10 Questions for... a Projectionist

Posted on October 1, 2012 by Paul Wilmott

Categories: Cinema Careers, General

Paul Wilmott (left) and Jason Bond in the projection booth at Saffron Screen
Paul Wilmott (left) and Jason Bond in the projection booth at Saffron Screen

For the first in a new series of posts giving an insight into specific film industry careers, we focus on one of the most crucial roles in any cinema: projection. Paul Wilmott is Technical Manager at one of our venues, the not-for-profit community cinema Saffron Screen. Based within Saffron Walden County High School, Saffron Screen is run by 15 part-time staff, including Paul, as well as over 100 volunteers. Founded in 2006, the cinema acquired a digital projector in 2011 following a successful fundraising campaign. Read more about Saffron Screen’s development in our case study.

Cue the questions…

How long have you been a projectionist? How did you get started – what training did you do?

I started as a volunteer projectionist when Saffron Screen opened in 2006, although I’ve had an interest in the technical side of cinema ever since I was a child. My grandfather had an 8mm camera and projector and, as a student I got involved in making a couple of films as cameraman and film editor.

When Saffron Screen started there were 4 volunteer projectionists and we had a one-day training session at the Picturehouse in Cambridge. Afterwards we were shadowed by freelance projectionists for the first couple of months and then we were on our own! We tended to work in pairs until we were a bit more confident with the equipment. After 6 months I applied for the (still) vacant part-time projectionist role. This was perfect timing for me as I also do some work as an IT consultant but was looking to do less. Combining both jobs has worked well.

What inspired you to become a projectionist was it an interest in the technical aspects of projection or a love of cinema, or both?

Primarily, the technical side. When I moved into my current house about 18 years ago I embarked on a project to convert my garage into a cinema, complete with 7 cinema seats, a 6ft wide screen and 7.1 Dolby Surround Sound. This was something I had always wanted to do since I was a kid. The chance to play with professional kit and screen films at Saffron Screen was too good an opportunity to miss!

Are there any particularly memorable cinematic experiences you can remember influencing your love of film?

Although it’s the technical side of cinema that is of most interest to me, I am a bit of a sci-fi fan and it is easy to recall my most memorable cinematic experience. The film was 2001: A Space Odyssey and I saw it at the ABC New Bristol Centre in 1968. It was in 70mm with surround sound and I sat in the front row totally in awe a great cinematic experience!

Please describe a typical working day in the projection booth at Saffron Screen.

I’m not sure there really is a typical day in the projection room! Because I work part-time I tend to do a few hours every day, either in the projection room or at home. Since going digital, I spend a lot of time creating DCPs for pre-show slides which contain ads for forthcoming special events and birthday messages. I prefer to create a DCP rather than run directly from a PC as they can be integrated into a playlist on the server, making it easier for my volunteer projectionists to use. Ingesting films, trailers and ads for each weekend also takes up quite a bit of time. Occasionally we screen locally made ads which also need to be converted to a DCP. At the moment I am converting entries to our 90 second film competition (both to DCP for screening and to DVD for our judges). And there are also regular checks on the equipment to make sure it is all working correctly.

I usually do one or two of the screenings over a weekend and most of the live satellite broadcasts. As we are based in a school, we have limited opening times, but we usually do 6 or 7 screenings over a weekend and during school holidays we also have some midweek shows. I have a team of 7 volunteer projectionists who do all the other screenings.

What is the busiest day of the week?

Thursday is probably my busiest day, as I have to ingest the films that have arrived and chase those that haven’t (along with chasing missing KDM’s or requesting new ones if they’re faulty). The ICO are very helpful here! The Pearl & Dean ads usually arrive on a Wednesday, so these can also be ingested. If I’m lucky, I can set up the playlists for all the weekends screenings and once the school have finished I can use the auditorium to test each playlist to make sure they all run correctly. Usually, however, there are a number of things missing and its Friday before I can check everything out.

What are the typical issues that come up?

Without doubt the main issue is films or KDM’s not arriving! Occasionally the KDM does not match the film, usually a slightly different version of the film has been shipped and it has a filename that does not tie up with the KDM. Another pet hate is that KDM’s are often timed to start very close to the play date and this often means that I’m unable to test the film prior to screening.

Saffron Screen acquired a digital projector in 2011. What are the pros and cons of screening mainly 35mm, and now mainly digital films?

As much as I love 35mm film, digital has been really good for Saffron Screen. We usually screen films 2nd run, 6-8 weeks after release, and many 35mm prints were not in great condition. Digital removes that problem with a pristine picture every time. It has also given us the chance to screen live content which is very popular with our audience.

Set-up time for films is very similar to 35mm, but I now no longer have to stay late to take down a 35mm film in order to get it shipped off to the next cinema the following morning! Its also much easier to carry the films from our drop-box to the projection room!

Looking forward, I am trying to implement a bit more automation, which is easier with the digital kit. This will enable us to have a back-up in the event of a projectionist not being available.

How has going digital altered your job?

Its much more IT-based now, but as that’s my background I’m very comfortable with all the new equipment. Over the last year I have done a lot of research into the opportunities that the digital kit provides and I am sure I will be doing a lot more. Two particular areas that have proved especially useful have been the creation of DCP’s using free software, and being able to ingest directly from our PC.

This is a bit off topic but, you attended the Europa Cinemas Young Audience seminar in Bologna in 2011. I wonder if you’ve any thoughts on the training?

I went to Europa CinemasYoung Audience Seminar in Bologna in 2011. Although this was not targeted at technical issues, I did find it very interesting. In particular, meeting with people from other cinemas across Europe gave different perspectives on how we are trying to improve in this area.

There was a very interesting session on use of social media which we are now actively pursuing, and we are also looking to taking Saffron Screen out into the community with screenings in social clubs, youth clubs, village halls, etc.

Finally: you won the BKSTS Projection Team of the Year award in 2010. How did this come about?

When I started as a projectionist I went along to one of the annual projectionists training courses run by the BKSTS. As a result I joined the BKSTS as an associate member, and became a full member 3 years later. Attending these training courses and getting help from a number of members of the Cinema Technology Committee (CTC) has been immensely useful in setting a high standard of projection at Saffron Screen.

In late 2010, I received a call from Alan McCann of the CTC asking if he could come and have a look round Saffron Screen as we had been shortlisted for the BKSTS Projection Team Of The Year. After the subsequent visit, Alan confirmed that we had won the award, being the first community cinema to win the award. Part of the citation read:

The projection staff are again almost all volunteers but their operation is totally professional. At a recent assessment the high standards of the projection equipment, box cleanliness and film care were evident, and the high standard of screen presentation matched or exceeded that of many commercial cinemas.

So far, this has definitely been the highlight of my projectionist career!

Thank you, Paul!

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