Arts 101: Inside the Projectionist’s Booth

It's much more than flipping a switch. For Tom Letness, projectionist and owner of the Heights Theater on Central Avenue in Columbia Heights, film projection is a craft.

Every film Letness receives, he manually inspects "on the bench" -- the work table in the booth -- to make sure the film doesn't contain bad splices or damaged sprockets, and to ensure it has cue marks, those black dots that appear in the upper-right corner of a film frame to help projectionists start a new reel during reel-to-reel changeovers.


Projectionist Tom Letness inspects a film "on the bench."

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Letness then previews at least two reels of the film to make sure the aperture, focus and sound levels are properly set. "Time you spend checking the film saves a lot of grief during the presentation," he explains. "I believe that if people are going to come back on a regular basis, you have to have good presentation."

Inside the projection booth at the Heights are two Philips Norelco model AAII 35/70mm mechanical film projectors, both dating from the 1960s. "It's the greatest projector that was ever made, hands down," Letness says. "They are still running and they show a great image and I'm able to do so much with them."

Letness uses his Norelcos for many purposes: to screen new 35mm releases -- on this night, a print of Clint Eastwood's biopic J. Edgar is prepped and recumbent on an adjacent platter; to screen classic silent films and 1930s Hollywood fare; to project the Fifties' widescreen Cinemascope and Vista Vision films; and to show 70mm prints that became popular in the '60s and '70s and ended with 1997's megahit Titanic.


The Philips Norleco AAII projector can play either 35mm or 70mm film. Letness added several different audio readers to enable multiple soundtrack formats.

Having two projectors allows Letness to do reel-to-reel changes, a necessity for screenings of archival films, which are often from such sources as the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and New York's Museum of Modern Art. Those archives enforce strict rules that prohibit projectionists from automating -- essentially, taping together -- film reels. "A lot of these classic films, it's the only print they have left," Letness explains.

Alongside the Norelco projectors, the cooling fans whirr on a DLP Cinema projector, which just completed a screening of The Nutcracker ballet. A hulking black block aimed out a porthole, the DLP slightly resembles a 19th-century naval cannon; as a digital projector, however, the DLP is strictly 21st-century technology. Next year, Letness plans to upgrade the eight-year-old DLP to Digital Cinema.

"Avatar was the big game-changer because it was making so much money," Letness says. "We want to be able to show any 3D if it comes out. In order to do that, we have to be digital because that's where the technology is going. ... For the average cinema, the average multiplex, their film days are, if not done, almost done."


At the AMC Southdale 16 in Edina this week, Jason Reitman's Young Adult -- partially shot on location in Minnesota -- is being shown on film. But according to Ryan Noonan, director of public relations at AMC Theatres, film presentations are becoming less common for the cinema chain. "Approximately two-thirds of our auditoriums at AMC Theatres are digital as the conversion process is ongoing," Noonan explained via e-mail. "With a few exceptions, it's AMC's goal to be fully digital during the next few years."

In his recent book, The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex, BBC film critic Mark Kermode cautions about the rapid proliferation of digital cinema and what that means for projectionists. "The great profession of projection (in the traditional sense of the craft) is in the process of becoming obsolete," Kermode writes.

Letness, however, believes digital and film can peacefully coexist.

"Digital is not the enemy," Letness insists. "I think for a new release, if your digital system is set up right, if you have a bright lamp house, if everything is the way it should be, I think it looks really great."

Letness says digital will enable him to start a showing at the Heights from vacation in Florida using his smartphone; he also says digital provides many more opportunities for contemporary alternative programming, such as operas, ballets, concerts and stage plays.

"I think for actual mainstream theaters, film will be gone forever," Letness says. "But for theaters like mine and other theaters that already specialize in film and archive screenings, film will continue."


The Heights Theater

One pervasive attraction remains, no matter the format: "I think the biggest thing is the community event," Letness says. "It really is the communal event of watching the film together, even though I don't know if people necessarily realize that."

What do you think about digital cinema versus film? Share your thoughts and experiences below.