Film Collecting Basics(I. HIS

Chapter Four




By now I hope you are a "collector" of motion picture films and the owner of some sort of projection equipment. You will derive immense enjoyment from screening your films for yourself and for your friends. You will see how liberating it is to watch movies as they were intended to be watched – on a big screen, not a television set. Even the biggest and priciest of today’s television "home theater" systems pale when compared to the projected image of film!

So, what’s next? You can easily stop at this point and enjoy your collection on a portable screen. Some collectors screen their films in their living rooms or garages. Some collectors construct screening rooms or adapt existing living spaces into screening rooms. In time, you may want to think of a dedicated space for a real "home theater." In this case, separation of the projection equipment from the audience is a must, as even the quietest projector can be a distraction, so you may want to build or adapt a room to become a projection booth.


Ideally, the projection booth floor will be higher than screening room floor so that your audience does not inadvertently interrupt your show with their shadows when they stand up or walk about. A height difference of 3 to 4 feet will serve nicely. The "windows" through which the image is projected and through which the projectionist watches the film are called "ports." In the old days, there was a projection port and a viewing port for each projector. In today’s megaplexes a single large port often serves both purposes. You can purchase prefabricated ports ready to build into your wall from Goldberg Brothers in Denver (see your local theater equipment dealer), or you may construct your own. The most important element is the port glass. It must not distort the image, so ordinary glazing will not do. Goldberg sells optical glass for this purpose. The glass is usually placed at an angle with respect to the projected light beam to offset undesirable reflections, and it must be easily and safely removable for cleaning. Usually the projection ports are 48" from the floor to the centerline of the port, and the viewing ports are 60". In yesterday’s multiple projector booths, the projector ports were on 36" centers, but you may want more working space between your equipment for ease of threading and servicing. However, don’t place the equipment too far apart. Remember that projectors offset from a line perpendicular to the center of the screen will produce a "keystone" effect and difficulty in maintaining focus across the width of the screen. If you are into 35mm or 16mm "professional" equipment you may need to plan the ports based on the height of the equipment’s lens (48" may do, or you may need to adjust). If you are into 16mm portable equipment, you may wish to consider a built-in projector table in front of the port, or use an "audio-visual" cart with locking casters (or the casters removed) as a stand.Your booth should be designed for the maximum complement of equipment you plan to use. If your plans include a platter, be sure to allow working room for the platter and the make-up table. In any event, a rewind bench is a must. You cannot oversize a projection booth!

Also, don’t overlook the need for adequate electrical capacity and ventilation or air conditioning. Each projector should have a dedicated 120-volt circuit, and larger machines with xenon lamphouses may require a 240-volt circuit. A dedicated subpanel in your projection booth, say a 12-circuit 120/240-volt panel with a 50-ampere main breaker, will serve you well. Some lamphouse power supplies are designed for 208-volts, three-phase. If you have only single-phase service, you can get converters that provide three-phase from a single-phase source. At the Museum, I use a rotary phase converter that changes 240-volts single-phase to 240-volts three phase delta, and a 240-volt delta to 120/208-volt wye transformer. There are also "static" converters that are not as noisy. As to the need for air conditioning, it has been my experience that the life of electronic components is shortened by high ambient temperatures, as is the patience of projectionists.


Moving on, your home theatre must be of such dimensions that it can accommodate an adequately sized screen, a reasonable "throw" (the distance from the projector to the screen), and seating. Some enthusiasts acquire and install used theater seats, while many prefer the informality of sofas and chairs. A rectangular space is ideal, and the screen width, which is a function of room width, must consider what formats you intend to screen. A screen for scope might have a masked area 10’ wide by 4’-3" and nicely serve a 15’ wide by 20’ or more long room. A screen for flat (1.85) in the same room might be 10’ wide by 5’-3" high, while a screen for Academy ratio (1.37) or 16mm (1.33) might be 10’ wide by 7’-4" or so high. In this example, the width is fixed, but in reality it may be practical to fix with height and vary the width by adjustable masking curtains. Many collectors screen multiple formats, so a screen with moveable masking is desirable so that all formats may be accommodated, but this will require multiple lenses. It gets complicated, but the rewards are worth it. International Cinema Equipment in Miami sells a neat slide rule that calculates focal lengths and screen sizes for multiple formats for 16mm and 35mm, and the price (about $25) is reasonable.


