The Dying of the Light

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Recently, I watched a documentary called, “The Dying of the Light.” The documentary serves as an elegy to the world of the projection booth. Many projectionists, the last of the profession, talked of their love of film, the equipment, the work and the loss they felt during the transition to digital cinema.

I can relate. I was a projectionist for a decade for a major cinema chain up until the chain converted to DLP (Digital Light Projection). While I like DLP, I do sometimes feel wistful for the days of film. I couldn’t help but get a little misty-eyed while watching the documentary.

The film opens with a shot of the Victory theatre in Holyoke, MA, built in 1920. The theatre ceased operations in 1979. The booth was abandoned, left derelict in the years since. Equipment, film, old “Box Office” magazines dating back to 1965, graffiti and more littered the interior of the booth. The theatre had a stage, an orchestra pit, a balcony and a white movie screen. As of 2014, it was still standing, but empty.

Early in the documentary, one interviewee, Walter Gonet, retired projectionist at the Victory Theatre, said, “The booth itself is like a home, once you’re in there.”

I couldn’t agree more. The booth at first seems like a scary, intimidating place, filled with darkness. Once you’re in there, however, there is a certain magic to it that is difficult to simply let go. I spent several years working in a projection booth, repairing projectors, watching film move along rollers and building/breaking down film. I loved it, but I’m not sure I long for the olden days of yore to return. Being able to do this for almost a decade, however, translated to a love of the industry I still have today.

During that time, I read so many technical manuals, I learned more about mechanical engineering than I ever thought I would. I taught myself attention to detail and fixed more errors than I can count.

Then, there was that time an entire print fell on the floor…now THAT was a crazy night.  I love digital projection, too, simply because the movie looks the same after every play and film on the floor fiasco’s simply don’t happen anymore.

Watching the “The Dying of the Light,” brought me back into my days as a projectionist. Writer/director Peter Flynn takes the viewer on an interesting, poignant, sometimes funny, endearing and ultimately human journey through the end of the film projection in the motion picture exhibition industry.

The viewer is taken through the history of motion picture presentation, first with the kinescope, followed by a brief excursion into the types of film and early projectors. Next, the viewer learns about the great picture palaces, illustrated by current and former projectionists.

The history of change-over style projectors and carbon-arc bulbs, with examples of actual, operating machines, was fascinating. Later in the film, we see a projector, derelict for 20 years, brought back to life with fresh carbon arc rod. In my time operating film, I never worked with carbon arc bulbs, only xenon.

When television arrived in the 1940s, the film industry saw the new medium as a threat. So, they did what anyone would do when threatened: fought back. The advent of 70mm film and improved sound helped, but by the 1950s, picture palaces were on the decline. As the movie palaces crumbled, the drive-in flourished.

Now, there are only 336 drive-in theatres remaining in the United States, one of which is in my hometown. For reference, here is an interactive map of drive-ins that are still around: http://mentalfloss.com/article/74017/interactive-map-shows-you-every-active-drive-america.

When the platter systems came around, much of the projection work was automated and running the booth in a multiplex became a one-person job.  It did, however, require those well-versed in the art of running film.

I remember the sense of loss and disenchantment that came with the transition to digital projection. However, I came to like the way digital looks and runs, but not everyone adjusted.

The film explores this in detail and really brought some points home for me, but for the most part, the film was a friendly, informative, and respectful closing chapter in the history of film presentation.

The documentary was well-done and edited digitally. There is a certain bittersweet flavor to that, isn’t there? A film about running film, being shot and edited digitally…

I urge anyone interested in such things to seek out the documentary and invite feedback in the comments.

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