Film Collecting Basics(I. HIS

Chapter One

AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

GORDON R. BACHLUND, P. E.

NICKELODEON DAYS

In the earliest days of the public exhibition of movies, films were shot on George Eastman’s early 35mm film using Thomas Edison’s primitive cameras. These were distributed to exhibitors on 1,000-foot reels. The makers of these early films limited their running time (at "silent speed" which varied since cameras and projectors were hand-cranked, but later became standardized at 18 frames per second) to the capacity of a single reel (about 12 to 14 minutes), most Nickelodeons having but one projector. The moving image was the attraction, so even a twelve-minute show was a novelty worth at least a nickel! The "photoplay" with a plot and characters was yet to be born.

EARLY ADVANCES

As the film production and exhibition business developed, film makers turned their interest to more complex stories rather than simply the novelty of moving images. Multi-reel comedies and primitive "feature" films were distributed, and theaters equipped themselves with two or more projectors to afford continuous running. By the early 1930s, feature films were distributed on 2,000-foot reels, while "shorts" such as newsreels and cartoons continued to be, by virtue of their length distributed on 1,000-foot reels. A 1,000 foot reel runs something less than 10 minutes (35mm sound speed of 24 frames per second = 90 feet per minute), and a 2,000 foot reel something less than 20 minutes. This convention was necessary because of the limited burning time of the carbons in carbon arc lamps.

In a classic silent comedy,
Buster Keaton portrays a befuddled projectionist in a booth typical of the
early 1920s.

 

As the film production and exhibition business developed, filmmakers turned their interest to more complex stories rather than simply the novelty of moving images. Multi-reel comedies and primitive "feature" films were distributed, and theaters equipped themselves with two or more projectors to afford continuous running. By the late 1920s, feature films were being distributed on 2,000-foot reels (building codes by then had mandated separate "rewind rooms" for fire safety, based on the assumption that this reduced the quantity of film in the booth itself), while "shorts" such as newsreels and cartoons continued to be, by virtue of their lesser length, distributed on 1,000-foot reels.

A 1,000 foot reel runs something less than 10 minutes (35mm sound speed of 24 frames per second = 90 feet per minute), and a 2,000 foot reel something less than 20 minutes. This convention was necessary because of the limited burning time of the carbons in carbon arc lamps. A new "trim" (positive and negative) of carbons, depending upon their diameter and the current at which they were operated, might last anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes or so. It was always economically desirable to burn as much of each carbon as possible since operating cost has always been a big factor to theater operators large and small. "Carbon savers" (tightenable sleeves of copper) were sold so that one might "splice" two stubs together to lengthen a stub enough to fit the jaw (carbon holder) and burn for a full reel or at least a short. There may have been a flicker or two when the sleeve melted, should the projectionist have miscalculated, but a penny saved was, and continues to be, a penny earned. Only little stubs of carbons were discarded!

REVOLUTION

In 1927 the industry was shaken by the advent of "talking pictures." Early versions of synchronous sound recording and reproducing equipment included phonograph disks synchronized with film and actual sound on film. The Western Electric sound projector system of 1928 afforded facilities for both! Since pitch is related to film speed, a standardized constant film speed was required, and a speed of 24 frames/second was adopted as standard, and it remains the standard today for 16mm, 35mm and 70mm formats.

 

A 1928 projector featuring facilities for both sound-on-film (sound head below projector head) and sound-on-disk (turntable beneath lamphouse)

THE MAGIC OF THE "CHANGEOVER"

Multiple reel films required the projectionist to change reels every 7 to 18 minutes or so during a show. How was this done reliably and innocuously? By providing a timing (countdown) leader at the head of each reel, and cue marks at the end of each reel. The old "Academy" leader has a START frame followed by equally-spaced numbered frames 11 through 3 (16 frames apart), followed by three feet of black and then, voilà!, actual footage, while the newer SMPTE universal leader has a start frame followed by equally spaced numbered frames 8 through 2 (18 frames apart), each having a moving "clock hand" for precise timing.

There is a period of about 8 seconds of running time (at 90 feet per minute = about 12 feet) between the START frame and the first picture frame. And, there is a period of about 8 seconds of running time between the first and second set of cue marks. These are little circular dots or marks at the upper right hand corner of the projected picture applied to four frames [at 24 frames per second = 1/6th second] which is enough to not miss even if you blink. Cue marks are applied during the negative process so they are "built in" except for trailers. Often a projectionist with vision problems (there’s a scary thought!) would "enhance" the innocuous cue marks, either by augmenting them using a "cue maker" (a jig with four holes and a pin for sprocket hole alignment, and a hollow scoring tool that was inserted in the holes and rotated, thereby scraping away emulsion to form a white circle), or more casually and less professionally by manually scratching an "x" over the mark or by applying a mark with a "grease pencil."

