Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes

A Little Light On The Subject (from Issue 8)

Regular readers may recall the article Blowing Up A Wind, which appeared in WSMM No. 6, and which concerned the 70mm blow-up presentation of Gone With The Wind. The author, James Falconer recalled, at the end of his article, the instructions that MGM issued to projectionists regarding the use (or, to be more exact, the non-use) of coloured lighting on the screen during the credit sequence, to which he added his own opinion. I invited any projectionists out there to let me have their views, and was delighted to receive detailed responses from two old hands in the business; Bill Blaney from Northern Ireland – a regular contributor to WSMM, and Carl Chesworth from Manchester – who constantly proves to be a veritable font of cinematic information. - Ed.

Flooding The Screen With Colour? By Bill Blaney.

The view that the patron should never see the screen, “whether colored red, green or blue, but only the picture”, is one with which I would agree in most cases. In the days when colour was a novelty, the opening credits of black and white films were often flooded with changing coloured light, sometimes from cells held in front of the second projector, more often from a coloured batten and flood lights. This was the practice in the Curzon, Belfast, when I started as a rewind boy there in 1953. But only with films whose credits were superimposed on an abstract background, and then only bright enough to tinge the screen with colour and leave the letters easily readable. If there was action behind the titles, the lights were slowly dimmed from full to dark in synchronization with the opening of the curtains. In those days, the now customary pre-credit sequences were rare, but when they did happen, the dimmers were left in the ‘off’ position. The curtains covered an area some fifty feet wide and thirty feet high, and their considerable weight meant that full opening and closing took about eight seconds. This caused minor presentation problems in later years with some widescreen features.

It was an unfortunate fact that then, as now, screen advertising and the sale of ice-cream and confectionery played a large part in the cinema business. When the great epics of the fifties and sixties appeared, the renters insisted on separate performances, and because of their length there was no time for a second feature, and the full supporting programme might consist of no more than the newsreel and trailers. There was little point in offering refreshments to customers who’d taken their seats only fifteen minutes earlier, so the film would have a theatre-style intermission for that purpose. The Curzon had two centre as well as outer aisles in both stalls and circle, and as the ‘Intermission’ title hit the screen at evening performances, eight white-coated salesgirls complete with illuminated trays would make their grand entrance and proceed to the front of each aisle. This often shattered the mood of the film, and the scramble of patrons to be first in line didn’t help. When the eight queues, and the one at the confectionary kiosk in the foyer, had dispersed and the adverts ended, it was time to start the second part of the film – but not before the playing of some appropriate music to try and regain the atmosphere of the picture.

This music usually came as a soundtrack on blank film, but if it didn’t, an excerpt from the soundtrack LP would be used. With the former, a short piece of thin metallic tape would be placed on the film some five seconds from its end to cue the opening of the curtain. This allowed it to be partially open when the picture appeared, and to compensate to some extent for its ponderous progress. But always the curtain was illuminated, the light dimming as it opened.

Some features had built-in intermissions placed at natural breaks in the story, others seemed to be afterthoughts and were tacked on, television style. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) quite deliberately had the break in mid-action, creating an almost literal cliffhanger. Best of all was The Blue Max (1966), the first part of which ended with a proper title followed by some fifteen seconds of a picture of the fictitious medal. The curtain was closed on this, and the second part began with a few minutes of music behind the medal which again was projected on the curtain until this was opened a few seconds before the action resumed. With DoctorZhivago (1965) there was no alternative but to allow the audience to see a blank screen. The second part begins in a totally dark railway tunnel with sounds of a rushing train and its whistle. The end of the tunnel appears and the train speeds into the light, so the curtain was fully open as the play-in music ended and the train was heard. Catch 22 (1970) presented a similar problem as the film opens in total darkness and dawn breaks very slowly.

The special music, the spectacular nature of the stories and the giant wide screen all contributed to the sense of occasion at these roadshows. It was important not to remind audiences of the technicalities of their entertainment, so a correctly focused, framed and evenly lit picture was essential. Imperceptible changeovers, noiseless splices and sound played at a comfortable level were equally important. Much was written in the fifties about widescreen and audience participation. But projectionist participation played a very important part too, and could make or mar any performance.

Presentation Memories by Carl Chesworth.

The Gone With The Wind article brought back a few memories, for I showed it – in 70mm – when I worked in Derby. Two projectors, change-overs…it was virtually a continuous performance, with just a half-hour break between the two shows. I remember the opening credits being difficult to frame on the screen, whilst trying to convert #2 projector up from 35mm to 70mm – and lace part 2 up.

