Flickering Shadows

Somewhere in the house, I have a rather poor set of disposable camera shots taken on my trip to Salalah in Oman mentioned yesterday. It is an oasis in the middle of the desert and a lasting memory is of long palm tree lined roads complete with occasional roadside tables selling fruit & coconuts, also complete with small guys & large machetes. (To hew open the coconuts!)

So, how do you commission a projector? You unpack it and assemble it in-situ, fitting the various belts and pulleys then finally filling the mechanism with the oil supplied. Even though the machine had been in long term storage, it had been well enough packed and protected that little more than a dusting was required. As projectors tend to be in projection boxes at the back of the cinema high above the audience, the assembly needs to be tilted so that the optical alignment is centred on the screen. The Victoria 5 model has an adjustable angle lamphouse and the pedestal has height adjustable feet for fine tuning. The next bit of advice was to wire it up temporarily and get the Xenon lamp working. The lamps are mounted axially, with the large rear reflector focussed onto the light source so as to deliver a near-parallel high intensity light beam through the projector gate. I was told to leave the lenses out of the turret for the initial setup and when I eventually got the unit fired up and turning, the reason for the advice became apparent, as I now had a picture of the innards of the lamphouse shown on the screen and it was a straight-forward job to align the central hot spot in the middle of the screen.

Did I say straight-forward? Well, there was the small problem of there not being any projector ports, there being a decorative timber wall at the front of the box. (There was a large opening in the concrete on the other side). Fortunately, I had been assigned a team of Indian technicians to implement the project and these guys were top rate. Not only were they electricians but carpenters as well. On requesting some furniture for the lighting desk, they asked me the best size then they made it from scratch, including staining and sealing to a quality finish.

So, “where should we cut the hole Sir?” resulted in my outlining a small rectangle on the wall at lens height, along with another viewing port above. Then, when we actually turned the thing on and tried to centre the beam, we found that the tilt adjustment was insufficient on the projector without bricks under the back (& we had to skim a bit more off the bottom edge of the hole & the beam was catching on the concrete sill). At this point I got hold of a section plan and calculated the actual tilt required then specified a plinth pre-tilted so that the projector sat with its feet mostly retracted and the lamphouse adjustment was mid-range. The Indians obliged by knocking up a reinforced concrete plinth and I worked on something else whilst the concrete set and cured.

A couple of days later, we were ready to mount the projector properly, fit the lenses and lace up the film. This was an interesting moment for me, as the last time I had laced up a 35mm projector had been as a schoolboy at the Newcastle Odeon (and my efforts had been carefully checked afterwards by the projectionist as it was easy to get it wrong). The cardinal rule I had been taught was that the film never touched the floor as that resulted in scratches. (Not that it mattered too much for a gash reel of Kismet!) Eventually I was satisfied that we could start up the machine and I was delighted when I opened the douser and moving pictures appeared on the “sheet”, even though the characters looked short and wide because it was a Cinemascope film and we were using the Widescreen lens. That was when we worked out that the screen masking was set wrongly, it could close completely but didn’t open wide enough. (This required a re-roping of the masking drum motor and the Chief was rather annoyed that the could no longer fully close off the masking because the drum wasn’t big enough to allow for the entire travel of the side masking). After we had adjusted it the masking did go small enough for a square picture which was fine for slides and of course the entire screen could be readily raised into the grid to give a clear stage if required. 

For the precision alignment, a 20 minute reel was a bit on the short side, so I spliced up an endless loop of film that could be ran continuously through the projector. For this, I had to do my first ever tape splice using the splicing machine supplied. I was pleased to find that this was as easy as it looked when i had seen other projectionists do it. (For my schoolboy training, we had to use film cement and it required careful preparation with a razor blade as well as the loss of a frame every time you did a splice. The film loop also came in handy for when we got the optical sound working and worked out the best settings for the PA system.

Once the projector was handed over, I then found what they intended to use it for- censoring films. I then met the Salalah projectionist from the local flea pit who was an Omani (surprisingly, because most of the practical jobs were by guest workers, but there again, being a projectionist is often a calling). He told me that it was a blessing not having to change the carbon rods here which was a hot, dirty job back at his own cinema. (It was, I could remember doing it as a schoolboy myself). Despite not having seen a Cinemeccanica projector before, he had no problem at all lacing it up, although he was a little puzzled which takeup spool to use. (The version we had used two larger 2 hour spools side by side on the plinth as well as 1 hour spools above and below).

The actual censoring was rather peculiar- three locals turned up and sat in the middle of the stalls whilst the various spools were shown with a short break for relacing every twenty minutes. They didn’t ring a bell in the style of the priest in Cinema Paradiso, but simply conferred after each reel. The film was some form of Bollywood movie and I was pleased to see it fully fill the screen, although the jury-rigged aperture plate vibrated itself back into position exposing the sound track until the projectionist jammed some film leader in to stop it moving. (this eventually started smouldering, as aperture plates get very hot!)