Dressing the screen with masking is important. The masking material or movable masking curtains should be a non-reflective black material, and should be so adjusted that the fuzzy outline of the projected image "bleeds" into the masking, yielding a sharp cutoff between picture and masking. This is an element of showmanhip. We will discuss others.The lamp in your projector should be adequate to illuminate your screen, with no film in the gate, to a level of 16 foot-lamberts, the SMPTE standard. The illuminance level is a function of the lamp and of the projector (shutter), the lens (speed), the throw (distance to the screen), and the reflectance of the screen. It would be folly to expect a 250-watt incandescent lamp to provide adequate picture brightness on a 10’ wide screen, and it would be wasteful to use a 2000-watt Xenon lamp on a 10’ wide screen, as well as make the picture potentially uncomfortable to watch. Try to match the equipment in your home theater so that your viewing experience is the best possible within the constraints of budget and reality.


In the world of movie theaters, the speakers are placed behind the screen, and the screen is perforated (having tiny holes) to let the sound through, while, of course, diminishing picture brightness a bit. In a small screening room a perforated screen is not a good choice as the perforations will be noticeable to the viewer since the seats are close to the screen. Speaker placement should, in any event, trick the viewer into thinking that the sound is coming from the picture. If you enjoy the luxury of stereo and surround systems, you will have plenty to think about when placing speakers.


In the world of movie theaters, at least before the age of the heartless megaplex, motor-operated curtains were placed in front of the screen, usually lighted by footlights, downlights or other means, and all lighting was dimmer controlled. If you are interested in the showmanship aspect of screening, you may want to employ such devices to "dress up" your show. For those of you too young to remember "the good old days," permit me to cite two examples of excellent motion picture showmanship.

In the late 1950s I attended a first run screening at the long gone Fox Beverly Theatre in Beverly Hills. When I entered this sumptuous movie palace, I marveled at the gold velour title curtain softly illuminated by amber footlights which accented the pleats and folds, and the subtle "non synch" music which filled its need without calling attention to itself. Then the house lights began to dim slowly, almost imperceptibly. At about 20% brightness, the slow dimming paused for 30 seconds or so, as if to alert customers that the show was about to begin. Then they dimmed more rapidly and the non-synch music faded. Just as the house lights were extinguished, the logo of the feature appeared on the curtain. As the logo faded to the opening titles, the curtain began to part majestically, and the footlights dimmed in step with the curtain so that they were extinguished just when the curtain was fully opened. At the end of the feature, the process was reversed. It was a truly "seamless" presentation!

In the early 1960s I attended a special screening of Buster Keaton’s "The General" at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. This screening was sponsored by the American Theatre Organ Society and the American Guild of Organists to celebrate the just completed restoration of the Wiltern’s Kimball pipe organ. A newly struck 35mm print from a preserved negative was utilized, and the featured organist was the renowned Gaylord Carter. (Behind the scenes, the projectors had been geared to a speed of 18 frames/second and fitted with the proper aperture plates, while the screen had been masked to the proper aspect ratio.) As the house lights dimmed, Gaylord began playing an "overture" as the console rose from the orchestra pit bathed in white by a booth spotlight. When the overture ended and the applause died down, the spot light was dimmed, the console lowered and the picture began to play as the curtain opened and the footlights dimmed. Within minutes, the audience was oblivious to the fact that this was a "silent" picture, and enjoyed the film as it was meant to be enjoyed. Again, a truly "seamless" presentation! Perhaps a few collectors will be moved to replicate the "art" of projection in their home theaters.


Lastly, may I ask you to recall the delicious aroma of popcorn that titillated your senses when you entered your favorite movie theater? There is no reason not to include plans for refreshments in your home theatre planning. Many professional industry screening rooms have adjacent bars where adult beverages and snacks can be served to augment the enjoyment of the show. Even a bowl of fresh microwave popcorn and a canned soda on a table in front of you as you watch your favorite movie will minimize those trips to the kitchen. Whatever your budget, whatever your preferred film format, however extensive your collection, treat yourself to all the amenities you can afford to help you and your friends enjoy your new hobby!