Art & Design


Interview with the Projectionist

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Just because MIFF has drawn its curtains doesn’t mean Melbourne stops being the place to see cult and classic cinema, and no-one does it better than The Astor. With its double features, choc ices and resident cat it’s Melbourne’s year-round film festival.

We caught up with The Astor’s proprietor and projectionist George Florence to find out what really goes on in that little box beyond the back row.

Milk Bar: When did you first realise you wanted to be a projectionist?
George Florence: My uncle ran a chain of Greek language movie theatres in Melbourne and around Australia. As a young kid one of my earliest memories was going to one of the projection rooms with my dad, which is where I became fascinated with the technology and romance of the beam of light entertaining thousands of people.

I did the Projectionist’s course at RMIT and when The Astor closed as a Greek cinema in 1982, my dad suggested I go look at it ‘as you’ve always wanted to run your own theatre.’ I thought ‘yes, it would be fun to run your own theatre’.

MB: What’s involved in making sure everything runs smoothly in the projection box?
GF: The Astor is traditional as it’s manually operated. Reels have to be assembled, checked and broken down before and after each screening. This process is the most time consuming and important part of the whole procedure as any faults, damage or mislabeled spools (common for ex-multiplex prints) need to be rectified prior to projection.

We primarily use 35mm and 70mm film prints and this medium is very bulky, heavy and labour intensive to handle. After the film is checked it’s manually threaded into both projectors, after adding other elements like trailers, ads and the bits and pieces we show. The correct lenses and sound formats are selected for the particular film, and finally the light beam is adjusted for optimum output.

MB: Do you get to watch the films once they’re up a running?
GF: We really don’t have time to watch an entire film from the projection room, there’s too much to do. As we usually run two different films (double features) per session there is the constant keeping up of film assembly and break down to occupy most of your time, plus we constantly monitor the focus and sound and other technical requirements to make sure the presentation is as good as we can get it.

There is also the presentation side to our process: the timing of lights, curtains and music to create a seamless show. If the audience notices something wrong we haven’t done our job properly. Once the audience is engaged in the flow of the movie, to make a mistake brings them out of their suspended state of mind back to reality and then we have failed in the proper creation of the illusion.

Most multiplex and other cinemas are almost fully automated in relation to the presentation side of things – the transition between formats, lighting and other aspects is handled by a computer with all its resultant lack of emotive input to the sensibility requirements of each programme. For example how we process the lighting, music, curtains, sound levels etc depends on each film’s style and feel — and this is determined by experience and the correct mood creation for each session.

MB: Are there career projectionists, or is it more a transient field?
GF: Projection used to be a highly skilled craft, like cinematography. We are the other side of the camera. If the projection is lousy it doesn’t matter how much skill went into creating a film, it can be ruined. There used to be a projectionist license system run by the Health Department. This ensured and put onus on the projectionist as the responsible person/s (there used to be up to four personnel in each projection room in the early years of projection) for the safety and correct operation of the theatre. They were trained in not only the mechanical, electrical, optical and sound aspects of their craft, but also in the safety elements of fire prevention, and in effect were responsible for the safe operation of the venue. Now you can have 2,000 people sitting in a 20 screen multiplex staffed by four 16 year-olds with virtually minimal experience in any of the above.

So, because the license was disbanded around the early 1990s, the once well paid professional status of projectionist became lost as trained operators left the industry to more well paid positions in electronics or other associated areas commensurate with their skills.  There are of course some career projectionists still around, but the majority of staff in the projection rooms of multiplexes is most likely transient students on their way to something else.

MB: How is digital filmmaking affecting your role?
GF: Digital presentation of movies is rapidly and radically altering the way movies will be seen in the future. To call digital ‘film’ is a real misnomer. It cannot be film any more — that is the physical photo-chemical strip of polyester or celluloid that makes up a spool. I guess the closest term would be pixels.

We have just installed the latest state-of-the-art Barco 32B 4K resolution projection system. It truly is quite incredible, but it does not have the poetry of film. The two technologies are totally different each with its own very distinct benefits and shortfalls.

Digital presentation can allow entire multiplexes to be un-staffed in the projection area and be fully automated and run by a computer. Some say this is a good thing to alleviate the horror stories we hear about poor projection — a situation that ironically the industry brought upon itself by removing professional standards in projection training.

MB: Favourite movie to project?
GF: 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm — my own print (no contest).

The Astor is open every day except Christmas
1 Chapel St, St. Kilda

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