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How we show you movies

If you've ever wondered how we show 35mm films, here it is explained (more or less).

Below is Steve, our head projectionist, with the two projectors in the big theater. He has his hand on our NEC NC2000C DCI-compliant digital projector we got last winter. If you're reading this before November 10, 2012, please help us buy the rest of the digital system for this theater and outfit the small theater with a projector, server and sound processor. Without a playback server and sound equipment we are unable to play movies in the DCP format---the format in which all new films will be released in the future. And the future is just about here. It is important that we make this upgrade since all the major studios are abandoning 35mm film for new releases in early 2013. And we want to show you new releases. Anyway, on to the projectors!

We currently use the digital to show our bumpers, no-texting PSAs, trailers, and the occasional Blu-ray. Below the digital projector is the 35mm. Probably 97 percent of all movies you've seen in the big theater were shown on this baby. But how does the film get into the projector? Platters and pulleys:

We show our films with a platter system. The film is pulled off one platter and wound onto another. Above is The Master ready to go. The film is pulled from the center of the reel through an apparatus called the brain. The film goes in through the brain, up and around a series of pulleys and down through the projector, around more pulleys and onto the take-up platter, ready to be shown again. No rewinding required---like an 8-track!

Here's a semi-closeup of the brain. The film goes through a rocker arm that controls how fast the platter spins, thus maintaining a smooth feed. If you've ever been in the theater when a movie stops playing (and maybe burns through), it's most likely caused by a bad brain. If the platter stops spinning (or spins too slow) film will quickly wrap around the brain (the dreaded brain wrap) till the friction becomes too great and stops the film flow. No fun for everyone.

So, how does the film get on the platter?

Movies come in plastic boxes these days. An average film is divided into five to seven reels. Above is The Imposter, with the first reel out of the box already. The reels are wound onto the platter (hopefully in the correct order) and spliced together with tape:

Here's where we add the subliminal messages. It takes Steve a half hour to forty-five minutes to build a print. It takes me a bit longer. Here's another shot of The Imposter being built:

The film is being wound onto the top platter. There's a complete movie on the second platter. And the first reel of The Imposter is spinning on the make-up table.

Here're some other shots of the projector:

Here's where we turn on the super-bright xenon bulb. And below is a look at the projector head, full of sprockets and light. The golden cylinder is the lens.


And this is how we show most of our movies. 35mm has been the standard format for commercial projection for over a hundred years. The platter system is a bit newer, having been introduced in the late 60s. But their days in multiplexes and first-run cinemas are at an end. As I said earlier, studios will stop releasing new movies on 35mm in early 2013. This is truly a historic moment in cinema, though certainly unnoticed by many. How long 35mm will last in niche markets, repertory theaters, museums and rural third-run cinemas is anybody's guess. And then how long will directors continue to shoot on film? Ragtag will keep its 35mm projectors but no-one knows what print availability will be like in a year. Time will tell.

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