“This is not how they do it at the multiplex,” he said. “Not even close.”
Not in the digital age.
Locascio, 28, is a movie projectionist who can do things the old-fashioned way, operating projectors with big reels of celluloid. Projectionists, he says, are a dying breed and he learned much of what he knows in a long, narrow room of clattering machinery: a projectionist’s booth at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York.
The Jacob Burns, as it is known, operates a media arts lab that teaches digital literacy as well as a nonprofit art house that was screening “Where’s Poppa?” — a 1970 comedy directed by Carl Reiner — at 9:20 in theater two. But it also trains projectionists, and in an art house, that means learning to handle more than digital files.
It means learning to handle celluloid.
“It was a whole new education,” said Jesse Modica, who as the center’s technical director is Locascio’s boss. Modica had worked in commercial theaters before he arrived at the Jacob Burns in 2007.
“My previous training didn’t include any of the nuances,” he said, but he learned from the projectionists at the Jacob Burns. And now Modica trains newcomers like Locascio in the mechanics of showing film.
Training a projectionist is “like giving somebody private lessons,” Modica said. “A lot of this is muscle memory. Once I teach someone, ‘OK, this is how you inspect the film, this is how you get the sound to work, this is how you make sure you’ve got the right aspect ratio,’ they’ve got to remember come showtime. It’s like someone taking karate. You can learn all the karate you want in the dojo, but are you going to remember when you’re being attacked in an alley?”
The Jacob Burns has five theaters. It can show digital films in all of them and celluloid in three. Even then the newest of the projectors are almost antiques. Modica said they are only 10 years old, but the company that made them has gone out of business.
The projectors running “Where’s Poppa?” are older: They were originally used at Lincoln Center, Modica said, and probably date to the 1970s.
For generations, movie theaters had two projectors for each screen. The movies were cut into segments, each about 20 minutes long and each on a separate reel. Every 20 minutes, as the end of one reel approached, the projectionist had to start the next reel on the other projector.
There was a reason for the two-projector arrangement: the bulb in the projector had a life span of not much longer than 20 minutes. The projectionist had to install a new bulb every time he — and most projectionists were men in those days — changed a reel. Longer-lasting bulbs were perfected in the 1960s and 1970s, and with them reel-like platters big enough for a whole movie to fit on just one.
That changed the labor equation. Projectionists became what Modica calls “a niche trade.” In the 1940s, there were more than 30,000 projectionists nationwide and 2,400 in New York City, but with the rise of television in the 1950s, “the number declined as more Americans chose to stay home and watch TV,” labor economists Robert D. Atkinson and John Wu wrote in 2017 in a paper published by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
By 2015, there were fewer than 5,000 nationally. “There’s a supply shortage,” said Douglas McLaren, manager of Cornell Cinema, the campus film exhibition program at Cornell University. “There are not enough jobs. Also, film exhibition now is becoming a rarefied thing, so the old-school projection mentality, when the profession employed thousands of people and film prints were expendable, is gone. There’s been a need to step up the quality of work that projectionists do.”
That has happened as film has all but disappeared from most theaters. Most large chain theaters “have zero film,” said Tal Marks, a former chief projectionist at the Museum of Modern Art who is now the museum’s audiovisual technical manager. “The mainstream moviegoing audience is not seeing film anymore. The blockbuster hits are digital representations.”
And in most multiplexes, the theater managers run the projectors, which is how Modica got his start, at a chain-owned theater in Bronxville, New York.
He began as a 16-year-old usher in 1995, the year “Toy Story,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance” and “Apollo 13” came out.
The first time he went into the projection booth and saw the film going into the projector, “I was in awe, I was scared, I didn’t want to touch it, I didn’t want to be responsible for anything going wrong.”
The theater manager doubled as the projectionist. Modica learned the basics of projection after he was promoted to assistant manager at another theater in the chain a couple of years later.
Locascio also started as an usher when he was a teenager and went on to study filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. After he graduated in 2012, the Jacob Burns hired him as a projectionist, offering on-the-job training, even though he had learned about film editing at SVA.
“I do feel it’s a dying field, the film end of things,” Locascio said. Still, he added, “with digital, you still need someone there for quality control, making sure the volume is right, the brightness is right.”
When he is not behind the projectors at the Jacob Burns, he works on film crews as a focus puller, responsible for keeping the camera focused when the director yells “Action.” He has worked on the Netflix movie “White Girl,” the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” and the teen horror film “The Ranger.” The Jacob Burns schedules him as a projectionist three or four times a week.
Movies like “Where’s Poppa?” are sent by a film archive and are treated with care. “They’re not being mass produced anymore,” Modica said. “We can’t say, ‘Hey distributor, give me another reel,’ because there isn’t another reel.” When a movie arrives from an archive, “We have to sign a release saying we will return this print in the condition it arrived in and if anything is wrong we accept responsibility. That puts a lot of pressure on.”
Is digital less stressful?
Yes and no, Modica said. “In the celluloid world,” he said, “a good projectionist could fix any technical or mechanical malfunction on the fly within minutes.” Digital projection is moving a projectionist’s duties “toward an IT job instead of a mechanical job.”
“The way these things work now, if there’s corrupt software, a projectionist can’t fix that in a few minutes,” he said. There are calls to a service desk somewhere. “If rebooting your server to your projector doesn’t fix whatever problem you’re having, you’re down” until a technician can come.
At 9:20, Locascio flipped a toggle switch marked “projector motor.” The clicking started. On the screen, the credits rolled.
In the booth, there was no time to follow the plot or laugh at the sight gags. Modica moved a digital projector out of the way so that he could reach the other reel-to-reel projector, and loaded the second reel of “Where’s Poppa?” On the screen, George Segal was taking a shower and shaving.
A few minutes later, a man in a gorilla suit was terrorizing Ruth Gordon, but Locascio did not notice. He was concerned about something else.
“When is the next show?” he asked.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.