoken, opinionated and never lost for words, Mark is the UK's leading film critic.

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