Bringing the silver screen to life

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

Amanda Ireland, Prince Charles Cinema, LondonImage source, Richard Nicholson
Image caption,
Amanda Ireland, Prince Charles Cinema, London

At the start of the decade, many of Britain's cinemas made the switch from analogue projection to digital, changing forever the role of those inside the projection box, with many films now projected by a computer.

Photographer Richard Nicholson took a look inside that box, capturing those who have helped bring the silver screen to life.

"When I first stepped into a projection box, I was struck by the claustrophobic atmosphere," says Nicholson.

"It was a dark, cramped space, and, as the projector whirred into motion, it became increasingly hot and noisy.

"As I watched the projectionist wrestle with a giant spool of film, the scene reminded me of a railwayman shovelling coal into a locomotive."

Working with The Projection Project, Nicholson's pictures are accompanied by the thoughts of the projectionists, many of whom are experts on the history of cinema.

Nicholson usually works on a large-format film camera - but, paradoxically, for this project, he shot the images on a digital camera.

Following a test shoot, he realised he would require a vast amount of lighting to work on film, whereas a digital approach allowed him to use smaller flashguns to light the projection boxes.

With cinemas across the country still under threat from redevelopment and closure, it is perhaps the perfect time for this project.

Image source, Richard Nicholson
Image caption,
Peter Howden, Rio Cinema, Dalston, London

"I think it's a wasted opportunity if you go to a cinema and it's just a blank screen, and no curtains, with some feeble lighting, and it just sort of starts," said projectionist Peter Howden.

"I remember going to the cinema and the lights would change colour and the organist would come up out of the floor. It's simple and it's effective and it would be a pity to lose that.

"I think it's part of the magic of going to the cinema. Putting on a show rather than just showing a film."

The projectionist is the final step between the film and the public. And, for many, that flickering light that pierces the darkness of the cinema is still magical.

"When I used to go to the cinema with my mother, I was never looking at the film, I was always looking to see where it came from," said projectionist Rachel Dukes.

"In those days everybody used to smoke. And so when the beam of light was coming down, you'd have these pretty patterns of the smoke in the light.

"I'd be looking at these patterns and my mother would tell me off because she's paid for the tickets to watch the film and I'm not watching it.

"I'm looking to see where it's coming from."

Thankfully, the smoky cinema is no more, but it will be a sad day if the remaining sites capable of projecting film shut the gates once and for all.

The Projectionists is part of the Flatpack Film Festival and can be seen at The Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, 20-24 April 2016.

Image source, Richard Nicholson
Image caption,
Peter Bell and Alexa Raisbeck, National Film Theatre 1, BFI Southbank, London
Image source, Richard Nicholson
Image caption,
Ewen MacLeod, Arnolfini, Bristol
Image source, Richard Nicholson
Image caption,
Umit Mesut, Umit and Son, London
Image source, Richard Nicholson
Image caption,
Sam Bishop, The Electric, Birmingham
Image source, Richard Nicholson
Image caption,
Phil Fawke, Odeon Queensway, Birmingham