Projectionists' reaction times vary, as do the starting times of projectors, so that a projectionist will, based on trial and error, determine which number frame to thread up at the projector picture aperture plate to ensure that the changeover between reels is "just right." When the scene fades to "black" at a changeover and then back to "white," you know you've got it right if the scene as projected indeed fades to "black" and then fades back to "white" evenly as the director intended.

Thus, except for the first reel of a show, which was often threaded up at or just before the 3 frame, all reels were threaded up at that pre-determined number. Shortly before (say a minute or two) the end of a reel, an end-of-reel alarm sounded whereupon the lamp was lighted and the screen was watched, and, at the first cue mark the projector was started. Then, the lamphouse manual dowser was opened (the light was not allowed to "cook" the electric dowser blade for too long lest it warp). At the second cue mark the changeover button was pushed to operate the electric dowsers (one opens and the other closes) and the sound changeover, if not integral with the dowser, was operated. Then, the picture was checked for focus and framing. (Remember that there are four sprocket holes per frame in 35mm and five per frame in 70mm, and the intermittent movement uses a sprocket, so it is possible to thread up "out of frame" if one is not careful.) The other projector’s manual lamp dowser was then promptly closed, the lamp extinguished, the projector stopped, the film removed and rewound, the lamp "re-trimmed," and the whole process started over. Thus lived the projectionist in his booth at the back of the theater. If he did his job correctly and professionally, no one ever noticed, but let him screw up just a little and the howls from the audience reminded him of his frail humanity!

SHOWMANSHIP

In addition to threading up, making changeovers, etc., projectionists were also true "showmen" of their time. Their artistic control of the house lights, footlights, title curtain, and sometimes special projected "scenic effects," as well as appropriate "non-synch" music before and after the show and during intermissions, was the trademark of a well-run movie palace. Even the most humble neighborhood theaters had many of these amenities. It would have been unthinkable not to close the title curtain between shows, or to switch the house lights on and off abruptly.

Today’s megaplexes have abandoned the elements of showmanship. Instead, their forte is "in-your-face" big screens and thundering, ear-splitting sound that will draw the home TV audience in for true "blockbuster" entertainment.

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PROGRESS

Movie film stock used to be a material called cellulose nitrate. "Nitrate" film was highly flammable, so projectors were built with fireproof "magazines" to accommodate the supply and take-up reels, and fire rollers were provided between the magazine and the projector head to prevent possible fire initiated at the projector head from reaching the reels. Since fire safety was an important issue, the NFPA and local building codes required projection booths to be of fireproof construction, to be provided with a second exit, and to contain a lavatory and a toilet so that the projectionist did not need to leave the booth at any time. Even the projection and observation ports in the wall had steel fire shutters arranged to close automatically in the event of fire, and a separate "rewind room" was provided. In the 1950s nitrate film was retired in favor of slow-burning cellulose acetate "safety" film. Yet even today you will find code requirements for signs to be posted in the projection booths of modern megaplexes that read "Safety Film Only – This Booth Not Approved for Nitrate Film," or words to that effect.

With the advent of the Xenon lamp, the old 2,000-foot reel magazines (obsolete since the use of flammable "nitrate" prints was abandoned in favor of nonflammable "safety" film prints) were removed and 6,000-foot reel arms applied. Then, every three 2,000-foot reels of a feature could be spliced together onto one 6,000-foot reel for a running time of a bit less than one hour. Since there were no carbons to adjust periodically or to replace, the projectionist could now leave the booth and work elsewhere for 45 minutes or so.

It was inevitable that someone should eventually devise a "platter" system that allowed an entire feature plus previews and "policy trailers" to be spliced together for continuous showing, thereby requiring only one projector. And, it was inevitable that "automation" would soon be added to control the entire show, from lights to the movie to the "non-synch" music. This enables one projectionist, and in most cases one non-union projectionist-manager, or worse one teenage snack bar attendant, to run multiple screens, which is where we are today except in some première first-run venues and retrospective cinemas.

Goodbye, projectionists and showmanship! You will be missed by those old enough to remember you.

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