The ‘presentation issue you raise is a brave move: you’ll be inundated with various ways a film should be presented! The official line from the BBFC is that the censor certificate should be shown on the screen and must be on long enough to be seen from any seat in the auditorium.

When I started at Manchester Odeon, the rule there was the BBFC cert was shown on the tabs, and the curtains were only opened when the sound started (if the BBFC cert was followed by a silent renter’s title, then this, too was shown on the tabs!). I worked with a ‘projjie’ once who thought ‘presentation’ – and he was entitled to his view – was to close the curtains on the final cast and show the cast list on the tabs with the lights up full.

I was in a projection room ‘somewhere’ last year, and was puzzled by the fact that the CinemaScope trailer which headed the feature was shown in ‘Scope, but the masking was left at widescreen…because the chief said it was ‘presentation’ to open the masking on the feature cert so it looked impressive…oh dear!

In the few remaining cinemas which boast traverse or festoon tabs, they are seldom used to ‘present’ a film. They are a very expensive item both to install and maintain, which is one of the reasons why the multiplexes have dispensed with them. A couple of years ago, Manchester Odeon 1 had a new set of tabs…would you believe £3,800? Sooner or later they’ll have to be taken down (professionally) and cleaned/fireproofed (professionally). It’s a heck of an expense. It’s also a daunting moment when they don’t open! The standard call-out to re-cable the track and drum is around £400 – Health & Safety considerations preclude the projjies from swinging about on the screen-frame any more.

The cinema in Derby was super, and technically brilliant. We boasted three-colour lighting all round, so we could (and did) work out a lighting plot to match the film. It was mainly a ‘roadshow’ house (in 70mm if we could get a print). The days of play-ins and play-outs on film! If we were in 35mm for the feature, then we’d introduce the film (unofficially!) with the Star Cinemas title from my collection announcing an intermission in the feature…then the BBFC cert. This title was quite long on screen and served to get the tabs out of the way before the cert. Years later, when I was asked to redesign the Odeon’s presentation titles, I included in the set an Odeon/Our Feature Presentation title, which did the same thing…and stopped certs being shown on the tabs!

Nowadays, with one person having half a dozen – or more – cinemas to look after, then the basic concept of ‘presentation’ is no more…and would the audience really want to sit through (as I did at the Derby ABC) tabs flying across every few minutes? They would open on PATHE NEWS, close, open on PEARL & DEAN, close, open on ABC FILM REVIEW, close, open for the TRAILERS, close, open on the SALES TRAILER! They were demons at using the footlights throughout the feature credits as well, and even ‘colouring’ the black and white ‘PLUS’ title – all three seconds of it – and fading up/down the non-sync on it!

A favourite stand-by film at Derby was Doctor Zhivago, which we often showed during the year in 70mm – how I regret not saving the presentation book that MGM sent us! We would always request a Tom & Jerry cartoon to include in the supporting programme (adverts and trailers) to keep everything in widescreen [flat] so as not to distract from the magnificence (no other word) of opening the curtains on the huge 70mm screen. The INTERMISSION title was exceptionally long, to allow the curtains to close, with a short play-out on the mag track. The second half had a play-in – on clear film, but reverting to a sort of blackish stock before it ended. The film started ‘black’ to simulate a train in a tunnel (part of the story-line) and MGM explained in their book just how it was to be presented. We had control of the lighting, etc., being a manual show, so we could follow their guide. The auditorium was blacked out (even now, when I hear ‘LARA’S THEME, I know precisely when to effect the colour change and black-out) and the curtains were opened at a precise point so the train emerging from the tunnel would match the curtain speed.

A cinema I used to go to in Birmingham had the only installation of – and you’ve got to try and follow me on this, because it’s difficult to explain – AUTO-REVEAL SHUTTERS. These were two metal shutters on the projection port (think of them as two very small metal ‘curtains’). As the screen curtains opened, these small shutters began to open at the same time, via a system of small motors and guides. This gave a sort of back-projection effect on the screen, as the film image was prevented from spilling on to the curtains. The image would gradually be revealed as the curtains opened – hence the term. It wasn’t too long before it fouled up, though, and was never repaired. It was actually the first of Compton’s ‘Superama’ cinemas, the second being Derby, until Rank/Odeon took them over. It was always said that Birmingham had the best auditorium, but Derby had the best projection room. If the two could have been put together, it would have been brilliant.

It’s a shame that ‘presentation’ has gone by the wayside, but (as a friend of mine does) when a guy has to look after ten – or more - cinemas on his own most of the day, then there’s not an awful lot you can do – other than hope it all works!

Copyright © 2002-2005, John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine

Last revised: 15 November, 2006

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